Sunday, June 24, 2012

Bible Commentary - Leviticus 24

In this chapter, the LORD establishes the priestly tasks for the Tent of Meeting and a blasphemer of the Name is killed.

First Aaron is commanded to keep the golden lampstand burning, which is inside the tabernacle but outside of the veil that divides the holy place from the most holy place.  This is repeated from Ex 27:20-21.

The second part is more interesting, because we are finally told the regulations of the "table of showbread", which is the golden table that was positioned opposite of the golden lampstand.  Pretty simply, the priest is expected to bake 12 loaves of bread every Sabbath and set them on the table.  At the next Sabbath, when baking a new set of loaves, the priests are allowed to eat the old loaves which they are replacing.  That's what v. 9 is talking about when it says Aaron and his sons can eat the bread.

What is the bread supposed to represent?  I would say it is predominantly sacrificial, because of the usage of frankincense (v. 7).  Frankincense is one of the components of the ceremonial incense, so I think this establishes an association between the continually burning incense and the continually offered bread.  Earlier in the chapter we were told of the continually burning oil in the lampstand, which casts light into the holy place.  There are three symbols, then, in the holy place: light, bread and the smell or incense.  Light and bread are complements of each other, because they face each other in the tabernacle.

Outside of the tabernacle are the daily animal and grain sacrifices are dawn and dusk, and those sacrifices are atoning because they involve the shedding of blood.  The sacrifices inside the tabernacle do not involve shedding blood, so in my opinion they are not related to atonement or the removal of guilt and sin.  Rather, I would suggest that the rituals within the tabernacle are more like worship or fellowship, because the atonement of guilt is performed outside.  At first glance, one might associate the bread of the presence with a grain offering, but I think that conflates their purpose.  The grain offering is related to the sacrificial system, which is a means of atonement.  The bread of the presence is probably intended to be more like "a meal with God" vis-a-vis Ex 24:11, hence why it is called the bread of the presence.

Light is a very important symbol in the OT, first established all the way back in Genesis 1:3.  The very first spoken word is the creation of light itself, and it is from light that the rest of creation flowed.  In Ex 10:22-23, darkness covered the land of Egypt, but there was light in the dwellings of the Hebrews.  In Ex 13:21, the LORD's presence in the pillar of fire gave the Israelites light to guide them at night.  Light is related to guidance and protection, and it is also critical for farming, because without light, no plant can grow.  Light is the source of all life on the earth (well, except for deep-sea vent dwellers, but that's not biblically significant).

However, all of that light came from God.  Why are the Israelites required to steward and maintain the light within the tabernacle?  I think there are a lot of answers to that, whether it's because the Israelites are supposed to remind themselves about God's light or as a reminder to God that we need light or something like that.  Maybe it's an act of emulation, that God created light in the beginning, and now these people are creating their own small light as an imitation of the greater light, just as man is created in the image of God.  Generally, the language in the bible calls the things of the tabernacle "memorials", like the bread of the presence is a memorial (v. 7).  This would suggest an aspect of remembrance.  But what are we to remember?  The acts of creation?  The preservation from death and the plagues of Egypt?  The freedom from slavery and ascent to the promised land?  The covenant itself?  Probably some or all of these.

Light, bread and incense are expanded on later in the OT and NT, so I will also encourage my readers to keep these thoughts in mind as we progress further, and I will note the recurrence of these symbols when we see them later.  As you will see, the later texts will help shed some light on their meaning (haha, get it?  Shed some light?  It's a .. uh... it's a joke because... ok, I'll stop).

Lastly, this chapter has a story about "the son of an Israelite woman, whose father was an Egyptian".  Already from this first sentence we can see the beginning of trouble, because this is not a pure-blooded Israelite, which runs contrary to the principle of separation.  That probably sounds racist, but we should note that race almost always correlates with religion in the OT, so when it says Egyptian, you should read that as "not a follower of the LORD".  That is, he probably didn't teach his son to follow the LORD either.  If the Israelites show they are reluctant to follow the LORD, we can be sure that Egyptians will be even less inclined towards obeying the LORD (consider Pharaoh's response, "who is the LORD that I should obey him?").  This passage is less of a racial conflict and more of a religious conflict, as the son proves that he is not going to follow the laws of the covenant.  We can "read between the lines" and see that this conflict is generally maintained upon racial lines, however, which positions this half-Israeli half-Egyptian at the fault line between the two systems.

Also, because Egyptians were the oppressors of the Israelites, consider two factors: 1) there is almost certainly a broad resentment and hostility against Egyptians amongst the Israelite people, 2) there is a possibility that this Egyptian man married the Israelite woman from a position of supremacy or strength.  Not to say that the woman was forced into it, but as an Israelite woman in Egypt, she would have had many disadvantages in life and in society which marrying an Egyptian would (partially) solve.  There are many types of soft pressure that Egyptians could use to coerce Israelites into arrangements like this.  We are never told anything specific, but I think it's definitely an undertone in this story that sets the context for what is happening.

This struggle is further exemplified by what we see next, "the Israelite woman's son and a man of Israel struggled with each other in the camp".  So not only is this "Israelite woman's son" a hybrid of sorts, he is getting into a conflict with other Israelites.  These are related points, of course, because of the aforementioned resentment and hostility towards Egyptians is likely contributing in some fashion towards the "struggle" we observe here.

