Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Galileo, Darwin, and Moses


Chances are you believe that the earth spins on its axis and revolves around the sun. Why do you believe this? For one thing, it is what you were taught. For another, it so accurately describes the workings of our solar system as to be obvious.

But is it?

Actually, if we go by simple observation, the earth appears to be fixed in one place. The sun, moon, and stars seem to revolve around it. From our point of view, the earth is the axis around which everything else turns. This is what ancient peoples, for the most part, believed.

The problem is that this earth-centered (geocentric) model does not account for everything that can be observed. If you trace the courses of the stars closely you will observe that some of the brightest lights occasionally stray from the orderly procession of the night sky. They actually reverse course sometimes and go backwards for a short time. These lights were called "planets" (literally "wanderers") by ancient astronomers.

Various attempts were made to account for these wandering lights but no explanation was completely satisfactory until Copernicus came up with a mathematical model in which the earth and planets revolved around the sun (heliocentricism). Copernicus's ideas were later confirmed by Galileo's observations with a telescope.

Copernicus's work and Galileo's observations were slow to catch on. This was partly due to the fact that they contradicted Church teaching and partly because these ideas are not easy to grasp. Let's face it: we prefer easy explanations.

The notion of Special Creation, i.e. that God created everything just as it is in six days, is easy to grasp. This is why Young Earth Creationists like Ken Ham can hold an audience. Like geocentrism, however, Creationism does not account for all of the data. The idea that life on this planet evolved is more difficult to understand and it contradicts traditional Church teaching. But...

It accounts for the facts.

A shrinking minority reject the theory of evolution. Like those who rejected the work of Galileo and Copernicus, their days are numbered.

I was talking today with a friend and colleague about biblical interpretation. We both subscribe to the idea that the Pentateuch (i.e. Genesis-Deuteronomy) was compiled from several sources. We both admit that we cannot always keep the sources straight. The final redactor did a good job. The "Documentary Hypothesis" (as it is called) is complex. It is not the kind of simple solution we prefer. The idea that Moses wrote the Pentateuch at the Holy Spirit's direction is easy to grasp.

Here's the problem: Mosaic authorship, like gecentrism or Special Creation, does not account for all the facts. The Documentary Hypothesis is difficult to grasp but better accounts for the facts as we have them.

The moral of this piece: Don't settle for simple answers that don't account for all the facts.

Numbers 28:1-30:16


A funny thing happened this afternoon. Not Rule of Threes ha-ha funny. More like, "What a coincidence" funny. A friend called to ask if I had any insights about Numbers 27-36. She was writing a devotional about those chapters. I don't think she has been reading this blog.

I told her that it was an interesting block of Scripture because it is bracketed with the story of the daughters of Zelophehad. In chapter 27, these women are granted their inheritance. In chapter 36, they basically lose it.

My friend chuckled when I said "It's a man's world." Mind you it was a man's world back in Bible times. Some Christians seem to want to re-create the Bible's partiarchalism. The world has changed, however and I, for one, think that's a good thing.

The daughters of Zelophehad thing wasn't working for my friend. So, I leafed through chapters 28 and 29.  I muttered something about "the sanctification of time." I started to mumble something else but my friend said "Ooh! I can use that." So I stopped myself.

"What else were you going to say?" she asked.

"Nothing," I said. "I got you to go 'ooh!' so I'm quitting while I'm ahead."

Numbers 27-28 contains instructions for sacrifices that the Israelites were to offer daily, weekly, monthly, and on annual festivals. One of the functions that religion plays in human life is to make time, seasons, occasions, and life passages holy.

Chapter 29 concerns making vows. Men are responsible for the vows they make. Women may make vows, but their fathers or husbands can nullify them. If the menfolk say nothing, it is taken as tacit approval.

It is was a man's world.

Next: Numbers 31-32

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Rule of Threes


In this post I mentioned the rule of threes. I probably explained it badly. Perhaps the following illustration will help.

One day a barber cut a teacher's hair. When he got done, the teacher asked, "What do I owe you?" The barber said, "You teachers put in long hours and get little pay or recognition. You educate our children and help to make the future brighter. Please, accept this haircut as a token of my thanks."

The next morning when he came to work, the barber found a dozen apples sitting on his doorstep.

That day the barber cut a police officer's hair. When he got done, the cop asked him, "What's the damages?" The barber said, "You know you police officers do so much for our community. You protect our lives and property. You preserve order and keep us safe. This haircut is on me."

The next morning when he came to work, he found a dozen donuts sitting on his doorstep.

That day the barber cut a preacher's hair. When the preacher said, "How much will that be?" The barber said, "You clergy do a lot for our world. You preach the Gospel. You baptize and marry and bury us. You comfort the bereaved and visit the sick. There's no charge for this haircut."

The next morning when he came to work the barber found a dozen preachers sitting on his doorstep.

It's an old joke, but it illustrates the Rule of Threes nicely. The first iteration sets up the premise. The second iteration sets the pattern. The third iteration breaks the pattern for comic effect.

Numbers 26:1-27:23


In Numbers 26, Moses and Eleazer the high priest take a second census of the Israelites. The total number of men aged 20 and up is 601,730. The entire generation that refused to enter Canaan has died off from fire, plagues, snakebite, and probably natural causes. Only faithful Caleb and Joshua survive.

The purpose of the census is to determine allotments of real estate when Canaan is conquered. Larger tribes get more land. The Levites, who are not apportioned land, number an additional 23,000 men, aged 1 month and up.

 We learn that the rebel leader Korah's line has not died out completely. This sounds ominous but it doesn't amount to anything. The Korahites will be found keeping the gates of the Tabernacle in 1 Chronicles 9:19.

Verse 27 begins with a remarkable event. The daughters of Zelophehad request an allotment of land and they receive it. YHWH not only approves of their request but makes it a rule: if a man has no sons, his daughters may inherit his land.

The daughters of Zelophehad are important enough to be mentioned 5 times in the Old Testament.

If you're thinking that this all sounds too good to be true, you're right. In Numbers 36 the rule is amended so that daughters who inherit must marry within their own tribe. Otherwise ownership of their land would fall to another tribe.

It is a man's world.

Since Moses is not allowed to enter the land of promise, he appoints Joshua as his succesor (vv. 13 ff.).

Next: Numbers 28-30

A Timely Reminder

Reading through Numbers, in which God sometimes seems so constantly and consistently angry, and anticipating Joshua, in which God is depicted as approving, even demanding, genocide, it was good to come across this blogpost by Peter Enns. Here's a quote to whet your appetite.

"So, the question, “Why would God command the Israelites to exterminate the Canaanites?” cannot be addressed in an intramural theological back-and-forth. It must also include this little bit of historical information: Yahweh’s actions are not unique but seem part of an ancient way of thinking.

"Maybe that’s the best way to sum up what I’m saying here: theological discussions about biblical interpretation must be in conversation with ancient ways of thinking."
Click through to read the whole thing. 

What I take away is this: Historical context matters in reading the Bible. Neither Numbers nor Joshua is the final revelation of God's character or will.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Numbers 23:1-25:18


The story of Balaam continues. It is clear now that he is a prophet. YHWH speaks through him. It seems that he may also "practice divination" (Numbers 24:1 NIV), or "look for omens" (NRSV).

Balaam's story continues in its humorous vein. King Balak has offered him a rich payment if he will curse Israel. Seven altars are built. Seven bulls and seven rams are sacrificed. Balaam goes to consult with YHWH and, instead of cursing the Israelites, he blesses them.

Balak is chagrined, but thinks a change of venue might, somehow help his cause. Seven more altars are built. Seven more bulls and rams are sacrificed. Balaam consults YHWH again, and again Balaam blesses Israel. Balak, understandably upset, basically tells Balaam, "If you can't curse them, at least don't bless them" (23:25).

In comedy there is a rule of threes. 1. An event is told. 2. The event is repeated, establishing a pattern. 3. The pattern is broken, to comic effect. The pattern being broken can also serve a dramatic effect. In the case of Balaam the third iteration turns a comic tale serious.

Balak suggests yet another new location. (It worked out so well before). Seven more altars are built. Seven more bulls and seven more rams are sacrificed. Then the pattern is broken...

