Studies in Leviticus: The Sinfulness of Man

LeviticusLeviticus assumes both the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man. You will not find a thorough theological argument for these doctrines, yet the lie at the very foundations of the book itself. One of the central themes of the book is the holiness of God, and therefore the book aims at answering an important question: how can sinful man live in proximity to this God. Leviticus reveals the desperate state of sinful man before God.

The regular cycle of sin and purification offering reveals the state of man’s soul. He is sinful and cannot live in the presence of God. The “geography of holiness,” which we looked at in a previous post, creates distance between God and man. Not just anyone can enter the presence of God. There are restrictions on who may enter what areas of the sanctuary, when they may enter them, and how they must enter. The detailed description of the rituals, cleansings, and sacrifices reveal just how significant the distance between man and God is. Even the priests, those men specially selected by God to enter His presence, must go through a comprehensive washing and cleansing ritual, accompanied by a sacrifice for their own sins.

There is both individual and corporate sin detailed in the text of Leviticus too. Leviticus concerns itself with maintaining a holy equilibrium among the Israelite people. Chapter 16 offers a particular description of the “annual ritual that was designed to reset the equilibrium of the” whole camp (Walton, “Equilibrium and the Sacred Compass”). Writing of the high priest, Stephen Dempster says of the priests:

He makes annual atonement for the sins of the people by sprinkling the blood of a sacrificial animal on the lid of the ark of the covenant – the place of atonement (Lev. 16:15). Consequently, he is able to leave the sanctuary and, in a ritual act, to place his hand on the head of another animal, to confess all the sins of the community, and to have the animal removed from the camp. A symbolic transfer has occurred. As the text makes clear, the goat’s departure means the comprehensive removal of the community’s sin from the camp, ensuring for another year that the people can co-exist with a holy God (Lev. 16:22). (Dominion and Dynasty, 108)

Here communal sin is being dealt with, and God’s relationship to the community as a whole is maintained.

The Holiness Code (chapters 17-27) also presumes man’s sinful tendencies. The Code gives special attention to sexual immorality, describing every form of perversion that man might be inclined towards and detailing God’s prohibitions. The emphasis on justice and love of neighbor indicate the need for such instruction.

There are also several obvious instances of rebellion recorded in the book. The account of Aaron’s two sons who offer “strange fire” to the Lord and are struck dead (Lev. 10) is one example. The second narrative of the text also reveals this heart level rebellion, when a member of the covenant community breaks the third commandment and is stoned to death (24:10-23). Stephen Dempster says there is a negative bent to the book as a whole. He writes:

But if there was a negative note in Exodus, the same is true for Leviticus. The provisions of the sacrificial system and the annual ritual of the Day of Atonement presuppose sin and transgression. The narrative sections in the text describe the installation of the priesthood, which ends in disaster, and another tragedy that also results in divine judgment…Moreover the book concludes on a negative note with a list of blessings for obedience to the covenant and curses for disobedience. The curses (Lev. 26:14-39) far outweigh the blessings (Lev. 26:3-13). The imbalance indicates an expectation of covenant violation. In addition the last curse of exile (Lev. 26:33-39) proves to be the ultimate curse that Israel could experience. It is the death of the nation. (Dominion and  Dynasty, 109-110)

The sinfulness of man is evident as one reads through the book of Leviticus, both in assumption and example.

If studying all the details of the laws and rituals and prescriptions can be tedious to the average reader it has at least one particular benefit: it reveals just how sinful is the heart of man. The book is an argument for man’s depravity and desperate state before God. It reveals to attentive readers that only God can resolve the issue of man’s sinfulness. God enters the world to have a relationship with His broken people and it begins by identifying their sinfulness and establishing a means to resolve it. Ultimately Leviticus doesn’t fully resolve the dilemma of a Holy God dwelling with sinful man. It foreshadows a greater, fuller, resolution to come.

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