Monday, February 28, 2011

New Year: Dt 25-27 for Feb 28

Israel is reminded in Dt 25-27 to do everything they've been charged to do.

The things that cultures overlook in their self-assessments are not always the same. One of things we almost all are subject to overlooking is the practice of overlooking. Here Israel is reminded, again, at the end of our section (Dt 27:26) that overlooking will not be overlooked.

There is another way this is stressed in the previous chapter. In the West, because we're so accustomed to relative measurements, we think of our love for God as the greatest love we must have. It does not disturb us if other loves are not as great. Yet, looking at 26:16, what does Moses say about the other commands? That God says that they are to do them ... how? "with all your heart and with all your soul." This is the same attribute that Moses (and the Lord) uses to describe how our love for God should be!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

New Year: Dt 22-24 for Feb 27

It is in the miscellaneous corners of the house that an individual's interests often are exhibited the clearest. In the sundry laws (Dt 22-24), it is the same.

One of the things that comes through clearest is the relationship between "what is" and "what ought to be" in tying the experiences of Israel in Egypt with what they should do to the needy (24:17-18,21-22).

Saturday, February 26, 2011

New Year: Dt 19-21 for Feb 26

Dt 20:4 has the same relationship stated between salvation and God battling our enemies as Ps 35:5.

Friday, February 25, 2011

New Year: Dt 16-18 for Feb 25

We have the similar multiple-category discussion in these chapters (Dt 16-18) as we had earlier since the first Passover of Exodus 12.

There are feast days (Deuteronomy 16), portions for the Levites (18), specific parts of offerings (18:3); matters such as appellate judges (17:8-13); thrice-per-year travels (16:16); prohibition of any kind of religious syncretism (idols from the area's religions, 16:21-22), of sorcery, of witchcraft, etc. (18:9-14); the place of prophecy, prophets, and Moses' phrase "a prophet like me" (18:15ff.)

This combination of the details of the many types of obligations of the Israelites, in rapid succession, does not imply multiple authors or schools. This combination is purposive. It is the nature of the relationship of the Israelites to God, that all the details are necessary. There are "weightier provisions" (Dt 6:4-5; cf. Mt 23:23), but no provisions are left behind (Mt 5:16). Moses's way of saying this was abutting them next to each other. The Lord's picturesque way of saying this is to remind them that they needed justice, mercy and faithfulness ... "these are the things you should have done ....", and regarding the tithe of the mint, and dill, and cummin, He says that too, is obligatory! ... "without neglecting the others." (Mt 23:23).

The details matter. Everything counts.

New Year: Dt 13-15 for Feb 24

Every assertion worth its salt also denies its opposite. In Dt 13 we find out what Israel, in a relationship worth its salt, denied.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

New Year: Dt 10-12 for Feb 23

The narrative form of Dt 10-11 lays out the obligations of Israel in such a way that as readers, we can't help but see their reasonableness (Deuteronomy 10:12-22). On the other hand, 10:16 points out that there has been a problem needing to be addressed.

Besides the reasonableness of the obligations (10:12), there is the fact that His greatness, mighty hand and outstretched arm were displayed "in the midst of Egypt" (11:3). The previous work is summarized in 11:7: "your own eyes have seen all the great work of the Lord which He did." The conclusion, "You shall therefore keep every commandment which I am commanding you today ..." (Dt 11:8ff), is given as a conclusion to what they saw.

Yet this conclusion is not indicative, but prescriptive. "You shall" is not in the sense "it is true that you will." It is in the sense that the generation Moses is speaking to then, has those obligations.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

New Year: Dt 7-9 for Feb 22

We can picture the 2nd and 3rd generation after the Exodus in Dt 7-9. Moses, addressing them, might have in his mind, "will this religion carry over into the next generation?" In Dt 5, Moses does one specific thing about that: he retells the story to the new generations, just as it had happened between God, Moses, and them (5:3): "The Lord did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us...."

In Dt 7-9 Moses continues his sermon to the generation who are going in to fight "today" (9:3). A sociologist might find things in common that religious generals all tell their fighters, about how whomever or whatever the culture has set apart as sacred is going ahead of them (9:5). But funny thing: do religious generals ever tell their fighers that, oh, by the way, don't forget how you messed up in the past, and the whole time since this thing started (9:7)? Is that how societies prep their fighters?

But was Moses putting the enterprise at risk? Most definitely so, unless 9:3-5 is actually true. If a god gets invoked to put adrenalin into a fighter, but the fighter is lousy, then the battle will involve lousy fighters with adrenalin. But if God Himself is the weapon that is deployed (to use modern terms for "God ... is crossing over before you" and "God is driving them out" in 9:3,5), then fighters might themselves learn from the event.

