TABERNACLE AND CREATION
Making sense of the Levitical system
Raise your hand if Leviticus is your favorite book in the
My friend Betty once told me that she had decided to read
the Bible from cover to cover. A few months later I asked her how
she was doing, and she confessed with some frustration that her
project had been derailed. What happened? Well, Leviticus
Many succumb to the minutia of Leviticus. Its detail of
priestly ritual, service, and sacrifice overwhelms even the best
intentioned. So hard to read, much less understand. What hope is
there of applying it to our lives?
While we may be tempted to just skip this part of the Bible,
we are encouraged to live "by every word that proceeds from the
mouth of God" (Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4). Since the phrase
"and the LORD spoke" appears dozens of times in Leviticus,
perhaps it is a word worth hearing in the church today.
HOLY AND PRIESTLY
Among the kingdoms and nations of the world, Israel was
unique - "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6).
What is condensed here in a phrase, Leviticus unpacks in
twenty-seven chapters. Priests and holy, appearing nearly four
hundred times, are its heart and soul. The role of priesthood and
the nature of holiness is what Leviticus is all about.
Israel must be a holy priesthood because her holy God has
declared that He would set His tabernacle among His chosen people
and walk among them (Leviticus 26:11,12). The Creator of the
universe desires to live with His people, to restore the intimacy
of Eden, to walk among us as He did then. But in a sinful world,
only a holy people can receive such a God into their midst and
mediate this awesome Presence to the world. You shall be holy;
for I am holy" (11:44) simply names the basic condition of having
God as a neighbor.
The key to understanding Leviticus is to recognize that it
articulates a vision of life restored to its original order and
purpose. As the fourth commandment shows, Israel is familiar with
the story of Creation. She celebrates it even as she imitates her
Creator by living in accordance with His seven day rhythm of work
and rest. The holiness she pursues is first mentioned and bound
up in the beauty and harmony of that lost but longed for world of
Creation and Sabbath (Genesis 1:1-2Aa; Exodus 20:811). Leviticus
points the way back.
The story of the tabernacle and its priesthood, from
construction to function, is divinely directed in two great
movements. From Sinai, God summons and Israel builds (Exodus
25-40). Later, from the sanctuary, God calls again and Israel
worships (Leviticus 1-27). The patterns and themes of Creation
inform it all.
In "The Torah's Vision of Worship," Samuel Balentine notes
the many parallels between the tabernacle and Creation. God calls
Moses up the mount; he waits SIX days, and God speaks the SEVENTH
(Exodus 24:16; Genesis 1:1, 2;3). Then SEVEN speeches outline the
construction of the tabernacle, each beginning with the formula
"And the LORD said to Moses" (Exodus 25:1; 30:11; 17,22,34; 31:1,
12; seE also Genesis 1:3-2:3). And the SEVENTH speech ends with a
dialogue on the Sabbath (Exodus 31:12-17; Genesis 2:1-3). Ref.1
The Spirit of God that commenced Creation moves again as
Israel responds to God's direction (Genesis 1:2; Exodus 35:31).
The "Let there be ... and it was so" of Genesis is paralleled as
the tabernacle is raised in SEVEN stages, each ending with the
phrase "as the Loan had commanded him [Moses]" (Exodus 40:19-32).
The whole process concludes as Moses looks
over all the work and blesses it, just as God did in the
beginning (Exodus 40:33; 39:32,43; Genesis 1:31-2:4). Ref.2
Also, this three-tiered tabernacle (most holy, holy, and
outer court) is a miniature cosmos (heaven, earth, and seas) that
symbolically reenacts Creation itself.
Concerning such patterns, Terence Fretheim writes that with
the tabernacle "a new creation comes into being." Here "is one
spot in the midst of a world of disorder where God's creative,
ordering work is completed according to the divine intention just
as it was in the beginning." ref.3
With the tabernacle complete, Leviticus turns from
construction to function, outlining both the worship and ethics
of a holy people who would sustain this new creation. It begins
"Now the Lord called to Moses ... Speak to the children of
Israel, and say to them:'When any one of you brings an offering
to the LORD, you shall bring your offering of the livestock ...'"
(Leviticus 1:1,2). The first time the Lord called was after Adam
sinned (Genesis 3:9). Now God calls, not to judge but to invite
to worship. The "any one" cited here is the Hebrew word 'adam,'
and the vehicle of worship is an offering - literally, a gift of
The first Adam distorted creation by selfishly taking and
eating, but these 'adams' are invited to ritually reenact and
reverse that sad event by selflessly giving, not eating. Since
food corresponds to life, these gifts represent the givers' total
and thankful dedication to God. This commitment is symbolized by
the shedding of blood, for "the life ... is in the blood." When
freely presented, these unblemished lives are a "sweet aroma" to
the Lord (Leviticus 17:11; 1:3-9).
FIVE offerings outline Israel's sacrificial worship: burnt,
grain, peace, sin, and guilt. The first THREE are voluntary and
express joy, thanksgiving, and fellowship; they ritually sustain
communion between creation and Creator. The last TWO offerings
are required and address sin, atonement, and forgiveness; they
ritually restore communion between creation and Creator.
