Israel’s Sacrificial System (Leviticus 1-10)
The book of Leviticus opens with regulations for Israel’s sacrificial system, conveyed from two perspectives. The first perspective is that of the laypersons who bring the sacrifice and participate in its offering (chapters 1-5). The second perspective is that of the priests who officiate (chapters 6-7). After this, we learn how the priests were ordained and began their ministry at the tabernacle (chapters 8-9), followed by further regulations for the priests in light of how God put the priests Nadab and Abihu to death for violating God’s command about their ritual responsibilities (chapter 10). We should not assume that this material is empty liturgy irrelevant to the world of modern work. Instead, we must look through the way the people of Israel coped with their problems in order to explore how we, as people in Christ, may cope with ours—including the challenges we face in business and work.
The purpose of sacrifice was not merely to remedy occasional lapses of purity. The Hebrew verb for “offering” a sacrifice means literally to “bring (it) near.” Bringing a sacrifice near to the sanctuary brought the worshipper near to God. The worshipper’s individual degree of misbehavior was not the main issue. The pollution caused by impurity is the consequence of the entire community, comprised of the relative few who have committed either brazen or inadvertent sins together with the silent majority that has allowed the wicked to flourish in their midst. The people as a whole bear collective responsibility for corrupting society and thus giving God legitimate reason to depart his sanctuary, an event tantamount to destruction of the nation. Drawing near to God is still the aim of those who call Jesus "Emmanuel" (“God with us”). The dwelling of God with his people is a serious matter indeed.
Christians in their workplaces should look beyond finding godly tips for finding whatever the world defines as “success.” Being aware that God is holy and that he desires to dwell at the center of our lives changes our orientation from success to holiness, whatever work God has called us to do. This does not mean doing religious activities at work, but doing all our work as God would have us do it. Work is not primarily a way to enjoy the fruit of our labor, but a way to experience God’s presence. Just as Israel’s sacrifices were a “pleasing odor” to the Lord (Lev. 1:9 and sixteen other instances), Paul called Christians to “lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him” (Col. 1:10), “for we are the aroma of Christ to God” (2 Cor. 2:15).
What might result if we walked through our workplaces and asked the fundamental question, “How could this be a place for God’s holy presence?” Does our workplace encourage people to express the best of what God has given them? Is it a place characterized by the fair treatment of all? Does it protect workers from harm? Does it produce goods and services that help the community to thrive more fully?
Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics, A Continental Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 15.
Leviticus brings together the perspectives of two groups who were often at odds against each other—the priests and the people. Its purpose is to bring the whole people of God together, without regard to distinctions of status. In today’s workplace, how are Christians to handle offenses between people regardless of their wealth or position in the company? Do we tolerate abuses of power when the result seems expedient to our careers? Do we participate in judging co-workers by gossip and innuendo, or do we insist on airing grievances through unbiased systems? Do we pay attention to the harm that bullying and favoritism do at work? Do we promote a positive culture, foster diversity, and build a healthy organization? Do we enable open and trustworthy communication, minimize backdoor politicking, and strive for top performance? Do we create an atmosphere where ideas are surfaced and explored, and the best ones put into action? Do we focus on sustainable growth?
The Bottom Line: Friend or Foe?
Gunter was reeling. The board of Mastech had brought him in as CEO to move the company forward. He had been selected not only because of his proven business skills, but because he cared about people.
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Israel’s sacrificial system addressed not only the religious needs of the people, but their psychological and emotional ones as well, thus embracing the whole person and the whole community. Christians understand that businesses have aims that are not usually religious in nature. Yet we also know that people are not equivalent to what they do or produce. This does not reduce our commitment to work at being productive, but it reminds us that because God has embraced us with his forgiveness, we have even more reason than others to be considerate, fair, and gracious to all (Luke 7:47; Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13).
Each offering in Israel’s sacrificial system has its place, but there is a special feature of the guilt offering (also known as the reparation offering) that makes it particularly relevant to the world of work. The guilt offering of Leviticus is the seed of the biblical doctrine of repentance. (Numbers 5:5-10 is directly parallel.) According to Leviticus, God required offerings whenever a person deceived another with regard to a deposit or a pledge, committed robbery or fraud, lied about lost property that had been found, or swore falsely about a matter (Lev. 6:2-3). It was not a fine imposed by a court of law, but a reparation offered by perpetrators who got away with the offense, but who then felt guilty later when they came to “realize” their guilt (Lev. 6:4-5). Repentance by the sinner, not prosecution by the authorities, is the basis of the guilt offering.
Often such sins would have been committed in the context of commerce or other work. The guilt offering calls for the remorseful sinner to return what was wrongfully taken plus 20 percent (Lev. 6:4-5). Only after settling the matter on a human level may the sinner receive forgiveness from God by presenting an animal to the priest for sacrifice (Lev. 6:6-7).
The guilt offering uniquely emphasizes several principles about healing personal relationships that have been damaged by financial abuse.
1. Mere apology is not enough to right the wrong, and neither is full restoration for what was taken. In addition, something akin to today’s concept of punitive damages was added. But with guilt offerings—unlike court-ordered punitive damages—offenders willingly take on a share of the harm themselves, thereby sharing in the distress they caused the victim.
2. Doing all that is required to right a wrong against another person is not only fair for the offended, but it is also good for the offender. The guilt offering recognizes the torment that seizes the conscience of those who become aware of their crime and its damaging effects. It then provides a way for the guilty to deal more fully with the matter, bringing a measure of closure and peace. This offering expresses God’s mercy in that the pain and hurt is neutralized so as not to fester and erupt into violence or more serious offenses. It also extinguishes the need for the victim (or the victim’s family) to take matters into their own hands to exact restitution.
3. Nothing in Jesus’ atoning work on the cross releases the people of God today from the need for making restitution. Jesus taught his disciples, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Matt. 5:23-24). Loving our neighbors as ourselves lies at the heart of the law’s requirements (Lev. 19:18 as quoted in Rom. 13:9), and making restitution is an essential expression of any genuine kind of love. Jesus granted salvation to the rich tax collector Zacchaeus who offered more restitution than the law required, lifting him up as an example of those who truly understood forgiveness (Luke 19:1-10).
4. Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:23-24 also teach us that doing everything in our power to reconcile with people is an essential aspect of getting things right with God and living in peace wherever possible. Receiving forgiveness from God goes beyond, but does not replace, our making restitution, where possible, to those whom we have harmed. In response to God’s forgiveness of us, our hearts are moved to do everything we can to reverse the harm we have caused to others. Seldom will we have the ability to fully undo the damage our sin has caused, yet the love of Christ impels us to do as much as we are able.
The guilt offering is a potent reminder that God does not exercise his right of forgiveness at the expense of people harmed by our misdeeds. He does not offer us psychological release from our guilt as a cheap substitute for making right the damage and hurt we have caused.
Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 345.