The Purpose of the Covenantal Holiness Passages in Exodus and Leviticus
God desires to make all people His people. He began this process by saving a specific people, the Israelites, and developing them into His ambassadors (Exod. 19:5–6 ESV). This development process involved teaching His people about His holiness, which began with the Pentateuch and culminated in the New Testament (NT). This paper will demonstrate that the purpose of the covenantal holiness instructions in Exodus and Leviticus was to prepare Israel to be God’s kingdom ambassadors, and the principles behind the instructions apply to God’s people in any era, as the NT writers explained. This work will briefly survey the Mosaic Covenant, including the Decalogue (Exod. 20:1–21) and the Book of the Covenant (Exod. 20:21–23:19), as well as the holiness code (Lev. 17–27) and the sacrificial system (Lev. 1–16). Each section will conclude with a discussion of its relevance for twenty-first-century Christians.
The Holiness Impetus
At Mount Sinai, after successfully redeeming the people from Egyptian slavery, God told them, “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:5–6). With this preamble to the Mosaic Covenant, God established the nation of Israel. Paul Williamson posited, it “spells out the type of nation that Yahweh intends Israel to be,” which “entails conformity to his holy character” (2003, 150). Israel would not be isolationist. They would be holy ambassadors, conveying “the covenant blessings to other nations” (Selman 2003, 512).
God would not leave them to fulfill the mission on their own. Yahweh told Moses, “Let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell in their midst” (Exod. 28:9). Hence, according to Richard Averbeck, the sanctuary (or tabernacle) symbolized “the presence and immanence of the Lord” (2003, 809). Exodus 25–40 contained detailed instructions about the construction of the tabernacle. After the Israelites erected the tabernacle to God’s specifications, “the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle” (Exod. 40:34). This event symbolized an important Pentateuchal theme: if the people would follow God’s holiness commands, as they did with the tabernacle construction, He would dwell among them and bless them.
Averbeck noted that the tabernacle was a point “of access to God’s continuous manifest presence” but not “a place to which God limited his presence exclusively” (2003, 825). The Incarnation affirmed this observation, as John declared, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). In the ensuing age of the Holy Spirit, God continued to dwell among each individual Christian whose body became “a temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19). Moreover, when Peter applied the “chosen race, royal priesthood” appellation to the Church, He signaled the Church’s inheritance of the Mosaic Covenant mission (1 Peter 2:9). Therefore, as with Israel, God issued the Church an evangelistic mandate and supernatural empowerment to complete the mandate, hence Jesus’s last words before His Ascension: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
The Holiness Principles
The Mosaic Covenant also required holiness from Yahweh’s people. Moses outlined the principles of holiness in the Decalogue, the Book of the Covenant, and the holiness code (Exod. 20:1–23:19; Lev. 17–27). Jay Marshall proposed, “The stipulations that form the Decalogue may be legitimately understood as ‘ordinances’ or ‘principles’ rather than as ‘laws’ in the strictest sense” (2003, 175). Moreover, Martin Selman suggested, “The book of the covenant may be intended to illustrate the principles of the Ten Commandments” (2003, 502). Thus, the Decalogue contained principles of holy behavior, and the Book of the Covenant explained how to apply those principles in the ancient Near Eastern (ANE) cultural milieu.
In Leviticus 17–27, Moses presented more principles of covenantal holiness. Scholars call this unit the holiness code because “the theme of Leviticus 17–27 is the pursuit of holiness” (Schnittjer 2006, 339). Since “the exhortation to be holy is the theme of God’s speech in Leviticus 19,” Gary Schnittjer and many other scholars have regarded “chapter 19 as the center of the book” (Hartley 2003, 425; 2006, 347). Moses summarized the holiness code with the command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” which was the second most important law in the entire Bible (Lev. 19:18; Mark 12:31). However, Nobuyoshi Kiuchi noted the impossibility of following this and the other holiness commands consistently, which meant “the solution lies entirely in the cross and the power of the Holy Spirit” (2003, 531).
The NT writers dealt extensively with these holiness principles. For example, Matthew quoted Jesus saying, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (5:17). This passage yields two concepts pertaining to the law. First, Christians must interpret the laws “christologically” to prevent them from becoming “a set of rules and regulations that cannot change the lives of those who seek to live by them” (Selman 2003, 514). The law indicates the hopelessness of the human condition. Hence, Paul taught, “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not you own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). Second, upon salvation, Christians can and should live by the principles of the laws because they now have the ability to do so, as Paul indicated when he advised, “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). In fact, the Spirit-empowered ability to become holy forms one of the strongest apologetics for the Christian worldview, as nonbelievers observe Christian righteousness.
