Friday, June 22

Leviticus 24: The material in this chapter is varied, including both rubrics (verses 1-9) and even a narrative with a legislative and penal purpose (verses 10-23). Moreover, the material in this section interrupts what would seem to be a logical transition from the annual calendar in chapter 23 and the multi-annual calendar in chapter 25. For this reason some have suggested that this chapter was inserted at a later stage in the Bible’s textual history.

Although reasonable as a conjecture, this suggestion does not explain why such an insertion was made at precisely this improbable place in the text. That is to say, why should we presume that an unexpected lack of logical sequence in the text comes from a later hand? Why presume that all unexpected components in the text were added later? If someone is to blame for a perceived failure to respect the sequence, why must this alleged person be later than the original writer?

It may be the case that the reflections on time in chapter 23 prompted attention to the lighting of the vigil lamps, which served to measure time, in this chapter (verses 2-4). If this is the case, the present text need not have come from a different hand.

From a consideration of the vigil lamps the author proceeds to another point of regular observance, the Bread of the Presence (lehem happanim), which was set out continually, like the vigil lamps, “before the Face of the Lord” (verses 5-9). This bread, distributed in twelve loaves to represent Israel’s twelve tribes, symbolized the unity of God’s Holy People. The bread was set out every Sabbath, the older loaves being eaten by the priestly family. We further note that this bread pertained to the “everlasting covenant.”

The Christian reader of this text may reflect that for many centuries it has been customary in Christian parish churches to preserve on the altar both a burning lamp and the Eucharist Bread of the Presence.

Suddenly in verses 10-16 these rubrics are interrupted by a narrative that introduces another point of the moral law, namely blasphemy. This seemingly disparate element is actually related to the theme of the Lord’s holiness in a particularly striking way. This is the sole narrative in the Holiness Code.

Since the offender in this story was partly a foreigner, the Sacred Text goes on to stipulate that Israel’s law of retribution pertains also to foreigners who live in their midst (verses 17-22). This connection is demonstrated in the fact that the narrative itself is not completed until after these stipulations (verse 23).

Saturday, June 23

Leviticus 25: According to a prescribed hierarchy of time, both the land and the ownership of the land were to be given a regular season of rest and restoration, these periods of rest in analogy to the weekly day of rest provided for the people and animals that worked the land. Thus, every field was to be given a rest during every seventh year, a period called the “sabbatical year,” or “year of Sabbath” (verses 2-7). In addition, every year following seven-times-seven years (that is, 49 years) was the period when every field must be returned to the ownership of the family to whose inheritance it originally belonged. This fiftieth year of restoration was called the Jubilee (verses 8-55). Both of these customs served to remind Israel that they land belonged to God, and they themselves were only given the use of it (verse 23).

In the custom of the sabbatical year the Israelites were to learn that the land must not be fully exploited. That is to say, the land had an existence of its own. It did not exist solely for human exploitation (verses 4-5). Israelite history indicates that these provisions were sometimes ignored (26:34-35; Jeremiah 34:4), as were nearly all the provisions of the Mosaic Law. In times of religious renewal, nonetheless, the rule of the sabbatical year was taken seriously and restored (cf. Nehemiah 10:31; 1 Maccabees 6:49,53).

As for the difficulty and potential danger incurred by letting the land lie fallow for a year, God’s people were to trust in His provision for those who obey Him (verses 18-22).

The Fiftieth Year, the year of the restoration of property, was called the Jubilee, a name derived from the ram’s horn (yobel) that was blown to mark it (verse 9). It is worth observing that this year began on the Feast of the Atonement, a fact suggesting how the first day of the year, Rosh Hashanah, eventually became identified with the autumnal feast that we examined in 23:23-25.

The Jubilee was the occasion on which all alienated farmland and village homes, whether held in surety or in payment of a debt, was to be returned to the family that originally inherited it. Ideally, thus, no family could lose its proper inheritance for more than half a century. This humane and democratic provision guaranteed a certain measure of political and social equality. In an era when all wealth was based on the holding of real estate, no family could become too poor, nor any family too rich, if all real estate had to revert to its original owner within fifty years. The land would necessarily be divided according to a rough equality, and hence wealth would be divided in the same way. This was the reason that respect for inherited family property would mean so much to the Bible’s social prophets, such as Elijah (1 Kings 21:1-19) and Micah (Mica 2:2).