As chapter 24 begins, Balaam does not go away to consult YHWH. The Lord speaks to him and through him right where he is. Balaam blesses Israel again. Balak angrily refuses to pay Balaam, yet Balaam will not shut up. He goes on to pronounce curses against the peoples of Canaan: Moab, Sheth, Edom, Seir, Amalek, and the Kenites will be conquered by Isreal. Ships from Cyprus will come to conquer Ashur and Eber.

In 24:25, Balak and Balaam part ways.

Chapter 25 tells how Moabite women led Israelite men into idolatry. YHWH sends a plague that kills 24,000 Israelites.

When an Israelite man named Zimri dares to bring a Midianite woman named Kozbi into the camp, into his family, into his tent, Aaron's grandson Phinehas grabs a spear and runs the offender (in flagrante delicto) clean through.

In the Hebrew Scriptures there is a current of hospitality and openness to outsiders. There is also an opposite current of xenophobia and concern for ethnic purity. This episode is an ugly example of the latter.

I guess that's why we ask "What would Jesus do?" and not "What would Phinehas do?"

Next: Numbers 26-27

Friday, April 26, 2013

Numbers 21:1-22:41


War stories, told from the victor's point of view, tend to cast the conquered as the bad guys. This is Israel's story. In Numbers 21, the Israelites encounter, and defeat destroy a succession of enemies. First up, the Canaanite king Arad, who attacks the Israelites. Arad's cities are utterly destroyed, committed to YHWH.

In verses 4-9 the Israelites begin to whine to Moses once more. We've heard their complaints before: "Why did you bring us out of Egypt? There's nothing to eat. There's no water to drink." YHWH gets a bit testy and sends poisonous snakes to bite the people. When the people repent, Moses intercedes. The Lord instructs him to make a bronze snake and set it up on a pole. In what I take to be another example of sympathetic magic, looking at the bronze serpent cures snakebite.

The snake on the pole is used in Christian art (and preaching, I'm sure) as a figure of Christ on the cross.

Idolatry has been defined as the sin of mistaking the good for the best. Generations later King Hezekiah will destroy the bronze serpent because the people have been worshiping it, calling it the "Nehushtan."

Verses 10-20 describe the Israelites travel toward Moab. There are two intriguing quotes in this section. The first (v. 14-15) is from an otherwise unknown Book of the Wars of the Lord. The second (vv. 17-18) is a song about a well.

Verses 21-35 tell of the defeat of Kings Sihon and Og. The Isrealites ask Sihon if they may pass through his territory in the same terms that they made the request of Edom. Sihon marches against them and loses. There is more poetry.

The difference in the way that Sihon is treated compared to the Edomites is striking. Edom and Israel (Esau and Jacob) were brothers. That counts for something.

Next King Og of Bashan is defeated. The Israelites possess the lands of Sihon and Og.

Chapter 22 begins the story of Balaam. Though not, as far as I can tell, an Israelite, Balaam seems to be a prophet or priest of YHWH.* He is summoned by Balak, the king of Moab. (Moab's namesake, if you will recall, was the child born of an incestuous coupling between Lot and one of his daughters). Balak wants Balaam to curse the Israelites. At first, Balaam demurs.

When Balak asks a second time, Balaam consults with YHWH and is given permission to accompany Balak's men to see the king. "But do only what I tell you," YHWH says.

Balaam does what YHWH says and, mysteriously, this makes YHWH angry. He sends an angel to prevent Balaam from traveling to Balak. Three times Balaam's donkey balks at the sight of the angel. (Balaam himself cannot see the angel). Three times Balaam beats the hapless animal. Then YHWH gives the donkey a voice to chide its master. Balaam finally sees the angel and realizes that the donkey has saved his life.

When I was a child, the story of Balaam's Ass (as dear King James and the good old Revised Standard Version called it) could give me a fit of the giggles. (Hehehe! The pastor said "ass"). Now that I'm more mature (not much more) I realize that there is deep, intentional humor in this story. From the ignoble origins of the Moabites, to the talking donkey, to the fact that Balaam is thwarted at every turn, the story is meant to be funny. Maybe even God's unaccountable change of heart about Balaam going to Balak (Doh! You did what I said!) is supposed to be humorous.

I know Christians who insist that this story is a factual account of historical events. I don't share that opinion. I don't really mind if they take the story literally. Just so they don't take it seriously.

*For what it's worth, 2 Peter 2:16 calls Balaam a prophet: "A dumb ass** spoke with human voice and restrained the prophet's madness."

**Snerk! He said "dumb ass."***

***Is there a rule about putting footnotes in footnotes?

Next: Numbers 23-25

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Numbers 18:1-20:29


The Levite rebellion has been quashed. The priestly hierarchy is secure. Numbers 18 outlines (and in part reiterates) the duties of the priests and Levites. It also specifies the terms of their pay. The tithes that the Israelites bring to the Tabernacle/Temple belong to the priests, although they give a tithe (1/10) of the tithes to God as offerings.

Chapter 19 describes the Water of Cleansing, which is used to purify anyone who has come into contact, or even proximity, with a corpse. The water is made with the ashes of a red heifer.* A minority faction of Jews today would like to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. Some Fundamentalist Christians, who believe that Jesus will not return until the Temple is rebuilt, are partnering with them. There are people breeding red cattle in preparation for the day a new Temple is dedicated. Without the ashes of a red heifer, the priests cannot be purified for service.

I have to say that trying to take the Temple Mount and rebuild the Temple is one of the loopier and more dangerous ideas floating around.

Verse 18 once again mentions the hyssop plant in connection with ritual cleansing.

At the beginning of Chapter 20 we read of the death of Miriam. She gets scant notice, but she is one of only a few women whose deaths are recorded in the Bible.

Verses 2-13 are a curious doublet of Exodus 17, where Moses supplies the thirsty Israelites with water from a rock. Once again the name Meribah (meaning something like "contention") is used. This time, however, Moses does something wrong and YHWH forbids him from entering the land of promise. The exact nature of Moses' trespass is not entirely clear. Probably he didn't give YHWH credit for the miracle. Deuteronomy 3:26 gives an alternate reason for God's forbidding Moses to enter Canaan.

In verses 14-21 the Israelites are forbidden to cross the land of Edom. The Edomites are the descendants of Esau. The old rivalry between Jacob and Esau is still playing out generations later. Rather than confront the Edomites, the Israelites choose another route.

In verses 22-29, we read of the death of Aaron. It is told in much fuller detail than the death of his sister, Miriam. Aaron's son Eleazer is appointed high priest in his father's place.

*A heifer is a young cow that has not yet had a calf. Or, as a rancher once told me, "The difference between a heifer and a cow is a bull."

Next: Numbers 21-22

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

GoodFellas, God, and Marcion

Not God
If I remember correctly it was back in 1990 when the movie GoodFellas was new. I heard Joe Pesci interviewed on the radio. He said that the key to playing his character was the realization that these guys walked around angry all the time.

There is a strain of Christianity that proclaims a GoodFellas God. They portray God as short-fused, pissed off, and wearing a permanent mad-on.

At the other extreme are Christians who depict God as all soft and fuzzy-wuzzy, a sort of teddy bear in the sky, incapable of anger.

Zack Hunt, on his American Jesus blog, has written a good piece about this under the title "An Angry God Vs. A God Who Gets Angry." The piece is worth reading. The distinction in the title deserves consideration.

Do you have an angry God?

Is your God capable of anger?

In the late first and early second centuries of the Common Era a bishop's son, a wealthy and charismatic man named Marcion, proclaimed a doctrine that the early orthodox Church condemned as heresy. Marcion had read the Hebrew Scriptures and decided that the creator God of the Old Testament was and unstable, violent, GoodFella's kind of God. The Jewish God, according to Marcion, was nothing like the fuzzy-wuzzy God whom Jesus called "Father." They were, he concluded, two different Gods.

Marcion of Sinope

As a result, Marcion's preaching had a distinctly anti-Jewish flavor. Marcion rejected the Hebrew Scriptures and developed his own authoritative canon. His Bible consisted of a redacted version of the Gospel of Luke and some of Paul's letters.