In blaspheming the name (of the LORD) and cursing, this half-Egyptian draws the ire of the ruling authorities, because he broke one of the ten commandments, which eventually leads to his death.  This is the second short vignette where we are told of a person or group of people who are punished for violating some part of the law.  The first was the death of Nadab and Abihu back in Lev 10 when they did not follow the regulations of the tabernacle with respect to offering incense.  There are two more I can think of in the future that we will see (Numbers 15, violation of the Sabbath, Numbers 16, Korah's rebellion), which I will discuss when we reach them, and I only mention them now to demonstrate that this is a fairly consistent pattern in the Pentateuch.

All of these events are for the purpose of confirming the covenantal laws, that these laws must actually be upheld and that violators must be punished.  In the case of Nadab and Abihu, they were punished by God and killed by fire from "the presence of the LORD", but in this case, the Israelite woman's son is to be killed by the people.  This highlights the dual nature of the law, that it is enforced by both God and the people.  Another good example of this is Lev 20:4-5 where God says, in effect, if the people will not punish a man who offers his child as a sacrifice to Molech, then the LORD himself will punish that man.

In this case, the LORD tells the people to put their hands on the man's head, to transfer the guilt of his crime back to him, and then stone him to death (to avoid touching him and thereby transferring the guilt back to themselves).

In the middle of this is a restatement of the laws of personal injury that generally corresponds with the Ex 21. I don't know why it's placed here, other than perhaps as a veiled reference to the "struggle" between the two men.  Yet that's not the reason for the half-Egyptian's execution, so I guess I'm not sure.

Bible Commentary - Leviticus 23

In this chapter, the LORD restates the regulations concerning the Sabbath, appointed ceremonial feasts and Day of Atonement (commonly known as Yom Kippur).

This chapter is largely a recapitulation of prior laws we have read.  Some of these have expanded detail, but I think the main purpose of this chapter is to state the laws governing religious festivals in a single place in the Levitical law, because these festivals directly relate to the work of the priests.  It is confusing to keep track of the many places these festivals are referenced because these references span across much of the Pentateuch and beyond.  To facilitate study, I will include the primary references for these festivals here.  Probably the hardest part about gathering all the references together is that the bible uses many terms to refer to the same feasts.

For instance, the "Festival of the harvest" is the same thing as the "feast of weeks" is the same as the "day of the first fruits" is the same as "Pentecost" is the same thing as "Shavuot".  The last is the modern name, the first 4 are all used as references in the bible (crossing both OT and NT).  It's as if the American Independence Day were also called "Fourth of July", "Freedom Day", "Founders' Day", "The Celebration of Triumph", etc.  Of course, it actually is called both Fourth of July and Independence Day, but we see a much greater multiplication of terms for the OT festivals.  This makes it difficult to search for a specific festival by keyword (both English and Hebrew), and the variation amongst translations makes it even more challenging. I wanted to include all of the references to these festivals, but I simply can't guarantee I find all of them given how many terms are used for these ceremonies.  I will do this later, give a full summary of all major holidays and references, but only towards the end of the Pentateuch when I can include everything.

First is the Sabbath (v. 3), which is referenced in many places (more than nearly any other holiday).  The primary reference for the Sabbath is Ex 16, with smaller references or extensions in Ex 20:8-11, an implied reference in Ex 23:10 et al., Ex 31:12 et al. (Do you remember the Sabbath?  If not, I will restate the entire law of the Sabbath for you in case you forgot), Ex 35:1-3 (No, really, obey the Sabbath.  Also, don't kindle a fire on the Sabbath.), Lev 19:3 and Lev 19:30.  There is an implied reference in Gen 2:2.  After all that, the author decided he wasn't done restating the law of the Sabbath, and it seemed appropriate to tell us about the Sabbath again here in Lev 23.  I would put more sarcastic commentary here, but in later books of the bible we will learn that the people of Israel frequently did not observe the Sabbath.  So that's ironic and more than a little sad.

Second is the Passover (v. 4-8), which is probably about equivalent with the Day of Atonement as the second-most referenced Hebrew holiday.  The Passover is very closely related to the Feast of Unleavened Bread, so I will treat them as if they were the same thing.  The primary reference for the Passover is Ex 12 with the Feast of Unleavened Bread in Ex 13 with minor references in Ex 23:15, Ex 34:18, and a possibly implied reference in Gen 22.

After the Passover is a somewhat confusing passage (v. 9 to 14) that talks about a wave offering of "the sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest" which is to be done "after the Sabbath".  Since it's talking about an offering of first fruits, I naturally presumed that it refers to the Feast of Weeks, which is about the offering of the first fruits.  However, v. 15 makes it clear that the Feast of Weeks must occur 50 days after the wave offering of the sheaf, so 9-14 must be referring to something that occurs during or after the Passover ceremony.  We are not told what Sabbath is meant, and I've read modern commentaries are divided on the subject.  Clearly it must have been near or during the Passover, however.

I believe this sacrifice is intended as a token offering of thanks to the LORD before they eat anything themselves, similar to the modern Christian concept of "saying grace" before eating a meal.  However, it's unclear to me why there is this and then a separate celebration of the first fruits 50 days later.  Maybe the Feast of Weeks is a celebration of the beginning of the harvest while the Feast of Ingathering is a celebration of the end?  In which case, the Passover occurs at the very beginning of the earliest part of the harvest, when the very first crops begin producing fruit (well, grain).  I'm not sure.

