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Light from the Sidra

Vayikra

Leviticus 1:1-5:26.Haftarah.Isaiah 43:21-44:23

“And he called…” What a start to a book!

When we say the Bible is God’s Word, we don’t mean every word of it was dictated by God. According to one of the very first Messianic Jews, or followers of Jesus, Shimon Kepha, “No prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (Second Letter of Peter 1:21).

In some mysterious way, God’s Ruach haKodesh worked on the Hebrew prophets that they spoke and wrote God’s words but in their own particular style of speaking and writing. The writers of Holy Scripture were not mere word processors or dummies in the hands of a Cosmic Ventriloquist, nor did they speak or write in a trance-like state. To all intents and purposes, they were in complete control of their faculties. Yet the words they uttered came from God. I don’t know how the process worked;  maybe God worked through the holy men of old like Mike Oldfield playing harmonies on all the different instruments on the Tubular Bells album. No matter how much we maytheorise, in the end there is no adequate human analogy for divine inspiration.

But the book of Vayikra is something else. In the Jewish Publication Society translation of Leviticus, the phrase “the LORD spoke” occurs no less than 39 times in 27 chapters. Here, in this book, therefore, we have the words of God literally dictated. Either that or the man who gave us the greatest law code in history was a fraud and a liar.

What could be so important that the Almighty would personally dictate his words? The answer in the first five chapters of Leviticus is, Sacrifice. Astonishingly, since the destruction of the second temple, some of Israel’s greatest sages and teachers have taught that sacrifice is no big deal. God thought it was so important that he personally dictated the complex details of the sacrificial rites to Moses.

Sacrifice was God’s idea. It was not an idea that evolved. Israel had been redeemed from Egypt by sacrificial blood smeared in cruciform on the doorpost and lintel of Israelite homes to protect God’s people from the Angel of Death.

Having been redeemed by blood, how were the Israelites to maintain their new relationship as the redeemed of Yahweh? The same way they had entered the relationship: by blood. The very first type of offering, the “near-offering” (Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses: A New Translation with Introductions, Commentary and Notes, Schocken Books, 1995) was offered as an atonement (1:4).  

It is common to hear Jewish teachers, especially those opposed to missionaries, to claim that blood atoned only for inadvertent sins. The “near-offering” did what it said on the tin; it brought the offerer near to God by dying in his place as an atonement for his sin. Inadvertent sins are dealt with in chapter 4. Even approaching God to give thanks involved the shedding of blood as the “Shalom” offering reveals in chapter 3. Chapter 5 is full of deliberate wilful sins for which atonement had to be made and they all required the shedding of blood.

From the lowliest of the am haaretz to the holiest man in the nation, the high priest, drawing near to God required the shedding of blood.

In the Haftarah, God complains about Israel’s offerings. Just as we find the thought of ritual slaughter and blood atonement repellent, the people of Isaiah’s day had become blasé about such things; they had become used to the continual smell of smoke and blood that hung over ancient Jerusalem. God was not saying that sacrifices were unnecessary; he was rebuking the people for their casual attitude to worship.

If a people could become laid back in their attitude to God when they had constant reminders of his holiness and the seriousness of their sin, how much more do we need to be shaken up. If Isaiah were addressing Israel today, he would not be rebuking them for their sacrifices but for their lack of blood sacrifice!


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