Monday, February 21, 2011

New Year: Dt 4-6 for Feb 21

Deuteronomy 4-6 well describes the glory of the Old Covenant with Israel.

The teaching of the "statutes and judgments" is indeed cyclical, not just repetition. In Deuteronomy, much more is described concerning the purpose of the giving of the these, and the results, both of keeping and failing to keep them. We might say that Dt 4-6 puts the Old Covenant with Israel in context, or places an overview of it before us. It is not just the Law, but God taking for himself a nation (4:34), and goes back to "because He loved your fathers" and forward to "He will not fail you nor destroy you nor forget the covenant with your fathers which He swore to them" (4:31).

We can use the word "it" of the statutes and judgments now, because not only are there individual statutes and judgments, but they are given some structure and prioritization, as well as context. For example, the little phrase in 5:22, "and He added no more," is referring to the "Ten Commandments" on the tablets (4:13). They assume a high place. The context is the love of God for their fathers (4:37) and all the activity of God that accompanied that (4:37-38). Taking to heart (4:39) that activity of God is the immediate concomitant of keeping the commandments laid out (4:40).

There are so many things which are all related in this covenant: God's love for the patriarchs, His actions toward their seed, bring them from Egypt (4:37), and not forgetting giving them the land of nations greater than them (4:38), and the giving of "His statutes and His commandments" (4:40). All these are done by God. The purpose of that is for things to go well with them and their children in the land His is giving them "for all time." (4:40).

In this covenant on their part is the keeping of the commandments put forth (4:40): it involves watching themselves (4:23), not forgetting it (the covenant) and making a graven image (as had already happened, but that is not mentioned here). This not forgetting, and remembering, and watching themselves in that way is mentioned repetitively and cyclically (4:9-10,15,23). The actions are described as the result of that (4:15-16; 4:23-25); watching, remembering, not forgetting, and taking to heart is set forth as preventative of acting corruptly (4:16).

All this on their part is not to be thought of as being given one chance. When they fail ("when you ... act corruptly..." 4:25), and consequences come upon them (4:26-28), it says that from the nations where the Lord drives them, "from there you will seek the Lord your God (4:29)." ! That part is not conditional, but is an unconditional prediction. They will seek their God. If the search is with all their heart and all their soul (4:29), they will find Him.

Success in returning to God and listening to His voice is also given as an unconditional prediction (4:30): "you will return." The reason for this is God, on His part, will not forget (4:31).

Sunday, February 20, 2011

New Year: Dt 1-3 for Feb 20

Deuteronomy 1-3 should be famous for providing a big sky view of the Israelites just prior to the conquest of Canaan.

It has all the immediacy of a participant. Moses is speaking in the first person (cf. Dt 1:9,19,22), supplying details of the history that we knew something about, but not as much. For example, we knew that God had told Moses to send spies out (Nm 13:1). We didn't know that the people came up with the idea until now (Dt 1:22-23).

As another example, we knew that one of the spies, Caleb, reported that the Israelites could certainly take the land (Nm 13:30). We did not know that Moses told the Israelites that God was going to fight on their behalf just like in Egypt (Dt 1:30). There's a big difference between someone, even God, telling you, that you can do it, and God actually fighting on your behalf -- like in Egypt! Therefore the generation that heard that, yet responded as they did, in Nm 14:1-4, were not just lacking self-confidence, but "did not trust the Lord" (Dt 1:32).

This event became one of the huge counter-examples of the rest of the Bible: a pardoned people (Nm 14:20), whom God was with (Dt 2:7), who "did not lack a thing" (2:7), yet except for Joshua and Caleb, were "an evil generation," (1:35), whose actions precipitated even Moses implicating them about his own sin (1:37; 3:26): "The Lord was angry with me also on your account, saying 'not even you shall enter there.'" regarding the promised land.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

New Year: Nm 34-36 for Feb 19

Numbers 34-36 continues a style of narrative that does not "skip" lists or details in favor of "action" sequences. Earlier, there were sacrifices, listed by tribe, identical for each tribe (Nm 7). Just as we thought we were past the descriptions of offerings, came Nm 18-19 and 28-29.

Each stage of the journey was written, like a list, in Nm 33. Nm 34 has details about all the borders, Chapter 35 has details about the cities of refuge for manslaughterers. At the end of Numbers, some details about inheritance are worked out.

The text does not allow us to say that these things were merely codified by various scribes for addition to a written Mosaic document, for later. On the contrary, it's all God, speaking: "Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying..." (34:16; 35:9). "These are the commandments" ... "and the ordinances which the Lord commanded to the sons of Israel" (last verse of Numbers!).

Should we presuppose that Numbers was written while unaware of the detail and repetition? No! That it was written with reams of paper handy and bottles of ink as well, using repetition as a mere style of writing? No!

