Numbers 15

Huh? What happened to the narrative?

At a dramatic point where the Israelites have openly referred the whole adventure, we turn to sacrificial rules.

It’s like teaching a child: you’ve fallen off the bike, let’s go back to the start…

The types of sacrifice described are of increasing seriousness. The first are the joyful celebrations, the overflow of gratitude for God’s blessing. 

Then the unintended sins, thoughtlessness, misguided behaviours.

Then presumptuous sin. Flagrant flouting of God’s law. This is punishable by being cut off. It’s followed, shockingly by the story of a stoning of someone who refuses to follow the Sabbath.

Then physical reminders, tassles on garments are to call to mind the law of the lord.

It’s a strange arrangement, I don’t fully get the content or purpose here. But we have a good who is riding his rebellious people there is a way back from the brink. They don’t want the destruction of open rebellion. They can remember, be blessed and restore their relationship with him again.

Leviticus 27

Redeeming vows.  This whole chapter deals with vows made to God.

So if I got cancer and prayed to God “heal me, and I’ll dedicate the rest of my life to serving you”, and then I was healed, but I didn’t want to actually quit my job and go into full time christian ministry, I could make a prescribed payment to the temple for the value of my life and the vow would be regarded as kept in God’s eyes.

The value calculation is functionally discriminatory, though its pragmatically reflecting a societal fact: the elderly and women have lower economic value to an agrarian society than a fit young male, so are worth less. There is also the gracious provision for financial hardship that runs through all of Leviticus.

This was pretty useful because in ancient Israel, the priesthood was not open to anyone not in the Levite tribe, and people often made vows.

Ditto if you ended up needing an animal that was dedicated to sacrifice, you paid the value of it plus 20% to the temple, and you kept the animal but were right with God.

Ditto promises of land, houses, etc.

They make it quite clear you can’t redeem what is God’s anyway: he owns the harvest tithes and the firstborn livestock. This is totally about voluntary additional tithes

These vows were very common in their culture – we are far more circumspect in my culture, though the passion and emotion these vows demonstrate in their relationship with God is confronting to my own relative coolness. And, we do often do we hear “over my dead body”! and similar things.  I don’t know how many hats I am now due to eat.  Its so accepted that our vows are meaningless they have just become just colourful figures of speech.

Its using economic sanctions to teach the people to be careful with their speech. Don’t promise bigger than you can deliver. Words matter.

Its also a nice element of practical non-perfectionism to end the book on.  Its been all about God’s absolute inflexible standards.  Here, there is a recognition of the ups and downs of passion and regret that humans experience.  The old testament even often talks about God’s vows this way, like people can have him reconsider after he has burned with anger. Noah and Jonah bargain with God over his vows.  Prayer is like this.

Its setting the stage for the big redemption of course. There is a way out.  A debt owed to God can’t just be forgotten, but it can be paid for by another.

Leviticus 26

This chapter talks about the consequences of the Israelites’ behaviour.  The blessings that will come if they are obedient, and the progressively worse disasters that will befall them if they are not. Its pretty much the story of the next 10 or so books of the bible.

I like that the blessings are instant, and repentance is always within reach, but the curses come as a series of ever more serious consequences… slow to anger and quick to bless.

I still practically subscribe to this punishment and reward model in quite a literal way.  Its probably superstitious, theological balderdash.

If I feel guilty about something I have done and have a setback, I think its God punishing me.  I don’t think so much good things are a reward though.  I get that more the other way around: I try do the right thing because I have been blessed. And when they happen unfairly, I say “why god why”.  So every outcome is covered by my spiritualising.  Is such a simple cause and effect real?  Is god real?  If the second question’s answer is “yes”, why not the first, eh?

Anyway from this prediction the sadness and glory of the Old Testament flows.  They will have high highs of gods revelation and blessing, and low lows of his suffering for their ignorance of him.

They will take the promised land, make it great, watch it get corrupted, be thrown out of it and return. They are the chosen race – chosen to exemplify god’s character, and to provide the ancestry for god in human form.  As an earthly imprint of the heavenly pattern they were always an imperfect copy, but the messiah did come through the line.

 

Leviticus 16

The ritual of the day of atonement where the scapegoat carries away the sins of the people. Its not quite clear if Azazel, which is named owner of the goat is a fallen angel or a name for oblivion.  Either way, the sins are gone and Marvel got a great supervillan name.

