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A bloody holiness

The Bible’s sacrifices make sense if we consider the gap between the human and the divine


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AT A BOOK CONFERENCE years ago, I found myself within hearing of the kind of conversation Christian evangelists dream of. To my right at dinner sat an older gentleman, the headmaster of a local Episcopal school. Across the table, an author whose star was rising in the young-adult book world. While doubtless enjoying the adulation, this young man didn’t let it go to his head. He was outgoing and generous in his praise of others, and his dinner companion was likewise gregarious and kind. I had been listening to another conversation when I switched on to theirs: an animated critique of the bloodiness and torture inherent in Christianity.

My ears tingled; my heart beat faster—should I barge in? How do I put this? What do I say?

The moment passed without me saying anything, which I will always regret.

I remembered that conversation while reading Leviticus, with its detailed instructions for various bloody offerings. Blood sacrifice was common in the ancient world, but those prescribed by God’s law were different in two ways. For one, they worked. Again and again, God reassured His people that their sins would be forgiven and their guilt removed by substituting an innocent sin-bearer.

For the other, they underscored holiness. In every detail, from the outfitting of the priest to the disposal of ashes, all was holy. So was ordinary life, governed by laws that make our eyes glaze over when trying to read straight through. What the people ate and how they ate it, the clothing they wore and the houses they lived in, all were to be sanctified and set apart. Distinctions between clean and unclean were to control daily interactions, whether handling corpses, dealing with bodily discharges, or burying their waste.

But the Tabernacle, “which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleanness” (Leviticus 16:16), represented a sharp contrast between the people and their God. On the very day of its dedication the oldest sons of Aaron were apparently drunk when they offered the strange fire that consumed them (Leviticus 10:8). Some of the Levites who earned their place in Tabernacle service by slaughtering calf-worshippers (Exodus 32:29) were later buried alive when they challenged Moses’ authority. Could such a complaining, vacillating crowd ever conform to God’s standard of holiness?

That was the point. They never could. They never did. Neither do vacillators and complainers like us.

But reading Leviticus alongside Matthew this year struck me with how unexpected Jesus was. The Holy One of God appeared to overturn God’s laws of holiness: He touched corpses and lepers, He invited the blind and lame into Temple courtyards and called the most scrupulous law-keepers blind guides and whitewashed tombs. He was dragged outside the camp like a miscreant and hanged on a tree like a curse. He never sinned but became sin.

How to explain this in a pop-up dinner conversation? The ancients, even the pagans, had a better grasp of holiness than moderns do. They understood the gap between human and divine, and that blood was the holiest thing they could offer—their own, or a substitute’s.

Jesus came to fulfill the law and bridge that gap, but how to explain His breaking so many Levitical rules? I’m struggling to come up with the right word. Not overturning holiness, surely—holiness is a constant.

But might He have invaded it, penetrated it as a man, in order to open it up to all? The torn curtain in the Temple had its parallel in heaven, when Jesus entered the throne room of God bearing His own blood (Hebrews 9:23-28). I like to picture this literally: the great doors thrown open and a radiant Christ entering to the joyful shouts of angels, His bloody footprints marking a path. The same feet that stumbled outside the camp, dragging a cross, now lead upward to glory.

I can’t rewind to that long-ago conversation; His steps lead forward, not back. I can only follow, with renewed love and awe.


Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.

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