This is our first study in Leviticus, and this is certainly no easy book. Before we begin, it's important to consider one obstacle to understanding this passage. You see our secular mindset -- the philosophy and mindset of the age, the mind of the flesh, what we possess naturally -- causes us to approach the Bible and passages like Leviticus with man as the starting point. The secular mindset says man is the starting point of all things and man decides what makes sense and what is right and wrong. Problems, solutions and successes are defined according to man. This is why we struggle with the Bible and passages like Leviticus, because things don't make sense to us. Even Christians can be secular. How do you know if you have a secular mindset or not? How do you pray? If you pray around what you want, what you deem as needful or not, what is good according to your standard, chances are, you are still operating with a secular mindset. In contrast, the Spirit-filled mind (c.f. Rom 8) starts with God, letting God decide the agenda, praying that our Father in Heaven will have His name hallowed, and that His will be done in Heaven and on Earth. The Spirit-filled mind starts with God.
This long preamble serves to remind us that we cannot read Leviticus with a secular mindset. We cannot look at this text just hoping to get a set of dos and don'ts for us to toe the line. We need to read this to see how we are to relate to God.
(A) God of clean and unclean: recovering a God-centred mindset (v.1)
Throughout the book of Leviticus, the writer uses a common formula to mark each section. Leviticus 11:1 begins with this formula to mark the start of another section -- "And the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying to them". What characteristics of God are we reminded of? We can see that God is a speaking God. Notice also that the covenantal name of God is being used here. How does this God speak in the Books of Moses? Deut 4:9-12 gives us a glimpse of what it may be like. There was "the sound of words, but saw no form" (Deut 4:12). The Lord thunders from His mountain and strikes fear in the heart of man.
What does this mean for us today? Do you despise the Word of the Lord? Do you open His Word and know Him? Do you just listen to sermon after sermon, without encountering the Lord who speaks? The Christian life is not about Bible study or being clever. Lev 11:1 reminds us again that it is about God in His mercy speaking to sinners, and us being amazed that we are not dead and can hear Him?
A God-centred mindset is important, because God lays claim on our lives as Creator (c.f. Isa 43:7, 10). He wants us to know and believe and understand Him. He wants us to know that He is the Lord and there is no one like Him! He is speaking from a God-centered mindset -- that He is God and there is no one like Him. As the Creator God, He has the right to lay claim over all that He has made. THe God who speaks lays claim to all.
But there is an alternative to this. Jonah 2:7-9 reminds us that those who run after worthless idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. If we live with man as the starting point, it is a vain idol, useless and unprofitable because we ultimately forsake the hope of steadfast love. There is nothing in this mindset that will give us confidence, rest, peace and love.
Thus, a God-centred mindset is important for us as we approach the rest of this chapter, and the book of Leviticus.
(B) Food clean and unclean: understanding God’s holiness and God’s grace (v.2-43)
The bulk of the passage describes what can and cannot be eaten by the people of God in 5 sections.
|On the earth (v.2-8)|
|In the waters (v.9-12)|
|Winged insects (v.20-25)|
|Swarming things (v.29-43)|
There are generally 4 theories as to why these distinctions have been made.
- It is arbitrary, there just because God said so.
- There is a cultic reason. It was a common practice of the people around them, and so they were to avoid it to set themselves apart from the nations.
- It was for hygienic reasons.
- There was a symbolic reason.
We can see that God meant only for them to eat only those that move as they are designed for (e.g. on the earth, fish). They were also not to eat creatures that eat the dead. What do we learn about God's character in the fact that He seems to want to lay out what is normative, and what deviates from His intention? How would you describe Him? This is a God who is orderly, makes distinction and sets the standard. Sounds familiar? We saw this in Genesis 1, when God created the world and laid things out. This is also a God that wants to separate His people from the peoples around. God permeates the life of His people, for even in seemingly mundane things like eating, they would also need to consider if this is allowed and in line with His laws and character.
But this is not a God who micromanages! This God speaks with authority and power and cares about wha His people consume on a regular basis. He cares and bothers to go to such great lengths what we can and cannot consume. Our natural instinct is to look at the prohibitions, but do we realise that this means that God cares enough about us to care about what we eat? He spends His words for the diet of His people! Why then do we feel that God doesn't care about our fears, hopes, dreams, anxiety? He cares, and He cares so much that He spoke to the people through Moses, and wanted these words to be written down for us to read and study and see His character. Praise God from whom all blessings flow!
Also, beyond just being allowed and disallowed to eat various things, the writer of Leviticus uses a particular category to describe what is allowed disallowed. Things are separated into 2 categories: clean and unclean/detestable. What system is He introducing into our food? He is helping us to see life in terms of purity/cleanliness and uncleanliness. God cares very much about what is good and bad. In fact, there are 3 states in leviticus -- unclean, clean and set apart or consecrated to be holy.
So then, do these food laws apply to us today or not? No! In Acts 10:9-43, Peter has a vision and Peter is told by God that what He has called clean, let no one call unclean. These laws are part of the ceremonial and civic law of the nation of Israel -- there in place to set Israel apart. But in the NT, God's kingdom is no longer just Israel. His kingdom has expanded to include even the Gentiles. Here is a helpful explanation by Gordon Wenham's (New International Commentary on Leviticus):
“The NT teaches that the OT food laws are no longer binding on the Christian. These laws symbolized God’s choice of Israel. They served as constant reminders of God’s electing grace… In the new era when salvation was open to all men, and Israel was no longer the only object of divine grace, the laws lost their particular significance... This is not to say that these laws have nothing to teach the Christian…they were constant reminders to Israel that they were chosen to be a holy people, that they were called to imitate God, and that the laws were a reminder to give thanks for this calling. The NT believer is in a very similar position. The ancient food laws were designed to curb such forgetfulness.”
(C) Law of clean and unclean: reading about the Holy One of Israel (v44-47)
The closing verses of this chapter help us understand what these clean and unclean laws are doing in the Bible. Verses 44 to 47 are the climax of the text (v.44-47). The Israelites need to have these laws and be mindful of what is clean and unclean, because they are a holy people that belong to a holy God. God doesn't argue on the basis of quality or reward, that He is giving them good food. He argues on the basis of identity -- they are to be holy because they are His, and He is holy.
What does this mean for us today? He is saying to us today that the things we eat matter because we are His, set apart for Him. Those who are set apart for Him are to centre their lives on Him. This is why God is a jealous God. He is not an envious God, because envy happens when we look at what others have and we want what is theirs. We are jealous over something that belongs to us. Hence, our God is a jealous God, because He wants what is His, because He is the Creator, and He has His rights. He wants His holiness to rub off on us, so that we look like Him, even down to our food choices.
Do you see from these verses that Lev 11 shows us that God loves us like we have never been loved before. He wants His character, His holiness, to utterly inform every dimension and every moment of our lives. Look at verse 45. He is the God who came down and brought them up out of Egypt and He redeemed them when they were slaves in Egypt. Now that they are up, they are His. He calls them to be His, and do not give themselves to vain idols and other worthless things.
God calls us in the same way tonight. Jesus brought us out of our slavery to sin, to be His. This is how much we have been loved, that the darling of Heaven gave up His comfort in Heaven, to live and die on our behalf, to bring us to Himself. Can we say that we are His and His alone? Can we offer up everything to Him, and allow Him to decide our food choices, the way we use our time, money and energies? As we start 2016, and this series, let us consider how we can live as holy people, loved and redeemed by the Holy One.
What is our only hope in life and death?
That we are not our own but belong, body and soul, both in life and death, to God and to our Savior Jesus Christ.
(New City Catechism, Question 1)