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  • Pastor Jason

Reflecting on Leviticus & Numbers

There's little doubt that two of the most difficult books in the Bible to get through are Leviticus and Numbers. Part of the difficulty is that, when attempting to read through the Bible (especially if it's your first time) this is about the point when the habit of reading starts to lose it's excitement. The other part is that it's hard for 21st century readers to form much of a connection with the content of these two books. Leviticus contains approximately 620 separate laws; Numbers feels a bit like a book that was just kind of put in the middle for the sole purpose of taking up space while Israel wandered around the desert for 40 years.

And so, as I have been often asking, what is the point?

One of the major reasons I've sought to emphasize reading the Bible as a novel is an attempt at counter-acting the boredom and the feeling of being completely overwhelmed by all the details. But in order to fully appreciate the story that is being told, we need to be able to trace and track the themes and "movement" of that story.

Early on, I suggested viewing the Pentateuch (the first five books), as something like an origin story, laying and establishing the relational, philosophical, and covenantal foundation for everything that comes later, and everything involved in the relationship between God and his people. Genesis establishes the existence, sovereignty, and ultimate mission God is on; Exodus formally introduces God to his people and gives them a taste of the freedom God has promised and guiding principles - the "bumpers" - that define the relationship.

But Leviticus and Numbers??? Here's some food for thought...

  • The major theme of the book of Leviticus is not that God likes to demand that his people maintain all sorts of really weird laws; the major theme is holiness. Nearly 60 times throughout the book, God utters some version of "Be holy because I am holy." I'm not sure that we, today, spend nearly enough time talking about our call to holiness, even though it's a theme that pops up frequently throughout the entire Bible (it's one of 1 Peter's favorite points).

  • To "be holy" is to be set apart, separate, and distinct. Stepping back to see the bigger picture again, God has separated out his people from the Egyptians and has removed them from what was considered the global cultural center of the day. And now, as they make their way through the wilderness on their journey to their own Promised Land, they are encountering other tribes and kingdoms, and they are having to learn what exactly it means to be the people of God. A major aspect of our relationship with God revolves around being, looking, living differently from those around us. The 600+ laws that God gives to Israel in Leviticus - while inserting the command to be holy at regular intervals - is about driving home the message, "All these other people do things a certain way, and they will pressure you into being like them. But you belong to me, and need to be like me, instead. Be different...don't do what they do, do things the way I do."

  • Leviticus is about teaching the people to be holy, but it's really hard to maintain holiness when there is so much pressure to do otherwise. Imagine you have a test coming up and the teacher says that you could use the text book if you want, but it'll be better, in the long run, if you study and take the test without the book. You now have to make a choice between immediately results or a better, albeit delayed, result. That's where Numbers comes in. Number is about Israel learning to actually trust that God's way is the best way, especially when survival instincts kick in.

  • Numbers is the book that deals with Israel's grumbling about food, fear about their ability to actually take control of the land, complaints about water, etc. This is where we see God again and again providing for his people and taking care of them in very real, material ways. At one point in Number 9 we see Israel being committed to following God (when the cloud lifts they pack up and go, when it stops they stop and make camp). At one point a faction decides they need to launch a military strike, Moses warns them not to go because "God will not be with them," and they find themselves on the receiving end of a pretty nasty defeat. Every time Israel turns their back on God, tries to do things on their own without his blessing, they fail; but as long as they stay locked on to him, they do just fine.

  • All of this is in preparation for Israel finally taking possession of the Promised Land. If God's people are going to thrive and succeed, they absolutely must hold fast to the sovereign Creator and covenant-maker we see in Genesis, the personal/relational breaker-of-chains in Exodus, the holy and righteous One of Leviticus, and the provider and life-guide of Numbers. Without these critical attributes, God's people cannot thrive.

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