Third is the Festival of the Harvest of first fruits (v. 15-21).  This is established in Ex 23:16 and again in Ex 34:22, where it is called the Feast of Weeks.  This festival is mentioned a few times in the biblical text, and becomes a substantial story element in Acts 2, where it is called the Pentacost (i.e. 50th day, roughly beginning with the Passover).  However, the Feast of Weeks is rarely mentioned in the OT itself and is essentially ignored after Deuteronomy.  So of the three mandatory gatherings of the whole nation, this is probably the least important.    One strange thing we learn in this chapter is that for the Feast of Weeks, the loaves of bread are to be leavened (v. 17), contrary to the Passover rituals.  The earlier references to the Feast of Weeks only mentioned that "they must be observed"; now we are told that this festival must also have a variety of sacrificial offerings (v. 18-19).  By now we should be very used to sacrificial offerings in Leviticus, but since the proper form for these sacrifices had not yet been defined in Exodus, we are only told now about the sacrifices that go along with the feasts.  I.e. Leviticus 1-5 defined the regulations for these sacrifices, so only after that can these sacrifices be properly understood.

Fourth is the Festival of Trumpets (commonly known as Rosh Hashanah, v. 24-25).  This is the first mention of the Feast of Trumpets.  Also, note that feast of trumpets is a mere 9 days before Yom Kippur, so you have a festival briefly before a day of fasting.  Then five days after Yom Kippur is the Festival of Booths (sometimes known as Sukkot), which is the same thing as the Festival of Ingathering from Ex 23 and Ex 34.  This is a very compressed schedule to have three major festivals within 15 days, and it coincides with the customary celebrations at the end of the harvest (a traditional time of plenty and rejoicing in many agricultural societies).  I think it's worthwhile for me to remind my readers of the tremendous shift we are witnessing as Israeli society is re-engineered from a predominantly pastoral culture to a predominantly agrarian culture.  Just two books ago, in Genesis, we read about Abraham wandering throughout the promised land and traveling down to Egypt to survive through famines.  Now in this book we have multiple feasts scheduled throughout the year to match with transitions in the agricultural calendar, from the first fruits to ingathering.  This is a very dramatic shift, and yet as we will observe, a pastoral tradition will remain in Israelite society for most of the rest of the OT.

Anyway, we are told very little about Rosh Hashanah here; simply that there is a blowing of trumpets and then a holy convocation.

Fifth is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (v. 26-32).  This ritual is established in substantial detail in Lev 16 and is only briefly mentioned here, with a much greater emphasis on the demand for a Sabbath-like cessation of labor than on the formal priestly offerings laid out in Lev 16.

Sixth is the Feast of Booths (v. 33-36, 39-43), or the Festival of Ingathering, (now known as Sukkot, which means booths).  Like the Festival of the Harvest, this is first (briefly) established in Ex 23:16 and 34:22.  This is one of the less important festivals.  Although this festival was mentioned before, only here are we told that the people are expected to live in booths.  Before it was called the Festival of Ingathering, to highlight the agricultural connection, but now it's called the Feast of Booths to emphasize its connection to the wanderings in the desert, the nomadic past when Israel did not live in permanent settlements.

This obvious implication is that while Israel was previously nomadic, in the future when they celebrate this feast they will be living in permanent houses, which also explains why there are regulations for moldy houses.  This transition from nomadic wandering to permanent settlements correlates strongly with the transition from shepherding to farming.  Naturally, raising livestock requires grazing land, which is usually migratory as the flock consumes grass from one place and moves on to the next.  On the other hand, farming requires nearly continuous maintenance of a fixed patch of land for virtually the entire year, creating both a need and an opportunity to build fixed structures.

This festival, then, is backward-looking, even though it's being instituted in a time when Israel is still wandering in the desert.  So that's interesting.  Of course, all of these wanderings are with the firm expectation of moving into the promised land, which will be settled.

On a minor note, a day runs from evening to evening, not midnight to midnight (as in the current time system).    We see this in v. 32.  This is how Hebrews count time throughout the OT and while it's not very important, it's a little important.

This chapter highlights the fragmented nature of the OT because the feasts that it is drawing together come from so many places.  Even though this chapter omits the New Moon Sabbaths (established later), it is still probably the most complete listing of religious feasts in the entire OT.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Bible Commentary - Leviticus 22

In this chapter, the LORD restricts who can eat the holy foods and restates the requirement that sacrificed animals must be without defect.

This chapter is fairly straightforward.  We knew that the priests were commanded to eat their share of the sacrifices (the "holy gifts" in this chapter) in a holy place, now we are told that they must eat it while ceremonially clean and that only priests may eat it.  Of course, we knew that one must be ceremonially clean to enter the holy place, so this is a natural result of what we were told before.

I don't know the reason why the holy gifts are only allowed for the priest's family to eat.  This is just another one of the many restrictions on the holy gifts that make it more clear the priest must have some alternate income to buy or barter for clothing and other stuff, since he's simply disallowed to sell the holy food.  Also, there must be some "normal" food for the priests to eat while they are ceremonially unclean.  One thing I remember reading about this law is that some priests would try to abuse this command by tricking non-priests into eating the holy food, and thereby earn an extra 20%.  Obviously this is not the intent of the command.  If I find a reference for this, I will come back and add it here.

The commands regarding sacrifices without defect is very consistent with what I wrote about chapter 21 and is simply an exposition of what the Israelites were already told, that sacrificed animals must be without defect.  As is often the case with the Mosaic Law, the author wishes to lay out in specific detail some of the conditions that make an animal "flawed".  It is generally consistent with the conditions that disqualify a priest in Lev 21:18-20, with the one peculiar exception that animals with "stunted or overgrown" limbs can be sacrificed as a freewill offering, but not for vows.