Together, these sacrifices specify the worship necessary to
participate in the life of God. Only sacrificial lives can uphold
and advance this new creation
Again, patterns of SEVEN emerge frequently in priestly
ritual. The entire sacrificial system unfolds in SEVEN speeches
(Leviticus 1-7). The ritual for animal sacrifice calls for SEVEN
acts (1:3-9). Priestly ordination follows SEVEN steps over SEVEN
days (8:1-36). Blood is sprinkled SEVEN times to effect atonement
and purification (4:6; 16:14). And Israel's sacred and
agricultural calendars contain cycles of SEVEN festivals (two of
them SEVEN days long) and SEVEN holy convocations over SEVEN
months (23:1-44; ch.25).
Reflecting on the overall message of the tabernacle and its
priesthood, Balentine writes:
...the Torah conceives the community of faith as empowered
to create a ritual world of space, time, and status that
mirrors God's cosmic designs.... It is not just that the
tabernacle and its rituals correspond to God's created
order. The Torah also understands Israel's ritual world to
have the capacity to sustain and, if necessary, to restore
God's design for creation. Ref.4
Beyond its ritual world (Leviticus 1-16), the priesthood
also promotes an ethical world (17-27). The great command "you
shall love your neighbor as yourself" (19:18) is a familiar
example and a good summary of the priesthood's unrelenting
commitment to pursuing justice and mercy in the community of
faith. The Ten Commandments are all reiterated in chapter 19 as
A central duty of the priesthood is teaching Israel how to
"distinguish between holy and unholy, and between unclean and
clean" (10:10). Dividing and separating - establishing boundaries
- is characteristic of Creator and creation (Genesis 1). Israel
is called discern and honor divine distinctions in every aspect
of life. The theological rationale for this holiness is simply
expressed in the words "for I am the LORD" (over forty-five times
between chapters 11 and 27).
The words "holy" and "unclean" are polar opposites.
Uncleanness signifies anything that contradicts God's holy
nature. It comprehends both physical and moral conditions that
reflect disorder or defilement of His original creation. For
instance, a man with leprosy (13:3) and a man who has committed
adultery (18:20) are both unclean (defiled) but for obviously
different reasons: One is the victim of sickness, the other has
Physical uncleanness (chapters 11-15) relates to issues of
disease, suffering, and death. These distortions of Eden's
intentions - evidence of the curse - are to be diagnosed and
handled with caution. Moral uncleanness (18:20), relating to
issues of deviant sexuality and worship, is much more serious. It
is to be abhorred and fully rejected.
Whether sin or sickness, the priesthood is concerned to
confront and contain anything that would trespass divine
boundaries of creational order. While sickness and sin are
addressed in different ways, they are fundamentally connected,
both attesting to the fallen human condition. While sin is always
condemned in a way that sickness is not, the priesthood and its
ritual world seeks to remedy both, when possible, through
atonement (chs.5 and 16).
CHRIST AND CHRISTIAN
We cannot truly appreciate the life and work of Jesus or the
church He created without recourse to the patterns and language
of Leviticus. Every aspect of our journey through the tabernacle
and its priesthood is taken up in His life. The New Testament is
emphatic: Jesus embodies the ritual and ethical worlds that
Leviticus discloses. The Word spoken so often there is made flesh
in Christ, and that Word shapes the church:
- Jesus is the holy high priest and the tabernacle of God among
men (Hebrews 7:26; John 1:14; 2:21), and His people are a kingdom
of priests and a holy nation, called with Israel to "Be holy, for
I am holy" (1 Peter 2:9; 1:16).
- Jesus is the Lord of creation and Sabbath who worked and
finished to restore the world to its intended glory (Colossians
1:16-20; Mark 2:28; John 5:17; 19:30; Galatians 6:15), and the
Spirit of God is building us into a holy tabernacle that reflects
this new creation to all (1 Corinthians 3:17; Ephesians 2:19-22).
- Jesus is the last Adam, the unblemished lamb, an offering of
sweet aroma, the atonement and sacrifice for sin, the sprinkled
blood (1 Corinthians 15:45; 1 Peter 1:19; Ephesians 5:2; Romans
5:6-11; Hebrews 10:10-22). In Him we become a holy priesthood
offering spiritual sacrifices, with bodies willingly presented as
holy sacrifices (1 Peter 2:5; Romans 12:1).
- Jesus is the teacher who directs us to love the neighbor, to
discern the holy from the unclean (Matthew 5-7; 23:23; Galatians
5:14; 1 Thessalonians 4:7). We share the good news of Him who
reconciles sick and sinner alike, for in Christ the leper is
cleansed and the adulterer is forgiven (Mark 2:17; Luke 5:12-24;
It IS a long way from Leviticus to Christ, but perhaps not
so far as we have thought. As we make the journey back,
traversing the foreign landscape, we find that Jesus has preceded
us. He has been there all along, speaking, creating, and leading
us back, and on, to Eden.
My friend Betty, 51, just died of cancer. I don't know if
she ever finished Leviticus, but I do know that she embodied its
hope. Despite her sin and sickness, she never failed to believe
that her life was redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, that a new
creation awaited her, and that her faithful high priest would
present her holy and blameless before God her maker on that final
day (Colossians 1:1322).
Yes, in Jesus Christ, the ancient priesthood is everlasting
1. Samuel E. Balentine, "The Torah's Vision of Worship," p.138
2. Ibid., p.139
3. Terence F. Fretheim, Exodus, p.271
4. Balentine, p.64
Jason Overman serves the congregation in Jasper, AR.
Apt/May 2007 - Bible Advocate - a publication of the Church of
God, 7th Day, Denver, CO. USA
Please note God's use of numbers 7 and 5, in the above article. I
have a section on this Website addressing God's Numbers - Keith