Little Steps Closer.
The story of the Bible is one of exile and reconciliation. At the beginning of Genesis we chose to go our own way and left God’s presence, and in Revelation the followers of Jesus are welcomed back into paradise. In-between the story is, by stages, one of God bringing us back. Between the Fall and the Second Coming there are different stages to the rescue as God pursues us to mend the broken relationship, not helped by us repeatedly running away again. 90% or more of the Bible is God gradually bringing us closer.
Leviticus is one of those little steps closer. It follows other little steps closer taken in Genesis and Exodus. The first such step was God making a covenant with Abraham, a relationship between God and people where before there had only been remoteness. God went further when He brought the Israelites out of Egypt and made the Old Covenant with them at Mt. Sinai, establishing the Mosaic Law and the Tabernacle.
Now here we are in Leviticus. If God was remote to all but a few individuals in Genesis, and the redeemer of an entire nation in Exodus, here in Leviticus He’s a neighbour. Leviticus is all about Israel living with God. Suddenly they had a divine neighbour – but what did that mean?
The Tabernacle, finished and consecrated at the very end of Exodus, is now up and running and situated at the very heart of the Israelites’ camp. Before we go any further that’s a relevant point for us today. God should still be at the very centre of our lives, just like He was for the Israelites. Not hovering around on the periphery, given lip service only on Sundays or confined to some jealously guarded compartment, but right at the centre. God should be our permanent guest of honour, the total focus of our lives.
The Israelites weren’t yet settled in the Promised Land – that’s still a few whole books away – they’re camping in the desert and moving around when God gives them the nod. He did that by moving the cloud which symbolised His presence, a cloud which hovered over the Tabernacle. When God moved, so did the Tabernacle, packed up and carried by the Levites with the utmost reverence and care (more on that in Numbers). For now the point is to remember that they were camping in the wilderness, where water was scarce and amenities were hard to come by. This alone made cleanliness and orderliness extremely important. Sanitation and good community relations were at stake, but so too was a right relationship with God.
When you’ve got God literally camped next door, you have to take care. Think how much care you taken when you’ve got guests over. My Mum would couldn’t bear a single spec of dust or a single cushion out of place for even the most mundane of visitors. Now imagine the effort expended when the Queen comes to visit – I’m talking no expense spared – and then multiply it a hundredfold and every single day. When you consider the deference, honour and ultra-clean housekeeping that’s done for royalty, suddenly the minute provisions of Leviticus start to make much more sense.
Now the Queen likes to enjoy rich and clean surroundings, but it doesn’t kill her if there’s a bit of mess or junk. But God refuses to be where there’s sin. He cannot be where impurity is, any more than a beam of light can share space with darkness. That put a huge onus on the Israelites to keep things clean, physically, morally, spiritually, relationally and environmentally. If they wanted to be close to God, with all the blessing and protection that comes from that, they had to keep things fit for the king of kings.
And so life revolved around keeping the camp fit for God – pleasing Him and appeasing Him. Maintaining access to Him and taking care of everything He wanted. Sins and uncleanliness had to be removed out of the camp – which was symbolised by the scapegoat being cast out, but which was also vividly demonstrated by the banishment of serious sinners and the removal of unclean waste. It sounds harsh, but the stakes were high, and before Jesus we had no one to shield us from the just wrath of a holy God. It also helps paint the scene and set the stage for Jesus’ sacrifice as the ultimate scapegoat – He was crucified outside the city of Jerusalem just like the animal substitutes before Him had been expelled into the wilderness to die (Lev. 4:12 vs. Heb. 13:11-13).
So living with God was a step closer back to what we lost in Genesis 3. It was both a privilege and a grave responsibility. And it was only another little step closer. The ordinary person still could not actually enter God’s presence. Only the priests could come near the Tabernacle; only the High Priest could enter it, and even he only with extreme precautions and once a year.
Leviticus starts with the words ‘and God spoke to Moses from the tent’, but Numbers starts with the words ‘and God spoke to Moses in the tent’. Notice that subtle but significant change of preposition. ‘From’ has become ‘in’. The person outside has been welcomed in. That shows the Old Covenant system taking effect and symbolises us drawing closer to God. We would take another, much bigger step closer with Jesus, when the curtain was torn and the Law fulfilled. Now we don’t just camp near God, now He’s dwelling (literally, Tabernacling) in our hearts. And there’s one more step to come, the final, and most wonderful step, right back into God’s arms when Jesus comes back. Then we’ll see Him face-to-face, sinless and perfect.
What a hope to have – what a destiny to look forward to. But for now, let’s recognise how far we’ve come, and appreciate what the strange details of the Old Testament are telling us about God has been gradually bringing us closer.
To take away:
Is there anything coming between you and God today? If so, deal with it, so that you can enjoy the full intimacy that’s been won for you.