I don’t know why having sacrificed animals all year, the Israelites would also need a day of atonement, but God knows we love festivals and annual rhythms… may be one reason. I do relate to this one emotionally better than the sacrifices on the altar, which seem a bit pagan and ghastly to my modern sensibility.

Other ancient religions had similar rituals at the time, and its an example of God adopting a tangible event to symbolise an intangible spiritual message, which is sort of the theme of this whole book not to mention the messiah.  The Greeks had a somewhat meaner version where they would pick on a beggar or disabled person after a natural disaster and drive them out of the community.

For christians Jesus is the ultimate scapegoat of course. For jewish people the day of atonement carries over as Yom Kippur which is the great nominal Jewish day that everyone who rarely otherwise goes to synagogue attends, like easter for christians. It is a day of abstinence and praying for forgiveness, followed by a festive meal to break the fast.  What, no chocolate eggs?

This gives me a chill because the concept is one of the great foundations of the bible, undeserved grace, punishment on another, running through the whole thing.

And I can’t get Holman Hunt’s odd image out of my mind

1200px-william_holman_hunt_-_the_scapegoat

 

Leviticus 14

More rules about skin diseases, including leprosy and other infections even mould in houses.  Its quite sophisticated to connect mould in dwellings to disease, and the instructions for fixing it make a lot of practical sense.  In england as late as the 1800s, for example, they didn’t have such a clear notion of the connection, I think.

But in this chapter, about the circumstances of disease being declared gone, not diagnosis as in the last chapter, there is more of a religious element.  So we blend practical advice with rules about recognition of god in response to being clean.  Its interesting, getting sick was not seen as a metaphor for exceptional sin, and Jesus repeated that notion in his teaching, but being cured is a metaphor for also being cured of sin.

Jesus’ healing of lepers reaches back to these rules, in fact he sent his healed lepers to the temple to be declared clean, which is a ritual very similar to the ordination of the priests, quite a life changing bond of the person to god, being anointed with oil.

That particular miracle would should have had great power and significance for the priests as evidence of Jesus’ divinity, and arguably the connection was made by god in this chapter just for that moment.

Again, heartening practical exceptions for the poor.  Reading this in the week that D S Trump announced a budget gutting services for the poor, in a world where inequality and poor-blaming seem to be on the rise.

The message of “clean and unclean” is firstly that its not individually blameworthy to be unclean – Jesus would ultimately argue that the reason for the law is to show that we are all equally unclean in God’s sight, not to weed out the failures –  everyone from priest to leper is unclean. There is no favoured group. Secondly, God makes clean. So being unclean is inevitable, like breathing, and cleansing is an act of God’s grace.

 

Leviticus 12

Are you allowed not to like things in the Bible?  I don’t like this chapter about unclean things much, I think it is sexist. I will now proceed to rationalise it a bit, but I still think its sexist and don’t like it much.  It doesn’t lessen my faith in God, but it does lessen or justify lessening the faith of many people. Its one of those awkward passages that people raise to say that christianity is stupid. Which I don’t know what to make of.

So to the lame rationalisation. I don’t think “unclean” is meant to have the connotation “shameful” for one thing, which is natural for it to have.  But if you think about it, if I’ve worked hard in the garden all day and then go out without having a shower, I’m sort of unclean.  Its not sociable to my friends and fellow diners who have to smell me, or who’s clothes get dirty if I pat them on the back, and I feel grotty and sweaty. But the fact that I got that way is not shameful.  It would have been more shameful if I never did the gardening.  I just worked up honest sweat, and I needed a shower.  Likewise I think this is an issue of context rather than shame.

So if a man has an emission or a woman is menstruating, I don’t think its saying those are bad things, its just saying, don’t go to the temple then.  Put it this way, if you didn’t show up and someone said “oh, its your period, how are you” and you said “its not my period”, that would be more of a problem.  So its as much like a “you’re excused”.

Colds are similar, I mean we know that staying away decreases the risk of infection, but even if we didn’t know that, its sometimes just a politeness to spare people your company if you are coughing and snivelling. When I am at work with a cold and my boss says “go home, we don’t want you here” he is not condemning me for having a cold, he’s giving me and everyone else a break.

