Consider the fragility of human existence. We survive within a specific set of environmental parameters – a fixed range of temperature, hydration, radiation, and atmospheric content. From a cosmic perspective the margin of error is very small; the slightest adjustment in even a single factor, such as the amount of oxygen, quickly moves the environment from pleasant to deadly. Yet we have learned how to venture into the realm of the deadly when necessary. Thanks to protective clothing, equipment, and protocols, our species can operate within the vacuum of space, in the ocean’s depths, in the radiation-charged atmosphere of a nuclear reactor, and in the hot zone of an infectious disease laboratory.
We venture into these deadly environments, but we do not live there. We cannot survive there without observing the strictest standards. Those who enter these realms understand this. Astronauts, deep sea explorers, nuclear engineers, and epidemiologists are professionals who have answered the call to highly specialized career fields. Not all who enter the paths of these professions advance to the point that they can operate confidently in the most dangerous places. The selection and training standards must be established at the highest possible levels for the simple reason that the slightest error can produce lethal results. Richard Preston explained this principle in The Hot Zone, an investigative look into the origins of viral hemorrhagic fevers like Ebola. We learn from his book that the protocols for entering, working in, and leaving an infectious disease lab are elaborate and time-consuming, but necessary. No amount of caution is excessive when microscopic killers can infiltrate through the tiniest puncture of a protective suit or escape through an improper seal of an airlock. The viruses create the hot zone, whether it is in the lab or in the human body. Because of the radical transformative nature of these microorganisms, the highly trained professionals who work with viruses like Ebola in a very real sense act as mediators between them and the general population.
In fact, the role of these professionals is not unlike the role of the Levitical priests.
Much of the detail in the first third of Leviticus concerns the protocols required of the priests. After explaining the various types of offerings in the opening chapters (Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1-6:7), Moses proceeds with instruction on how the priests are to administer the offerings, the portions they can claim from each one, and the procedures for consecrating Aaron and his sons in their office. This is the subject of Tzav (Leviticus 6:8-8:36). That YHVH takes this seriously is clear from the very title of this Torah portion: Tzav means Command. The portion opens like this:
Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Command Aaron and his sons, saying, ‘This is the law for the burnt offering: the burnt offering itself shall remain on the hearth on the altar all night until the morning, and the fire on the altar is to be kept burning on it. The priest is to put on his linen robe, and he shall put on undergarments next to his flesh; and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire reduces the burnt offering on the altar and place them beside the altar. Then he shall take off his garments and put on other garments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place. The fire on the altar shall be kept burning on it. It shall not go out, but the priest shall burn wood on it every morning; and he shall lay out the burnt offering on it, and offer up in smoke the fat portions of the peace offerings on it. Fire shall be kept burning continually on the altar; it is not to go out. (Leviticus 6:8-13 NASB, emphasis added)
This command concerns the Olat Tamid, the daily burnt offerings placed on the altar each morning and evening. This is the continuous action occurring on the Altar. The cessation of the Olat Tamid indicates that the protocols for conducting business with God at His table have been violated and the Altar is no longer functioning. When this occurs because of desecration of the Altar, the result is the Abomination of Desolation (see Thanksgiving in the Kingdom, Part I and Part II). That is why the Lord commands the priests to pay special attention to this requirement to let the evening Olah remain on the Altar all night, dispose of the ashes properly in the morning, and ensure the fire on the Altar keeps burning continuously. This is not a command to the people of Israel as a whole, a very important detail that often escapes notice.
One complaint lodged frequently against the Torah is that it contains so many laws that are impossible to keep. Is that really true? Jewish tradition holds that there are 613 Commandments in the Torah. This is based primarily on a list compiled by Maimonides, as the great Jewish scholar Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (“Rambam”) is best known. The Rambam’s list is a good start for systematic study of the Commandments, although those approaching his work from a Messianic or Christian perspective would have some arguments with him. For our immediate purposes, the Rambam’s list helps us understand that about one-sixth (108 out of 613) of all these Commandments apply only to the priests and to the Levites who assist them in the Temple service. Slightly over one-fourth (169) of the Commandments apply to the Temple itself and the service within it which the priests and Levites administer, and in which the people participate. Because there is no Temple and no Priesthood to serve within it, none of these Commandments are in operation at the moment – although that may change in the very near future considering the work done by the Temple Institute.