We haven't been told the distinction between a freewill offering and a vow, and I don't believe the bible ever makes this clear.  My understanding is that with a vow, someone promises to offer a sacrifice if a certain condition occurs (i.e. "If my flock doubles in size this year, I will offer 10 goats to the LORD!"), or something like that.  While it is voluntary to make a vow, after that, the person has an obligation to complete whatever they have vowed to do.  A freewill offering is an offering that one makes without having any obligation, whether from the law (for instance, the obligatory Passover offering) or from a vow.  I can only imagine that freewill offerings are relaxed slightly because they are just that, a voluntary offering.  Still, it's hard to explain why only this one exception is made, for this one condition (overgrown or stunted limbs).

In v. 30 we are told a sacrifice of thanksgiving must be eaten on the same day, which is a restatement of Lev 7:15.  Freewill and "votive offerings", i.e. offerings related to a vow, may be eaten up to two days after the sacrifice is made and must be burned on the third day.  So apparently a sacrifice of thanksgiving falls into a different class than either freewill or vow-related offerings.  For whatever reason, we are never exactly told about these different types of offerings; they are only mentioned tangentially in several places.  Clearly vows, freewill offerings and thanksgiving offerings were clearly understood tropes to the ancient Hebrew readers, so that there is no need to explain them in the text, but that's unfortunate for us trying to piece things back together.  Regardless, I'm pretty sure the thanksgiving offering explains itself: it is an offering made to thank the LORD for some perceived blessing or positive situation.

If in doubt, don't worry about it too much: this is not a particularly important area of the Law compared to the rest.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Bible Commentary - Leviticus 21

In this chapter, we return to the priesthood with laws governing ceremonial cleanliness and who can make offerings.

The first thing we are told in this chapter is that priests (excluding the high priest) are governed by a set of restrictions about when they can become ceremonially unclean.  Remember that as before ceremonial impurity is not a sin, but because the priests "present the offerings by fire to the LORD" they are held to a higher standard than the general populace.  As we have previously read, being near a dead body results in ceremonial impurity, which even includes burying or mourning a dead relative.  The priests are restrained from doing this unless the person is in their immediate family (note that a married sister is no longer immediate family, because she becomes a part of her husband's family).

This is a surprising and rather severe prohibition, because mourning for deaths in the family was a pretty big deal in the ancient Near East.  For instance, we saw that Joseph and the Egyptians grieved for seventy days over the death of Jacob (Gen 50:3).  Ancient Egypt is generally renowned for embalming and entombing their kings within the world famous pyramids, as well as the great emphasis within their religion upon death and the afterlife.  The afterlife is not broadly discussed in the OT, but there are several deaths in the OT which are widely mourned, with the death of Jacob being probably the best example.  Also see Gen 23:2.  We will see many more later in the OT.

There are two types of restrictions here.  The first is that the priest cannot go into the presence of the dead body, because that would result in ceremonial impurity.  The second restriction is against the religious or cultural practices of the local Canaanite nations, which are expressed in verse 5: shaving hair or cutting oneself.  These customs had already been condemned for all of Israel in Lev 19:27-28, but it's condemned again as part of the broader subject of mourning the dead.  As before, it is prohibited as part of the principle of separation, dividing Israel from the surrounding nations.

There is no earlier prohibition of marrying a divorced woman or widow, so this is an added rule that is unrelated to any earlier commands.  In addition, this chapter outlaws prostitution by a priest's daughter.  I believe prostitution is generally outlawed under Lev 19:29, and it is arguably outlawed under Deuteronomy 22:13-21 and Ex 22:16 as well, by implication.  So this seems like it's mostly a restatement of earlier law, with the added command that a priest must not marry a prostitute.

These rules are only a few out of the many ways to become ceremonially impure, with some others being skin diseases, having a release of bodily fluid (blood, semen, etc.), or being put in contact with another person who is ceremonially impure, and none of those ways are forbidden here.  (Of course, many of them are involuntary and unpreventable.)

The high priest is restricted even further, so that he cannot mourn in general (v. 10; uncovering the head and tearing your garments is an expression of grief) and cannot approach the dead bodies of anyone, including close relatives.  While being the high priest is a role with great power, it is a difficult position to walk so close to the holiness of God.

As I have pointed out before, the standards of behavior in the OT becomes more and more strict as one operates closer to the LORD.  There are things that it is OK for the people of Israel to do, but not the priests, and the high priest is constrained the most of all.  There are things that are OK for the foreigners in the land to do, but not the people of Israel (for instance, eating unclean animals).  At the same time, there are laws that also bind on foreigners, because simply by living on earth everyone is near to the LORD in certain respects.

At the same time, the high priest has more access to the tabernacle than anyone else, because he alone is authorized to enter into the most holy place behind the veil.  The priests have access to enter the tabernacle outside the veil, while laypeople do not.  The people of Israel can partake of the Passover and other ritual festivals, while foreigners cannot (unless those foreigners become circumcised and join the covenant).  So there are restrictions, but each added layer of restrictions comes with yet greater access to the LORD and to the holy things associated with the covenant.  While there is provision for foreigners to join the covenant, there is no provision for voluntary ascension to the priesthood: it is a permanent, hereditary and mandatory life-long assignment for the men in the family of Aaron.  To be a priest and enter the holy place, one must be chosen.

The second half of this chapter prohibits any son of Aaron from ministering before the bronze altar or within the tabernacle if that priest has any notable physical deformity.  This prohibition is conceptually similar to the requirement that most sacrifices be "without defect" (for instance, see Lev 1:3, 1:10, et al.).  The idea then, and the idea now, is that the people of Israel are expected to offer the LORD their very best.  To sacrifice a defective or sick animal would be treating the sacrificial system like a garbage disposal, which is precisely the opposite of the point.  No one may appear before the LORD empty-handed (Ex 34:20), because the offerings are supposed to represent the vast blessings the LORD has given the people.  The offerings must be without defect for the same reason, to personally acknowledge to the LORD that he has not given the people "defective blessings".

