This week’s post reflects on Leviticus chapters 1 – 15.
When we lived in the country Lisa and I would take evening walks down a narrow, winding lane we called Christmas Tree Road. That wasn’t what the county called it, but at the halfway point there was a Christmas tree farm.
Hence the nickname. In November, when the farmer trimmed the trees to prepare them for the December sale, the air around the road smelled of white pine, blue spruce and cedar. That clean, Christian scent lingered on our clothes until we got back home. Even as I write these words the memory of that aroma rises to my senses and invites me back there.
Our summer walks were not so pleasant, though, for three reasons.
For one, the August name for Christmas Tree road was changed to Copper Head Road. Since I’m not a herpetologist I can’t explain this, but Copper Head snakes seemed to be drawn to the cracked and faded yellow stripe in the middle of the road to bask in the late afternoon sun. Nothing quenches the urge for a delightful stroll down a country lane like a gauntlet of surly, venomous reptiles.
For another, across the road from the tree farm, the farmer kept sheep. Sheep are cute and fun to watch and docile, and on hot summer days, especially after a rain, they stink. That aroma, too, tended to stay with you.
But the most unsettling thing about those summer walks was the sound of babies screaming in the woods. It was an eerie, unsettling cry, plaintive and piercing. But it wasn’t human babies – it was the little goats, the kids pastured there, crying for their mothers.
When you imagine the Jewish tabernacle or temple, I bet, like me, you tend to think of them as a sort of ancient art gallery or cathedral – majestic, peaceful, clean. The priests, we imagine, go about their duties in regal costume, representing God to the people, making intercession for the people to God. As we reconstruct the scene from the words we read in the Bible, the tabernacle and temple smell of freshly baked bread and olive oil, not unlike a good cook’s kitchen. Somewhere in these holy structures, a Levite sings a sacred chant. His cry is carried by a gentle breeze until it echoes off every surface, graces every ear, touches every heart. It all feels so otherworldly and reverent.
It wasn’t that way at all. The tabernacle and later the temple were slaughterhouses. There was blood and stench and there were screams. The throats of lambs and young bulls were slit, the viscera was separated and burned, blood by the gallon was slopped onto the altar. The priests, far from sporting around in spotless vestments, looked more like the blood-stained villain or maybe even the blood-soaked victims in a horror movie. It looked like a crime scene. It smelled like death. And if you don’t like reading about it, imagine what it was like to live it. This is how they went to church.
Why? Why did God require, in mind-numbing detail, these grisly rituals, this carnival of carnage? Why did the worshiper have to lay his hand on the head of the animal he was about to butcher, look into its innocent eyes and feel the warmth of the life he was moments from taking? Why did God command his priests to stand around knee-deep in blood and guts all day long and carry home with them the smell of slaughter?
This is what was required by God for the sins of the people. The innocent dying for the guilty. It was the incessant reminder that to sin is to die. The sacrifices were teaching moments in the economics of sin. The lesson was simple; sin is expensive. It mattered not at all whether you were rich or poor, whether you owned the cattle on a thousand hills or could only catch two birds in a bush. You had to bring something to the altar and it had to give its life for yours. And the sounds and smells and sights of that dying were to stay with you, to remind you that God is holy and you, too, are to be holy.
For us as well, though we graciously live at a great distance from that awful liturgy, there is something to learn. The sacrifices the ancient Hebrews had to offer, like many other parts of the Old Testament, are shadows of a more substantial reality. They point to another lamb hanging on an altar shaped like a cross, standing on a hill shaped like a skull. Jesus became the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. Our time at the table on Sunday mornings is how we enter into that scene. And our prayer should be that the meaning of it sticks with us as surely as the smell of blood and ashes stuck to Israel’s people long after the smoke of their sacrifices cooled.