Of all the books in the Old Testament, Leviticus has a reputation for being tedious. What nobody seems to remember is that it’s also really, really gory.
I’ve been revisiting Leviticus lately, and it’s a grim read. Among the dull regulations for religious rituals are rules for sacrifices, which involve slaughtering livestock, cutting them into pieces, burning them, and splattering their blood in all kinds of interesting and unexpected places.
I often picture places of worship in the Old Testament as peaceful, churchlike sanctuaries smelling of incense, where immaculately-dressed priests walk quietly and speak in whispers.
Examining what Scripture actually says gives quite a different picture.
Livestock were killed for a wide variety of offerings, and the priests did at least some of the slaughtering. I sometimes think of Old Testament priests as pastors, but they seem more like butchers. Israel’s places of worship were likely deafening with the frantic bleats of dying animals, pervaded by the smell of burning meat, and speckled with dried blood.
Revisiting Leviticus, and reading the Bible generally, challenges my faith. Christian culture hardly ever mentions, let alone dwells upon, the nastier bits of the Bible—and dang, the Bible sure can be nasty. It’s nicer to think about the Sermon on the Mount, or the Christmas story, or the pleasanter Psalms.
We so often have preconceived ideas of what’s in the Bible without ever taking a look, or bothering to think about what we find.
Do any of the Sunday school teachers who put up cutesy pictures of Noah’s Ark remember that the Flood drowned nearly every person on earth? Do any of the people who share inspirational verses from Job recall how his life was shattered, his health was broken, and his children were crushed to death? Anybody?
Leviticus troubles me. Yes, I know that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” It costs something. In the end, forgiving us cost God everything in the death of Jesus Christ. I get that. All the same, I’m bothered by the thought of God commanding the incessant, daily slaughter of helpless animals as a form of worship.
These challenging chapters in Leviticus remind me that lot of things in Scripture trouble me, and some surprise me—and many give me unexpected comfort, peace, and hope. The Bible often refuses to match up to my expectations or the impressions some churches give of it.
The Bible is a book not to be judged by its cover, nor by incomplete impressions. Especially for those who call it God’s Word, the Bible is worth reading: even the tedious, boring, and bloody bits.
I suppose that includes Leviticus.