Martin Luther is supposed to have said that even dangerous heretics can serve the Kingdom of God. (Sorry, I can't source the quote). Marcion did the Church a service. He forced those early orthodox Christians to develop, however informally, their own canon of Scripture. Rather than reject the Hebrew Bible, they adopted it as their Old Testament.* Rather than one Gospel, orthodox Christianity recognized four distinct and sometimes incompatible Gospels as authoritative. Orthodoxy is a spectrum of belief. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John fall within the spectrum. Marcion fell outside of it. In addition to the letters of Paul, the New Testament canon came to include letters attributed to Peter and John, the books of Acts, Hebrews, Revelation, and more.

Modern Christians don't have the luxury that Marcion had. We cannot reject the Old Testament Scriptures. I would argue that this is a good. These Scriptures we have in common with the Jews give us a way forward in Jewish/Christian dialogues. Recognizing that which we have in common gives hope of progress in mending the historically hurtful and tendentious relationship of Church and Synagogue. Another value of having the Hebrew Scriptures in the Christian canon is the reminder that these books were Jesus' Bible. Jesus himself was a Jewish man of his times. The earliest Christian movement was made up of Jews.

Sometimes I meet Christians who are functional Marcionites. They don't like what they perceive to be the GoodFellas God of the Old Testament. They prefer what they think is the fuzzy-wuzzy** God of the New Testament. This is a profound misreading of both Testaments. We find God's grace and wrath in both divisions of the Christian Bible.

Also not God
I've been reading, and blogging about, the book of Numbers. God's wrath has been poured out pretty heavily on the Israelites in the last several chapters. The people have been disobedient, rebellious, and, most significantly, unfaithful. God is mad. There's no way around it.

Reading the full canon of Scripture gives a fuller picture of God's "personality." God is not just a teddy bear in the sky, much as I might sometimes like that. Neither is God a GoodFella.

I don't believe that God is only and always angry. I do, however, believe that God can get angry. Perhaps God gets angriest at the people whom God has chosen, those whom God loves. From those to whom much is given, much is expected. (Luke 12:48).

I believe that God gets angriest about injustice.

*Until the 16th century the additional deuterocanonical books of the Septuagint were also included in the Old Testament. Since the Reformation, the Protestant canon omits those additional books.

**I had to laugh at myself just now. I originally typed "fuzzy-wussy" but I caught and corrected it. Was it a typo or a Freudian slip?

Numbers 16:1-17:13


The Rebellions against Moses' leadership are not over. In Numbers 16, some Levites named Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, along with 250 of their fellows, confront Moses. The whole people, they say, are holy. Why are only Moses and Aaron allowed to approach the Lord in the Tabernacle? These upstarts seem to be advocating anarchy, though it seems more likely to me that they simply want a share in the hierarchy.

Again, some details of this narrative are not entirely clear, probably because multiple sources were combined to create it.

Moses says that YHWH can choose the leadership and tells the 250 rebels to bring their censers to the Tent of Meeting the next day.

In verse 20, YHWH is prepared to destroy the entire assembly, probably meaning all of the Israelites. Moses persuades God otherwise.

Korah. and presumably Dathan, and Abiram, along with their entire families are swallowed up by the earth and go down to  Sheol alive. Sheol is the shadowy, subterranean abode of the dead. Later ideas of eternal punishment and reward are not in play here. The righteous and unrighteous both end in Sheol.

The 250 rebellious Levites are consumed by fire. Their bronze censers are beaten into sheets and used as a covering for the Tabernacle's altar, a lasting reminder that God has chosen only Aaron's family to serve as priests.

In verse 41, there is more angry rebellion. The people complain that Moses has "killed the Lord's people." The Lord sends a plague that kills another 14,700 of them before Moses and Aaron can intervene on their behalf.

The mourning and mass burials that must have followed are not narrated.

In chapter 17, Moses declares a test that should forestall further uprisings. The 12 tribal leaders of the Israelites all present their staffs (or is it staves?) to Moses who places them before the Ark of the Covenant. In the morning Aaron's staff, and only Aaron's staff, has budded, blossomed, and produced almonds.

Verses 12-13 record the people's horrified, mournful reaction. "We're all going to die!" they wail. No one offers them comfort. In fact they will all die. But not immediately.

Next: Numbers 18-20

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Numbers 14:1-15:41


I don't believe that God is wrathful. I am convinced, however, that God is judge. For this reason I am never completely comfortable with God. "I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me." (Psalm 51:3)

In the fourteenth chapter of Numbers Moses and Aaron are faced with open rebellion. The Israelites, afraid of the giant inhabitants of Canaan, want to pick a new leader and go back to Egypt. Caleb and Joshua try to convince the people to enter Canaan, but the people threaten to stone them to death. God's glory appears at the Tabernacle. YHWH is prepared to destroy the people and carry on his covenant through Moses alone.

It is a dramatic scene.

Moses, against his own best interests convinces the Lord not to destroy his people. It is a matter of honor. What will the Egyptians say if the God who led these people out of slavery killed them all in the desert?  In verse 18 Moses reminds YHWH of his own self description.

 'The LORD is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children to the third and the fourth generation.'  (Numbers 14:18, emphasis added).

That is quoted from the New Revised Standard Version. I'm actually using the New International Version 2011 edition as my primary Bible for this read-through. It's not my favorite version, but it is very popular and I haven't read the entire NIV11 before. it does something interesting with this verse. It renders the words I bolded above as "forgiving sin and rebellion." I trust that this is a legitimate translation. It certainly contextualizes the words to the situation at hand.

At Moses' urging, YHWH relents from destroying the Israelites. Can we hold God accountable to God's best nature? Is it our job to remind God of who God is?

There are consequences, however. The generation of Israelites who were counted in the census will not enter the land of promise. Their sojourn in the wilderness will last 40 years and they will all die. Their children will inherit the land.

The spies, except Joshua and Caleb, are struck down immediately. Some Isrealites repent of their earlier disobedience and distrust but compound the problem by failing to obey God now. They try to enter Canaan and are soundly defeated by the people who dwell there.

Chapter 15 begins with more instructions concerning sacrifices and offerings. It tells us that unintentional sins are forgivable, but sins committed intentionally cannot be forgiven. In the latter case the sinner is to be "cut off" from the people. I've pondered this before. Some of the sources I read suggest that "cut off" means exile. In Exodus 30 it seems to be equivalent to "killed."

In these instructions, once more, we find that the same rule applies for the Israelites and for the foreigners who dwell among them.

In verses 32-36 we find the case of a man who is stoned to death for gathering wood on the Sabbath. This seems harsh. The Sabbath commandment is taken very seriously. By the time of Jesus exceptions to the Sabbath commandment had been established. (c,f, Matthew 12:11, Luke 13:15).

Verses 37-41 end the chapter with instructions that the Israelites are to put fringes on their garments as a reminder of God's commandments. Orthodox and Conservative Jews today have fringes (zitzith) on their prayer shawls (talith).

Have archeologists uncovered the skeletons of giant Anakites who lived in Canaan?I found the picture above on the internet, so it has to be real.

Next: Numbers 16-17

Monday, April 22, 2013

Numbers 11:1-13:33


YHWH comes off as a vengeful sort of deity in Numbers 11. When the Israelites get whiny about their troubles, God begins destroying them by fire. Moses has to intervene. (Numbers 11:1-3).

It is not uncommon, even today, for people to attribute natural disasters, diseases, and all sorts of misfortunes to God's agency. What do you think? Is this what God is like?

Next the people begin to complain about having nothing but manna to eat. I can understand this. I don't like to eat the same thing day after day, either. The description of the manna in this passage differs slightly in detail from the description in Exodus 16:31. There is a kind of over-the-top humor in this passage. The people remember all the tasty foods they ate "for nothing" (v. 5) in Egypt, overlooking the fact that they worked as slave laborers. The Lord gets angry. Then Moses complains about playing nursemaid to 600,000 people. "Kill me now," he says (v. 15).