However, some nonbelievers deny their sinfulness. Ravi Zacharias posited, “The depravity of the human heart is at once the most intellectually resisted yet most empirically verifiable reality” (2008, 68). If people do not acknowledge their sin, they cannot acknowledge their guilt or need for a Savior. Yet, the empirical evidence for human depravity belies this humanistic position. Consequently, evangelists can employ the Pentateuchal holiness passages to contrast God’s righteousness with human behavior to help the individual understand depravity, guilt, and their need for a Savior. Good points.
The Holiness Offerings
This inability to follow the law presented problems for the Israelites. The rebellion/judgment narratives such as the golden calf incident and the unauthorized fire by Nadab and Abihu illustrated the tension—“How can sinful rebels bear the presence of the Holy Creator?” (Exod. 32; Lev. 10:1–2; Schnittjer 2006, 197). The answer resided in the sacrificial system.
Schnittjer explained, “The sacrifices were Yahweh’s gracious provision to sustain worship and forgiveness for Israel” (2006, 301). A detailed treatment of the various offerings lies outside the scope of this paper, but a few points merit inclusion. In Leviticus 6:1–5, Moses taught that even intentional sins were covered as long as the sinner repented, as encapsulated in the clause, “if he has sinned and has realized his guilt” (v. 4). According to Schnittjer, Leviticus 6:1–5 “was the origin of the biblical ideal of repentance” (2006, 313). Pertaining to the rules regarding spiritual cleanliness, John Hartley observed, “Finding a system that accounts for these rules as a whole is formidable” (2003, 428). However, understanding the principle behind the clean/unclean laws is less difficult. Nobuyoshi Kiuchi explained, “Uncleanness is a result of the Fall,” which meant “uncleanness refers to the state of being under the influence of a curse as a consequence of sin;” therefore, the purification rituals “function to remind the Israelites of their sinfulness” (2003, 529). The system served to contrast Yahweh’s holiness and the people’s depravity.
The sacrificial system was only effective because of God’s grace. There was nothing inherently holy in the sacrifice that somehow forced Yahweh to forgive the people. On the contrary, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). Consequently, sacrifices did not actually remove sin, but the sacrifice served as “a mere symbol” of “repentant humility before God” (Schnittjer 2006, 316). The writer of Hebrews clarified the system’s dependence on God’s grace with the statement, “Since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near” (10:1). However, as He prophesied in Matthew 5:17, in fulfilling the law, Jesus fulfilled the sacrificial system; hence, Christians “have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb. 10:10). Therefore, the sacrificial system in Leviticus testified to God’s grace and foreshadowed Jesus’ sacrifice.
This explanation of the sacrificial system serves as another useful apologetic for the Christian worldview. For example, Stuart Lasine suggested the theme of the Pentateuch was that God’s “kingdom is fraught with danger for the subjects who must negotiate the new zones of holiness and avoid impurity, constantly keeping in mind their ruler's traits of jealousy and often amoral wrath” (2010, 52). Lasine misunderstood the sacrificial system. Contra Lasine, there is “danger of contact with the holy” not because Yahweh is capricious but because He is righteous (2010, 53). God created people; therefore, God is responsible for the people’s actions. Since the people’s actions are evil, God’s righteousness demands a response. Instead of eradicating the rebels, as they deserved, God created a way to forgive them and yet maintain His righteousness. The fact that the people deserve destruction makes God’s mercy in creating the sacrificial system exceptionally gracious.
With Exodus and Leviticus, God revealed three important tenets of Christianity. First, God desires for the Church to be a missionary people, as explained in Exodus 19:5–6 and applied to the Church in 1 Peter 2:9. Second, although the Lord expects His people to model their behavior after His righteousness, their inability to do so on a consistent basis reveals their need for Him (Matt. 5:17; Exod. 20:1–23:19; Lev. 17–27). Finally, God understood the human condition and, consequently, provided a way to impart His holiness to His people through the sacrificial system, which pointed to the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ (Lev. 1–16; Heb. 10:1, 10). God has saved His people, creating and equipping an army of disciples to go forth and make more disciples.
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