This is the fourth in a five-part series about things in the Bible that we tend to skip over, but which nevertheless merit our attention and can bless us if we read them with openness and faith. This series comes to us from Brian Sigmon, editor of United Methodist resources at the United Methodist Publishing House.
Part 4: Rituals
The book of Leviticus begins with 7 chapters that describe the proper way to perform sacrifices of various types for different occasions. If you’ve ever attempted to read the Bible in a year or with some other practice where you start in Genesis and then read straight through, chances are you have run into trouble at Leviticus. These rituals can be tiresome to read, and you very likely had to dedicate yourself to your daily practice of Bible reading in order to get through them. And, of course, descriptions of rituals aren’t confined just to Leviticus. They show up in other places in the Bible too. But apart from giving us an opportunity to exercise our spiritual gifts of perseverance, what else can these biblical texts show us? How can we read them in such a way that they enrich our spiritual lives?
It’s important to remember that in the case of Leviticus, at least, these rituals come from the priestly tradition (designated P by biblical scholars). Israel’s priests were responsible for performing the sacrifices that the Israelites brought, ensuring that they were done in the proper way with the observance of everything that had been prescribed. Much of Leviticus reads like a handbook for priests, by priests because that’s part of what it was used for!
These rituals, and the priests who served as their practitioners and stewards, were a central part of the religion of ancient Israel. Sacrifices and other rituals enabled the Israelites to connect with God in various ways: to express gratitude, to atone for wrongdoing, to make a request, to dedicate oneself to God, or to make a vow, among other things. Israel’s religious rituals took the stuff of daily life—animals, grains, wine, oil, water—and made them holy, an occasion to encounter God. When we read the descriptions of these rituals, they can communicate to us something about how the Bible envisions the relationship between everyday life—what we might call the secular or the profane—and that which is holy or sacred.
The detailed instructions governing these and other rituals show us the importance the biblical writers placed on getting the rituals just right. It mattered to them that certain actions be performed in a specific order, at a specific location, with a specific purpose in mind. When I read these texts, they remind me to think about my own experiences of worship. Do I approach worship with the same focus and purposefulness I see in these passages? Does it matter to me that I get the patterns of the liturgy just right as I participate in worship? Does it matter to the ones leading the service? What is lost if they or I leave out a step or mess something up? I fear that many churches in the Protestant tradition take too casual an approach to worship. These descriptions of the rituals in the Bible remind me that the biblical writers held worship in a higher esteem. It makes me appreciate the value of worship that much more.
This appreciation is strengthened when I remember that these ancient rituals are not wholly disconnected from the worship we participate in today, which includes songs, Scripture reading, prayers, sermons, and sacraments of baptism and communion. When we celebrate communion, for instance, we say that the cup of wine is the blood of Christ. That evokes the blood of the sacrifices described in Leviticus and elsewhere, and we are reminded in some subtle way that Jesus is the lamb that was slain, the high priest who offered himself instead of the blood of sheep and goats. When we lay hands on someone to pray for them or to dedicate them for a specific task, that action recalls the ancient Israelite who laid his hands upon the sacrificial animal, dedicating it to God. If we recognize the connection, we will be reminded that this action of laying on hands sets something apart for God or entrusts it to God’s care. When we collect the offering during worship, we are reminded of the sacrifices of the Israelites who brought their first fruits to God. Just as they did, we also give back to God a portion of what we have received in gratitude, acknowledging that he has given it to us.
Reading the descriptions of rituals in this way—keeping in mind the deep connection between our Christian practices today and the ancient rituals they grew from—can help us better appreciate the rituals in the Bible and give us a richer experience of worship. The next time you find yourself reading the first several chapters of Leviticus, you might do so while keeping in mind communion or baptism. See if that changes the experience for you. I have found that it often works for me.
Brian O. Sigmon is editor of United Methodist resources at The United Methodist Publishing House, where he edits books, Bible studies, and official UM resources. In this role he is the editor of the Daily Christian Advocate and managing editor of the Book of Discipline and Book of Resolutions. Brian has a Ph.D. in Old Testament from Marquette University, where he has also taught courses in theology. Brian’s research and teaching have focused on the Pentateuch, especially the books of Genesis and Exodus, but he has a passion for anything and everything related to the Bible. Brian finds great joy in helping people of all backgrounds deepen their understanding of Scripture.