Interjected into this account is a story of how Moses, at YHWH's instruction,  appoints 70 leaders in Israel to share his burden. This story doubles, in some ways, the appointment of the judges in Exodus 18. The elders are gathered in one place. When two men Eldad and Medad (mentioned nowhere else in Scripture) begin to prophesy apart from the group, Moses defends them, and in the process defends God's sovreignty.

The Lord promises the Israelites the meat that they desire. So much that it will come out their noses! (v. 20). Meat comes in the form of quails, as it did in Exodus 16. I didn't realize that the quails had ever stopped coming. I'm thinking this represents another case of multiple sources being combined into a single narrative.

As an aside, I don't think I've ever eaten quail. I know I've never eaten manna.

God, angry, strikes the people with a plague (v. 33). God's vengeance gives names to various places. The people move on.

Chapter 12 is, to be frank, confusing. Aaron and Miriam start to bellyache because Moses has married a Cushite (i.e. not Israelite) woman. Is this Cushite wife Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro/Reuel/Hobab? Why didn't his siblings complain before? Or has Moses married another woman?

At any rate, Miriam and Aaron challenge Moses' leadership. An editorial comment (v. 3) assures us that Moses is "the most humble person on earth." At the Tent of Meeting, God affirms his special relationship with Moses and Miriam is afflicted with a skin disease, at least temporarily. The text does not say that YHWH made Miriam leprous, though that seems to be the implication. Moses intervenes again, and the Lord reduces Miriam's sentence to one week of leprosy.

Aaron gets off scot-free. What's up with that? Is it because he is the High Priest and cannot afford to be unclean? Is it another case of male privelege?

The Israelites move on again (v. 16).

In chapter 13, Moses sends 12 men to spy out the land of Canaan. Moses changes the name of Hoshea to Joshua. Curiously, the name Hoshea was only used for this man in the book of Numbers. Back in Exodus he was already knows as Joshua.

On their return, the spies, (carrying a huge bunch of grapes from Canaan) report that the land, flowing with milk and honey, is full of fortified cities and occupied by giants. One of the spies, Caleb, recommends immediate occupation of the land. The people are unconvinced.


Next: Numbers 14-15

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Numbers 8:1-10:36


 The first five books of the Bible--Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy--are collectively called the Pentateuch.  Sometimes they are also called the "Five Books of Moses" and there is a very old tradition that claims Moses was their author. This is highly unlikely if not impossible. Still, there are believers who defend the notion.

Scholars tell us that the Pentateuch is actually a composite document, compiled from several sources, and edited long ago into a single narrative. Critical scholarship has developed a highly refined theory of the sources behind the Pentateuch. If you are interested in the details, google "Documentary Hypothesis." As always, read with discernment. There is some good information out there. There is also some crap.

From time to time I come across a claim to the effect that the Documentary Hypothesis has been refuted, discredited, or abandoned by mainstream scholarship. This is not true. I have not seen a refutation of the Documentary Hypothesis that held up to critical scrutiny. Those who say that the hypothesis has been discredited are the Fundamentalists, bibilicists, and inerrantists who, for theological reasons, never gave it any credit to begin with. As for the Documentary Hypothesis being abandoned, I will say that there are schools of criticism that look at the Pentateuch as a finished literary whole. They are not interested in the sources behind the text so much as the text itself. This hardly means that they have abandoned the Documentary Hypothesis. It is just that their interests lie elsewhere.

When a text is woven together from diverse sources it is almost bound to contain repetitions, inconsistencies, and perhaps even contradictions.

Numbers 8 begins with Aaron lighting the seven oil lamps in the Tabernacle's lampstand. Beginning at verse 5 there is a description of the ceremony ordaining the Levites for their service in the Tabernacle. Back in Numbers 4, a census was taken of the Levites aged 30-50. In Numbers 8:23-25, we learn that the years of their service is from ages 25-50. I have no idea why the 25-29 year old weren't counted. It may have to do with the sources behind the text.

Chapter 9 tells how the Israelites celebrated the first Passover outside of Egypt. A provision is made for those who, for reasons of ritual uncleanness or travel, cannot join in the celebration. Their Passover will be held one month later. Exceptions like this reveal a certain grace. The Law is not meant to be a burden.

Numbers 9:14 commands foreigners living among the Israelites to participate in the Passover. In Exodus 12:48 there was a commandment that foreigners who wanted to eat the Passover had to be circumcised. This is not exactly a contradiction, but it does pose a difficulty. What of the uncircumcised foreigner among the Israelites?

Verses 15 ff. concern the pillar of cloud and fire, symbolizing YHWH's presence, which leads the Israelites through the wilderness.

Chapter 10 describes the construction and use of a pair of silver trumpets which are used to signal various kinds of information to the Israelites.Verses 11-28 describe the Israelites departure from Sinai and the order in which the tribes march.

Then, in verses 29 ff.  we find Moses in conference with his father-in-law. In Exodus 2, the man was called Reuel. In Exodus 18, he was known as Jethro. Here he is called Hobab, son of Reuel. Granting that Reuel might be a clan or tribal name, and granting that a lot of biblical characters (and places) are known by more than one name, there is no real problem here. I would venture a guess that the various names of Moses' father-in-law come from different sources. The fact that Jethro is said to have gone back to his home back at Exodus 18:27, and there is no mention of his return to the Israelite camp, and yet here he is as Hobab being invited to travel with the Israelites....Let's just call it a continuity mistake.

I'm not entirely sure whether Moses persuaded his father-in-law to travel along or not.

Numbers 10 concludes with the "Song of the Ark." This consists of two sets of verses, one for departure and one for arrival, which describe YHWH as a warrior.

Next: Numbers 11-13

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Numbers 7:1-89


In the seventh chapter of Numbers, Moses once again sets up the Tabernacle for the first time. The first time he set it up for the first time was back in Exodus 40. This, then, is another account of the same event. I would hazard a guess that it is from a different source.

In this account, Israel's tribal leaders present gifts for the service of the Tabernacle. Wagons and oxen are given to the Levite lines responsible for transporting the Tabernacle.The Kohathites, who transport the Tabernacle's holiest furnishings (the ark of the covenant, the altar, etc.) do not get wagons. They are to carry these things on their shoulders.

Verses 12-83 are more boilerplate. On 12 successive days, the leaders of the 12 tribes present identical gifts to the Tabernacle. From paragraph to paragraph all that changes is the name of the leader, the name of the tribe, and the number of the day.

Verses 84-88 tally all the gifts together.

Verse 89 reports that Moses entered the Tabernacle and that God spoke to him there from above the ark of the covenant.

Next: Numbers 8-10.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Numbers 5:1-6:27


My wife has been researching her genealogy. She recently discovered that one of her direct ancestors was accused of witchcraft in Puritan New England. The accuser was a jealous and vengeful neighbor. The ancestor spent two months in a jail cell, which sounds quite horrible enough. In the end, a jury pronounced her innocent. I can't help but think that she was one of the lucky ones. After all, how can you prove that you are not a witch? At least this ancestor was not subjected to a trial by ordeal.

In Leviticus 20:10, we read that the punishment for adultery was death for both parties. As I understand it, in that patriarchal society, the rules for what constituted adultery were different for men and women. It all had to do with the woman's marital status. A married man who had sex with a single woman was not guilty of adultery. If a man, regardless of his marital status, had sex with another man's wife, they were both guilty of adultery.

Adultery, literally adulterating the substance of another man's marriage, had as much to do with property rights and inheritance as anything. Adultery was a crime against a man. Conviction and punishment depended upon the testimony of witnesses. The adulterers had to be caught in the act.

Numbers 5 begins with instructions that unclean persons are to be put outside of the Israelite camp until they are restored to a state of cleanness. Verses 5-10 concern confession of crimes and the payment of restitution. Then, at verse 11, begins a description of the procedure for dealing with a woman who is suspected of adultery, but against whom no witnesses can be found. It is nothing other than a trial by ordeal.

How does a woman prove that she is not having an undetected affair?

The suspicious husband takes his wife (and a grain offering) to the priest. The priest loosens the woman's hair (like a whore?) and makes her invoke curses upon herself. Then he gives her the "water of bitterness" to drink.