Putting the question positively, is there a didactic reason that the narrative is interwoven with the details of the offerings? Yes! There is a concurrency being expressed in Numbers that had not been made so explicit previously. Things happen every day, yes ... and so must the sacrifices (28:4-10): "a continual burnt offering." This is a deliberately constructed set of activities that are purposely described to accompany anything else that goes on in their lives.

Let's not be in such a rush to mention the oldness of the Old Covenant sacrifices that we miss what they were supposed to be. Think of the "soothing aroma" phrase, used more in Numbers than even Leviticus or anywhere else; that is to God. Also think of the trumpet, blasting to God in 10:10: a "reminder" to God of themselves.

These things are just part of what both the generation whose corpses fell in the wilderness, and what the generation that followed, had, to go with them every day. Are you sure that they should be skipped in your readings? Doesn't modern religion also suffer from the interest in cataloging everything that people do, possibly adding God's "presence" for explanation of parts of that, and ignore that which reminds us that God acts, and must, for anything to even continue on?

Friday, February 18, 2011

New Year: Nm 31-33 for Feb 18

The battle rules of Israel against Midian were those of hostile action against them (Numbers 25:17), in which Israel occupied the moral high ground due to Midianite war tricks using a female secret agent (25:18), told in general terms just earlier (25:1; 25:6; cf. 31:3). Moses's advice (31:17-18) was evidently a shock, going contrary to the activities of the "officers of the army" (31:14), whose memory was very short and needed refreshing (31:16).

What about the war against Canaan, itself? We have been prepared ever since Genesis 9:25-27 for things to tanspire between Canaan-land and the descendants of Shem. But Genesis, while explicit about Canaan, was less so about the wars that would come with the Canaanites (cf. Gen 15:16-21).

That text in Genesis was prophetic of that which occured in Numbers 21:1-3. Therefore this destruction also occupies the moral high ground, by a slightly different path. First of all, God announced it hundreds of years earlier, in Gen 15:16-21, that there would be a taking over in response to Canaanite iniquity. Secondly, as to specifics, the king of Arad initiates the Canaanite conflict with Moses and Israel, and is explicitly identified as "the Canaanite" in 21:1.

Moses's last campaign is against Midianites (31:2). As we have seen, he is very strict regarding how the rules of battle would have to be followed, and he prevailed (31:25-54) even as a lame-duck general, whose designate replacement had already been chosen (27:15-23). Look at Numbers 31:50ff. That is a conscious allusion to the leadership of Moses then, compared to Aaron earlier (Ex 32:1ff). "Rings" in both places, but put to far different use (Ex 32:3; Nm 31:50). A different generation, with a different set of leaders (31:49-54; cf. 16:2).

Thursday, February 17, 2011

New Year: Nm 28-30 for Feb 17

If your mind is like a computer you may remember some of these sacrifices from Leviticus, listed in Nm 28 and 29. Nm 30 should get more attention than it does, in light of Mt 5:33.

What is different is the context. Theologians sometimes use a fancy German word for that, at least, one of the types of context that there are. New contexts are discovered seemingly every day ... ;)

What might be different to the human brain reading along is the summary nature of some of these sacrifices. The writer knows that we have seen these festivals before, in Lv 16 and 23. The context is the imminent entry of the Israelites into the promised land (Nm 27:12-14). The times of these festivals are given, for identification, and most of the names -- but not the explanations of their significance, as was given when first described, say, for example, in Ex 12. There is a 40-year tradition at this point, going on.

It very well could be that we are being told, in a subtle way, about the practices of a tradition having a life of their own, and all the while, the meanings behind their institution not be as fully specified as at the beginning. Ad fontes! Go to the source, the beginnings, of a movement, to see where it got its initial energy from. Forty years later, you might, through no fault, or perhaps through fault, of their own, not find the original meanings spelled out.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

New Year: Nm 24-27 for Feb 16

Everybody wants to know what the significance of the donkey speaking is, but just as interesting is the significance of what Balaam speaking is in Numbers 22-24!

Not many sermons touch on the exclusion of Moses from the promised land in Nm 20. The first explanation of it comes immediately after the event: God tells Moses "because you have not believed Me ...." (20:12).

In contrast to what we have read regarding the failures of Israel, and even Moses, the reader hears from Balaam, and from God through Balaam, that Israel is "not cursed" (23:8), "not denounced" (23:8), and "blessed" (23:11). The very first thing God tells Balaam about Israel -- and this is after we have read about so many plagues from God (11:33, 14:37, 16:46) and a larger plague from God to come (25:9) -- is that "they are blessed" (22:12).