The Jubilee rule pertained only to inherited pasture, farmland, woods, and village homes, not to property in walled cities (verses 29-30). Special provision was made for the Levites, who did not inherit land separately, as did the other tribes (verses 32-34).

Besides the land, the law of the Jubilee pertained to the freedom of those whom poverty had forced into slavery (verses 35-43). The people, like the land, belonged to the Lord (verse 55).

Sunday, June 24

The Birth of John the Baptist: The birth of John the Baptist has been celebrated by both Eastern and Western Christians on this day from great antiquity. It is most unusual for Christian liturgical calendars to celebrate anyone’s earthly birthday (Jesus on December 25 and Mary on September 8 being the only other two exceptions), because we believe that a Christian’s "true" birth is not his being born in the flesh but in the Spirit. A Christian’s "final" birth is his entrance into heaven itself. Consequently it has been customary among Christians, beginning no later than the second century martyrs, to celebrate the day of a Christian’s death as his natalitiahis “birthday” into heaven. If John the Baptist has always been treated as an exception to this rule, it is because Holy Scripture makes so much, not only of his birth, but also the circumstances of his conception and gestation (See the comments for July 2). In the first chapter of Luke there is a clear literary parallel between John and Jesus, involving individual annunciations by the same angel, specific appeals to prophecy, miraculous conception, twin canticles sung by the parents, special circumstances the births, and so forth. This extra attention accorded to the birth of John the Baptist in Luke’s Gospel serves to heighten the Evangelist’s stress on the mystery of the Incarnation of God’s Son. Just try to imagine a Christmas celebration without the Gospel according to Luke!

Leviticus 26: Here at the end of the Code of Holiness come the blessings promised to those who observe these statutes (verses 3-13) and the curses of those who don’t (verses 14-39). The repetition of the hypothetical “if” (’im), found eight times in this chapter, shows hat the decision is still in doubt.

The blessings and curses are preceded by an introductory admonition about idolatry and the Sabbath (verses 1-2).

The promised blessings have to do with agriculture, the tilling of the Land of Promise (verses 3-5), peace (verse 6), victory in battle (verses 7-8), offspring and prosperity (verses 9-10), and the continued presence of God in fidelity to His covenant (verses 11-13). These blessings are conditioned on a double “if” (verse 3). This section begins with Israel “walking” in the Lord’s commandments and finishes by the Lord “walking” in the midst of Israel (verses 3,12).

On the other hand, if Israel walks contrary to God, God will walk contrary to Israel (verses 21,23,27,28). The curses, which occupy a list much longer and more detailed, are arranged in an ever more emphatic progression, from sickness, sorrow, and hunger (verse 16), to foreign occupation (verse 17), famine (verse 20), and then all of these plagues together (verses 23-26). Israel will be punished sevenfold for its offenses (verses 18,21,24,28).

The curses begin with Israel not hearkening to God (verses 14,18,21,27) and end with God not hearkening to Israel. Instead of the abundant harvest of the Promised Land, the people will be reduced to such penury that they will resort to cannibalism (verse 29; cf; Deuteronomy 28:53; 2 Kings 6:28-30; Jeremiah 19:9; Ezekiel 5:10).

After this, Israel will be carried away into exile from the Land itself (verse 33). Taking an image from the previous chapter, the Lord threatens to place the whole Promised Land into an indefinite Sabbath (verses 34-35). Instead of eating in the Promised Land, Israel will be consumed in a foreign land (verse 38).

If, finally, Israel repents, the Lord will remember His covenant (verses 40-42), and Israel will be restored (verse 44; Ezekiel 16:53-63).

Monday, June 25

Leviticus 27: This appendix to the Code of Holiness treats of substitutions and redemptions for offerings vowed to the Lord. Such offerings might include a person’s labor for the service of the sanctuary, to be redeemed for a price commensurate with the age and condition of the person (verses 1-8).

Such offerings also included animals, certainly, greater value attaching to those animals appropriate for sacrifice (verses 9-13). Indeed, these latter could not be redeemed at all.

Property of all kinds could be vowed, particularly real estate. As in the case of an unclean animal, such property could be redeemed at the increase of a double tithe (one-fifth) of its value (verses 14-16,19). Since such an offering of property involved an alienation of it, the actual worth of the offering was affected by the date of the next jubilee year (verses 17,18,21,23,24).