What is this bitter water? It is "holy" water, perhaps from the laver in which the priests wash their hands and feet. Already we know that the water is not clean, not in the hygienic sense. There was probably oil, animal blood, dirt, and maybe dung washed off into this water. Added to the water is some dust from the Tabernacle floor. Next, the priests writes the curses against the woman. What the words are written on is unspecified, but the words are washed off in the water of bitterness and the woman is made to drink it--literally drinking the words of the curse.

If the woman's "uterus drops," or her belly distends, or she miscarries, or something....if the water of bitterness makes her infertile, then she was guilty. If she is innocent, YHWH is supposed to protect her from the harmful effects of the bitter water.

Was there actually anything in the water to cause the physical effects mentioned? I don't know. If not, then the whole process was a sham, maybe designed to make the woman confess. If so, then the procedure was nothing less than deliberate poisoning. Either way, it is horrifying.

The possibilities for tampering with the process to insure an outcome are significant.

One of the study Bibles I consulted insists that this whole business is not magic. I question that assertion. Trial by ordeal, designed to provoke divine intervention for the innocent, is almost by definition magic.

Some small consolation may be drawn from the fact that the woman involved could not be put to death merely because of her husband's suspicions. Should the woman be "proven" innocent, the breach in family relationships that would almost surely result from this process is hard to contemplate. There are no instances recorded in the Bible of the water of bitterness ever actually being used.

Women who suspected their husbands of infidelity had no apparent recourse. Remember, adultery in that patriarchal culture was a crime against a man.

Whatever else may be said about the water of bitterness, it is right for us, modern people that we are, to react with repugnance, revulsion, and rejection of the process itself and the cultural assumptions underlying it.

Let me pause here to raise a theological question. If the Bible is, in some sense, the word of God, might passages like this be God's provocations? Might God be asking us to engage our brains, our hearts, our sense of moral outrage? Might God be picking an argument? Abraham trusted God and it was counted as righteousness toward him. Abraham also argued with God over the fate of Sodom. It was the kind of argument that only persons who trust one another can engage in. I still wish that Abraham would have argued with God about the sacrifice of Isaac. Maybe God, as I have said before, wanted that too.

Chapter 6 takes a brighter turn. It begins with instructions for the nazirites. Nazirites (the word means something like "those consecrated" or "those set apart")were laypeople who took a vow of special service to the Lord, usually for a limited period of time.

Nazirites were to let their hair grow for the duration of their vow. They were to avoid wine (probably all alcoholic beverages) and all grape products.* At the completion of their vow, the nazirites shave their heads and make certain sacrifices at the Tabernacle. Vows, as always, are taken very seriously.

Chapter 6 ends with instructions for the blessing that Aaron, and his successor high priests, are to pronounce over the people. The words of this Aaronic blessing are still spoken in synagogues and churches today:

The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

A few weeks ago, I got a haircut. That evening I drank a glass of wine. There was a box of raisins on the kitchen counter, leftover from my wife's baking Irish soda bread. So, I grabbed a handful of raisins. As I popped one into my mouth I thought, "It's a good thing I'm not under a Nazirite vow." This is how you know that I am a Bible geek.

Next: Numbers 7

Thursday, April 18, 2013


"If it comes to it, it is better to blame God, this hidden and ineffable God (deus absconditus) than to try to account for God's ways, to justify God."
--Vitor Westhelle, The Scandalous God

Numbers 3:1-4:49


Exempted from military service, the Levites, divided into 3 branches consisting of 8 clans, are counted in a census for their service to the Tabernacle. Each branch of Levites is assigned a set of duties and a campsite on an inner ring surrounding the Tabernacle. (See the illustration accompany my last post).

In Numbers 3:40 ff. Moses, at the Lord's command, conducts a census of the Levites aged 1 month and up and the Israelite firstborn males, aged 1 month and up. YHWH had claimed all the firstborn Israelites as his personal possession after the Passover. Now God exchanges the Levites for the firstborns. The accounting shows that there are 273 more firstborns than there are Levites. These must be redeemed at the rate of 5 silver shekels per firstborn. 273 x 5 silver shekels = beau coup dinero.*

Okay, it actually equals 1365 shekels of silver (Verse 50).

In chapter 4 the duties of the various Levite clans are spelled out in greater detail. The Kohathite clans are responsible to transport the most holy furnishings. It is interesting to note the precautions taken to keep them from actually seeing the ark of the covenant. Levite men aged 30-50 years are counted, presumably because these were the years of their service.

*First person to identify this (admittedly obscure) reference wins the whole intertubes and my undying respect. 

Next: Numbers 5-6

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Numbers 1:1-2:34


Some might argue that the Book of Numbers, with all those numbers, is the most boring book of the Bible. It certainly doesn't come on like Gangbusters.* Personally I find the opening chapters of 1 Chronicles, with their endless genealogies, much duller. Mark Twain described the Book of Mormon (the actual book, not the musical play by the same name) as "chloroform in print." That pretty much sums up my feelings about 1 Chronicles 1-9. But, we'll get to that....

In chapter 1 of Numbers, the Lord instructs Moses to take a census of the Israelites. He is to count the men, age 20 and up, who are fit for military service. Presumably they all pay the half-shekel head tax that was commanded in Exodus 30 and, mysteriously, already collected in Exodus 38. A leader from each of the 12 tribes is chosen to assist with the project.

The Levites are exempted from the census in order to care for the Tabernacle. I have heard that during the Viet Nam war seminaries were full of students seeking a religious exemption from the draft. Levites get a sort of religious exemption but a person has to be born into the tribe. This is one way, I suppose, to prevent draft dodging.

Verses 20-43 are boilerplate. In each paragraph only the name of the tribe and the number of men changes.

Chapter 2 repeats the names of the tribal leaders and the numbers of the men counted in the census as it describes how the Israelites are to set up their encampments and the order in which they are to march.

A picture is worth a lot of words:

*Does anyone still know this reference?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Leviticus 26:1-27:34


Leviticus 26 begins by repeating  the commandments that prohibit idolatry and enjoin Sabbath observance.

In verses 3-13 we read a series of blessings that will be granted to Israel if they keep YHWH's commandments. Verses 14-45 tell of the curses that will accrue from disobedience. These curses foreshadow the conquests of Israel and Judah.

The equation is simple. Obedience brings safety and prosperity. Disobedience results in escalating afflictions. Much of the Bible promotes this idea. So, for that matter, do some modern preachers). There are other parts of the Bible that question it, in particular the wisdom books of Ecclesiastes and Job.

What do you think? Is the fear of punishment and the promise of blessing a compelling reason for faith?

Chapter 27, the last chapter of Leviticus,  describes the redemption value of various things that might be offered in a vow to YHWH. Vows are not required of the Israelites, and might even be discouraged. Once taken a vow is nevertheless binding.

If the item vowed is a human being, age and gender determine the value. Males are always more valuable than females of the same age. Allowances, once again, are made for the poor.

A firstborn animal cannot be vowed to the Lord, as it already belongs to him.

Verses 30-33 specify that a tithe, that is 1/10 of livestock and harvest, shall be given to the Lord. And verse 34 brings us to the end of Leviticus.

 Been there. Done that. Read the book. Got the T-shirt.

 I found the T-shirt image here. My use of this image should be interpreted as amusement, not endorsement.

Next: Numbers 1-2

Monday, April 15, 2013

Leviticus 24:1-25:55

The Year of Blogging Biblically: Day 40

We are still reading in that part of Leviticus called the "Holiness Code." Chapter 24 begins with instructions that the Israelites are to provide pure olive oil for the Tabernacle lamp. Different translations handle verse three variously. Some make it seem that Aaron must personally tend the lamp all night. Others offer the more likely possibility that Aaron should "set up" the lamp to burn all night.

Verses 5-9 contain instructions concerning what the King James Version charmingly called the shewbread. Twelve loaves of unleavened bread (one for each tribe?) were placed on the table in the Tabernacle. The loaves were replaced each week and eaten by the priests. Incense was placed on the table with the bread..