Let us consider these complicated Commandments regarding the Temple service, many of which appear in this Torah portion. The only ones who need to know them in detail are the priests and the Levites themselves. They are the ones who must know exactly what to do, what not to do, what to eat, what to avoid, when to take certain actions, what to wear when performing each task, and how to keep themselves “clean”, meaning ritually pure and separated (holy) from the common environment. Failure in any single requirement could bring serious consequences, including death. Thus we have the question: are these requirements excessive? Perhaps we should ask an epidemiologist specializing in work with Ebola or smallpox whether their lab protocols are excessive. Or perhaps we should ask a professional in any field. In my military career, for example, I encountered professionals who worked with nuclear capable weapons systems. The regulations and procedures for handling these weapons and their munitions are very detailed, amounting to several hundred pages of text. All of them are intended for the purpose of avoiding an accident with these powerful weapons, and especially for preventing an unauthorized or accidental firing of a weapon that could bring death to millions. The training, drills, and fitness standards for the men and women working in this field are so high and enforced so strictly that one who did not understand their importance would consider them unreasonable and excessive. Yet we who served in the United States military during the Cold War greatly appreciated these protocols, knowing that they were a key component in safeguarding not only our nation and our allies, but our adversaries as well. We did not have to know the protocols to the same detail as these specialists, but the wise among us became familiar with them so that they could help the specialists in performing duties so important to us all.
What does all this mean for non-Jewish believers grafted into the Commonwealth of Israel by the work of Messiah Yeshua? It means that the Commandments of God are still the Commandments of God; we ignore them to our peril. It does not mean that we have to know each intimate detail of the Temple service, but it does mean that we should be familiar with these details. One day there will be a Temple again, and there will be sacrifices offered on the Altar both before and after Messiah’s return. It is the task of the priests and Levites to know the protocols for the Temple service, but those who will be bringing offerings should know what to bring and when. They should also know what to expect when they come to the Temple, if for no other reason than that they do not make the job of the priests and Levites any more difficult.
But there is something more that we should know. This is where we come again to the purpose of the Temple and the sacrificial offerings, which is to teach us what YHVH intended to do within each one of us all along. This is something the Lord explained through Jeremiah not long before He brought judgment on the Kingdom of Judah:
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, “Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat flesh. For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this is what I commanded them, saying, ‘Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you will be My people; and you will walk in all the way which I command you, that it may be well with you.’ Yet they did not obey or incline their ear, but walked in their own counsels and in the stubbornness of their evil heart, and went backward and not forward. Since the day that your fathers came out of the land of Egypt until this day, I have sent you all My servants the prophets, daily rising early and sending them. Yet they did not listen to Me or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck; they did more evil than their fathers.” (Jeremiah 7:21-26 NASB, emphasis added)
It is true; YHVH did not speak immediately to our ancestors about sacrifices and burnt offerings. Look again at what happened as soon as they had come through the Red Sea:
Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness and found no water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the waters of Marah, for they were bitter; therefore it was named Marah. So the people grumbled at Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” Then he cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a tree; and he threw it into the waters, and the waters became sweet. There He made for them a statute and regulation, and there He tested them. And He said, “If you will give earnest heed to the voice of the Lord your God, and do what is right in His sight, and give ear to His commandments, and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you which I have put on the Egyptians; for I, the Lord, am your healer.” (Exodus 15:22-26 NASB, emphasis added)
Where are the sacrifices in this first Commandment given after the escape from Egypt? They are not there, nor are they in the Ten Words (Commandments) the Lord spoke directly to our fathers and mothers a few weeks later at Mount Sinai. The Lord sought their hearts first of all, as He has always sought the hearts of His people. It is not that He desired no sacrificial offerings at all; the sacrifices would still have been part of Torah because they are a sign of God’s Presence with His people and the protocols of His House. However, sacrifices offered without a right heart are indeed worse than meaningless. Our ancestors missed this point. They did not understand that the Lord wanted to commune with them not only as a people, but as individuals as well, and that He wanted to come live inside them. In their ignorance they took counsel of their fears and asked Moses to be their mediator with God rather than have God speak to them directly. It was only then that the Lord began to give specific instructions about sacrifices (Exodus 20:18-26).
