Friday, July 1

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).

Mark 4:13-20: The story of the sown seed is one of the very few parables of our Lord in what modern literary study calls “allegory” (that is, with a specific meaning for each narrative detail).

Regarding the seed as an image of the Word of God was not uncommon among the early Christians (cf. James 1:18; 1 Peter 1:23). Since God’s Word is what Jesus has been proclaiming all along through the Markan account, this is actually a parable about the ministry of Jesus Himself.

His preaching is completely frustrated among certain people because “Satan comes immediately and takes away the Word that was sown in their hearts” (4:15). The identity of such folk, those under the dominion of Satan, is easy to detect in Mark’s gospel (cf. 3:22-30). The seed fallen on shallow ground, soil sitting thinly over a rock foundation, springs up quickly because such soil is more rapidly heated by the sun. These conditions, however, do not permit the putting down of deep roots. Shallow people become quickly enthusiastic about God’s Word, but real growth in that Word requires sustained and prolonged discipline. In our Lord’s explanation of this part of the parable, He refers to the troubles associated with His coming sufferings, the tribulation and persecution that arise “for the Word’s sake” (4:17).

Saturday, July 2

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 were 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 be 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.

Jeremiah 1:4-10: God spoke to and through the prophets, and some of those prophets, on occasion, spoke back to God. None of them did so, however, as often and fervently as Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a man of prayer.

This trait, discernible throughout the man’s life and ministry, is introduced right from the opening scene in the book that bears his name. That scene, the account of his call when he was still very young, consists entirely of a conversation between himself and God (1:4–14).

Such conversations between the Lord and this prophet, moreover, are a unique and distinguishing characteristic of Jeremiah among the prophetic books (cf. 4:5–21; 9:1–6; 11:1–5, 18–23; 12:1–6; 14:1–22; 15:10–21; 17:12–19; 18:19–23; 20:7–18; 23:9–12; 24:1–5; 32:16–26). The prayers of Jeremiah, intense in their tone and unique in their frequency, are essential to the understanding of his message and his historical significance.

Sunday, July 3

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 mentioning 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.

Monday, July 4

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).

Tuesday, July 5

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).

Wednesday, July 6

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).

Thursday, July 7

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 were 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).

Mark 5:1-20: In the final verse of the previous chapter, the Apostles asked, “Who can this be?”

Mark’s readers, of course, know exactly who this is, because Mark identified him from the start: “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Up to this point in Mark’s narrative, however, only the demons have been able—in some measure—to answer the question, “Who can this be?” (Mark 1:32-34) For now, the apostles’ question remains unanswered.

It is answered, nonetheless, in today’s reading from Mark—the account of the demons and the pigs:

 

Then they came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gadarenes. And when he had come out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit, who had his dwelling among the tombs; and no one could bind him, not even with chains, because he had often been bound with shackles and chains. And the chains had been pulled apart by him, and the shackles broken in pieces; neither could anyone tame him. And always, night and day, he was in the mountains and in the tombs, crying out and cutting himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and fell down before him. And he cried out with a loud voice and said, “What have I to do with You, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? (Mark 5:1-6 emphasis added)

Here, then, we find the correct answer to the question posed at the end of the previous scene: “Who can this be?” Answer: “Jesus, Son of the Most High God.” This combination of query and response, found in sequence in all three Synoptics, suggests that the demons themselves are answering the question that the Apostles have just asked.

 

Friday, July 8

Numbers 1: Here begins the first census in the Book of Numbers (chapters 1 through 4). These opening verses (1-16) provide the list of leaders, from each tribe, who will supervise the first census.

Like the Bible's various prophetic books, Numbers begins with a precise chronological reference that contains no fewer than three ordinal numbers: “Now the Lord spoke to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai in the tabernacle of testimony, on the first day of the second month in the second year after they came out of the land of Egypt” (verse 1).

The book begins, then, with a date, indicating that thirteen months have elapsed since the first Passover.

The second verse, in turn, requires a census, a counting “according to the number of their names” (bemispar shemoth). Verse 3 then specifies the ages by the computation of the years, “from twenty years old and above.” Thus, there are three different uses of numbers in the first three verses of this book, and a sustained interest in calculation sets its tone.

After these introductory verses, the rest of the chapter has three parts: first, a list of the tribal leaders who will conduct the survey of the tribes (verses 5-19; second, the results of the survey itself (verses 20-46); third, an explanation why the Levites are not included in this census (verses 47-54).