Therefore, what a contrasting picture is given of Israel in 23:21-24, than what we have learned from their sins! Is this textual corruption? No! Is this documentary fragmentation? No! It is dramatic juxtaposition. Numbers 21-24 is placed squarely in the middle of, and surrounded by, events that involve the sins of Israel and its leaders. But 23:21 states "He [God] has not observed misfortune in Jacob; / Nor has He seen trouble in Israel."

What about the fact that the whole generation except for Moses and two spies dies in the wilderness from what was announced in 14:33? A whole generation dies off in this time between Nm 14:1 and 26:65.

The three chapters, Nm 22-24, containing the prophecy of Balaam about Israel, when combined with what the reader already knows about Israel to this point, and will continue to read in 25:1ff., are some of the most amazing founding documents of any world religion. We may say 'this is typical of prophecy, to look beyond the bleak prospect of present sins.' But here, prophecy is not talking about only the immediate future, but the present (23:21-23), and even the end (23:10)!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

New Year: Nm 21-23 for Feb 15

These chapters (Numbers 21-23) are mostly descriptive of the relationship of the Israelites to the surrounding kingdoms. The Godward aspect is still a problem (21:5-6), but there are some changes there as well (21:7-9).

It is often said that an ounce of success is weightier than a pound of self-absorption. The narrative here begins with this kind of success, versus an external foe, and the Israelites in these chapters after the death of Aaron and Miriam gain back the sense of direction that we have not seen since the Exodus.

The story of Balak begins in Nm 22, and it is high mockery of the practice of "divination" (22:7). Balak, king of Moab, considers divination as one of the tools by which he as king can accomplish his will, using one of its resources available for hire (he thinks), the curse (22:6).

The reader is treated to quite a humorous story. Balak sees everything in economic terms. Whatever Balaam says about God, etc., Balak thinks is an excuse for what's really going on, the demand for a higher fee (22:16,17). But not only does God determine what Balaam says about Israel, but God interacts with Balaam personally, making him a real prophet for the duration of this event. Not only that, but he sees to it that Balaam does it despite himself (23:25-26).

What about the donkey? This is so integrated with the point of the story, the purpose of showing that God's management of Israel's destiny is as far above man's strategies, as heaven above earth, that it verifies not only the genuineness of God's ways, His sovereignty, the silliness of man's attempts to thwart Him, but it verifies itself in the process.

Monday, February 14, 2011

New Year: Nm 17-20 for Feb 14

Is Numbers 17 the end to the grumblings against Moses? No (cf. Numbers 20:3). But the sign in this chapter (Numbers 17:10) was to that purpose (17:5).

Numbers documents so much rebellion (17:10), spurning of God (16:30), grumbling (16:41;17:5,10), assembling against (20:2), contending (20:3), that describing it has an overwhelming effect upon the reader.

In the midst of this story is that of the sign of Aaron's staff, or rod, that budded. The New Testament (Heb 9:4) picks up on this. Aaron's rod, alone among the twelve specified for observation, "sprouted and put forth buds" (17:8), blossoms, and ripe almonds. In the midst of all this complaining, is it really true ... in the middle of events that could lead to disaster for the whole enterprise (16:21; 16:45) ... plagues with thousands dying (16:49) ... the ground opening up and swallowing precisely those who rebelled, and precisely all their belongings alone (16:32) ... is it really true that God is setting up a sign, a miraculous positive sign, ... for future generations? Yes (17:4)! It is not only for the future, but for the present -- both to deal with the rebels and so that they will not die (17:10).

God, dealing with "the sons of rebellion" (17:10, lit.), creates a sign in the chaos, so that they will not die. Nothing so proves the utility of this, as their voices: their voices crying out in fear is the noisy proof to the reader of the fact that they're still alive (17:12-13).

Why does God create this sign, among people who are appointed to die in the wilderness (14:22-23; cf. Heb 3:16ff), so that they will not die? Moses (Dt 2:7) and Nehemiah (Neh 9:21) pick up on the significance of this.

After all these stories of rebellion, the incident at Meribah (20:13) is read as one of many such. How then can we fail to see, in retrospect, the careful language of Exodus 3:8, compared to what we would have expected to happen!? Everything there happens, but not in the way that we thought it would happen! That generation, the one called "My people" in Ex 3:7, is certainly going to be delivered from the power of the Egyptians ... and brought "to" ... "the place of the Canaanite and ...." (Ex 3:8). By the time the Israelites are actually in the land, they will have downsized to being without Miriam, Aaron, and Moses, and with only two others of the generation that left Egypt!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

New Year: Nm 15-16 for Feb 13

The existence of the nation in the wilderness is NOT a given in these two chapters, Numbers 15 and 16. Look at Nm 16:21 and 16;45. There is a compounding of judgment upon judgment occurring, because of a rebellion against a previous judgment (16:41).