This passage might seem discriminatory, and perhaps in some ways it is.  But there have already been many discriminations made: between Israelite and foreigner, between the sons of Aaron and the people, between men and women.  The priesthood is not an ordinary occupation; these people are required to stand before the LORD and intercede on behalf of the people through prayer and sacrifice.  If you look at it from the perspective of "defective priests", i.e. sons of Aaron with blindness, disfigurement, etc., then yes, this looks like unfair discrimination.  But the priesthood is not a job, the priests are representatives of the nation before their divine sovereign, and so the people are responsible for how they present themselves to their lord.

As noted in the text, priests with defects are nevertheless allowed to eat the holy foods (i.e. the priestly share of the sacrifices offered at the tabernacle), which provides a source of nourishment and support, but they are not allowed to represent the people before their king.  It is notable that only the ceremonially pure may eat the holy food, so this shows that disfigurement is not a source of impurity or uncleanliness.  Still, my understanding is that many parts of the sacrifices are given to the priest who offers the sacrifice, so not being allowed to make offerings would in that sense impair a man's ability to acquire food.

Lastly, this is the first chapter of the bible that uses the phrase, "food of his God" to describe the sacrificial offerings (v. 6, 17).  Lev 22 has the last reference, so it's only in these two chapters that the expression appears.  This is an interesting expression because it connotes a sense that the various offerings (which are all food-related) are sort of like "feeding God", as if he eats the offerings.  I think that's evidently not the case.  I hypothesize that all of the offerings are food-related because the vast majority of Israelite effort went towards growing food, whether crops or livestock, and making offerings related to their work is a fairly natural extension.  It is for this reason, and not because God has some peculiar need, that they make food offerings.  I'm not going to do a proper etymological study, so consider this an exercise for the reader, but I will note that the word translated "food" (NASB) is Hebrew "lechem", which means all of bread, food and meat.  So it's a very broad term for anything related to food.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Bible Commentary - Leviticus 20

In this chapter, the LORD tells Moses the punishment for most of the crimes described in the past two chapters.

I don't feel it's necessary to talk about most of the punishments in this chapter because they relate to things I have already discussed and are otherwise simple.  The punishment for most of the crimes listed here is death, which is consistent with what we have seen before.  As before, the Israelites cannot imprison anyone because they still have to journey through the desert, making it difficult to continue feeding anyone who cannot contribute to the overall well being of the community as a whole.  Combined with that is the general mandate to expunge sin from the community, because as we have seen with the ceremonial laws, impurity can be transmitted from person to person just like a disease.

I found it interesting that some of the punishments are specifically carried out by the LORD, rather than the people.  For instance, v. 20-21 sentences barrenness for people who commit certain sexual crimes.  While it's true that people can be sterilized in certain ways (e.g. castration), I think these verses are suggesting that the LORD would make the offending couple remain childless through their lives, rather than through some human mechanism.  Also, earlier in the chapter v. 4-5 state that the LORD will carry out any punishment that men do not.  This creates an interesting joint responsibility for the punishment of crimes between men and God, with the general implication being that God will punish any crime that men do not.

Verse 18 makes it clear that having sex during menstruation is punishable by death.  The provision regarding ceremonial uncleanliness for the same act confuses me.

The end of the chapter, v. 22-26, restates the purpose of all these rules, which is chiefly to "to make a distinction" between clean and unclean, between the Israelites and other nations, and therefore between the LORD and all other gods.  As I have said before, these points are related: it is by following a distinct set of customs, different from all the other nations, that the Israelites are to be distinguished, and it is by distinguishing the Israelites that the LORD is to be distinguished.  Verse 23 makes clear that these are not arbitrary rules however, because the nations of Canaan and Egypt were doing things that the LORD "abhorred", so there is also a moral judgment.

In general terms, I think of the biblical laws as having three main purposes: 1) To establish a moral framework in keeping with the LORD's purposes, 2) to establish practical guidelines for the Israelites to follow, demonstrating wisdom and insight, 3) in keeping with the first two principles, to make clear that Israel is a nation set apart and above all the other nations.  All of these are "means to an end", and the "end" is to restore the earth to a sinless state.

The customs and behavior of the Canaanite nations are rejected on the grounds of running contrary to the LORD's moral law.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Bible Commentary - Leviticus 19

In this chapter, the LORD restates some laws of the covenant and adds a few new ones, too.

Some of the commands in this chapter are a repetition of things we have been told before, so I will not discuss them in depth.  Verses 2-4, 11-12, 30, 32 for instance are largely taken from the ten commandments of Ex 20.  Then verse 5-8 are a repetition of Lev 7:15-18.  Verses 26 and 31 also convey laws similar to previously.

Mixed with the old are some new commands, too.  I will discuss these in the order they are listed.

First is a command that the "very corners" of fields shall be left unharvested and the "gleanings" should be left as well, i.e. what remains after a first pass of the harvesters.  The idea (as we are told in v. 10) is that there should be bits and pieces of the harvest left in the field so that people traveling through can eat stuff from the corners and be provided for in that fashion.  In this law we can see the agricultural future of Israel, and this law actually becomes a significant issue in ancient Israeli society.  In the story of Ruth for instance (which we will see later), the eponymous Ruth spends some time following the harvesters of a man named Boaz, legally gathering the gleanings that were left behind.  I.e. whatever was missed by the harvesters on their first pass was "fair game" for Ruth to gather for herself, because she did not have a field of her own to harvest.