Firstborn animals, belonging to the Lord as a matter of course, could not be redeemed if they were animals fit for sacrifice. In the case of other animals, redemption was based on the same double-tithe we saw in the case of property (verse 27).

Finally, all goods wee to be tithed for the sake of the worship, the support of its ministers (verses 31-33; Numbers 18:21,24), and the care of the poor (Deuteronomy 26:12).

Tuesday, June 26

Numbers 1: The Greek name for this book, Arithmoi (obviously the root of “arithmetic”), means “Numbers,” which has remained the common name also in English. This name indicates much of the book’s contents, for it includes a census of the Israelites. It is also an appropriate name in another sense—namely, the book deals with the mathematics governing calendars, the parceling of the Promised Land, the quantities associated with sacrifice, and even the division of the war spoils. In short, this is a work inspired by the ideals and principles of mathematics, for which reason the reader will feel that he has entered a fairly and proportionately ordered world. (He also may bear in mind that “proportion” was a major concern of Leviticus 27, the chapter immediately preceding this one.)

The time frame of this book is the period of the forty years that the Israelites spent wandering in the desert. It begins at Mount Sinai and ends in the land of Moab, covering all the time between Egypt and the Promised Land. Numbers is traditionally ascribed to Moses, one man who was eyewitness to events narrated here.

The history recorded in this book is more than a plain chronicle, however. It is history told with a view to illustrating the theological significance of the events, a significance derived from God’s providential governance of Israel during the period under consideration.

It was the Lord’s presence with Israel that made this nation a holy people, so the book is first concerned with the people, even down to listing the people. This first chapter gives a rough census of all the Israelite tribes except Levi, the priestly tribe.

Like the bible’s various prophetic books, Numbers begins with a precise chronological reference that contains no fewer than three ordinal numbers (verse 1). The second verse, in turn, requires a counting “according to the numbers” (bemispar). Verse 3 then specifies the ages by the computation of the years. In short, this is a book about quantity.

There follows the first census in Numbers. The second, a census reflecting a later time, is found in Numbers 26. The present census is clearly made for military purposes, since it concentrates on males eligible for warfare.

Commentators have invariably remarked on the extraordinary numbers indicated in this text, mentioning that, if these numbers of warriors are taken at face value, then Israel certainly had the largest army in the ancient world and could easily have defeated the combined forces of both Egypt and Babylon. Indeed, Alexander the Great conquered much of the world with an army barely a fraction of the size of the army indicated here in Numbers 1.

To gain a more realistic assessment of the situation, however, it is useful to bear in mind that the Hebrew word for “thousand,” ’eleph, is actually a subdivision of a tribe, the numerical count of which varied a great deal but seldom came to a full thousand. In the context of this chapter ’eleph indicates a military unit, comparable to our “battalion,” “regiment” or “brigade.” The numerical force of any of these units may vary a great deal, and this is also true of the Hebrew ’eleph. if this military context is borne in mind the very high numbers of troops in this chapter are rendered much more plausible than at first seems to be the case.

Wednesday, June 27

Numbers 2: As the Israelite tribes journeyed through the wilderness, they really marched. Which is to say, they walked in martial ranks, both of these words derived from the name Mars, the Roman god of war. We speak of that era as a period of “wandering” in the desert, but this wandering was marked by an internal structure of great cohesion and purpose. The wandering Israelites were—as God’s people must ever be—a company of warriors.

Consequently, the organization of Israel in the desert was arranged along martial lines, an arrangement that should not surprise us, in light of the military interest of the census in the preceding chapter. As in any military expedition, it was imperative to know just where the various forces were stationed and where it was feasible, if need be, to deploy them. We find this imperative at play in the present chapter.

Indeed, it seems to have been the major determining factor of Israel’s physical organization. Whereas the previous chapter had recorded the troop strength of each tribe, the present chapter strategically distributes that strength. In fact, the strategic position of each large unit was made visible by its corresponding ensign, each of which served as a symbol of every soldier’s position and direction on the field (verses 2,3,10,17,18,25,31,34). In addition, each tribe was answerable to a single commander, identified in every instance (verses 3,5,7,10,12,14,18,20,22,25,27,29). No good military leader would be satisfied with less organization.

