What happens when you study Leviticus for more than 10 years? I know the types of answers many people would provide:
“You get to know your psychotherapist really well.”
“People stop inviting you to dinner parties.”
Or perhaps the most common:
“Is this a serious question? Who in the world would do this?”
I did. And it changed my life in ways far different from those just named. In my experience, at least four profound things happen when this book begins to seep into your soul.
1. You hunger for God’s holiness more frequently.
I once taught a semester-long seminary class on Leviticus. (Yes, people actually did sign up.) One of the last assignments of the class was to follow as many of the laws of Leviticus as possible for an entire week. This is of course something many Jews do regularly even today, but for Gentile seminary students—most of whom had never thought twice about having bacon with their eggs—this was a daunting task.
During that week, the students had to keep a journal of their experience and turn it in to me. There were understandable frustrations. One student noted, “Leviticus 19:19 says not to wear clothing woven of two kinds of material. That wipes out my entire wardrobe with the exception of a pair of polyester track pants. This is going to be a long week.” Others made similar observations.
But by far, the most common theme of the journals went something like this: “Every day, I found myself focused on thinking about ritual purity and impurity. Partway through the week, I realized that I was thinking about these things all day long and in every aspect of my life, and that’s when it hit me: God cares a lot about our purity and holiness. Not just from a ritual perspective, but also from a moral perspective. All day long and in every aspect of life, the Lord wants me to pursue purity in my heart, in my life, in my actions. He wants me to reflect his holiness in all that I do. I have been treating holiness way too lightly! O Lord, help me to be holy!” That’s the kind of prayer you begin to pray when you soak in Leviticus.
2. You fear God more greatly.
Leviticus 10 begins by telling the story of Nadab and Abihu. It’s a story my Hebrew students translated last semester. And it affected them deeply.
Nadab and Abihu were priests. This meant they had special duties in terms of leading God’s people in worship. My students resonated because many of them are preparing to be pastors and will also have special duties in leading God’s people in worship. As the story begins, Nadab and Abihu bring an offering the Lord had not commanded (10:1). The larger context shows that they tried to barge into the Most Holy Place—the throne room of the Lord—without being invited. If barging into the throne room of an earthly king was a severe breach of royal protocol and a tremendous sign of disrespect (cf. Esther 4:11), barging into the throne room of the King of heaven was unbelievably blasphemous.
The Lord guards his honor by sending out fire to consume the blasphemous priests (Lev. 10:2) and then gives this warning: “Amost those who approach me, I will show myself holy; in the sight of all the people, I will display my glory” (Lev. 10:3). In short, the Lord is telling the entire priestly family, “If you do not set me apart by your actions as the God worthy of reverence, I will use your death as an opportunity to remind all the people that I am indeed the God who is to be revered above all.”
There was a moment of holy silence in class that day as this truth began to grip our hearts. It was clearer to us than ever before that we must not trifle with the Lord. And it was clearer to us than ever before that he holds those who lead his people in worship to an especially high account (cf. James 3:1). We could not help but fear him more greatly.