Bridging the Gaping Chasm
Isaiah wrote, “Your iniquities have separated you from your God” (59:2); and God showed Israel that only blood can bridge the gap.
What an experience it must have been. For 400 years, the Israelites lived in Egypt, a land whose gods were as numerous as the elements of the natural world. Then they witnessed a miracle: their deliverance from Pharaoh and his armies by the hand of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Maker of heaven and Earth.
Encamped at the base of Mount Sinai, the Israelites learned just how different their God was from the gods of other nations.
Moses communicated God’s message to Israel: In three days, the Lord would meet with the Israelites in a special way that required them to be a consecrated, holy people. In addition to washing their clothing, the people were ordered not to ascend the mountain or even touch it because God’s presence soon would dwell there.
On the morning of the third day, they witnessed a spectacle they would never forget. With lightning, thunder, and a trumpet blast, the fiery presence of the omnipotent God descended on Sinai, shaking the earth beneath their feet. They stood in awe before the Creator of the universe.
This encounter set the tone for Israel’s relationship with its God. He was “merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Ex. 34:6–7). But He also was not to be trifled with or approached in a casual, come-as-you-are manner. This was almighty God, the Holy One of Israel.
Though not distant or removed from the affairs and troubles of His people, God made it clear the Israelites were sinful; and their sin separated them—physically and spiritually—from Him.
The Torah, or Law, that God gave at Sinai was meant to keep Israel separate from the nations by holding it to a high standard of holiness. It also revealed the sinfulness of the human heart. As the apostle Paul wrote later, “I would not have known sin except through the law” (Rom. 7:7).
So, what are some of the laws that revealed to God’s Chosen People their sin?
First, God commanded Israel concerning physical relationships with others. In Leviticus 18, He forbade (among other things) sexual contact with blood relatives (vv. 6–16), a neighbor’s wife (v. 20), and members of the same sex (v. 22).
He made a point of explaining that such sins separate man from a holy God. Repeatedly throughout the Torah, including six times in Leviticus 18 alone, God tied His commands to the fact that He is YHVH (Hebrew, Yehovah [Jehovah]). As Israel’s holy Maker, He would not permit the people called by His name to defile it.
In fact, God told His people He cast out the Canaanites, who occupied the land prior to Israel, for the very sins He was warning them against (v. 27); and He promised to do the same to them if they engaged in such practices (vv. 26–29). So, if they disobeyed Him, the sin that separated Israel spiritually from God would also separate them physically from the land He gave to them.
God also forbade Israel to become involved in the occult. He graciously revealed Himself to His people and showed them that He is the only true and living God, the only one worthy of worship.
Still, He knew the occult was so firmly baked into Canaanite worship that it would tempt Israel (cf. 1 Sam. 28:3–25). So, He warned the nation, “The person who turns to mediums and familiar spirits, to prostitute himself with them, I will set My face against that person and cut him off from his people” (Lev. 20:6). Worshiping other gods, whether by sacrificing one’s children to Molech or by consulting demons, was a defiling, deadly sin.
God told the Israelites to shun these evil practices and devote themselves to following Him (v. 7). Again, the Lord’s reason was inextricably tied to His character: “I am the LORD [YHVH] your God. . . . I am the LORD who sanctifies you” (vv. 7–8).
That the same nation that witnessed God’s miraculous deliverance from Egypt, His provisions in the wilderness, and His revelation at Sinai would exchange its worship of YHVH for the worship of spirits clearly evidenced their sinful hearts.
While many of God’s laws are given in a hypothetical sense—“If a man does X, then you shall do Y to him”—Scripture provides a real-time example of the law against blasphemy.
A young man, whose mother was an Israelite, fought with another man. During the fight, the young man “blasphemed the name of the LORD and cursed” (24:11). After taking the young man into custody, Moses sought God’s will on the matter; and God was not ambiguous: “Take outside the camp him who has cursed; then let all who heard him lay their hands on his head, and let all the congregation stone him” (v. 14).
In today’s America, such a response to sin seems radical. But God wanted His people to understand that profaning His holy name demanded death. It was the ultimate deterrent.
Though there are hundreds of examples of how the Mosaic Law demonstrates man’s sinfulness and God’s holiness, none are as vivid as the blood offerings.
Although each offering category had requirements for the types of animals to be sacrificed, the concept remained fundamentally the same: Blood had to be shed to obtain fellowship with God.
In fact, God told the Israelites that they, as well as Gentiles who journeyed with them, were forbidden from consuming blood: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul” (17:11).
Though it could not make the sinner righteous (Heb. 10:1), the sacrificial system provided a temporary covering for sin. Nearly every blood sacrifice required the individual who offered the sacrifice to place his hand on the animal’s head before the animal was slain. This action identified the sinner with the animal and forced the sinner to recognize that the animal was a substitute for him. It should have embedded in the Israelite psyche the concept of substitutionary atonement.
Once a year, on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), Israel’s high priest entered the holy of holies to make atonement for the sins of the entire nation “because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions, for all their sins” (Lev. 16:16). As Bible teacher Bruce Scott noted, “It was the once-a-year, awe-inspiring zero hour for an impure nation, a nation that was required to stand clean before its holy God.”1
The procedures were extremely bloody. First, the high priest had to make atonement for himself and his household by sacrificing a bull (vv. 11–14). Since the Tabernacle and later the Temple stood in the midst of a sinful people, he also made atonement for the holy of holies and the altar of burnt offerings (vv. 16–19).
Then, he slaughtered one of two goats as a sin offering for the people and sprinkled the blood on the mercy seat and in front of it (v. 15). The other goat—the scapegoat—was sent into the wilderness after the high priest laid his hands on its head and confessed the nation’s sins (vv. 20–22). Though it wasn’t slaughtered, it no doubt died in the wilderness.
Then the high priest bathed, changed into his high-priestly garments, and presented one burnt offering for himself and one for the nation (v. 24).
This was a vivid, multisensory demonstration to the Jewish people of how seriously God took both His holiness and their sin. It clearly showed that, though they were God’s Chosen People, their sin gaped like a chasm between Him and them. Only blood sacrifice made peace and fellowship with God possible.
Remember the Cost
Though sacrifices brought forgiveness and temporarily covered sin, they could never change anyone’s sinful heart.
The prophet Jeremiah lamented man’s innate sinfulness when he wrote, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9).
Yet the access believers in Jesus have today to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is extraordinary. That is because the Messiah fulfilled the Law, breaking down the insurmountable barrier between man and God. His blood sacrifice on our behalf purchased our atonement; and now, through faith, we can boldly approach His throne of grace (Heb. 4:16). What a miracle, in the truest sense.
Only a holy and merciful God could construct such an arrangement; and He did so by dying as a substitute for the very people who sinned against Him, while they were yet in their sinful state (Rom. 5:8). What love is this!
As believers in Messiah Jesus, we should cherish such truth. We should humble ourselves and praise the one “who knew no sin, [but became] sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). Surely it behooves us to remember how heinous our sin is and how costly a price He paid to redeem us.
- Bruce Scott, The Feasts of Israel (Bellmawr, NJ: The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, 2003), 88.
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