Naturally, not all Israelites obeyed this law, and that is part of the charge of injustice that is later levied against them by the prophets.

Second is the charge to not oppress hired workers, which is similar to the earlier command regarding cloaks taken as a pledge (Exodus 22:26).  In verse 14, the curse would have been audible, so a deaf man is incapable of hearing it and protecting himself.  The blind man cannot see the stumbling block, and is therefore helpless against people who attack him in this way.  In general, do not take advantage of the weaknesses of others, where they cannot protect themselves.

Verses 17-18 contain possibly one of the greatest commands in the OT, that "you shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart... but you shall love your neighbor as yourself."  This is really fantastic, and after writing for so long about homosexuality in the last chapter, I feel I would do a great injustice to not spend some time on this command as stated here.  However, since the interpretation is so straightforward (if significant) that I'm not sure how much commentary I can properly add.  Also, it's much less contentious, so I feel there is less general confusion and misinformation relating to "love your neighbor" when compared to the prohibitions of homosexuality, so while I think it's truer to the core of Christianity (and Judaism), it's also less debated.

Certainly this verse runs contrary to the popular perception of the OT as the "wrathful, angry God book", as do many of the justice laws in this chapter and elsewhere.  This verse is significant enough to be mentioned by Jesus as the second greatest commandment (Matthew 22:39), just behind loving God.  Just as Jesus expressed, I think this verse forms part of the moral backbone to the Mosaic Law, because it summarizes all of the justice laws.  What is the purpose of not stealing, not murdering, acting justly, leaving gleanings for the poor, judging and speaking truthfully, if it is not to love your neighbors?  All of these principles are united by the concept of justice, and yet leaving gleanings goes beyond fairness: it is a command to materially help others in need.  More than fairness, it is a self-sacrificial concern for others that the LORD demands of his people.

This is a more ambiguous command than the earlier systematic laws regarding sacrifices or the punishment of various sins, and the ambiguity itself is an unusual departure from the mainstream thrust of the Mosaic Code.  What we will find is that in many cases, the ambiguity renders this law less effective because it is commanding not an action, but a mindset, so how can we obtain evidence of guilt?  Loving your neighbor is the heart of these laws, and yet it is nearly impossible to prosecute, so in many cases we find that people will obey the details of the law (with sacrifices, not stealing and murdering and so forth) while ignoring the heart of it, which is the attitude of love and concern for others.  This is one of the main criticisms we find in the NT and it remains a substantial issue in modern Christianity.  A full discussion of this subject is outside of my scope however, and I will postpone it until the NT section.

There is a simple dichotomy in Christianity, which is that as a man, we should forgive and love others, even those who do wrong.  As verse 18 says, we shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge.  God is the avenger of wrongs, as he holds an accounting of blood (Gen 9:5-7), and anyone who sheds blood bears the judgment of God.  In the OT, that vengeance is generally carried out by men, however, which is a source of confusion for many. For instance, Genesis 15:16 speaks of a coming judgment of the Amorites through the return of the Israelites to the promised land, i.e. wiping them out.  This is a judgment upon the "iniquity of the Amorites".  In the last chapter, Leviticus 18, we are told that it is by defiling the land that the nations would be cast out.  This is a divine judgment of sin, yet the punishment is carried out by an invading nation destroying them.  So how can I say that God is the judge of sin when men are expected to carry out that judgment?

This might seem like a subtle distinction, but it is important: the justice carried out in the OT must be at the direction of the LORD, because the LORD is the "judge of all the earth" (Gen 18:25) and it is not proper for mankind to usurp that role of judge.  We can make judgments, but only under the authority of the LORD, and we can maintain laws and punish lawbreakers, but only if those laws come from the lawgiver, the LORD.  This is a question of authority, whether mankind has authority to create their own justice, and the answer is significant: we do not.  If human laws mirror the laws given by God, then Christians can simply follow those laws.   But when there is a difference between the two, Christians do not have authority to follow the laws of man and violate the laws of God, so a conflict with men is inevitable.  See, for instance, Acts 4:19-20.

Moving on, verse 19 seems peculiar, and I like to think of it as a symbolic extension of the principle of separation, that just as the Israelites are supposed to stay distinct from the nations around them, they are also expected to maintain a "separation" between fabrics, species of animals and seeds in their fields.

There are some more slavery laws, and then in v. 23 is a command that fruit not be eaten for three years, the fourth year is a giant offering to the LORD (probably given to the priests), and after that the crops may be eaten.  This command is probably similar to the seventh year Sabbath command we were given before, with an intent to help the crop trees multiply and enrich the soil.  Farming implies a certain level of burden on the ground, and this three-year Sabbath will help prepare the land for that burden.

Verse 27-28 is a command against practices associated with the pagan religions of the area, and to this day most Orthodox Jews will not shave their beards for this reason.  The biblical command is to avoid religious practices associated with hedonism, not because shaving one's beard is inherently sinful.  In that sense, this command is similar to the earlier command about only offering sacrifices at the tabernacle, which was intended to cut off any association with pagan worship or sacrifice.