Verses 10-23 narrate the story of a man who is stoned to death for the crime of blasphemy, for cursing the Name of the Lord. In the circles that I travel blasphemy doesn't seem to be  taken very seriously. "God" is used as a a mild expletive. "God damn" and "Jesus" are thoughtless expressions of anger or surprise.  Of course, none of these are the Name that the blasphemer in these verses misused. He said "YHWH" with the vowels intact.

I intentionally avoid using the Name of the Lord. Some devout Jews will not even write the word "God" preferring to use G-d, even though God is not a name, but more of a job description.

Occasionally I encounter someone who uses blasphemy deliberately, usually with the intention of offending believers. I tend to shrug it off. Being deliberately provocative reflects badly on the provoker. And on those who get provoked. I remember the Danish newspaper that published cartoon depictions of Muhammad back in 2005. It was a childish act of provocation. Sadly, it drew exactly the reaction it desired.

In the middle of this passage about the blasphemer, the principle of "an eye for an eye" is restated. I've heard it said that this principle serves to put a limit on punishment and retribution. Maybe so. By a coincidence, my Twitter feed today included a quote attributed to Mahatma Ghandi:

An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.

Though I wouldn't advocate the death penalty for blasphemy today, and though I prefer to deal with provocation by ignoring it, I think the world would be better if we were all more sensitive to one another, and a little more conscious of casual blasphemy.

Chapter  25 contains instructions for Sabbath years, and for the year of Jubilee. These instructions look forward (at least in narrative time) to the days when the Israelites will be settled in Canaan.

Every seventh year is to be a Sabbath year. No crops are to be planted. The land is supposed to rest. The people will be sustained by the harvests of previous years and by the food that grows by itself. This may be a sound agricultural practice, preventing the soil from being depleted. It may also be a lesson in trusting God's providence.

Every fiftieth year is to be a Jubilee.

 It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family. (Leviticus 25:10b)

Whether the year of Jubilee was ever actually observed is an open question.

In a previous post I asked the question "Were there no mules in ancient Israel?" A simple search of the Old Testament shows that there were. Either they were used, but, as the offspring of two different kinds of animals were considered unclean OR donkeys and horses were not considered to be of different kinds.

Next: Leviticus 26-27.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Leviticus 22:1-23:44


Leviticus 22 begins with further instructions for Israel's priests. To handle or consume sacrificial meat, they must be in a state of cleanness, that is, ritual purity. The penalty is death, which is apparently the direct and inevitable result of infraction.

Only priests and their immediate households are allowed to eat sacrificial meat. Any unqualified person who unwittingly eats of a sacrifice must pay a penalty, as would a thief. But this does not mean that the priests are allowed to sell the meat of a sacrifice!

Like the priests themselves, animals offered for sacrifice must not have physical defects. The only exception is an animal given as a freewill offering. In this case, the animal may have a bad leg.

Verse 26 specifies that an animal less than 8 days old should not be used as a sacrifice. The reason for this is not made clear in the text. In verse 28 YHWH instructs that an animal and its offspring should not be sacrificed on the same day. Footnotes in various study Bibles suggest that this is a matter of humane concern. Animals may be killed, offered as sacrifices, and/or eaten but they should not be treated cruelly.

Chapter 23 is a calendar of sabbaths and festivals. One purpose of religion is to consecrate time. The weekly sabbath is to be a day of rest. There is to be an annual Passover sacrifice followed by a week-long celebration of the festival of Unleavened Bread.

Next there is an offering of first fruits, and on the fiftieth day after the Passover comes a harvest festival, the festival of Weeks (Shavuot, in Hebrew).

On the first day of the seventh month, trumpets are blown. On the tenth day of the seventh month the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) is observed.

Finally, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, the Festival of Booths (Sukkoth) begins. During this festival the Israelites live in temporary shelters in remembrance of the temporary shelters that their ancestors lived in while traveling from Egypt to Canaan.

It should be obvious that these festivals and observances, though they are commanded here, will be kept in the narrative future, after the Israelite occupation of Canaan, when they can grow crops, and when they will need to remember the events of the Exodus.

Next: Leviticus 24-25

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Leviticus 19:1-21:24


Leviticus 17-26 are sometimes called the "Holiness Code." The instructions in these chapters teach the Israelites how to be holy, set apart for God. Chapter 19 contains various laws, many of which are repeated from earlier parts of the Pentateuch.

Some of the instructions on how to be holy are based in concern for others. Verses 9-10 tell the Israelites to leave a little of their harvest in the field so that the poor and foreigners will have something to eat. Verse 14 says "Don't curse the deaf or trip the blind." (My paraphrase). Unable to hear a curse, the deaf could not defend against it. Putting a stumbling block in front of a blind person is just cruel.

Verse 19 warns about mixing things. Animals of different kinds are not to be interbred. (Were there no mules in ancient Israel?) Fields are to be planted with only one kind of seed. Fabrics woven of different kinds of material are not to be worn. Holiness, as taught in Leviticus, requires that everything be in its proper place.

Verses 23-24 are an interesting agricultural instruction. Fruit trees are not to be harvested for three years after planting. In the fourth year, the harvest is given to the Lord--a literal first fruits offering. In the fifth year, the one who planted it can enjoy the fruit.

Verse 27 instructs the Israelite men not to cut the hair on the sides of their heads. This accounts for the curly sidelocks that Orthodox Jewish men wear today.

Verse 28 prohibits cutting one's flesh in mourning for the dead or tattooing the flesh. I suspect that the tattoo thing is also about mourning. It certainly lends irony to this, however:

Verse 31 is a law against consulting a medium. This will be an important point in the story of Saul in 1 Samuel 28.

Chapter 20 specifies punishments for infractions of the Laws listed previously. The Bible that I'm reading heads this chapter "Punishments for Sins." Sin is a little misleading here, however. I've noted before that sin and crime are not separate categories in Leviticus.

Sacrificing a child to Molech is punishable by death. The unclean sexual acts listed in chapter 18 are mostly punishable by death. Having sex during a woman's menstrual period may be an exception. It only calls for the violators to be "cut off," though, as I noted in an earlier post, this may be a euphemism for death.

Mediums and those who consult them are to be put to death.

The regulations in chapter 21 are addressed specifically to the priests of Israel. When Nadab and Elihu were struck dead their father, Aaron, was not permitted to mourn. Now the priests may mourn for their close relatives, but not for their in-laws or  more distant relations.

The priests must marry acceptable women. Read "virgins."

Members of the priestly family who have physical defects are excluded from service in the Tabernacle (and later the Temple). They are still allowed to eat sacrificial meat. YHWH just doesn't seem to want defective things in his Temple.

As a far-sighted man with a broken left middle finger, I guess that would leave me out. Still, when the Ethiopian eunuch asked the Apostle Philip "What is to prevent me from being baptized?" Philip did not point out the obvious "defect." He just baptized the guy. (Acts 8:26 ff.). As a Christian I'm not banking on any holiness of my own. I'm counting on Jesus to be my holiness.

Next: Leviticus 22-23.

Friday, April 12, 2013

More Billboards

Coming back west from Columbus, I saw more religious billboards on Route 70 in Indiana.  The first one featured bold white letters on a black background.


I wondered for a few moments what this billboard meant. Was it a response to someone's assertion to the contrary? Then I spotted another sign in the same white-on-black lettering.


I may not have captured the precise wording, but that was the gist of the thing. I don't personally worry too much about eternity. I'm trusting God to take care of it. That's part of what it means to be saved. I'm much more concerned about what Christians do in this life. We should be free, after all, to put God's love into action. That's another part of what it means to be saved. 

A few miles farther west, I spotted a billboard that said:


I have never responded well to threats. Threaten me and I'm liable to call your bluff. That includes the threat of hell. Note what I said above about being saved. Keep it in mind when I say that hell, as it usually preached, will have many more interesting people in it than heaven. 

Scare tactics may be effective conversion tools in some cases. As for me, I think Christians are much more likely to be effective if they try loving people into the Kingdom.

A little farther west there was another sign from the Tom Raper Foundation Inc. Ft. Lauderdale, Florida:


After I crossed into Illinois the religious billboards gave way to Burma Shave-style signs with bad rhymes proclaiming the benefits of gun ownership.

