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Holiness, the Centralization of Sacrifice and the Sanctity of Blood (Leviticus 17)

When God brought Israel out of Egypt, He constituted them as a nation and as His special people. From the beginning of His dealing with the people of Israel, God made it very clear that He was not like the gods of the nations. His terrifying judgments on Egypt showed His indisputable reality and supreme sovereignty over the natural world, the animal creation, men, nations, kings and the so-called gods feared and worshipped by the gentiles. Indeed, the very first lesson He impressed upon Moses when He called to him from the burning bush was that God was holy (Exodus 3:5).

The fundamental idea behind holiness is separation or setting apart. Throughout the Pentateuch, holiness is usually seen when God declares certain things holy—that is, to be separated from other things by special means for special purposes. The Holy Days, for example (see Leviticus 23), are declared to be holy because they are days separated from other days, imbued with special meaning and reserved for special activity defined by God. Similarly, the furnishings of the tabernacle were holy because they were set apart for special God-ordained uses and treatment. The high priest's garments were holy garments (Exodus 28:2) because they were designed especially for him and reserved only for his use during the performance of the duties of his office. The anointing oil was also holy (Exodus 30:22ff) because it was set apart for special purposes and no other oil could be made like it (verses 31-33). Likewise the incense made to burn on the altar of incense was holy and the mixture was not to be duplicated for common use. "Whoever makes any like it, to smell it, he shall be cut off from his people" (verses 37-38).

Because God is holy—utterly unique, separate from all else—His people must be holy and He must be approached in a holy way. Moreover, because He was in the midst of the camp of Israel (Numbers 5:3), the camp must also be holy. God gives special instructions here concerning sacrifice to ensure that the sacrificing is done in a certain place; Israel is not to sacrifice throughout the camp, but only at the tabernacle. Any man who makes a sacrifice must do so at the door of the tabernacle; anyone who does otherwise will be executed.

Why so strict? Why so severe a penalty? God gives one reason in verse 7—namely, to prevent Israel from ignorantly falling into idolatry. Carnal man's natural inclination is to syncretize—to innovate in religion, combining pagan elements with true religion—and to fall headlong into perverse, unholy idolatry. Israel, following bondage in pagan Egypt for more than 200 years, was prone to idolatry. Remember the golden calf? To deter idolatry, a sufficiently severe penalty was required. And, to greatly reduce the natural tendency to syncretism, God enacted a centralization of sacrifice. Here, too, is seen a principle that runs through much of Scripture: There is safety, security, stability and unity in having a degree of centralization. In the Church of God today, the lesson does not imply rigid control of outlying areas—nor that all aspects of God's work must be carried out from a single location. That is neither required nor practical. Rather, we should understand the need to be one of general administration, guidance and direction from a centralized authority, such as a governing ministerial council.

Furthermore, this chapter clearly continues the developing theme of holiness. That ritual holiness is in view is seen by the fact that 1) the instructions in this chapter are specifically directed to Aaron and his sons as priests, and then to all Israel; 2) that the instructions are given with regard to sacrifice; and 3) that the last two verses of the chapter are clearly regulations for ritual purity.

God gave Israel strict instruction regarding blood—He categorically forbids its consumption. Today, some try to justify the prohibition against consumption of blood by referring to the many health dangers involved in eating blood. For example, blood corrupts very quickly, and thus disease can be avoided by not ingesting it. Similarly, modern science has proven conclusively that many viral diseases are carried in the blood and consumption of blood can transfer those diseases to the one who eats. But this is not the reason God gives for the prohibition. God declares that the life of an animal is in its blood (verses 11, 14). And this is scientifically accurate since oxygen in the inhaled "breath of life" is carried to each cell of the body by the bloodstream. When blood is shed, life is "poured out," so to speak. This being the case, God reserves blood for a special purpose—namely, making atonement for sin upon the altar, the giving of life for another. These, then, are the specific reasons God mentions for prohibiting the consumption of blood.

This is not to say there are no health benefits from avoiding the ingestion of blood—there are. And God may have had this in mind as well. (Although it is also possible that eating blood is harmful because God has made it so as a penalty for those who would disobey Him in this way.) From this we may learn an important lesson: God's laws often have multiple effects, even beyond what is stated in the giving of the law. As mentioned in the highlights on leprosy, the ancient Israelites were in no position to scientifically determine that blood carries bacterial and viral diseases—the technology necessary to do that was thousands of years away. Nevertheless, those who respected God and His commands unknowingly accrued the blessing of good health by avoiding blood consumption, while also learning the spiritual lessons of the use of blood in sacrifice. Truly, God is a most marvelous and merciful lawgiver.

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