Up to this point, the modern Bible reader will have waded through many detailed and repetitious passages such as Exodus 36: 20:”They made upright frames of acacia wood for the tabernacle. 21 Each frame was ten cubits long and a cubit and a half wide, 22 with two projections set parallel to each other. They made all the frames of the tabernacle in this way. 23 They made twenty frames for the south side of the tabernacle 24 and made forty silver bases to go under them—two bases for each frame, one under each projection. 25 For the other side….”
From previous passages and commands we already knew how many poles there would be and how big they should be. The same is true of other details relating to the altar and instruments of sacrifice, plus those of the priestly garments. Then we encounter passages like Exodus 38: 21-31, in which we read long lists of the materials given for the tabernacle, the altar and the priestly vestments, and of their value at the time. The modern reader is tempted to skim through these passages, in part because such things no longer exist. So why the long, detailed and repetitive lists of items?
One thing they tell us is that every detail of obedience to God counts. There are no moments, choices, actions or contributions we can make in which we are not reinforcing and stockpiling something that will endure forever in the very shape of our eternal souls. Nothing is wasted nor forgotten in God’s kingdom.
But in such detailed and repetitive prose we are also encountering a stark difference between our contemporary Western culture and that of ancient Israel, indeed, of much of the world still today, especially the non-literate world. Especially, the non-hurried and more reflective part of the world that does not need to hurry up its Bible reading, or any other activity, to get it out of the way before; 1) I have to go to work; 2) John Stewart is on TV; 3) the kids need picking up at school and ferrying to the soccer field; 4) the movie starts at 7PM…….. In other times and places, life is lived more in the moment, without the pressure of tight schedules. So to sit in the synagogue and hear the detailed and repetitive words of this part of the Holy Writ is not only just about the only entertainment in town, the words constitute a form of poetry, even liturgy, in themselves. The repetitious nature makes them all the more accessible to non-literate people who have amazing powers of retention, who need hear such passages only once or twice before they have large chunks of them memorized. They don’t rely on their bookshelves, nor their computers, nor the Internet, to store information for them.
MORE THOUGHTS ON SACRIFICE
Now that we’re into Leviticus, a lot of blood is flowing through the reader’s imagination, the blood of bulls, goats and pigeons on the altar of the Tabernacle. This may seem archaic, at best, for the Christian who understands Christ to be the final, culminating sacrifice. What we now offer up to God are ourselves (Romans 12:1-2) and worship, generosity and hospitality (Hebrews 13: 15-16).
Some of this sacrificial blood in Leviticus is flowing for sins committed in error and ignorance. Part of me says, “Give us a break!” But then I remember that I have been trained by my culture to understand sin in terms of willful, intentional actions (or the lack thereof) that violate a code, creating a rap sheet of incidents. Its called guilt, and it has much biblical precedence. But there’s another angle on sin and estrangement, felt more keenly by much of the world, that understands sin in terms of defilement and uncleanness. Something I did by error or ignorance shouldn’t make me guilty. But in this other worldview, it still makes me unclean. And that leads to shame. I feel guilt for the wrong I’ve done, or the good left undone. One often feels shame for what and how one is, even if that state was foisted upon us by someone else, intentionally or otherwise. For some people in some cultures, something as minor as being licked by a dog, or stepping on camel feces, induces uncleanness and therefore shame. So, many of the sacrifices we read about in Leviticus are for cleansing shame, rather than guilt. And what more precious, costly substance can there be to cleans shame but blood?
“The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” Hebrews 9:13-14