After an 8 hour drive through the rain, it is good to be home.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Leviticus 16:1-18:30


Chapter 16 of Leviticus mandates an annual Day of Atonement. Once each year Aaron, or his successor high priest, may enter the Holy of Holies and approach the Ark of the Covenant which is, symbolically or actually, the very presence of YHWH. To make this approach unworthily is to risk the kind of death that befell Nadab and Abihu. The high priest must therefore make sacrifices for himself and for the whole community. He must bathe himself and vest properly. A lot of blood is sprinkled around.

The atonement ritual involves a scapegoat, a live animal upon which the community's sins are placed. It is then sent into the wilderness, almost certainly to die. It is interesting to note that the scapegoat is not intentionally killed.

Verse 16:8 mentions Azazel, a strange word occurring only here in Scripture. It is either the name of a desert demon (see 17:7) or a word meaning something like "removal of sin" (so the Septuagint translated it).

Whatever the word means, the ritual is meant to atone for unknown sins on the part of the Israelites. God's presence does not tolerate sin.

Jewish people still observe a day of atonement at Yom Kippur. Of course, without the Temple, the ritual is quite different. For Christians, Jesus is our atonement.

Leviticus 17 requires the Israelites to bring animals to the Tabernacle for slaughter. The priests serve as the community's butchers.

Verse 17:7 makes mention of goat demons. The israelites are not to sacrifice to them.

Verses 10 and following repeat and expand upon the prohibition against consuming blood. Hunters must bleed out their kill and cover the blood with earth. Blood equals life and belongs to God.

Animals not properly bled are unclean. Those who consume them must wash ritually and will be unclean until evening. Evening, in Hebrew reckoning, marked the start of a new day.

Chapter 18 contains regulations concerning sex. Certain sexual practices are forbidden. Why? The Egyptians and Canaanites did them.

Forbidden practices include incest in varying degrees (Your aunt is off limits. Your first cousin seemingly OK), menstrual sex, adultery, male/male sex, and bestiality. Contra Jacob, men should not take their wives' sisters as "rival wives."

In the middle of these sex laws is a prohibition against sacrificing one's children to Molech (a Canaanite deity).

Verse 24 repeats that these practices are to avoided because these are things the Canaanites do. In other words, this is not about morality but about holiness--about Israel being set apart as YHWH's nation.

Anachronistically (or proleptically) the land is said to have vomited out the Canaanites for their unclean practices.

Next: Leviticus 19-21

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Leviticus 14:1-15:33


The uncleanness of "leprosy" leads to a kind of social death. The person infected is cut off from her or his community, family, and God. Leviticus 14 gives instructions for the rituals of purification by which a person could be restored to right relationship in all of these areas of life.

The details of the ritual are somewhat arcane. I don't think anyone knows quite what the purpose of the scarlet thread and the hyssop actually was. The implication of the ritual seems to be that sin is the cause of the disease and its attendant uncleanness.

In this age of modern medicine we can no longer consider sin the cause of illness. At least not in the simple calculus of Leviticus. Sin as a cause of broken relationships, however, is still a valid equation. In fact sin as the state of brokenness is a good Lutheran theological premise.

Returning to the mysterious use of the hyssop plant in the purification ritual, I can't read this chapter without remembering Psalm 51 which, I think, speaks of hyssop metaphorically.

Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean indeed. (Psalm 51:7)

This verse featured in the order for confession that I knew as a child. Here it refers to cleansing from sin.

Chapter 14 also gives rites for the purification of "leprous" houses and fabrics.

Once again, provision is made for the poor to offer less expensive sacrifices.

Bodily discharges are the subject of chapter 15. Wet dreams, unusual genital emissions, menstrual blood are all unclean. Anything they come into contact with becomes unclean. Uncleanness is removed by rituals of purification. Except for clay vessels. Apparently earthenware absorbs uncleanness and must be destroyed.

Although I am comfortable with the language of sin and forgiveness--I think it accurately describes the human condition of estrangement--talk of cleanness and uncleanness is foreign to my thinking. As a Christian I believe that one thing Jesus did was to break down the barriers between heaven and earth, the sacred and profane, the clean and unclean. His cross brings holiness to the least holy places. Christ hallows all the earth.

Next: Leviticus 16-18

Leviticus 11:1-13:59


Leviticus 11 contains instructions for distinguishing between clean and unclean foods. In this context the terms clean and unclean refer neither to hygiene nor morality, though they may overlap those categories. What they refer to is holiness, that is, a sense that the Isaraelites are set apart as God's special people.

For I am the Lord who brought you up from the land of Egypt, to be your God; you shall be holy, for I am holy. (Leviticus 11:45).

That which is clean is acceptable to be brought into the presence of God. We are reminded in this chapter that uncleanness is a kind of contagion. It is spread by contact.

Clean animals, suitable for eating, are those that chew cud and have divided hooves. Clean fish have scales and fins (No shellfish). Clean insects are the ones that fly and/or hop. I've read that cleanness has to do with things being "properly ordered" or "in their appropriate place." What is soil in the garden is dirt in the kitchen.

Chapter 11 treats us to some of the misconceptions of ancient zoology. Rock badgers chew cud. Bats are birds. Insects walk on "all fours."

In chapter 12 we learn that childbirth renders a woman temporarily unclean. The length of that impurity is doubled if she has a girl. Return to a state of cleanness requires a sacrifice.

Chapter 13 tells, in exacting detail, how the priests of ancient Israel were to diagnose leprosy, a term that refers to several diseases of the skin and also, apparently, to molds that might infect houses and fabrics. All of these things are unclean. People with leprosy are isolated from their neighbors, not to prevent the spread of disease so much as the spread of uncleanness.

I remember, many years ago, attending a friend's Bar Mitzvah. the Torah portion that day was from Leviticus 13. The rabbi spoke about leprosy infecting houses. I don't remember what he said but I was impressed that he found something in this passage about which to speak meaningfully.

Next: Leviticus 14-15

Monday, April 8, 2013

Another Billboard

On I-70 between Springfield and Columbus, I spied a billboard touting 5 of the 10 Commandments, according to some reckonings. It said:


At least that's what I think it said. It went by pretty fast at 72 mph.*

Interestingly it omitted the Commandments specific to the worship of YHWH. You know: "No other gods. No idols. Don't take the Lord's name in vain. Keep the Sabbath." I suppose that the 5 Commandments listed are more universally applicable.

Curiously it also omitted the Commandment about honoring your parents. What's up with that?

And for those who wonder why I was reading billboards on I-70, or at least why I was traveling to Columbus, Ohio, well, I'm here for the National Workshop on Christian Unity.

*There is no commandment that says "You shall not speed." At least not in the Bible.

God Says?

Eastbound on Interstate 70 in Indiana, just before the Ohio line, I spotted a billboard. Big yellow letters on a brown background, it would have been hard to miss. It read:


It went by pretty fast and I was busy driving, but I'm fairly sure that the smaller print across the bottom said "Tom Raper Foundation Ft. Lauderdale, Florida." A Google search didn't yield much. There was a piece about a Baptist church that gave away $1000.00 to a random attendee on a given Sunday. The money was provided by the Tom Raper Foundation.

So, I find cash prizes for church attendance questionable and I've always been skeptical about the effectiveness of billboards encouraging things like Bible Reading. Don't take me wrong. I'm in favor of church attendance. And I think everyone should read the Bible. It's lotteries and billboards I question.

The thing is I'm pretty sure God didn't say "Read the Bible." The Tom Raper Foundation said it.

While eating a malted waffle in the motel lobby a few minutes ago, I overheard a woman talking on her cellphone. She was telling someone how God had "knocked to her to floor" and told her "I'm pleased with you but I want you to be more consecrated."

Now I don't know. Maybe God did say "Read your Bible."

Still, I remain skeptical.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Leviticus 8:1-10:20


In the eighth chapter of Leviticus, Moses presides at the ordination of Aaron and his four sons as priests. The ceremony involves sacrifices of animals and grain, with lots of blood splashed, sprinkled, and smeared. The detail of blood being applied to the right ear, thumb, and big toe has always seemed odd to me. I don't have access to my personal library at the moment. Can anyone explain this to me?

