Study Guide

God and the People of Israel in Leviticus

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God and the People of Israel

Yeah, this guy again.

God has already had a good bit of screen time in Genesis and Exodus. And in Leviticus, he generally stays on the path set out for him in the first two books of the Hebrew Bible. But don't get too comfy—there are also a few important retcons.

As in Genesis and Exodus, God continues to be the one God of Israel. No change there. He still has magical powers—a pillar of fire! flames from the sky!—but he's also on occasion described like a regular human being. Hands down the favorite anthropomorphism in Leviticus is the holy sniff. Here are just a few examples:

  • The burnt offering is "an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the Lord" (1:9).
  • The grain offering is "an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the Lord" (2:9).
  • If the Israelites rebel against God, he "will not smell your pleasing odors" (26:31).

And that's just the tip of the nostril.

Still, in spite of his omnipresent nose, God makes a major shift in emphasis in Leviticus. He is no longer the God who will always be with them. Nope. Now, he's the God who is going away.

The Go-Away God

When God moves from Mount Sinai to the Tabernacle, it's the beginning of the end of Israel's travels. Pretty soon, they're going to be stuck in one place. For God, that's the cue to leave; the fire-bombing of the altar in chapter 9's opening sacrifice is a figurative passing of the torch.

But of course, God doesn't totally peace. He's still around—he's just not present. So how does God do this whole presence through absence thing? How about that God goat? Remember him? He's the one who gets sacrificed on the Day of Atonement. It's a punny directional parallel actually: God sends away the Azazel goat to the wilderness, while the God goat goes up in smoke and life returns to its source. Fancy.

On a deeper level, Leviticus uses God's visible departure from Israel to send a message about the nature of God himself. This guy isn't just one of us. He is holy or altogether separate: he is not the land, he is not the buildings, and he is not any man-made object that the Israelites might be tempted to worship (think: golden calf or stylish yet inexpensive furniture from Ikea).

What's in It for God's Peeps?

The whole holy shtick God has going on also affects how the Israelites are supposed to live. Remember from Exodus how Moses names his son Gershom because he is a "stranger in a strange land"? Well, things don't get any better in Israel. After spending a whole book telling the Israelites that he is taking them from Egypt to the Promised Land, now he tells the Israelites not to get too attached to it. Like God, his peeps have to be foreigners in their own homes.

As if that's not bad enough, the Israelites have a few other regulations:

  • They're not supposed to try to build up land and power (the Jubilee is a callback to the Tower of Babel).
  • They're not supposed to use their physical and social power to dominate other Israelites (a la Cain, who didn't get the point about animal sacrifice putting the breaks on wanton violence).
  • And they're not supposed to think that they are the ones who make good things happen (like Adam and Eve, they won't be like gods).

So while God may be giving them the Promised Land, they shouldn't let it go to their heads.

No Brown M&Ms

Okay, so God isn't going to be visibly present anymore. Got it. But the covenant—or sacred contract—between God and his people still remains in effect. And God won't let them forget it. He ratifies the covenant throughout the book, from the offering of peace through the treaty-like blessings and curses all the way through to the mundane last chapter on holy finance.

As Leviticus makes clear, though, God is a super-stickler for detail. He spells out a covenant with Israel a lot like the "No brown M&Ms" contract Van Halen would send out for its tour engagements. Details matter for God. According to the Big Guy, sloppiness in a small detail points to more serious problems.

Remember back in Genesis when God was happy with sacrifices wherever people made them? Well, forget it. From here on out it's the Tabernacle, and the folks in charge of worship are Aaron's descendants, the family of priests. No questions asked.

And as for life outside the sanctuary: no more letting people follow their own spiritual bliss. Ten commandments aren't close to enough. Now God prefers to nag them about lunch, skin care, and interior decorating. In order to administer all these pesky laws, God hands things off to the people of Israel. They make decisions in deliberative assemblies made up of representatives from the tribes—kind of like Congress or student council. Leviticus even uses the 5th-century Near Eastern legal term for an assembly: eidah. This decision-making body becomes a fundamental legal institution in Jewish life for centuries to come, and in Leviticus it all starts with a bunch of people talking things over and, um, stoning people:

Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands on his head, and let the whole congregation [literally, "assembly"]) stone him. (24:14)

We weren't kidding.

(P.S. If this is the book of Leviticus, where are the Levites? Don't worry, they're around. They're essential to keeping the sanctuary running, but they just don't make the headlines. See, Tabernacle services are like a rock concert. The high priest is the lead singer. The other priests are members of the band. And the Levites? Well, they're the roadies.)

Now That The Magic Is Gone

God isn't the only deity leaving town.

Up until now, God has been happy just declaring himself to be better than all the other gods. There may be gods and spirits all over the place, but he kicks all their butts.

Leviticus takes a different approach. Rather than getting the Israelites all riled up about demons, Leviticus is focused on getting people to understand how small personal actions can have a big collective impact. From this point of view, evil spirits are merely relics of an all but forgotten past—kind of like the WB (sigh, Dawson's Creek). Check it out:

Do not turn to mediums or wizards; do not seek them out, to be defiled by them: I am the Lord your God. (19:31)

Adios, wizards (sorry, Harry). But remember, the reason that mediums and wizards were on the outs wasn't because the spirit world has any power—just because they pull Israelites away from the Tabernacle, priests, and assembly.

So all in all, Leviticus doesn't paint a picture of a demon-haunted world. And that's a pretty big deal, when you think about what happens a few centuries down the line. Anyone who's read Matthew or Luke or the rest of the New Testament knows that demons come back—big time.

But Leviticus plays up its anti-superstition agenda all the way through the book. When God wraps up the covenant at the end of Leviticus, the key to abundance is simple. No spells. No chants. No magical amulets. Just play by the rules.

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