In the movie based on MercyMe singer Bart Millard’s life, I Can Only Imagine highlights the story of how the titular song came to be what it is today. Bart details his difficult experiences with his dad, Arthur Millard (played by Dennis Quaid), and mild spoiler alert, Arthur eventually turns his life toward Christ as an indirect result of Bart’s music.
At one point toward the beginning of Arthur’s new life, he asks Bart for help understanding the Bible. Specifically, he drops that quote listed at the top of the post, wanting to know what the heck Leviticus’s sacrificial system is all about.
Haven’t we all had that same question at some point in our lives?
It seems primitive, barbaric, and unnecessary. And clearly, we western Christians don’t follow it today. Oh, and did I mention it’s about as fun to read as watching paint dry? I recently listened to an audiobook version of it and admittedly dreaded every second of it.
We modern day folks are pretty awful about knowing what to do with this piece of Scripture. At best, we Christians brush over it and tend to focus on Jesus in the New Testament. At worst, non-believers latch onto it as evidence to basically say, “Aha! You Christians really are backwards!” Both spectrums are poor approaches, but even I admittedly have fallen into that “ignore it” camp for the longest time.
Fortunately, Rob Bell just put out the first in a set of longform audios on the book of Leviticus. I loved every minute of it, so I definitely encourage you check it out. Here’s the link to that.
First off, let’s remember something we forget far too often about the Bible: the Bible was written by real people living in a real time dealing with their own cultural circumstances. Trying to do a 1:1 comparison of what folks living in Bible times to our own modern society just doesn’t work. Even our own western civilization has culturally evolved drastically in the last 100 years.
(No, seriously. Next year is the 100 year anniversary of when women got the right to vote.)
With that out of the way, we can admit without shame that, yeah, all societies then had primitive ideas about things we now can rationally explain away with science. This primitive understanding led people to believe that gods and other deities were the prime influencers behind the functioning and creation of the world. There were generally many gods for many things, too. Sun gods, rain gods, death gods. If you’ve seen Disney’s Hercules, you probably get the gist here.
And these gods were generally a nasty lot.
Look no further than the Babylonian creation story. According to them, the world began between a battle between a number of gods, and after the god Marduk emerged victorious over the others, he created the world from the carcasses of the others.
Yeah, pretty gruesome, right?
The folks living during bible times also understood these angsty gods as being hungry ones, so in order to keep the gods on your side, you had to feed them. And how do you feed them?
Now, here’s the biggest issue: how did these people know if they were appeasing their gods well enough? Well, there really was no way. It was very much a shot in the dark. This is where things can escalate out of control. If you don’t know how much to sacrifice to a god, how much do you sacrifice? You probably keep upping the ante until the god seems satisfied. You offer things of higher and higher value.
…can you see where this is going?
If your land is going through a long drought, and you’ve sacrificed more and more and more to appease your rain god, what’s one of the most valuable things you can sacrifice…?
Yup, your child.
(Which would totally explain why Abraham didn’t bat an eye when God asked him to sacrifice Isaac. It wasn’t uncommon to sacrifice your kid to appease your god, so for Abraham, this wasn’t unexpected.)
Now, let’s get back into Leviticus. With your understanding of how things worked back then, can you see how the Jewish sacrificial system was so revolutionary?
Let’s make two observations.
First, no child sacrifices. Period. Sure, there are animal sacrifices (and I’m sure PETA would throw a fit about that) but this God never asks you to kill your child.
But perhaps more importantly, this God lays his cards out on the table. Where other people played this cosmological guessing game at how to appease their gods, this God makes it perfectly, almost painfully, clear how to please him. If you are feeling thankful about something, do this. If you are feeling guilty about something, do that.
This is so far ahead of its time. Revolutionary is an understatement. This God is meeting his people in their time and making it perfectly clear how to be in relationship with him. Even the creation story when compared to the Babylonian Marduk story is one of poetic beauty compared to gruesome beginnings.
Now, you probably have a lot of questions. “Almost nobody buys into any sacrificial system anymore. Why does this matter to us anymore? Aren’t we beyond this? Hasn’t God moved past this?”
You are totally right. We are beyond this. God has led us past this. You’re getting a bit ahead here, and in order to understand how God moves us past this, we have to look at another story…
A story about a man named Jesus.