The large and central part of this chapter is the first census, which is a clearly made for military purposes, since it concentrates on the males eligible for warfare.

Besides the practical function served by this census, it is legitimate to inquire about the theological significance of the book’s beginning with four whole chapters dedicated to this theme. Why does the Word of God go to the trouble of providing a list of the totals of each of Israel’s tribes? If, as the Apostle says, all these things were written for our instruction, what lesson did the Holy Spirit intend when He caused these lists to be recorded three millennia ago?

We may consider three points in this respect:

First, this opening census confirms a truth about the biblical God—namely, that He accounts for all things. If not a sparrow falls to the ground without His notice, certainly He knows each Israelite that faltered in the wilderness. This census, accordingly, is a record of His judgments, and as such it symbolizes and prefigures the inspection to be made at the end of time, when the thrones are set and the books are opened.

Second, these numbers of the various tribes serve to memorialize those who perished in the Wilderness. The God who numbers the very hairs of our heads did not permit to be obliterated from memory those who had witnessed His wonders in Egypt and Sinai. They were, after all, the eye-witnesses of the great deeds of Redemption, the magnalia Dei: the plagues visited on Egypt, the deliverance at the Red Sea, the giving of the Law, the falling of the Manna, and all the rest. This was the people that saw the Nile turned to blood, and whose nostrils were offended by the rotting carcasses of a million frogs. These were the people—recorded by their fathers’ houses—that observed the first Passover in the land of their captivity.

Although these six hundred thousand were counted unworthy to enter the Promised Land, the Lord in His mercy deigned to enter them into the Sacred Scriptures.

Third, these lists serve to replace the tombstones of those who died in the desert. Though they all lay in myriad unmarked tombs, their memory is enshrined here in letters more lasting than stone. During the more than three thousand years that have elapsed since the last of them succumbed to the heat and fatigue of the wilderness, their memory has survived through the patient labor of Jewish and Christian copyists.

Thus, the reader of the Book of Numbers enters this story, as it were, through the arched gateway of a cemetery, to stroll among the tombs and observe this vast company at rest in their serried ranks. If he reads the text closely, he may hear the voice of the recording angel, who reports to the Almighty, “All present and accounted for, Sir.”

In the final part of the chapter (verses 47-54) Moses is instructed not to calculate the house of Levi with the rest of the tribes, because they are not to fight within the army. The Levites will have a census of their own in chapter 3.

It is traditional to see in these verses the origin of the custom of clerical exemption from military service, an exemption naturally giving rise to moral reflections on the incompatibility of the military and clerical professions. To assess the value and pertinence of such reflections, it will be useful to look at certain features of this exemption:

First, the reason given for releasing the ministers of the altar from military service is the fact that they are already occupied with carrying the tabernacle and its appurtenances, chiefly the Ark of the Covenant. As the soldiers march with their weapons in hand, the priestly tribe is busy handling the instruments of worship and sacrifice.

As we shall see in the next chapter, the tabernacle of testimony is to be borne in the very center of the marching troop, and the Levites are to surround it as a sort of cordon of protection. They are not armed, but they are charged with protecting this very center of Israel’s life and identity.

This “clerical exemption” from military service is, therefore, a symbolic provision, indicating the correct structure and order of Israel’s existence. It is literally hieratic in nature, expressing less an ethical principle than a sacramental intuition.

Second, because of its sacramental symbolism, the clerical exemption from combat is far from absolute in practice. Perhaps the most obvious evidence of this limitation comes during the period of the Maccabees, when a priestly family actually leads the forces of Israel against its oppressors.

Third, although the Levites were not charged to fight against Israel’s enemies, they certainly do, on occasion, fight against the Israelites! Indeed, the Book of Exodus already told how, in the incident of the golden calf, the Levites slaughtered a large number of their fellow citizens in order to preserve the moral integrity of the people (32:26-29), and in chapter 25 of the present book Phineas, the grandson of Aaron, will lead a similar bloody assault for the same purpose. Indeed, the second census will not be conducted until after that purging. Thus, the biblical exemption of the Levites from military service in no way suggests some affinity between the clerical ministry and pacifism.

Indeed, the memory of Levi himself would render such an affinity improbable. We recall that he was a patriarch overly disposed to spill blood (Genesis 34:25-31). At the very end of his life, Jacob lamented the bellicose disposition of Levi and Simeon (Genesis 49:5-7). In sum, there is scant biblical evidence for the suggestion that “priests don’t fight.”