The end of Leviticus is in sight, but there are a few things to clear up. While Leviticus gets a fairly well-deserved reputation as a book of rules, we do not need to miss some of the points that are rules, but have a bit of a different flavor to them.
Leviticus 23 is one of those chapters. The primary focus here are religious feasts and festivals, starting with the frequent weekly and moving to the regular annual observances for the Israelites.
Without attempting to deal with the Christological significance of the Day of Atonement here, because that is better handled by others and a major feature of most Christian commentaries on Leviticus, let’s look at the whole situation. First, you have the weekly Sabbaths decreed by God. Then you see various annual feasts, festivals, and observances prescribed. These include the Passover, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Booths.
It may be tempting to argue that the Passover and the Day of Atonement are more important, because more effort is given to their description and instruction. However, I would suggest that this would be an error. There are multiple ways to communicate importance, and length is one of them. Priority of place is also a communicator of importance—and the Sabbath itself is mentioned first. The better decision here is to see all of these as important in the religious life of theocratic Israel.
What lesson is there for us, then? Does the applicability here wait until the New Jerusalem?
Hardly. Let us consider a few things:
1. There are days that have a more important feel to them in the Christian life. Christmas. Easter. Mother’s Day. (Ok, that one just gets more people to church.) These days have significance. We mark important historically real events on these days, just as Passover marks the actual event of the Exodus or Hanukkah marks the actual rededication of the Temple in the Maccabean Revolt. While there are some who argue for the flattening of every event in the church and not treating any day as greater than the other, I do not feel that is the correct response.
2. There are days that we think are just not that important. The first Sunday after the time changes…the Sunday duck season comes in. Those are not that important. After all, we can do what we need on those days…as long as we show up for the big ones, right?
Actually, falling off the cliff in either of those directions is not helpful for us. We can take from this passage in Leviticus that there can be days of highlight in the worship of the One True God, but that we cannot neglect the frequent gathering of believers. That gathering is important—imagine a married couple that only really thought about being married on their anniversary, or a parent that only noticed their child on a birthday. That would be a little on the foolish side, would it not?
Yet we can also see the foolishness in acting like every day is just the same, and forgetting the important moments. Think that’s not the case? Tell your mother that after you skip over Mother’s Day this year. I dare you.
The worship of Israel at this time is instructed to be regularly occurring, and to not be neglected on the weekly basis of Sabbaths. Yet the highlight days are to be remembered as well, no matter when they fall.
What constituted worship on those days? First and foremost was “rest.” A cessation of the normal activities of life: if your “worship” days look just like every other day, then you’re missing the point. Then there were prescriptions of gathering or sacrifice, depending on the day.
In all, though, worship was about making God and His grace, mercy, holiness, righteousness, and justice the focus of your day. Not your crops, your animals, or your business. Not yourself. Resting from self-centeredness is a good thought for worship days. Perhaps it could stick all week afterwards.
Today’s Nerd Note: Take a look at Leviticus 23:22. What do we have here?
A restatement of the Law of Gleaning, the Israelite form of community support of the poor.
It’s right here, in the midst of worship days. Why?
Because you cannot worship and neglect the needy. Obviously, the focus here is on the needy of the community, but the idea can certainly apply more broadly.
Why that focus in the middle of this?
Worship, at its core, is about centering our attention on God. In Biblically appropriate ways, certainly, but moving our focus off of ourselves and onto the Holy One. And this is not possible if we are working throughout the intervening times to profit ourselves and neglect those who are made in God’s image.
It just does not work.