Friday, June 19

Leviticus 17: The following ten chapters, referred to frequently as the Holiness Code, is a very early collection of precepts, a collection with its own literary integrity. Its underlying theme, which serves as a motive for the precepts themselves, is the holiness of the Lord, a holiness to be recognized and honored in every aspect of Israel’s life. This application of respect for the Lord’s holiness pertains not only to the precision of the prescribed ritual but also to the entire moral life.

The pertinence of this principle of holiness to the entire human life remains an important element of true holiness for all times, including our own. The Book of Leviticus remains in the Bible so that no one can ever imagine that holiness pertains only to sacral situations. Biblical holiness pertains, rather, to every dimension of our lives. That is to say, God is interested, not only in the authenticity of my worship, but also in the sanctity of my entire life.

The present chapter is concerned with the sacred nature of blood, all shedding of which has about it something akin to sacrifice. The life, or soul, was in the blood (cf. Revelation 6:9-10).

Thus, the shedding of blood was the pouring out of life and represented the handing back of that life to God (verses 3-4). The shed blood, representing the life offered to God, was to be sprinkled on the area of worship, to dedicate and purify the place for worship (verse 6; Hebrews 9:18-22).

Certainly such sacrifices must not be offered to demons—literally, satyrs ( se‘irim—verse 7). Indeed, the text prescribes that this practice should not be done “any more” (‘od), indicating that the Israelites had engaged in it hitherto. Such an abomination was radically at odds with the holiness to which Israel was called (cf. 2 Kings 23:8).

Verses 8-12 repeat the prescriptions of verses 3-7, adding thee particular applications. First, these rules apply also to non-Israelites sojourning among God’s People (verses 8,10,12). Second, these rules apply to all sacrifices, including the holocaust (‘olah). Third, all consumption of blood is proscribed, because of its sacral nature as the bearer of life (verse 10). All of this is to say that, nephesh habbashir badam, “the life of the flesh is in the blood” (verse 11.

Weighing the gravity of this assertion, along with its concomitant prohibition against the drinking of blood, we sense the shock of Jesus’ listeners when He commanded them to drink His blood (John 6:53-54.60). Nonetheless, in each case—in both Leviticus and John—the symbolic reason is the same. Namely, the life is in the blood. Because the life is in the blood, Leviticus forbids the consumption of blood. Because the life is in the blood, Jesus commands the drinking of His own blood. Infinitely more than the sacrificed blood of bulls and goats, the blood of Jesus is appointed “to make atonement,” lekaphpher.

Like the body, the blood is to be buried. This is why blood shed outside of the liturgical setting is to be immediately covered with earth (verse 13).

Saturday, June 20

Leviticus 18: The consideration of blood, which is the symbol and bearer of life, is appropriately followed by regulations concerning sex, the sole means appointed by God for the transmission of life. The biblical laws governing sex are mainly negative and apodictic (as in “Thou shalt not . . .”)

The core material embracing the twin concerns in this chapter (listed below) is contained by an introduction (verses 1-5) and a conclusion (verses 24-30). Since the introduction and conclusion lay the foundation for the chapter’s core material, we will discuss these first.

The introduction (verses 1-5) establishes the serious tone of the chapter. It is stated, as a first principle, that Israel’s sexual behavior is to resemble neither that of Egypt nor that of Canaan, the place that Israel was leaving and the place where Israel was going. The Lord’s “judgments and ordinances,” it should be noted here, do not mean that Israel is suddenly faced with “rules” about sex, whereas Egypt and Canaan had no such rules. On the contrary, both Egypt and Canaan had their own sexual ordinances. No nation or culture is without rules and ordinances governing sex, in the sense of social expectations. The important thing, however, is that such expectations be correct and proper, and this is the tone in which Israel is to receive the ordinances of God on this subject. (Our own modern American culture certainly has its rules, or social expectations, on the matter of sex. Alas, they are almost all wrong!)

