When a reader encounters the Bible, it is imposing at best. It is long. It was written in a culture that is not our own and it often uses language that can be difficult to understand. Language is the medium of communication, whether spoken or written. We have to have it for thoughts to be transmitted from one person to another. But what if the language that is used is language from God, special language written over a period of 1,500 years, through the pens of almost 40 human writers?
One Divine Author….
I have read the Bible on a purely emotional level, trying to piece together the information, sometimes the stories, imagining characters and what they are doing. I have seldom read the Bible on a deeper level, looking for symbols and patterns.
J.I. Packer says the Bible can be read in a deeper more meaningful way. When a reader can step back from The Bible and see symbols and patterns, God begins to emerge in The Word.
This post will focus on one very symbolic word that is a key to understanding God’s intentions. That word is blood. Even outside of a Biblical context, blood is rife with meaning. Blood is a body fluid that delivers necessary substances such as nutrients and oxygen. It literally is life giving. Blood has a bright red color and it is easily seen on most surfaces. When we see it coming from our body or someone else’s, many people are prone to faint or react with alarm.
I am reading Leviticus right now and I am struck by the focus on blood; for the Israelites, it is a special life-force element. Blood must be shed by sacrificial animals to atone for man’s sins. It says in Leviticus 17: 11 “For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes that atonement.” God is deadly serious about animals shedding their sacrificial blood on the altar but God is also deadly serious about the Jewish people not taking animals’ blood in their bodies. “If any Israelite or any foreigner living in the community eats meat with blood still in it, the Lord will turn against him and no longer consider him one of His people….Blood which is life, takes away sins. That is why the Lord has told the people of Israel that neither they nor any foreigner living among them shall eat any meat with blood still in it [Leviticus 17: 10 and 12].
So in the Old Testament context, blood is a word associated with a violent death of a sacrificial animal. Packer explains in his book Knowing God the idea of representative substitution. My wife has a huge heart for animals [like many in our western world]. She has always had a problem with an innocent animal taking the place of a guilty human but that was what God demanded of man. The animal was often not only innocent but as perfect as it could be. The sinner would lay hands on the animal’s head and “it was killed as a substitute for the offerer, the blood being sprinkled ‘before the Lord’ and applied to one or both of the altars in the sanctuary” [Packer, 187]. See Leviticus 4:4, 24, 29, 33 and Leviticus 4: 6-7, 17-18, 25, 30 for specifics. This was God’s way of restoring fellowship with man and man’s way of atoning for sin. The animal was man’s expiation.
As I read Leviticus the other day, Aaron finished his ritual to purify the Holy Place and put both hands on the head of a perfect goat. He confessed over that goat all the evils, sins and rebellions of the people of Israel. The translation* I am reading says those evils, sins and rebellions “transfer…to the goat’s head. Then the goat is to be driven off into the desert by a man appointed to do it. The goat will carry all their sins away with him into some uninhabited land” [Leviticus 16: 20-22]. Another perfect goat was killed in the ordinary way, at the entrance of the Tent, with blood thrown against the sides of the altar. After reading of ordinary procedures, this extraordinary instance of the “scapegoat” seemed important, symbolic if you will. The goat sent away was sacrificed by losing its life due to unseen harm, Packer refers to this as expiation for “sins borne away out of sight, never to trouble our relationship with God again.”
I see this event in Leviticus as a transition to the most significant act of sacrifice in the New Testament, the death of Jesus Christ for mans’ sins. Jesus was the representative substitution for man in the New Testament, the scapegoat if you will. Packer cites the Apostle Paul who tells us that Jesus’s blood is what quenched the wrath of God toward man. “What redeemed us from death was not Jesus’ life or teaching, not His moral perfection nor His fidelity to the Father, but the shedding of His blood….the innocent taking the place of the guilty, in the name and for the sake of the guilty, under the axe of God’s retribution.” In Galatians, it says “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law…by becoming a curse for us.” Second Corinthians says “God made Him who had no sin to be the sin for us.” As I have been reading Leviticus, I have also been reading Mark where Jesus said the symbolic words “He took the cup and gave thanks to God and handed it to them; and they all drank from it. Jesus said ‘this is my blood which is poured out for many, my blood which seals God’s covenant” [Mark 14: 22-24].
Often, Bible readers succumb to the temptation to give up on reading God’s word. This Book is too long and I can’t finish it quickly and it just demands too much of my attention. Why are these ancient people doing what they are doing? These rituals and this lifestyle are so foreign to me. The language can be tough; words which we don’t use anymore are used and that can be confusing. I would comment that these are all valid excuses to stop reading the Bible, but there are very good reasons to stick with it. Evangelist and publisher D. L. Moody says the “Scriptures were not given to increase our knowledge but to change our lives.” Pastor Skip Heitzig writes “God has taken our frailties into consideration and has given us His Word in such a way that our minds can understand its truths and our souls can be nourished by it. God wants us to read the Bible….It is a means of getting to know Him.”**
He loves us. He wants us to know Him. He wants to know us so badly that He sent His son to be sacrificed for our sins. Yes, Jesus’ blood was shed for us, the first goat and the second: the first blood was obvious but the second goat’s blood was not, but as it suffered out of sight, those sins were taken away never to trouble our relationship with God again.
*The Good News Bible
**How to Study the Bible and Enjoy It