Whenever I am encouraging people to read the Bible, I warn them about the book of Leviticus, hoping to help them avoid bogging down there. Leviticus is filled with rules and regulations and descriptions of what to do in a variety of life situations the early readers will face at some point. While I warn people that it can be slow going, secretly, I like the book of Leviticus, partly because it teaches me to be grateful that I am a Baptist pastor and not a Jewish priest in the days the book was written.
A good deal of the book of Leviticus focuses on worship and how it is done and what the priests and assistants must do and what they must not do. Worship in the book of Leviticus is serious business as two sons of Aaron find out in Leviticus 10–they don’t follow the rules and end up dead–Leviticus isn’t particularly concerned about seeker-sensitive worship.
Worship in Leviticus is concerned about sacrifices, deportment, and the right attitude on the part of the worshippers. Real worship in Leviticus is expensive because no worshipper approaches God without a perfect sacrificial animal; it is scary because of the ever present sense of danger of getting something wrong; it is totally focused on pleasing God.
Worship, according to the Leviticus rules, would have been far different from our worship today. There would have been lots of noise–not inspirational worship music but trumpet sounds, drums and so on, mingled with the bleats and noises of panicky animals about to be sacrificed. There would have been serious smells–animal smells, the smell of spilling blood, the smell of burning flesh, all mingled with the smell of incense valiantly trying but failing to completely mask the other stronger smells.
Worship had no participant seats. There were prescribed places for the various leaders and helpers as well as clear warnings about which people could go where but basically, worshippers milled around, following the action around their particular sacrificial animal and hoping they were outside the danger zone should the presiding priest make mistake.
My suspicion is that when worship leaders and worshippers left a worship service the predominant feeling was relief that they had got it right and were still alive after the worship. Their shouts of “Praise God” and “Hallelujah” came from deep in their being as they realized that they had stood in the presence of God and solely by his grace, managed to survive.
I very much doubt that a worshipper leaving a service at that time would be heard to mutter, “I didn’t get a thing out of that service”–survival was the sign of good worship, not feeling good.
Now, I am not advocating a return to Levitical worship. As a worship leader, I would be in serious trouble. I regularly forget elements of the worship, including that most sacred of sacred elements, the offering. I get confused and lose my place in my notes and sometimes do the wrong prayer at the wrong time–fortunately, I think fast on my feet and can re-direct the prayer once I realize I am doing the wrong one. But based on my track record, I would have joined Nadab and Abihu from Leviticus 10 a long time ago.
While I enjoy reading Leviticus, I don’t want to be a Levitical priest nor do I want to turn worship into a potentially lethal activity. But Leviticus does, I think, help us by providing a strong and powerful contrast to the kind of worship that is so common today. Leviticus shows us a worship that is centered on the Divine and requires the worshipper to step outside themselves and their feelings to encounter the fullness of God and his presence. Leviticus worship wants people to know the fullness of God and have their lives shaped and formed and guided by the serious power and wonder of God.
Worship in Leviticus focuses on God–any effects on the worshipper are by-products and are not the focus of worship. The writer of Leviticus doesn’t really care what the worshipper feels as long as he or she leaves with the awareness that they have touched the presence of God and seen something of his glory and power and submitted themselves to the God of all creation.
So, how do we worship in a way that focuses on God without being a potentially fatal activity? We will look at that in the next post.
May the peace of God be with you.