The conclusion of the chapter takes up once again the theme established in the introduction—namely, Israel’s separation from the sexual deviations of the Canaanites, among whom the Israelites will soon be living (verses 24-26). Just as those Canaanites were dispossessed of the Holy Land by reason of committing these abominations, so Israel runs the identical threat (verses 27-28). The teaching of this passage is the same as that of Israel’s prophets, who later traced Israel’s exile back Israel’s copying the behavior of the Canaanites.

Thus framed, the central core of the chapter contains the specific laws governing sex for God’s Holy People. These laws do address concrete social questions of two kinds.

First, in a culture where normally all the members belong to the same tribe, it is not surprising to find prohibitions of marriage within identified degrees of consanguinity and affinity (verses 6-18). Questions concerning these matters were bound to arise, and it was imperative to have clear, non-negotiable norms by which to address them.

The various prohibitions regarding consanguinity and affinity govern the household and family, where members of both sexes live in greater proximity than with other people. They are also bound by affections that are not shared outside of the family. Hence, the relationships established within the household are to be regulated with intentional severity, and on this severe code depends the stability of the whole society. A society that does not abhor incest has no future (verses 6-18). If relationships within the family are not closely and strictly governed, society collapses in one generation.

Second, because the experience of sex is so closely related to the imagination, it is inevitable that a society must eventually cope with more “imaginative” expressions of the sexual experience. Hence, there are rules to govern the proper judgment of such matters (verses 19-23). The Sacred Text is understandably severe about sex outside the family, such as adultery (verse 20), homosexuality (verse 22), and bestiality (verse 23).

It is instructive that in the midst of these references there is a prohibition of child sacrifice (verse 21). We gain some sense that sexual offenses and child sacrifice go together, a sense confirming our suspicions that a society that encourages promiscuity will be permissive with respect to the murder of children.

Sunday, June 21

Leviticus 19: This chapter, like the previous, has its own literary unity, with both an introduction (verses 1-2) and a conclusion (verses 36-37).

Although the ordinances in chapter 18 were concerned specifically with sexual offenses, that chapter did lay down the more general principle that Israel was not to copy the behavior of the Canaanites. The present chapter spells out more implications of that principle. These implications include laws on chastity, a theme that ties this chapter to the previous one, but it also includes rules concerning worship, justice, and the care of one’s neighbor.

The chapter’s introduction bases the ensuing rules in a deep regard for the holiness of the Lord; because God is holy, God’s people must be holy. Israel itself must partake of the “otherness” of God and not conform to the standards of other peoples. That is to say, the ide
a of the Holy is inseparable from the notion of the Chosen People, and Christian reader recognizes that this theme is every bit as prominent in the New Testament as in the Old. Indeed, the notion of the Chosen People, called to holiness, is not abolished; it is extended.

Taking up concerns contained in the Decalogue (Exodus 20:2-6,8,12; Deuteronomy 5:6-10,12-16), this list of the holiness laws addresses (in reverse order from the Decalogue) the honoring of parents, the keeping of the Sabbath, and the avoidance of idolatry (verses 3-4)>

There follows a set of prescriptions respecting peace offerings (verses 5-8), prescriptions complementary to those we studied in 7:15-19.

One of the duties of holiness is the exercise of compassion for the poor (cf. James 1:27). This compassion forbids the farmer to be thorough in the harvesting of his fields, vines, and trees. He must leave some of his harvest to be gleaned by the poor (verse 9-10; cf. Deuteronomy 24:19-22). The Moabite exile Ruth, an ancestor of Jesus, would in due course be a beneficiary of this provision.

In the following verses (11-18) this social concern is extended to many concomitant duties of charity, justice, and truth. These include the duty of fostering an internal attitude of love for one’s neighbor (verses 17-18;; Matthew 22:37-39). This is the context for the prohibition against sexual exploitation (verses 20-22).

Such social concern has even an ecological dimension, which forbids the exploitation of trees that have not yet reached their maturity (verses 23-25).

The prohibitions in verses 26-29 are significant in the context of pagan practices among the Canaanites, who will soon be Israel’s neighbors. God’s Holy People must not even look like God’s enemies. Although these regulations at first may seem insignificant, modern secular customs with respect to clothing and adornment render them pertinent to our own times. Particularly to be noted here are prohibitions against tattoos and bodily piercings, customs especially offensive to those who regard their bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. It is still the case that God’s people are not to be conformed to the standards of this world.