If the overall arrangement of Israel served a military purpose, this arrangement did not exclude theological considerations. Among the tribes, such a consideration is arguably clearest in the case of Judah, destined to be the royal tribe (Genesis 49:8-12), from which, in due course, the Messiah would come. Judah, accordingly, is placed to the east (verse 3), the direction of the rising sun, blessed with its attendant symbolisms.

Similarly, the Tabernacle of God’s presence, Israel’s theological hearth, was placed in the center (verse 2), and around it all the bribes were gathered in assort of square, for its protection (Compare Ezekiel 48:30-35). The Levites, naturally, were positioned nearest to the Tabernacle, the care of the latter being their chief charge (verse 17).

Thursday, June 28

Numbers 3: We come now to the tribe of Levi, the priestly family that marched closest to the Tabernacle of the divine presence. Each division of this tribe was assigned to carry and care for specified instruments for the worship in the Tabernacle (verses 25-26,31,36-37). Like the other tribes, which were divided into four groups to form a square around the Tabernacle, the sons of Levi were divided into four to form a small square inside the larger one (verses 23,29,35,38). This arrangement itself is symmetric and related to the theme of numbers.

In this last reference (verse 38) we observe that among the sons of Levi, Moses and Aaron and his sons occupied the position of honor, to the east, nearest the tribe of Judah. This arrangement would eventually be expressed by the establishment of the Temple in the tribe of Judah, so that this latter tribe, but especially its king, would become the chosen protectors of the priesthood. This will become a large theme in the Book of Chronicles.

In this chapter too the preoccupation is with “numbers” (verses 15,16,22,28,34,39,40,42), a preoccupation carried over, at the end, to financial considerations (verses 47-50).

Discourse about Aaron’s sons must include, and even start with, the tragedy attendant on the unfaithful ministry of the two oldest of those sons, Nadab and Abihu (verse 4), whose sin is recounted in Leviticus 10:1-2 and Numbers 26:61). This tragedy was a very sobering experience for Israel and served to brace the spirits of the remaining priests. For instance, when we consider the later zeal of Phineas the nephew of Nadab and Abihu, it is reasonable to think that zeal to come, in part at least, from his fearful reaction to the tragedy of his uncles. In any case, Nadab and Abihu died without offspring, leaving only Eliezar and Ithamar to carry on the Aaronic line.

This chapter reminds us that the Old Testament priesthood was one of biological inheritance, in which sons succeeded and were trained by their fathers. This ministry was one of trust and duty and included the safeguarding of the instruments and appointments for the maintenance of Israel’s sacrificial cult (verse 8).

The themes in this chapter will appear in the Epistle to the Hebrews, which will contrast the inherited Aaronic priesthood and the unique, eternal priesthood of Jesus, and the earthly Tabernacle with the heavenly Sanctuary made without hands.

The Levites, the non-Aaronic members of the Levitical tribe, were “given” to assist Aaron and his sons in the ministry. This term “given,” netunim, became the name of certain ministers within the Levitical order at the time of the restoration of the Temple after the Babylonian Captivity (Ezra 2:43,58,70; 7:7,24; 8:17,20; Nehemiah 3:26,31; 7:46,60,73; 10:28; 11:3,21), but here the term appears to refer to all the Levites, who were “given” to the Lord (8:16).

Just as the first fruits of all products pertained by right to the service of God, the sons of Levi were thought of as being the first born sons of Israel and therefore pertained entirely to God’s service (verses 11-12,41,45-46). This analogy suggests that there was a sacrificial quality to the lives of those who served in the sanctuary, which was the place of sacrifice.

The early Christians thought of their own order of deacons (diakonoi=”servants”) as the New Testament’s correspondence to the Old Testament order of Levites (cf. Clement of Rome 40.1-5).

Friday, June 29

Numbers 4: The duties of the Levitical ministry were apportioned among their three clans. The tasks in this chapter all had to do with carrying the Tabernacle and its myriad instruments and appointment from place to place. Each time the Israelites moved away, the Tabernacle had to be disassembled and packed up, and each time Israel arrived at a new place, it was necessary to reassemble everything again.

There is an ordering among these tasks, the first place being given to the Kohathites, the descendents of Levi’s second son (Exodus 6:16). The primacy of this clan was surely determined by the fact that Amram, the father of Moses and Aaron, belonged to it (Exodus 6:18,20), so it was more closely related to the priestly family itself (verses 2-4).