The issue of grumbling has come to a level so severe that even the explanation of it is stretched over many chapters. We can say the same thing about the issue of the authority of Moses and Aaron (16:3). But authority concerning what? Unique ability to do what? To preserve the very life of those who grumbled, which was everyone else (16:41)! All these laws (cf. 15:1ff) are not to be thought of as empty rite/ritual: there is no way to lessen the significance of the activity of 16:47 which "made atonement for the people": the direction of the remedy is FROM the altar TO the midst of the congregation, and this activity -- incense placement! -- had to be done "quickly," (16:46), because it was to stop what was occurring in real time, at that very moment.

The narrative is very explicit about the justice of the issue. "All" the congregation grumbled (16:41). Are the 14,700 who died an exception? No.

We certainly are not at a satisfying ending by the end of chapter 16 (16:50). Tomorrow the story of dealing with grumbling continues. However, the events of these chapters have in common one thing, which is the illustration of a principle that hasn't been as explicit in the narrative until now: defiance (15:30).

Defiance can be seen in the first individual's Sabbath breaking (15:32). What laws are not to be broken deliberately? All of them (15:40). Who among the people is responsible for enforcing this? All of them (15:36). How long should this go on? "Throughout their generations" (15:38). What is the positive principle behind this perfectionism? Is remembering "to do all My commandments" (15:40) an end in itself? No.

The Israelites' problem is described in 15:39, that of seeking "your own heart and your own eyes." That is a very broad indictment, but it is of a specific quality: something was turned in toward their own selves, that should have sought the Someone in whose Presence they were. The indictment is that of a breach of the relationship God has created with them: "I am the Lord your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt to be your God. I am the Lord your God" (15:41). The tassels to wear (15:38) are about remembering commandments. The commandments to keep are not ends in themselves, but are a relational expression to God: "so that you may remember to do all My commandments and be holy to your God" (15:40). Being holy is for the sake of this Someone Else, not just a thing in itself. Holiness is to God.

God is the one who defines their religion. The rebellion of Korah (16:1) sounds so politically progressive (16:3) until we see what is lost if it is accepted (16:7). In Israel, there was going to be one Elector of holiness to Himself, not an electorate composed of all. The principle is there, as a plain statement, in Numbers 16:5.

Korah -- "you and all your company" (16:16) wanted the priesthood, not just the service of the tabernacle (16:10). And they got all the people to take their side (16:19). That changed later (16:26-27).

In the process of Moses dealing with the Korahites, his testimony about himself comes out, almost missed, in all the drama: "Moses said, 'by this you shall know that the Lord has sent me to do all these deeds; for this is not from my heart" (16:28). Moses got the verification from God regarding that heart problem described back in 15:39. Moses was not seeking after his own heart, and his own eyes. He was vindicated immediately (16:31ff).

Saturday, February 12, 2011

New Year: Nm 13-14 for Feb 12

The problems are worse. The people are not getting better and better. Nm 13-14 narrates the events, and to the extent sin has an explanation, it explains it, but more, it explains the ways of God toward Israel.

The first question that might occur to us as we read is, how is this not a test, the fact that God Himself is the one telling Moses to send men to "spy out the land of Canaan" (Numbers 13:1)?

If God had not told Moses to send spies out -- if God had sent a different group of spies out -- if they had just went in to the land without spies -- if Moses had just asked for volunteers -- all these second-guesses are answered by 14:11, which points out the problem: the people spurned God and did not "believe in" Him.

We gain an insight into what believing in God is, and what not believing in Him is, that we can carry, and will carry us, into Mt 8:8,9,10 and beyond. God had made promises. They were not a "test." The signs, which God brings up here, "that I have performed in their midst" (14:11) were also, not a test. They were to enable them to believe in Him. What had signs been for, since their beginning with Moses? "that they may believe ..." (Ex 4:5). That's why here, in 14;11, God explicitly states that their unbelief despite signs that He Himself performed already, in their midst, amounted to spurning Him.

Did we think that earlier, when Moses set up his advocacy of pardoning the people for this, that it was almost impertinent, or childish (Ex 32:11-14)? The text does not say that Moses' argument about what the Egyptians would think prevailed then, but the fact that God was going to be faithful to His promises (Ex 32:13-14).

Moses tries it again, with elaborations. What else was he going to do? Not just the Egyptians (14:13), but "the nations who have heard of Your fame" (14:15) will say things denying God's ability to bring about His promises (14:16). But Moses' elaborations, "let the power of the Lord be great," sound like Moses had run out of something to convince God with. What was Moses thinking, asking for God to let His power be great, here?