Monday, June 22

Leviticus 20: The present chapter prescribes the sanctions (verses 10-21) attached to some of the sexual offenses discussed in chapter 18. Thus there is a close relationship between these two chapters. Nonetheless, the reader detects a literary unity and integrity in the present chapter; it can stand on its own.

A notable feature of Phoenician and Canaanite religion was child sacrifice, which was offered to the god Baal Moloch. The modern reader recognizes in contemporary abortions our own equivalent to that ancient atrocity. We observe here (verses 1-5) that this crime of child-killing, or even a passive complicity in this crime, merits the most severe punishment.

Israel’s vocation to holiness also requires respect and honor, not only for God-given posterity, but also for God-given ancestry (verse 9).

Following the general affinities between the present chapter and chapter 18, we observe the parallel between verses 22-26 and 18:24-30. Both texts, which serve as conclusions to their respective chapters, appeal to the general principle that God’s people are not to follow the ways of God’s enemies.

This spirit of holiness, which requires Israel to accept an either/or with respect to the Lord, took root very deeply in the prophetic movement of the ninth century, chiefly the preaching of Elijah. The tone of the Holiness Code in Leviticus permeates Elijah’s message, and it is easy to discern: “How long will you falter between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him"(1 Kings 18:21). Likewise, the references to being “cut off from the people” are amply illustrated by Elijah’s treatment of the baby-killing prophets of Baal Moloch: “And Elijah said to them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal! Do not let one of them escape!’ So they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the Brook Kishon and executed them there” (18:40). In short, there are no compromises with the God of the Bible.

Tuesday, June 23

Leviticus 21: The next two chapters treat of the special holiness of the priesthood and the sacrifices. The present chapter deals first with all the priests (verses 1-9), then the high priest (verses 10-15), and finally the impediments to the exercise of the priesthood (verses 16-23).

Contact with the dead, which always carries a temporary ritual defilement (Numbers 19:11-19; 31:19,24), is permitted to a priest only when the deceased person is an immediate relative (verses 1-4).

Similarly the priest is restricted with respect to the choice of a wife. He may marry only a virgin (verse 7) or the widow of another priest (Ezekiel 44:22). The daughter of a priest, should she become sexually immoral, is more severely punished than other sinners committing the same crime, for she carries in herself the blood of the priestly family (verse 9).

As for the high priest, he is held to a higher standard in every respect. For instance, he may never render himself ritually impure by handling a dead body, no matter who the dead person may be (verse 11). In addition, in order to avoid all possible contamination, the high priest may never leave the compound of the sanctuary (verse 12). Unlike other priests, he may not marry the widow of another priest (verse 14). Likewise, depending on the meaning “of his people,” it appears that the wife of the high priest must also be of the priestly family (cf. Luke 1:5).

The integrity required of the priest was incompatible with any serious physical blemish or defect (verses 17-24). It would be unseemly and incongruous for unblemished sacrificial animals (1:3,10; 22:22-25) to be offered by a blemished priest. Such a one, however, was not to be deprived of his living; he might continue to partake of the sacrificial meals shared by the priestly family (verse 22).

Wednesday, June 24

Leviticus 22: The present chapter, which is devoted to the regulations of sacrifice, may be divided into three parts. The first of these determines the privilege of participation in the sacrificial food (verses 2-16). The second part provides the rules for acceptable sacrificial victims (verses 17-30), and the third is a general conclusion regarding sacrifice (verses 31-33).

With respect to the first part, the text begins by noting that not everyone was qualified to share in those sections of the sacrificial meals reserved to priests (verses 2-3). Those animal parts reserved for the priest’s family (6:19-23; 7:7-10,28-34) were not permitted to family members ritually unclean (verses 4-9), nor to the guests or hired servants of priests (verse 10). Permission was given, however, for adopted servants (verse 11), because they were truly members of the priestly household.

Inadvertent violations of these rules were easily remedied (verse 14), but priests wee still to take care to prevent them (verses 15-16).

