Not too long ago, I read through the book of Leviticus. We don’t usually run to Leviticus as a place for spiritual nourishment. I suppose we could summarize it as a book of sacrifice and strange laws. At least they’re strange laws for us today.
We may recall the Day of Atonement, which is told of in ch.16. Yet there is still so much about linen undergarments, bulls, goats, blood and bathing in that chapter alone that we may still find it difficult to connect with.
Leviticus is demanding. It demands our full attention to the details to understand what’s going on. And it’s those demanding details flowing out of an ancient culture that seem to bog us down.
Here is the thing about Leviticus (and really most of the torah, Genesis to Deuteronomy).
We are so far removed from that time and culture.
So. far. removed.
Three and a half millennia removed.
It’s like trying to explain to my kids that there was a day and time when we didn’t have computers, tablets and smart phones. It’s like me trying to think of a time when the television didn’t exist.
We “know” there was a time like that. But there is a strong disconnect to understand that experience.
So, if we’re honest, Leviticus leaves us with lots of furrowed brows and contorted faces when reading it.
However, the book makes so much sense for an ancient, middle eastern people. So much sense. Their worship cannot be though of any other way.
What we find in Leviticus is a gift of God to an ancient people who want to truly connect with and worship the One who had just delivered them out of slavery. And, what’s interesting to note is that all ancient peoples worshipped their gods in some kind of similar manner. Sacrifice and sacred regulations were exactly what they were looking for.
It’s foreign to us, but not to them. Nor to the surrounding peoples.
Here’s something of interest for me. Leviticus is one of the most sensory-filled accounts in Scripture. The use of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell is second to none. For the ancients, God was to be experienced in a full-embodied reality.
What is being offered here is also no individualized experience. Yes, it was personal. But beyond the individualization of “me, myself and I,” it was a communal and collective experience that transformed the personal.
God’s people would see the sacrifices, see them offered unto the Lord, see the tabernacle in all it’s glory.
God’s people would hear the sacrifices, hear the pronouncements of the priest, hear the words of blessing.
God’s people would touch their own sacrifices as they were brought to the altar, they would rub up against one another as they entered and exited the tabernacle.
God’s people would taste the portion of the offering they were allowed to eat, they would taste of provision of God at the appointed feasts.
God’s people would smell the aroma of the offering as it was burned on the altar, they would smell the food as they ate in celebration at the varying festivals.
A full-sensory, full-embodied worship of the one true God. Experienced as a community.
Even more, connected to this sensory experience is another unique quality: the slowness of their worship.
What do I mean by slowness?
Compare it with our own worship today. Most elements in our worship services are timed. Some to the T; some only generally. But our worship must move rather quickly. It has become part of the production-centered worship we now feel compelled to offer. There is not much time to linger, to listen, not much time to be present to God and one another.
I don’t mean in a specifically charismatic sense where one song could last 20 minutes. Though, perhaps that would be appropriate at times.
But truly allowing for space to be present to God and one another in the community of God.
And, listen. I’m not asking that we move toward worship services that last hours and hours in length. But what I think we may need to consider is how to slow down, how to create space – for God and for one another. And as we slow down, we may start to consider how to allow ourselves the experience God with all our senses (not just the hearing and seeing, though those are important).
Imagine the worship setting for the ancient Israelites. You can’t just move a bull or goat to the altar in any quick manner, much less sacrificing it on the altar in a few short moments. It’s slow, it’s intentional, it calls for purposeful interaction. It calls for more than 4 minutes and then on to the next part.
Or think about the aspect of travel to and from the tabernacle. The time to pack, gather the family (which was very large in those days), traverse the land, set up a dwelling near the tabernacle and then move into worship. Lots of preparation, lots of intentional focus. Lots of time.
Their worship experience would have been both sensory and slow.
But it was a powerful worship experience for the ancients. It truly transformed their lives.
Also, consider the future.
My sense is that the kingdom to come will have a much slower pace to it. Not that it will be an eternal retirement home setting. But a place where we can enjoy our work (yes, I believe work is good and will continue), enjoy one another and enjoy God. It takes time to enjoy these things. You cannot whip through work, relationships and God and truly enjoy them.
Leviticus is foreign in so many ways. I don’t think there will ever be a day when Leviticus becomes a book that we embrace as one of our favorites. But I offer these words so that we can consider how to read Leviticus within its ancient setting and remember just how fascinating it was to craft this worship manual for the ancients. Perhaps we, ourselves, can consider how to include all five senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste smell) in our worship. And it may just be that it has something to teach us about a truly slow expression of our worship, instead of the microwavable version of many of our worship services.
It could just be that God desires our worship to be sensory and slow.
Leviticus offers us to consider these.
Thanks for your great post here. I have so long sensed that the ordinances and sacraments we find in The Pentateuch are foundational for our understanding of what and how it looks like when sacred space is consecrated and God comes to live live among His chosen people. Your comments about the barriers between the Ancient Near Eastern culture and ours are very appropriate. Your great observations about the sensuous reality of their spirituality are enlightening – thanks! Ultimately, the place to START understanding worship and the nature of our Heavenly Father is here. This is where Hebrews focuses – this is where we need to focus.
As I consider my last read through the law, I was struck by the sense my own ignorance of God and by extension, what we have been given in Christ. Thanks for provoking me again to want to dedicate quality study and contemplative time in these chapters – I think they will transform my experience of Godly love and Godly fear. Amen!
Jonathan, thanks. I think what we’ve been trained to do in evangelical circles is see all that stuff as “religious” or “dead religion.” It was very far from it. Now, the Pharisees took a lot of it, added on to it and then used the goodness of what was prescribed to oppress people. That’s when religion is used wrongly – and it makes God very angry.
But the liturgical expression of what we find from the ancients is beautiful and transformative. We just have to think through the ramifications of these details and how they can instruct us 3.5 millennia later.
Amen! Thanks Scott 🙂