Even with the constant visible reminder of the sacrificial system, our ancestors failed to learn the full lesson. Perhaps they did not intend it that way, but their request to Moses to mediate between them and God amounted to a compartmentalization of their lives. They were willing to render to God the things He required and appease Him so that He would leave them alone to do whatever they wanted. If that meant keeping Sabbath, fine; they would do so and live as they pleased the other days of the week. If that meant putting money in the Temple treasury, fine; they would do so and keep the rest for themselves. If that meant circumcising their sons, fine; once that requirement was out of the way they would be free to do as they wanted. In time this became a cultural routine, with the priests and Levites doing the “heavy work” of keeping YHVH appeased while the rest of the population did what was right in their own eyes. Eventually our ancestors of Northern Israel (Ephraim) even found that too much of a burden. They pulled away from the Temple when they rebelled against the House of David and established their own sacrificial system to serve their own version of YHVH. There was no right heart in that course of action – no true obedience, but only a nod to ritual to satisfy an angry God. And in time it did make God angry, resulting in His judgment according to the protocols He had established long before.
That was Ephraim. Judah lasted a bit longer, but by Jeremiah’s day they had succumbed to the same disease. In that very chapter where God spoke about not initially requiring sacrifices, He instructed Jeremiah not to pray for the people. The word He gave to the prophet began like this:
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord, saying, “Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house and proclaim there this word and say, ‘Hear the word of the Lord, all you of Judah, who enter by these gates to worship the Lord!’” Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, “Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words, saying, ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’ For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly practice justice between a man and his neighbor, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, nor walk after other gods to your own ruin, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever. Behold, you are trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery and swear falsely, and offer sacrifices to Baal and walk after other gods that you have not known, then come and stand before Me in this house, which is called by My name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—that you may do all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of robbers in your sight? Behold, I, even I, have seen it,” declares the Lord. But go now to My place which was in Shiloh, where I made My name dwell at the first, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of My people Israel. And now, because you have done all these things,” declares the Lord, “and I spoke to you, rising up early and speaking, but you did not hear, and I called you but you did not answer, therefore, I will do to the house which is called by My name, in which you trust, and to the place which I gave you and your fathers, as I did to Shiloh. I will cast you out of My sight, as I have cast out all your brothers, all the offspring of Ephraim. As for you, do not pray for this people, and do not lift up cry or prayer for them, and do not intercede with Me; for I do not hear you. (Jeremiah 7:1-16 NASB, emphasis added)
These words describe an ancient Israelite version of the doctrine of cheap grace. Our ancestors had convinced themselves that as long as the Temple was in their midst and the priests were conducting the sacrifices God was satisfied. Because of that, nothing they did would incur His judgment and wrath, or so they thought. Yet they had forgotten the most important element: without a right heart, no amount of blood can atone for anything.
What does this mean for us in the 21st century? It means the same thing. Messiah Yeshua shed His blood that we might be cleansed of our willful disobedience. His death was the price of the new heart that YHVH places inside those who act in faith to receive the salvation He offers by grace. Yet even that means nothing if we do not take action to walk out our faith. His Word – all of His Word – is our instruction manual. His Spirit is our Instructor. We are called to be His priests, and thus the protocols of the Levitical Priesthood are important for us to know – not just the outward, surface level procedures, but the deep, inner meanings that tell us how the Holy Spirit operates within our new hearts. As the Apostle Paul explains:
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body. (I Corinthians 6:19-20 NASB)
This is not just an academic exercise. It is perilous to over-spiritualize Paul’s instructions by divorcing them from Torah. The context of his words are in an indictment of our brethren from Corinth who chose to do what was right in their own eyes rather than study and walk out the standards God had explained in His Word. Those standards have not changed. The difference is that the “hot zone” of God’s holy Presence is not contained within a special room of the Temple anymore; it is within the bodies of his people. We are supposed to be changing into His instruments that move within this world and act on His behalf, and that is the purpose of our transformation into living sacrifices entirely consumed by His Presence. If we are diligent to do our part and in humble obedience let Him do His, then creation will at last see the revelation of the sons of God.