Looking at 14:19, it might have been referring to something else in God's greatness. Moses summary of that is "just as You also have forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now."

The "So" of 14:20 is due to that argument. God had forgiven this people, from Egypt until that point. Moses was right about that. God then says "I have pardoned according to your word." Moses word!

Pardon is not the same as what we call nowadays, "no consequences." Something different will come about, that would not have come about, because of the pardon (14:12). Also, something different will come about, that would not have come about, because of the sin (14:28-38).

New Year: Nm 10-12 for Feb 11

What a day brings cannot always be predicted, even after almost two years (Numbers 10:11) of the daily presence of God with the people. They "kept the Lord's charge" (9:23) about when to camp and when to break camp. As we open these chapters, we don't expect hardly any of it.

We don't expect that God, saying, "I am the Lord your God," would tell the Israelites that a trumpet sound would remind Him of them "in the day of their gladness" and in their sacrifices (10:10).

In chapter 11, we are not surprised at people complaining, since we have seen it, and the common form the "grumble against Him" takes (Ex 16:8). What we don't expect is that it happens so repeatedly (11:1; 11:4), and that we get the actual language put to us of the complaint, almost such that we can hear the mockery of it by Moses: "our soul is dried up," they say (11:6, lit.). Then, the famous list, which we should all put to memory: "the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlic." Someone should write a complaining song,

"We remember the fish which
we used to eat in Egypt
the cucumbers and the melons
and the leeks and the onions --
and the garlic."

"But now our soul is dried up
There is nothing at all
for our eyes except this manna."

Thursday, February 10, 2011

New Year: Nm 7-9 for Feb 10

Numbers 7-9 runs the gamut from that which is precisely equal for each tribe (Nm 7) to what is unique for one tribe alone (Nm 8; Levi) to what is variable for all the tribes (the various lengths of time between marches, depending solely on God's leading through the cloud over the tabernacle (9:15ff.)

Those words in 9:14, which have been expressed earlier in the Law, seem very timely in contemporary news items, where various countries are saying the same thing about their laws as Nm 9:14 does about the Law of Moses.

Some of the pre-eminence of the Passover shows here, since it must be celebrated one month later if ceremonial uncleanness would otherwise prevent someone from doing so (9:5; 9:11).

Leviticus 8:7 was a shock to this reader. The Levites very probably stood out in appearance from the rest of the Israelites. This would give some visual picture to us as we read Lk 10:32.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

New Year: Nm 5-6 for Feb 9

What does the society do with the extremely suspicious, and with the extremely dedicated? Nm 5 and 6 deals with these boundary conditions.

The provision of Nm 5 is like a court of last-resort, and functions as what to do in cases without any evidence for a crime. The sheer elaborateness of the "law of jealousy" (not even mentioning the name of the practice, which is a comment of the book itself on the practice it describes!) serves to deter the extremely suspicious: "do you REALLY want to do this?"

Numbers 6. As if to say, "oh, you wish to self-dedicate to the Lord? It's not a light thing. It's much more complex than your "special vow" (6:1) alone. One must forego basic familial obligations(6:7), and basic joys (6:3-5). Even one ceremonial mistake (6:9) makes it necessary to scratch all previous fulfillment of one's self-dedication. On top of all that, when the time for the self-dedication is completed, the ceremony finishing it is elaborate and costly (6:13-20). As a reminder that this time of self-dedication is what it is, and nothing more, the Law merely states, when the time is completed -- "afterward the Nazirite may drink wine" (6:20). That's it. That's the sum of the response of the Law to the accomplishment.

It's almost impossible not to mention some New Testament parallels and echoes. Regarding the hugeness, beyond expectation, of dedication to the Lord, once the Lord told a man to let the dead bury his dead father, and to follow Him (Mt 8:22). This is very Nazirite, from Nm 6:7. Also, regarding the downplaying of reward for dedication, Jesus sometimes did the same thing, telling people to expect to have no place to lay their heads (Mt 8:20); there is a similar reduction of expectation in advice to any who conceivably have done everything required, to consider themselves as unprofitable servants doing only "what we ought to have done" (Lk 17:10). This is very Nazirite. The Nazirite has incurred an obligation, but society is not to be looked to, to reward such a person. Indeed, society may well feel slighted by the Nazirite, because society's normal expectations are not laid on such a person. This enforces what the Nazirite should not expect, therefore: any of society's reward.

Compare the case of the One mentioned in Mt 2:23.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

New Year: Nm 3-4 for Feb 8

Everyone counts. Every firstborn belongs to God, and is stood for by the Levites, but for the 273 more firstborn (Lv 3:46) than there are Levites to stand for them. Those 273 are "ransomed" separately.

