There’s an interesting passage in Leviticus 17:1-8 (no, seriously …) about what we could call the “centralization” of the Israelite offering system. (Stick with me on this!) Apparently, the Israelites were offering their sacrifices all by themselves, whenever they felt like it, in the open fields, instead of bringing them to the tabernacle so the priest could offer them to the Lord. God says they must bring them to the priest, or be cut off from the people.
At first blush, this seems a bit nit-picky and controlling to our Western ears. After all, it sounds democratic and “open” to have everyone offering their sacrifices instead of setting up this institutional hierarchy that demands the priest perform the sacrificial rituals. Why all the fuss, Yahweh?
The problem wasn’t that God is fussy about rituals, the problem was that they weren’t really worshiping God at all. They were out there offering sacrifices, but it was to a “Yahweh” of their own definition. They were sacrificing to “goat idols,” just to be safe.
It seems everyone was worshiping their own personal version of God. However you imagine him to be. The centralized tabernacle rites were there to guard the “definition” of God, so to speak, so people didn’t end up worshiping a god of their own making (which is the essence of idolatry).
So it wasn’t so much that God was fussy about doing the sacrifice thing right, it was that his people were being led astray by false definition of who He was. He commands Moses, “They must bring them to the priest, that is, to the Lord, at the entrance to the tent of meeting and sacrifice them as fellowship offerings.” The priest was the one who, through the symbolic actions of sacrifice, spoke the truth about God to the people and guarded them from worshiping idols.
This is precisely one of the ways Jesus is our “high priest” now. He defines God for us. Through his actions and words in the Gospels, we see a true picture of what God is really like. Jesus is the definition of God. He is God’s position paper on everything. He is the one who speaks the truth about God to us and guards us from worshiping a god in our own image.
Like the Israelites, we are tempted to define God in a variety of false ways, based on our background and experiences.
a. We see him as the sadistic police officer, ready to punish and harm at a moment’s notice.
b. We see him as the frustrated parent, constantly exasperated with his children.
c. We see him as the apathetic bureaucrat, bored with humanity.
But these are idols, false gods that block our view of the true and living God.