Similarly I don’t think the bible doesn’t wan’t us to think that the rules for “purification” after childbirth mean that childbirth is shameful or makes you an undesirable outcast.  Its a good reason not to be at church.

I read a passionate commentary from a woman who said she thought it was actually much more enlightened than similar surrounding cultures would have been in respecting women’s excuses for needing a break – thinking of them as real people with needs.

I was less convinced reading her justification than I was when I’ve written this one.  I’m starting to talk myself into it, a bit. But not much.

Sexist views of menstruation include regarding it as a reason for treating women as too emotionally unstable for serious responsibilities, or treating it like it doesn’t exist, or if forced to acknowledge it, finding it disgusting.  This chapter is not directly guilty of the first two, but arguably the last, unless you buy the line that its actually a thoughtful treatment for women, which I really don’t.

In the rest of Leviticus we have a male only priesthood, which is consistent with the first kind of sexism. Arguably since they were in a world where religions with priestesses seemed to be built around a lot of bonking and exploitation of women, it could mean the male only thing was a statement about that. But it would have been more of a statement to build a religion where women simply had a role that wasn’t built around sex.

Anyway, it makes the point that God deserves your sunday best, scrubbed up and groomed.

I’m going to make a new tag for this chapter #leave-it-to-heaven.  For questions that I simply don’t understand – that don’t destroy my faith, but just seem wrong to me, like this.

Regrettably this marks the point at which my bible blog departs from being a perfect insight into the mind of god and all knowledge.  I had hoped when it was complete to be omniscient. Sigh.

 

Leviticus 8

Aaron and his sons go through the ordination offering ritual. The cleansing is elaborate, but the forgives is profound. 

The last time we heard from Aaron was in exodus when he made the gold calf, introducing a false religion and letting the people run amok. He then made a very lame and unconvincing excuse for it all to Moses. Yet he he is, redeemed and Israel’s spiritual leader. 

Leviticus 4

This chapter is about specific events, intentional sins by individuals, the people or priests, and unintentional sins, once they become obvious.

We spend a lot of time a Christians talking down the idea of sin being individual bad things. It’s true that in a state of grace, its wrong to portray our belief as this fear-driven knife edge where every wrong step puts us out of relation with God until it can be put right. 

But our specific bad acts so have consequences, and nothing undermines trust in and effectiveness of the church more than unacknowledged hypocracies and ethical failings, small or large. 

We see a similar pattern in big business, the need to confess, acknowledge “sins” to restore trust with clients. There the motive is profit, but how much more when the motive is our love for God and for each other.

Sins matter from a practical point of view now more than a cosmic point of view. Our assurance of forgiveness, Jesus once and for all sacrifice, means we don’t have to spend time fretting over each sin. But we should be fearless in acknowledging and mopping up the consequences of our failures.

Exodus 34

Moses smashed the stone tablets with the law on them back in chapter 32 when he came upon the people apostate. So now he and God do it all again.

The smashed law was the sign of god’s abandonment of them, now Moses take new blank tablets he made himself for God to write on. First was all God, this includes Moses’ participation.

So god makes his promise again and shows his love and compassion to precious, faithful Moses. After that Moses’ face shines, and he has to wear a veil to stop people staring.

The warnings have started about the promised land. They must not comprise with the local religions. I already know that only partially works.

Exodus 4

Don’t want to be chosen.

I remember C S Lewis’ autobiography talking about being dragged “kicking and screaming” into the kingdom. 

It’s hard to demand your people’s freedom from the ruler who came up with the male infanticide policy, and threaten to kill his first born. Moses has run away from a life of unique privilege because he fears he may be killed for his rash murder of an abusive Egyptian he came upon. 

He’s given magical signs to show he is speaking with power. But he still doesnt want to speak to the Pharaoh. 

God says memorably “who gave human beings Thier mouths” and burns with anger at his chosen. 

And puts in place a plan B, to use his brother Aaron as mouthpiece.

On the journey back to Egypt, God seems to test the family is loyal to him, even though zipporah, Moses’ wife, is not an Israelite. She gets the gist the way women seem to and circumscises her first baby son. 

The people, when he arrives, worship God for sending a solution, albeit a flawed one, to their slavery and persecution.