Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Blah, blah, Moses and God, blah blah. In Leviticus, these guys are mostly just talking heads. The real star of the book is the Tabernacle.
The first time the Tabernacle appears in Leviticus, the Hebrew name that's used for it literally means "tent of meeting." And that's not a coincidence, folks, or a cliché. After all, meeting at the Tabernacle is a central theme of the book.
Getting together at one place is the real point for all the rules about conducting sacrifices at the Tabernacle. Before God starts dishing out these rules, the Israelites were making offerings wherever they wanted, according to their own family customs. Leviticus won't settle for that, and now everyone is told to take their offerings to one place. To paraphrase Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act 2 (as we're wont to do): the point isn't whether they can sacrifice. God knows they can sacrifice. This is about sacrificing together as a group.
The rules and rituals associated with the Tabernacle orient all aspects of the Israelite's daily lives, from crops, cattle, and commerce to health, sex, home, and even the ordering of time. Here's the thing, though. Working all this out before settling into the Promised Land—you know, while the Tabernacle is in the wilderness—is like using video games and virtual sandboxes to help get through everyday life.
It may not be easy, but everything connects to the Tabernacle and the Tabernacle connects to everything.
In the words of St. Keanu of Neo: whoa.
You've Got to Know the Territory
The rules for rituals in Leviticus take us on a walking tour of the Tabernacle. Allow us to be your tour guide.
We start with the sacrificial altar in the courtyard:
If the offering is a burnt offering from the herd, you shall offer a male without blemish; you shall bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, for acceptance in your behalf before the Lord. (1:3)
Next we go through the entrance into the first room, where Aaron's sons Harold and Kumar proceed to fill the tent with incense smoke:
He shall take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before the Lord, and two handfuls of crushed sweet incense, and he shall bring it inside the curtain and put the incense on the fire before the Lord (16:12-13)
Next, we proceed to the innermost room, the Holy of Holies, where we can see the Ark of the Covenant. Since this is Leviticus, no tour would be complete without a pun: the "mercy seat" is literally "cover," or kapporet, which speaks to its role in making kipper, or atonement (16:11). Hey-o!
[…] that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is upon the covenant, or he will die. He shall take some of the blood of the bull, and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the mercy seat, and before the mercy seat he shall sprinkle the blood with his finger seven times. (16:13-14)
On the way back, Leviticus has us take time to linger in the first room, where we get to see the menorah and the twelve pieces of show-bread (24:1-9). And then the tour wraps up back outside, where we hear even more thrilling rules about the offerings that people bring to the Tabernacle (27:9).
If reading about all this seems a bit abstract, no problem. Some fancy people out in the world of the Interweb have recreated what the Tabernacle might have looked like in real life. We're talking everything from drawings to a full-scale replica.
(Note: The shorts and t-shirts on the American tourists are not in the original Hebrew manuscripts.)
More Than Meets the Eye
Biblical Shmoopsters know that the Bible is filled with symbolism, and the Tabernacle is no different. The number seven is hanging around, and the twelve loaves of show-bread are a shout-out to the twelve tribes of Israel.
But wait, there's more! As anthropologist Mary Douglas observes, the tour through the Tabernacle is a direct riff on Mount Sinai in the book of Exodus (source). The Tabernacle's courtyard is the base camp at the foot of the mountain. The first room is the waiting area partway up the mountain. The Holy of Holies is the mountain top, where Moses speaks directly with God. Oh, and the Tabernacle's set-up also maps to the three levels of Israelites: regular folk; the priests and the Levities; and the high priest, who is the only person allowed to go into the Tabernacle's Holy of Holies.
How's that for symbolic?