In case anyone doubted that the command in v. 18 was only for fellow Israelites, the LORD resolves any doubts with v. 33-34, similarly commanding that the people must "not do [strangers] wrong" and "you shall love him as yourself" and is given a direct equivalence that the foreigner shall be "like the native among you", discounting any possible racism in the law, though racism was still a reality in practice.  This verse does not prohibit maltreatment of other nations, however.  It only prohibits doing wrong to people from other nations living in the land of Israel, where the Israelis have all of the power.  Essentially this is all about protecting people who are too weak to protect themselves, and foreigners as a group would not have the same social and cultural support when living amongst another nation.  The Israelites are to respect their own humble beginnings, first as a wandering family in the promised land and then later as a growing yet oppressed nation within the land of Egypt.

Lastly, v. 35-36 demands justice in measurements, because one effect way to scam people in this time period is to have "two scales", a light scale and a heavy scale, so that you can weigh goods you sell them with a "light scale" (overestimating its weight) and weigh their gold or silver with the "heavy scale" (underestimating their payment).  In this way you can charge people a higher price than you make apparent.  God prohibits any such deception.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Bible Commentary - Leviticus 18

In this chapter, the LORD prohibits a variety of sexual relations and child sacrifice, which were performed by the nations of the promised land.

This chapter marks a shift in the tone of Leviticus, as the focus drifts away from the sacrificial system and laws of ceremonial cleanliness and towards the general governance of behavior (not just of the priests, but of the whole people).  Governance of general behavior was definitely the subject of earlier Exodus passages related to the covenant (Ex 20-24), but it's new to Leviticus.  Just as before in Exodus, this behavior (in this chapter, immoral sexual relations) does not have any overt religious significance, but since it is part of the covenant, that ascribes it a sort of implied religious significance, which is emphasized at the end of the chapter.

The beginning of the chapter reinforces the principle of separation, which is the justification for these moral laws.  Indeed, I hypothesize these are moral laws and not ceremonial.  As I said before, I hypothesize that ceremonial laws are principally related to ritual purity, which has to do with tabernacle worship and socially isolating disease.  The term "unclean" or "impure" does not appear in this chapter, suggesting a transition from the ceremonial code to a section of moral code.  The new word describing these acts is much stronger, "abomination" (NASB, Hebrew "toebah", meaning "disgusting", an "abhorrence", often idolatry, "abomination").  Committing an "abomination" is not something that a ritual washing can fix; as verses 25 tells us, these abominations defiled the land, so "the land has spewed out its inhabitants" as a result.

Given that this is the book of the priesthood, it's a bit confusing that it contains a section on moral code that doesn't particularly have to do with the priests.  All I can say is, welcome to the OT.  The author does as he pleases around here, and if he wants a moral section in the Levitical code, then that's where it shall be!  Regardless, this section is relatively short and going forward, there is a mixture of what people call the Holiness Code and more regulations of the priesthood, and we just have to deal with it.  Fortunately, it's usually easy to separate the two types of discourse and analyze them in turn.

This chapter, as we can see, is primarily focused on prohibiting sexual relations between close family members, a prohibition that is still broadly enforced today, though the details probably vary between the biblical laws here and modern law.  The underlying principle is to prevent genetic defects.  Without going into a full-blown biology lesson, people have "recessive genes" which are only expressed in a person if both their mother and father carry that recessive gene and both parents transmit that gene to their child.  There are many types of recessive genes, and not everyone has all of them.  Some are quite rare, and when expressed, can cause a deformity or harmful mutation.  Since people within a family are substantially more likely to carry the same set of recessive genes, if two people from the same family marry and have children, it dramatically increases the likelihood that any recessive genes in the family will be expressed in the children, resulting in harmful mutations.  Not all recessive genes are harmful of course, but some are.

It's a statistics thing, so there's really no guarantee that incest will result in genetic deformities, and there's no guarantee that marrying outside your family prevents it, but incest heightens the risk of such deformities tremendously.  I think that's the main reason why these kinds of laws are still in effect today, and we can hypothesize (but not prove) that it's the reason why these laws are effected by Leviticus in our current chapter.

Verse 18 directly outlaws what Jacob (one could argue unintentionally) did with Leah and Rachel, marry a woman and her sister.  The life of Jacob and the many struggles that emerged between Leah and Rachel are a great example of why this is banned here, that it creates a rivalry between the two sisters.

Furthermore, Gen 20:12 suggests that Sarah was Abraham's half-sister, which means their marriage was also a violation of the laws in this chapter.

As I have previously noted, the patriarchs were not bound by the Mosaic covenant, so they didn't technically do anything wrong.  I wrote that in the context of Abraham's association with Mamre the Amorite, which is also generally prohibited under the principle of separation.  I also think these three things (association with Mamre, marriage between Abraham and Sarah, marriage between Jacob and Leah/Rachel) are pretty good examples of things that the bible is against, yet does not explicitly condemn.  In fact, many readers probably wouldn't even know that the bible were against these things if they only read Genesis and did not continue on to the rest of the Pentateuch.  So the bible will not always tell us the moral judgment of an act when it happens, and this has important implications in many places.

We also see a reference to people sacrificing their children to Molech.  Molech is the Hebrew word for "king", so some translations have more references to Molech than others.  In the OT, Molech (the false god) is usually associated with child sacrifice, as we find here, and the idea is that Molech would bless you (the parents) for killing your child in this way.  Some Christian authors suggest that child sacrifice to Molech is a moral precursor to abortion, in the (presumptive) sense that an abortion is performed for the sake of money or convenience on the part of the aborting woman.  As such, this is a reason why some Christians oppose abortion.  This verse is strangely placed in a chapter about unlawful sexual relations, which suggests that this chapter is more focused on the principle of separation by not following other nations' customs, rather than on sexual relations for its own sake.

