Those of you who began in January, attempting to read the Bible through in a year, have perhaps found yourself repeating the names of the second, third, and fourth books of the Bible much with the same trepidation as Dorothy and her friends in the woods outside of Munchkin Land: ‘Lions, and tigers, and bears, O my! Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, O my!’
Like the animals in an unknown forest, we fear those portions of the Bible which are unfamiliar to us! But, like Dorothy’s apprehension along the yellow brick road, our fears about the unknown corners of the Bible are actually quite unfounded … and may be assuaged if we just keep walking through the hills and woods of the Bible’s books. So, if you’re in the midst of one of those difficult books at the present moment, just keep following the road, putting one foot in front of the other! It's probably not as daunting as you think!
And yet I must admit that these early books of the Old Testament – with all their instructions about sacrifices, all their descriptions about what is clean and unclean, and all their meticulous rules and regulations for priests, Levites, and so on – can be difficult to apply and appreciate in this era of New Testament worship. Surely, as you read along in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, you find yourself asking: ‘Heifers, rams, turtledoves, grains, oils, clean places, unclean places, ashes, spots, hairs, oozes, blood, water, gold, bronze, and so on – what’s it all mean for me?’
The question may be asked out of bewilderment, or even frustration … but it’s a good question nonetheless! “All scripture is inspired by God … and profitable,” says the apostle Paul – including those Old Testament rules and regulations that are so foreign to us. So there must be something in each passage ... for me! But what profit and personal application can we draw out of chapters and chapters worth of multiplied instructions regarding sacrifices, ceremonial cleansing, and so on? Allow me to suggest three responses that ought to arise in our hearts as we read Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers …
1. Repentance. All the multiplied Old Testament sacrifices existed because sin exists! And Old Testament ceremonial uncleanness existed (disease, death, menstrual periods, and so on) because moral uncleanness has brought a curse upon the world! Indeed, the various sacrifices and cleansing ceremonies were continuously ongoing in the Old Testament because the people’s sin was continuously ongoing as well! Thus, when we read about the constant train of sacrificial animals that were led into the temple, we ought to remember the constant train of sins that dragged behind each of the people who brought them – and that trail behind us as well! We’re no different than the Israelites of old, in that regard. Therefore, reading the vivid reminders of the reality and penalty of sin that God gave them, we are reminded of our own sin as well … and given opportunity to repent.
2. Gratitude. This may not be the first thing you feel as you read the litany of instructions that God gave the Israelites regarding their cleanliness and sacrifice. Overwhelmed may be more like it. Many of the Israelites probably felt the same way. There’s a lot to remember and do in the Old Testament sacrificial system. For those who actually had to do it, I am sure it felt at times like a great burden. Perhaps that was intentional, on God’s part. But mixed with the potential burden of all the sacrifices surely ought to have been thanksgiving that, difficult and complex as the system often was … at least God had provided for their cleansing! Surely we can say the same, as we read these pages: ‘Yes, the sacrificial code seems never-ending! But God didn’t have to provide any sacrifices for sin at all! He didn’t have to make atonement for these people … but He did! And, O how marvelous – He has done so for us as well!’
3. Relief. I think this is one of my primary feelings as I read about the bulls, goats, lambs, rams, blood, smoke, oil, wheat, and so on! As I reflect on all the precise numbers, ages, amounts, and timing of the various sacrifices, I think to myself: ‘How did anyone – especially the common folks, who did not work in the temple – ever keep track of it all?’ And then I think: ‘What a relief that we no longer have to do so! What a relief that, no matter what the age, or type, or amount of the sacrifice … it is fulfilled in Jesus! I don’t have to worry that I am missing something; or that I have forgotten or misunderstood some portion of the sacrificial code. Jesus paid it all!’ Indeed, I suspect that perhaps this was part of the reason for the heavy sacrificial burden God placed on His people of old – He gave them a sacrificial system that they could never keep perfectly so that they would delight all the more in the One who could keep it all for them!