With respect to the second part, the requirement for unblemished victims pertained only to the sacrifices officially prescribed (verses 17-22). A certain latitude was permitted for sacrifices of supererogation (verses 23).

What was not fit for human consumption was not fit for sacrifice. Thus, a newborn animal could not e sacrificed until it was at least eight days old (verse 27). Similarly, a certain tenderness of sentiment was respected by the prohibition against sacrificing both a parent animal and its offspring on the same day (verse 28).

The more solemn and general conclusion (verses 31-33) suggests a sense that a new subject will be introduced in the next chapter.

Thursday, June 25

Leviticus 23: This lengthy chapter is concerned with the sanctification of time, and more specifically with the ordering of the calendar year through the observance of its festivals. Quickly men
tioning the Sabbath, which provides the structure for the sanctification of each week (verse 3), the Sacred Text treats of the double feast of Passover and the Unleavened Bread in the spring (verses 4-8), Pentecost in early summer (verses 16-21), and three autumnal feasts, Rosh Hashanah (New Year’s Day—verses 23-25), Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement—verses 26-32), and Sukkoth (Tabernacles—verses 34-43).

Throughout this chapter and in connection with each of these feasts, we find the word “Sabbath” repeatedly. Except in verse 3, however, where the weekly day of rest is intended, the word as used in this chapter is meant metaphorically for “day of rest,” without reference to a particular day of the week.

It is common nowadays to treat Passover and Unleavened Bread as two feasts originally unconnected, the first commemorating an historical event and the second celebrating the harvest of the winter grain. According to this line of argument these originally separate festivals were later joined to one another by reason of their chronological proximity. The present writer does not see much solid evidence for his hypothesis, considered apart from the presupposition that favors it. There is no compelling reason to believe that Israel ever celebrated a spring harvest festival unrelated to the Passover. A similar observation is warranted respecting the relationship of the wheat harvest to the feast of Pentecost in verses 15-21.

In verse 22 we recognize a repetition of the humane principle laid down already in 19:9-10.

With respect to Rosh Hashanah (verses 23-25), two comments seems in order. First, the sacrifices for this feast are prescribed in Numbers 29:2-5.

Second, the name itself, New Year’s Day, is not found here. Indeed, it is not found in the Bible at all, nor in any literature from the whole biblical period. “New Year’s Day (literally, “the Head of the Year”) apparently became attached to this feast only in the A.D second century, where we find it in the Mishnah. Moreover, in fact, the very numbering of the months in the Book of Leviticus shows that the year at that ancient time began in the spring, not the autumn.

If it was not originally New Year’s Day, then, just what was the autumnal feast treated here in verses 23-25? Some historians have conjectured that it was originally a feast of the Lord’s enthronement, and some have suggested that feast as the original setting for the several enthronement hymns in the Book of Psalms. All such suggestions, however, are very conjectural and, to the present writer at least, unconvincing.

In verses 26-32 we come again to Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, the liturgical details of which filled chapter 16. This was a day of fasting, observed nine days after the festival later called Rosh Hashanah. In this section we note that the day begins in the evening (verse 32), exactly as in Genesis 1 and in Jewish and Christian calendars unto the present day.

The feast called Sukkoth (Tabernacles), with its very distinctive observance of living in tents or “booths” for a week (verses 33-43), was also held in the same month as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Like Passover and Pentecost, it views elements from an agricultural calendar through the lens of a specific theme from Israel’s flight from Egypt (verse 43). Each day of this festival had its own particular observances (Numbers 29:12-38).

The traditional calendars of the Christian Church manifest considerable reliance on the feasts treated in the chapter. It is clear from the New Testament itself that Christians continued to observe some of those Old Testament holy days and transformed them with new meaning. This is most obvious for Passover, which became the Holy Week and Pascha of Christians, and Pentecost, the day on which the Holy Spirit descended on the Church assembled in the upper room. Even the autumnal feasts of Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, and Sukkoth can be found in vestigial forms, such as the September Ember Days that were common in the West until very recently, and more especially in the continued custom of the Eastern Church to begin the liturgical year on September 1.

Friday, June 26

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).