God is seen to be interested in exact fairness. He is not the God of the "close enough" or the "pretty good" but the God of the perfect and the God of a ransom that is exact. His interest is toward the atomic, in the etymological sense, the individual, un-subdivide-able human being.

There is an echo of this also in the teaching of Jesus (Mt 10:30). Creation is not a blur. The very stuff of creation has a quantum-ness to it, which even modern physics further discovers, the more it discovers particles. Although Gertrude Stein lamented the negative of this for Oakland, California, regarding individuals, God is interested in individuals: there is, for them, a "there" there, unlike for Stein's Oakland.

Similarly, Nm 4 proceeds with the duties of "numbered men" (4:49). And the very hairs of the disciples' heads, and ours, are numbered.

Monday, February 07, 2011

New Year: Lv 27; Nm 1-2 for Feb 7

Have preachers been frightened away from Lv 27? Certainly it is not a common sermon topic! Its presence in the Old Testament is another one of those facts, like the numbers of Nm 1-2 as well, that talks as much about the integrity of the overall collection as it talks about the selling of one's property and self, or the numbers of soldiers.

The law (in this case, "the commandments which the Lord commanded Moses for the sons of Israel at Mount Sinai," Lv 27:34) covers aspects regulating and requiring justice, within situations that are declensions from the norm and optimal. The year of jubilee (e.g. Lv 27:18) is also an example of that.

Is it embarrassing that the culture had provisions for selling of persons for debt? Yes. The requirements of justice within a non-optimal, almost embarassing eventuality, go on. In principle, to regulate the selling price of persons, given that persons are going to sell themselves into slavery, shows that the scope of God's will does not stop when the existing entrenched social custom is not ideal, or not even morally neutral, but has already declined. This last chapter of Leviticus is deliberate in this sense too, that there is good to be commanded within a bad situation.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

New Year: Lev 25-26 for Feb 6

How can we properly understand God saying to the Israelites that if they are disobedient in certain cases "My soul shall abhor you" (Lev 26:30), yet also saying "nor will I abhor them as to destroy them, breaking My covenant with them; for I am the Lord their God" (26:44)?

This language of intensity exists on both the calamitous predictions and the predictions of blessing (26:29; 26:8). Should we water this down? No! Right after the crossing of the Red Sea, there was a precursory announcement of the blessing for obedience (Ex 15:26). More such things are elaborated to Moses regarding the conquering of the land, which was to be more than forty years future, in Ex 23:22-33. In Lev 26 it comes up again: there are eleven verses describing the blessings of obedience (26:3-13), but 26:14-39 describes the actions for disobedience: 26 verses, more than twice as many. Seven verses, at the end of our passage (26:40-46), describe what happens when the people confess (26:40), are humbled (26:41), and make amends (26:41,43). What is promised, is 26:45. This is mercy, characterized in a characteristic OT manner: "I will remember for them the covenant with their ancestors, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God. I am the Lord" (26:45).

Saturday, February 05, 2011

New Year: Lev 23-24 for Feb 5

Only some of the "appointed times of the Lord" are yearly times in our passage. They are talked about also in Lev 16, in the case of the day of atonement. The Sabbath, though weekly, is also mentioned with these feasts because of the necessity for not doing any work (23:3) then, which it has in common with some of the days in the feasts.

We shouldn't miss one of the most interesting of the obligations of the Law here. In the description of the first fruits, 1) this law is anticipatory, i.e., it is not even applicable until the future, when they are producing agriculturally in the land (23:10); 2) it is not to be done on a set calendar day, but is to be done based on the harvest itself: the first fruits of the harvest are not available until the crop is harvestable, and that is God's business, as to exactly when ("in the fullness of time") 3) the first fruits of the harvest are described as a unitary offering, a "sheaf," (23:10), then, seven sabbaths and a day later, some bread -- fully baked with leaven, in quantity! (23:17). Does this sound vaguely familiar? Hope so (1 Cor 15:20-23).

Friday, February 04, 2011

New Year: Lev 20-22 for Feb 4

One way to look at Leviticus so far is that it specifies part of the job of the redeemed nation. This is the nation whom God sanctifies: "I will be sanctified among the sons of Israel. I am the Lord who sanctifies you, who brought you out from the land of Egypt, to be your God; I am the Lord." (Lev 22:31-33).

We see the early understanding of sanctification in these chapters, that it applies not only to what we would call "moral" law, but to what we would call "ceremonial" law. "So you shall keep My commandments, and do them; I am the Lord" (22:31). (Not only does this summary follow a ceremonial rule in the previous verse; it follows two whole chapters, which followed the mainly "moral" rules of chapter 20).