I find it strange that there is a prohibition against sex with a woman during her menstrual period when just previously in Lev 15:24 there is a ceremonial provision made for the case when men do this.  I don't understand why there is a need for a ceremonial provision if the action is morally prohibited.

Finally, we reach a prohibition on male same-sex intercourse.  By most interpretations, verse 22 says "You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination." (Amplified).  I've heard some people challenge this translation, but the majority of scholarship seems to support it, as well as every bible translation I have read so far.  After investigating for some time, I am pretty convinced this is the correct translation.  One can distinguish between the correct translation and the proper interpretation, however, so additional study is warranted.

There is a more significant question of whether this verse also prohibits female same-sex relations, and I think the answer is no.  From a literal rendering, it is clear that this is governing male behavior and not female behavior.  However, my understanding is that female same-sex relations were much less common, if practiced at all, in the time frame of this document.  On the other hand, while lesbianism is not banned here, there is a Midrashic tradition that it is implicitly banned in 18:3, under the presumption that lesbianism was practiced in Egypt and is one of their "practices" which the Israelites must not follow.

I'd also like to take this opportunity to raise a meta-comment here, that despite the frequency of discussing homosexuality and the bible in popular culture, the subject forms a fairly insignificant fraction of the actual biblical text.  To wit, consider that we are now 109 chapters into the bible and this is the second passage that is generally construed as a condemnation of homosexuality (possibly third if you count Genesis 2), and in this case it's literally just one verse in the midst of a whole chapter that covers other, albeit related, topics.  I think that many people have the unfortunate misperception that homosexuality/gay marriage and abortion (the two big social issues in America at present) are "what the bible is all about", which is just blatantly false.  From my perspective, this has the somewhat humorous result that I spend almost no time reading or thinking about homosexuality in the bible, and yet that's what many non-Christians ask about.  In the end, I have studied the issue at depth to ensure I have a good answer to the social questions, but as it relates to the biblical narrative, it is simply not that big a deal.

Still, how one approaches the issues of homosexuality and gay marriage in the bible has significant import as it relates to one's biblical hermeneutics (i.e. system of interpretation).  That is, suppose you take a verse like Lev 18:22 and say, "the OT is not relevant to our day".  It might not make a big difference to disregard this single verse, and yet the particular reasoning for discarding Lev 18:22, that the OT is not relevant, is a very significant decision in its own right, because to be logically consistent, one must also discard the rest of the OT.

That's what makes the issue of homosexuality in the bible a litmus test of sorts, because while it may be insignificant compared to the sacrificial system, etc, the way a person approaches this issue is generally representative of how they approach the many more important issues in the bible, because most people use the same hermeneutical system across those many issues.  Generally, conservative readers wish to maintain a prohibition on homosexuality because of an idea about the sanctity of the bible, that it doesn't matter how brief a command might be, that the prohibition of homosexuality is part of the bible and as such, it must not be disregarded no matter what.  Progressives, on the other hand, often point to historical examples of wrongs justified by biblical argument.  The best example of that is the argument for slavery on the basis of the "curse of Ham" (Gen 9).  This is a biblical argument that was eventually overturned as slavery was itself abolished, and liberals see the prohibition of homosexuality to be another biblical argument that will fall with the advent of societal change.

Personally, I have a lot of sympathy for the conservative argument, because I too wish to honor the sanctity of the bible.  Yet, I also feel that conservatives should seek to guard themselves from the mistakes of the past, using a false biblical argument to justify a social position.  Conservatives will (and do) say that the prohibition of homosexuality is clear as day, irrefutable, and that progressives wish to simply discard biblical morality and engender moral relativism (a curse word in many conservative circles).  Yet, as my readers will learn, the more we progress into the issues of biblical hermeneutics, the more we will discover it is a deeply complex subject.  Even with my discussion of moral law vs. ceremonial law (which has tremendous implications going into the NT), there does not seem to be a clear separation between the two, just as the ceremonial law of Lev 16 merges into the priestly moral law of Lev 17, which in turn merges into the general moral law of Lev 18.  With the author flowing freely through these subjects, our dissection of them becomes that much more complicated and error-prone.  So much of how people understand the bible comes not from the text itself, but from our assumptions and preconceptions before we open the book, and that's why I was careful to state my own preconceptions back in the prologue.

For this reason, there are many progressive Christians who support gay rights and think they honor the bible as well, because they simply interpret verses like Lev 18:22 in light of different preconceptions than the conservative.

For right now, I cannot state my own position on homosexuality and gay marriage without speaking in light of the NT, and so I must defer for now.  Even if I were to state my opinion, I would encourage my readers to study the subject and form their own opinions, because that's the purpose of this commentary.  Furthermore, I would encourage my readers to pray about the issue and seek divine guidance, because ultimately what we are seeking is God's law and God's judgment of the matter, that we might do what is right rather than blindly follow the cultural traditions that have been set before us, whether conservative or progressive.

What I will say is that verse 22 is an authoritative condemnation of homosexuality that would almost certainly have been upheld in ancient Israel.  We have centuries of rabbinical and Christian traditions that interpret this verse as such.  Like most of the sexual laws, it would have probably been punishable by death, and like most sexual laws, there are probably very few people who would have been killed for it, because the death penalty in Israel requires two witnesses, and by their nature sexual acts are usually not witnessed by anyone beyond their participants.  Nevertheless, the condemnation is significant because it is a moral judgment, apart from any punishment, and it sets the boundaries of acceptable behavior which are taught to the people.  My understanding is that Orthodox Judaism still holds that homosexual acts are wrong, based on verses such as this.  The big question is whether this condemnation holds through the NT, and that's something I will address when we reach the NT.