When I read about Aaron being anointed I always flash on Psalm 133:

How very good and pleasant it is
when kindred live together in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down over the collar of his robes.

The newly ordained priests stay in the Tabernacle for a full week before they assume their priestly functions.

In chapter 9 Aaron and his sons make sacrifices for themselves and for the people. Aaron promises the people that God will appear to them and God comes through. YHWH shows his glory to all the people and fire comes out from his presence to consume the offering on the altar.

Things go bad in chapter 10 Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, are consumed by the same fire. It seems that these regulations about offerings are to be taken seriously. Nadab and Abihu's crime is offering "alien fire" whatever that means. It was some deviation from their instructions and they paid for it with their lives.

Moses' words in verse 3 are either a loose quote of Exodus 29:42 or an allusion to something not previously mentioned.

Aaron keeps silent.

Moses summons the sons of Aaron's uncle to dispose of Nadab and Abihu's charred remains. Wouldn't he also be Moses' uncle?

Moses tells Aaron not to mourn his sons. Others can mourn but Aaron has to keep calm and carry on in his role as priest. Moses also tells Aaron not to drink alcohol in the Tabernacle. Rabbis of old have suggested that Nadab and Abihu might have been drunk.

In verses 16 ff. Moses gets peavish because a goat offering was burnt entirely. Parts of it should have been consumed. Considering all that has gone before, Aaron seems to have lost his appetite. It is his only sign of mourning. Moses--and YHWH--are inclined to let it slide.

It is not always easy to trust, believe in, and serve God.

Next: Leviticus 11-13

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Leviticus 5:1-7:38


In the secular pluralistic society of modern America, we distinguish between crimes and sins. Criminal offenses are defined by the state. Sin is the church's bailiwick. In the theocracy of ancient Israel government and religion were allied. There was no distinction between sins and crimes. Some offenses that we might consider criminal required a religious sacrifice.

In Leviticus 5-7, we learn that both holiness and uncleanness are contagious. Coming into contact with holy things made one holy. Holiness had to be removed before leaving the tabernacle. In the same way contact with something unclean made one unclean. Uncleanness had to be removed by stipulated rituals before one could participate in worship.

It is possible to offend the Lord unintentionally. Chapter 5 begins with instructions for dealing with unintentional sins once they are brought to light. Provisions are made for those who cannot afford to make expensive offerings. In place of a lamb, a poor person may offer 2 pigeons. If even that is a financial burden, a grain offering of 1/10th of an ephah (roughly 3 quarts) of flour may be offered.

5:14 ff. give instructions for guilt offerings. When one has sinned against the "holy things" (i.e. the tabernacle and its furnishings) or harmed their neighbor's property they must make a sacrifice (to make atonement with God?), restore the damaged property (to make atonement with the neighbor?), and pay an additional 5% penalty (as punishment for the misdeed?).

Since there are offenses that require the death penalty, and since the 5% penalty seems to be a punishment on top of the restored property, it is hard to imagine that the sacrifice, in this case at least, is meant to substitute for the offender's punishment.

What I'm saying is this: There is a commonly held Christian theory of atonement that suggests that Jesus served as a sacrifice, bearing sinners' punishment, appeasing God's justice, and thereby making reconciliation between God and humanity. I am not a fan of this theory of so-called penal substitutionary atonement. (There are other, more irenic theories of atonement). Penal substitution portrays God as bloodthirsty and monstrous. It seems to me that it is also based on a misunderstanding of the Old Testament practice of animal sacrifice.*

Chapters 6 and 7 contain further instructions regarding sacrifices for sin, guilt, and well-being (or fellowship). 7:22-27 command that the Israelites refrain from consuming blood and fat. Blood, as I speculated in my last post, contained life and was therefore returned to the Lord.

Fat...well, let's admit it...fat is tasty. All you bacon lovers out there know what I'm talking about. I'm thinking that fat may have belonged to YHWH because, as God, he got the choicest portions.

7:28 ff. tell us that the priests got to eat portions of the sacrifices they offered on behalf of the people. This was their pay. Interestingly, the priests do not receive a portion of sacrifices made for themselves or for the entire community. A footnote in my Lutheran Study Bible suggests that this may have been to prevent abuse of the system.

*The theory of penal substitutionary atonement was first articulated by Anselm in the 11th century, at a long cultural remove from the practice of animal sacrifice.
Next: Leviticus 8-10

Friday, April 5, 2013

Leviticus 1:1-4:35


Animal sacrifice was a common feature of ancient temple religions. (A friend, a classicist, reminds me that vegetable and drink offerings were also common to temple religions). The first four chapters of Leviticus contain regulations for various kinds of animal sacrifices as well as grain offerings.

Sacrifices were made to atone for sin, for the sake of fellowship, for ritual purification, to remove guilt, and simply as a gift. Some sacrifices were burned up entirely. Others were shared with family, neighbors, and, of course, the priests. In any case the fatty portions of the animal were invariably given to God. The blood was poured out and never consumed.

Way back in Genesis 9 we read that blood was equated with life. This idea will be repeated several times in Leviticus. Since life comes from God, I think that pouring out the blood is a way of returning that life to God.

I'm speculating. The truth is that the practice of animal sacrifice is so culturally remote to me that I'm not sure what the rationale for it was. Did ancient peoples believe that their gods needed to be fed? Did God's anger need to be assuaged with blood? Was the animal killed in the sinner's stead? (Considering the plague and killer Levites at the foot of Sinai this seems a plausible explanation but it portrays God in an ugly and unflattering way). Is the idea to appease God with a gift? In some instances, at least, the idea seems to be to share a meal in God's presence.

None of these possibilities is mutually exclusive. Any or all of them might have been in play in ancient Israel's system of sacrifices. What other possibilities can you think of?

How do the sacrifices described in Leviticus inform a Christian understanding of Jesus' death on the cross?

Next: Leviticus 5-7

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Exodus 39:1-40:38


Exodus 39 details the construction of the vestments the priests are to wear while serving in the Tabernacle.

In verse 32, the Tabernacle is once again refered to as "the Tent of Meeting." It is in the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, that YHWH meets with his chosen people through the intermediary priests.

After everything is completed, Moses inspects the Tabernacle, its furnishings, and the vestements. He declares that everything is up to spec and blesses the people.

Chapter 40 tells how the Tabernacle is set up. The stone tablets on which God wrote the 10 Commandments are placed inside the Ark of the Covenant. That means that if my dream of doing handwriting analysis on YHWH is to be realized, the ark will have to be found. If Steven Speilberg is right, we'll have to dig it out of a mysterious government installation in Nevada.

Then again, if Speilberg is right, I wouldn't open it!

Contra Speilberg, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church claims to have possession of the actual Ark of the Covenant. They keep it behind locked gates in a little chapel in Axum. They're not showing it, though. So, no Divine graphology is likely to take place.

But leaving aside silliness and speculation, let us return to the text. The book of Exodus ends with notice that the glory of God, in the form of that pillar of smoke and fire, descends upon the Tabernacle and fills it.

I recently read an op-ed piece on the Huffington Post religion blog. The author, a Jewish atheist named Staks Rosch, argues that the story of the exodus is thoroughgoing fiction. Whether there is a kernel of historic fact behind the exodus, I'm not equipped to say.  I am convinced that the book of Exodus is not a straightforward narration of historical facts. What I know is that this is how Israel told its origin story. It is a tale of liberation, of freedom, and of God's providence. There are dark and troubling passages in this book. Not everything that it says about God is noble. If I were an Egyptian, I'm quite sure I wouldn't like this book at all.

There are laws in the book of Exodus. Some of them seem odd and culturally remote. Don't boil a kid in it's mother's milk?

Other laws are more universally applicable. Don't follow a crowd in doing wrong. Don't show favoritism to the rich or the poor in court. Don't commit adultery. Don't commit murder.

I don't think for a second that modern believers are called upon to recreate the culture in which Exodus was written. Reading and applying the biblical laws (and there are many more ahead) calls for discernment.

The focus on the Tabernacle in the last chapters of Exodus indicate its importance, and the later importance of the Jerusalem Temple, in the life of ancient Judaism

Next: Leviticus 1-4.