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 21

I have advice for young christians.  Don’t ever read Leviticus.  Just don’t bother.

Its not that I don’t get it on some level, this chapter is about priests super duper perfection rules.  Its an attempt to create eden, the pre-fall world, in the fallen world.

So it reads like outrageous discrimination against disabilities, no imperfections in priests – it literally is against short people.

So it reads callous: they are to not show mourning or have anything to do with the dead (some exceptions for family).

But it’s meaning the priests to be like adam, not knowing death, not knowing the curse of creation broken.

Its impossible. Why bother? is the question clamouring at me.  OK, its teaching us that we are fallen, that god is holy.  But why a system designed to fail?

The old testament is profoundly depressing.  It is impossible to read it and not conclude you are less holy than god, indeed you are not holy at all.  The story of it is told repeatedly in excruciating detail.

Humanity is corrupt.  We fail corporately, born into sin, its really not our fault, we don’t stand a chance.

Also, each individual is damned without grace. We personally fall short of God’s plan for us and deserve his wrath.  Sinners, all, through and through, every which way.

 

Leviticus 20

Aaargh, Leviticus, you are driving me crazy!  This was not put together by anyone with a sense of narrative.  It may have been put together by a rollercoaster designer. This is a really horrible chapter.

Its is full of many many capital offences.  Basically, you breath, you die. We’ve gone from sketching out an anachronistically enlightened society in ch19 to sounding like living under worse than sharia law in ch20.

The first is for giving children to Molech… infanticide and denying God. Sort of OK. Then other occult practises. Sadly as obvious as it sounds, worship of Molech continued. Solomon built a temple to it, and some of the kings gave children to Molech.

Then it goes through all the sexual prohibitions from ch18. And adds a few of the 10 commandments: cursing your mother and father, adultery (all parties executed), incest, homosexuality, bestiality, marrying aunts or uncles, sleeping with your wife while she is menstruating, marrying your brother’s wife (while the brother is alive, presumably? Because marrying a brothers widow was like a welfare obligation, key plot point in Ruth).  And so on.

There are different levels of punishment: sometimes executed, sometimes “cut off from the people” sometimes dying childless.

There is disagreement about what “cut off…” is.The sense of the original is a branch being cut off from a tree. May have meant stoning, may have meant excommunication or could refer to dying young without offspring (which happened to Jesus).  In practice it settled down to being shunned for a while until purification or atonement was done.

There is a vagueness between punishment by God and by people.  Dying childless, god’s doing, execution, done by human hands, cut off from the people, maybe either?

In a sense its saying that it makes no difference. Being god’s people was like being saved. Death at human hands and death by “natural” causes, the curse is death itself.

They are travelling to the promised land, which is already occupied.  Jericho and all that. There will be a lot of death. They won’t be up to the amount of killing required, they mix with the locals and that is their downfall. This is saying that differentiating themselves from the people they left in egypt and the people they will encounter in canaan is incredibly important.

Jews never literally implemented these rules. In practise execution was very rare.

Jesus of course encountered a woman being stoned for adultery, presumably under this law, and said “whoever is guiltless can throw the first stone”, then pronounced forgiveness for her sins.

The message is that we are dead in sin.  The detail is horrible, the theme is horrible. But everyone will face their death.  God is life. Reconciliation is our only chance.

 

 

 

 

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 10

Two of Aaron’s sons improvise their own sacrifice.  They take incense in their own burner into the holy of holies, and are there struck dead.

Its harsh, but their plan involved the profoundest of sins, rebellion against god, placing their own judgement higher than him. The mystery is not that they were killed, the mystery is that any of us are alive.  Death is the consequence of rejecting the author of life, of saying “I’ll author my own life thanks”.

Well it doesn’t work that way.  We can’t, and every fibre of our being hates that we can’t. Humans hate the fact that we are created (though we love babies).  We live rebelling against it, acting like masters of our own destiny. And we all die, sooner or later. And how we hate that too.

In the leviticus narrative the aftermath is horrible too. Aaron and his remaining sons have to continue through the rituals, not stop and mourn their brothers/ sons.   Should have freeze framed at the last chapter, its suddenly all an emotionally gruelling obedience that they are called to, not a joyous one.

There is a glimmer of mercy at the end, they simply can’t feast on all the food as they are supposed to, Aaron has no stomach for it, and Moses accepts that they can not.

Plus of course, God is a god of love.  I guess that he did love Aaron’s son’s despite their pride on perhaps the one day people fully understood God’s holiness. God is the god of second chances. Paul would write “Death has been swallowed up in victory: ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the Law”.

We can’t understand love without understanding god’s holiness by virtue of being our creator.

 

Leviticus 9

It worked! 

They have the tabernacle, they have the priests. 

They do the sacrifices: one for the priests’ sins, one for the people’s sins, a fellowship one, because they are gathering to meet God, a grain one. 

They follow the rules. It is blessed. 

The lord consumes the burnt offering with fire. The people experience his presence and fall down in worship. 

It is a picture of the kingdom. Where they have come from, from slavery, from disrespectful disobedience. They have come into blessing. It is a place of god’s love, and we are aware of the price of it, sin demands death.

Snapshot, freeze Israel. Don’t do anything. 

Leviticus 5

This is the Law right here. The one Jesus said brings death. 

You hear something unfair and don’t speak out, death. Blood must be shed. You come to realise you accidentally touched the wrong thing, death. Etc etc. Death death and death.
God has provided elaborate rituals, understanding the way we comprehend religion. He’s given them something that contemporary nations would recognise as religion, but morphed into teaching about the nature of God. 

So what is he saying?

It’s not a sin to be poor, for one thing. If all you can afford is a dove or even just a cup of flour, rather than a perfect male ram or whatever, its power to absolve sin is just as great. Modern Christianity forgets that one often still. It’s so profoundly sad watching church leaders faun on the rich and successful.

Also, God is not a man-made object. Aslan is not a tame lion.  The tent doesn’t have an object that is god at its core, it has his words. It’s where they meet God, he comes to it as a cloud from wherever he is. He can’t be looked at. We still fall victim to molding God of our own concept of what God should be like

And he is very holy. That implies him creating in us the capacity to be unholy. Still a hard concept. Our rebellion requires pain, it cuts us off from him, demands death.

God laid out these messages in simple concrete terms the people could not fail to understand.  Or could they? 

Still haven’t. Still haven’t!

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 29

“death where is your sting?” It says in Corinthians. Here as god elaborates on the priesthood, the sting of death is central.

We are in rebellion, we deserve to die. We are broken. An animal must die every evening and every morning for the Sins of Israel – I think this is just during the conservation of the priests, not sure.

The consecration of the priests segments the animals in a way people understand… the good bits burn deliciously for God to smell, the prime cuts are waved at God. They show love, and that he deserves the best, I suppose. The intestines are taken out of the camp and burned for sin.

It’s a vegetarian nightmare, but it’s supposed to be ghastly, sin is ghastly.

Also, they are herders, animals are to an extent their currency. On a simple level, if they are going to give back to express their understanding of and appreciation for god’s love and forgiveness, it’s going to be animals and grain.

The consecration of the priests is so fandangled. Humans are rarely so engaged in survival that have no energy for spiritual work. We do art, we entertain ourselves, we laugh, we put seemingly pointless effort into stuff that scratches our need for meaning. 

God gives them the means of expressing their relationship with God.