The task of the Kohathites was to carry the sacred vessels associated immediately with the ritual of the Tabernacle. Even this, however, they were unable to do until everything had been properly wrapped and prepared by the priests themselves, according to a very detailed prescription (verses 5-14). Only under the careful supervision of Eliezar, the older of Aaron’s two remaining sons, could the Kohathites presume to carry this great burden (verse 15).

The next place in the order was held by the Gershonites, the descendants of Levi’s eldest son, who were charged with carrying the various drapes, veils, and hangings of the Tabernacle (24-26). All this work was supervised by the priests (verse 27), particularly Ithamar, Aaron’s younger son.

The clan of Merari, Levi’s youngest son, was to carry the more solid parts of the Tabernacle, the sections made of wood and metal (verses 31-32). This task was also to be supervised by Ithamar (verse 33).

The sense of order in this chapter is consistent with the interest in numbers and proportion that we find throughout this book. As in the previous chapters, the verb “to number” or “to count” appears repeatedly. This is a book of transcribed calculations. Everything is prescribed. Everything is proportioned.

The Feast of Saints Peter & Paul: Both the East and the West, from the earliest centuries, has celebrated this double feast day of those two apostles are linked in a special way by their both being martyred in the city of Rome. Even though there seem to have been Roman Christians right from the day of Pentecost (cf. Acts 2:10), the origins of that local church were always associated with the two great men who there shed their blood for the name of Christ. Writing to the Christians at Rome in the year 107, Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch in Syria, could say to them: "I do not give you commands, as did Peter and Paul." With respect to the ministry and martyrdom of Peter and Paul at Rome, the evidence from the dawn of Christian history is overwhelming, nor was there any dissenting voice on this matter from any source in ancient history.

With respect to Paul, of course, we have the Book of Acts and the Second Epistle to Timothy.  With respect to Peter, we are not entirely sure when he did reach Rome, but it must have been in the early 60′s. If he were at Rome in the late 50′s, it is impossible to understand why he was not mentioned among that long list of Christians who are named in Romans 16.

However, we do know quite a bit about the place, time, and circumstances of Peter’s death. The fourth century historian, Eusebius, cites testimonies from the second and early third centuries to bolster his thesis that the chief of the Apostles was crucified in Rome during Nero’s persecution (mid-60s): Tertullian in North Africa, Gaius of Rome, Dennis of Corinth. From another writer of about 200, Clement of Alexandria, we learn that Peter’s wife was also martyred and that the apostle was a witness to it. The African Tertullian speaks even more boldly of that crucifixion at Rome, “where Peter equals the Lord’s passion,”  he treats the information as though it were common knowledge.

Indeed, the early Christians seem to have been so familiar with the circumstances of Peter’s martyrdom that Clement of Rome (writing from that city) and Ignatius of Antioch (writing to that city) had not felt the need to elaborate on the place and circumstances. The story of the Apostle’s crucifixion was so widely reported among the churches that the Gospel of John, probably written at Ephesus, could simply refer to the stretching out of Peter’s hands as “signifying by what death he was to glorify God” (John 21:18f). John did not have to explain the point; everyone knew exactly how Peter had died. That this Johannine passage (“thou shalt stretch forth thy hands …… signifying by what death he was to glorify God”) did in fact refer to Peter’s crucifixion in Rome was perfectly obvious to Tertullian. Citing that Johannine verse, he wrote: “Then was Peter ‘bound by another,’ when he was fastened to the cross" (Scorpiace 15.3). Moreover, the symbolic extension of the hands as signifying crucifixion is attested to in early Christian and even pagan writings (Pseudo-Barnabas, Justin Martyr Irenaeus,  Cyprian of Carthage, Epictetus).

The Christians at Rome, however, have never clung to this special two fold grace in any jealous or exclusive fashion. Throughout the years they have share this feast day of the two apostles with all other Christians, and this feast day is observed with equal solemnity throughout the Christian East. Indeed, in recent years it has become customary for Rome and Constantinople to exchange special delegations and greetings on this day, with the intention of maintaining those cordial relationships of charity that may, in God’s time and by God’s grace, bring the Christians of the East and the West back to full communion one with another.