Don't forget the symmetry. God sanctifies Israel. God sets them apart. He brought them out from the land of Egypt. God also says to them that He will be sanctified among them. He will be set apart by them. The content provided by these chapters is example of how such things are to be done. Part of what it means that God be sanctified among them is for them to use the best they have, of the things being commanded to be offered. Animals. And the offerers. No defect in the presenters or the presented for the major sacrifices. This sets God apart. All the while, God of course sets them apart (22:32-33).

This is not just proper ceremony, but proper ethics. We wonder at the ceremonial / moral distinction, whether it was made. How could it have? Properly keeping each was necessary not to "profane" (22:32) God's holy name. The contrast of the sacred (sanctified) and the profane originates here, that it is their obligation not to profane God's holy name. In dealing with Him, things are set apart. God, on His part, in dealing with them, is setting them apart. The story, as it has developed so far, shows God setting them apart. The rules, as they have developed so far, show how they are to set Him apart.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

New Year: Lev 16-19 for Feb 3

Each year there would be an event done by Aaron in the "tent of meeting" (Lev 16:23) "that he shall make atonement for you to cleanse you: you will be clean from all your sins before the Lord." (16:30). Lev 16:34 repeats the yearly emphasis: "to make atonement for the sons of Israel for all their sins once every year."

The parallelism between these two verses leads to a definite association between the making atonement for the sons of Israel, and its effect: "you will be clean."

Speaking about the sacrificial system: "how do you like it now?" And yet, this is not imprecise language, but precise language. This yearly event is not a substitute for, but in addition to, the whole sacrificial system described previously. Lev 4 (:20; :26; :31; :35) and Lev 5 (:10; :13; :16; :18) also talk about making atonement, but use the language of forgiveness. Then, in Lev 6:7, the specific nature of these sacrifices is described: "the priest shall make atonement for him before the Lord, and he will be forgiven for any one of the things which he may have done to incur guilt."

Any one sin -- needs forgiveness. On top of that, the year's cumulative record of sin for all the community -- has to have cleansing. Atonement is necessary for each.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

New Year: Lev 13-15 for Feb 2

The fact that the priest's job included inspections of skin, of houses, of clothing, (including the timing of these inspections), and working with the walls and plaster of houses, as well as the performance of special ceremonies associated with the pronouncement of cleanness -- all these things might stick in front of our faces on first reading. Though it is not the primary and first job that comes to mind when we think of "priest," it is his job.

Notice that the priest does not perform anything to cure or fix the conditions found, but is responsible for the proper amount of isolation, plus the recognition of the changes of condition that would result in the pronouncement of cleanness.

We're definitely faced with a task of huge magnitude, the contemplation of which makes us wonder if these laws could ever have been fully followed in Israel. They set a high standard for their time. For a priest to be involved in the intimate details of man and wife makes us drop our mouths lower than to the chin. How could this be? But picture yourself as in the society of the time. This is a very realistic passage in the Bible, because it self-authenticates these books: they are not telling a fictional story. Just as the nation could have no advantage in producing a story that flattered the nation in its origins so little, it could have no advantage in highlighting the detailed interest of the priest in the most private parts of married life. It only could be included, because it was there. These things were really the priests' jobs.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

New Year: Lev 10-12 for Feb 1

In these chapters what holiness refers to is extended; it had been directly used only of places and things, but now it is used directly of God Himself, and commanded to those who interact with Him.

Aaron's quiescence in the matter of his sons (10:3) might imply that the discussion between Moses and Aaron was previously undertaken: "this is what the Lord spoke" in the past. Or the two may have seen the applicability of it only then. In any case, Nadab's and Abihu's activity was directly toward God (10:1). The activity was "before the Lord," and their death was "before the Lord" (10:1,2).

What is to be learned about holiness is deliberately combined with food laws in Lev 11. The idea that holiness is only a procedural, ceremonial thing is negated, of course, by chapter 10 (even if we don't remember Moses' first meeting with God from Ex 3). The food laws are exemplary of the importance of holiness, not holiness an mere exemplary of the importance of food laws. This severity of consequence and deep moment of any event, when dealing with directly with God, is carried over into New Testament ideas about speaking a word against the Holy Spirit, and with the Lord's prayer, in the phrase "hallowed be Your name."

But why food laws? What better place than food laws, to show that holiness is because of God's person? That way, holiness is shown to be overarching, and is not a concept that is dependent on the particulars of a situation. Like air itself, food is a daily particular, in which an overarching concern should make a visible showing of itself.

How then could food laws ever be lessened? Is there a time in which the holiness of God should cease to be expressed? No. In the New Testament, there will come a time, and it does come then, in which the holiness of God becomes more universally expressed than in the food laws: redeemed people are holy temples among humanity (1 Cor 6:19), which the world will be held responsible for how handled (Mt 25:31-46). Holiness. Handle with care.


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