Friday, May 24
Ruth 3:1-18: According to Israel’s ancient levirate law, the brother-in-law of a widow was obliged to take her to wife in order to beget children in the name of his deceased brother. An extension of this law to “next of kin” is obviously operative in Naomi’s thinking in the bold project narrated in this chapter. She contrives a plan for Ruth to make this matter unavoidable in the mind of Boaz, in circumstances that will heighten a romantic interest that Naomi suspects to reside in Boaz’s heart. The execution of her plan is the stuff of one of the most sensitive stories in the Bible.
In the course of this account, we then learn that Naomi was correct in her suspicion. Indeed, he is already one step ahead of his future “mother-in-law”; he has researched the matter and learned that he is not, in fact, the next of kin. Thus, nothing happens that night. There is still one more step Boaz must take.
In this second dialogue between Boaz and Ruth, we detect certain delicate features of both of the man: Boaz’s sensitivity to the age difference between him and Ruth, his consequent reluctance to initiate any previous advance toward her, his gratitude for her interest in him, his continued solicitude for her well-being by not obliging her to walk home in the dark, his discreet concern for her reputation, the shrewdness of his ability to read the mind of Naomi. As he lies there on the granary floor that night, Boaz realizes that he has been “set up” by Naomi; this proceeding had not been Ruth’s at all. So Boaz tells her, “Do not go empty-handed to your mother in law.”
Naomi’s response, in turn, shows that she perfectly understands the thoughts of Boaz. It is a marvelous account of two very shrewd individuals who comprehend one another perfectly.
Leviticus 7: All the blood sacrifices in this chapter (and 6:24-30) have the identical ritual structure, consisting in the mactation of the animal, the use of the sacrificial blood for atonement, the burning of the animal’s flesh on the altar, and the subsequent ritual meal of meat and grain. It is significant that the meal, since it is a means of communion with God in grace, follows the rite of blood atonement.
The Christian reader will see in this ritual the outline of theological truth. These ritual sacrifices, all fulfilled as prophecy in the sacrifice of Christ (Hebrews 7:27; 10:12), indicate that communion with God in Christ requires the shedding of His blood for atonement. The sacrifice of the cross, that is to say, and Christ’s entrance into the holy place with His sacrificial blood are necessary required for our sharing in His Eucharistic meal.
Whereas in the Old Testament sacrifices of communion a strict distinction was made between priests and other Israelites with respect to this participation, no such distinction is made in the Eucharist of the New Testament. All Christians participate in the same Sacred Food. Through this Eucharistic meal, believers become the holy people of God. The Food itself is the means of this communion in grace. It is through this physical Food of this sacrificial meal that the Church is rendered holy.
Saturday, May 25
Leviticus 8: Here begin three chapters (8-10) of stories describing especially the institution of Israel’s priesthood and the inauguration of its priestly worship. This narrative section thus describes various divine commands received by Moses in Exodus 29 and 40. Central to this whole section is the theophany in 9:23-24.
This long account proceeds in three steps, each developed in an individual chapter. Thus, chapter 8 tells of the consecration of Israel’s priests, chapter 9 describes the inauguration of the priestly worship, and chapter 10 narrates the sacrilege and death of two priests that failed in their responsibilities. This last story prompts the pronouncement of further rules to prevent the repetition of such a tragedy.
Chapter 8, which describes the priestly ordination of Aaron and his sons, refers to the Tabernacle (moshken–verse 10; cf. 15:31; 17:4; 26:11). This portable shrine had two parts: the outer part, which is to be identified with the “tent of meeting,” and the inner part, commonly called the “holy of holies” (Hebrews 9:2-3).
Moses was not a priest, but in this chapter we see him, as mediator of the Covenant, ordaining the priests. All priestly ordinations in the Israelite religion go back to what Moses did in this chapter.
We observe that the ordination lasted, like Creation, a whole week (verses 33,35; 12:2; 13:4,5,21,26,31,33,50,54; 14:8,38; 15:13,19,24,28). The number seven, the standard biblical number symbolizing perfection, is important to this chapter. Thus, for instance, some version of the formula “as the Lord commanded” is found here seven times (verses 4,9,13,17,21,29,36). That is to say, the rite of ordination required seven acts of obedience. In fact, this ordination rite follows exactly—to the letter—what was prescribed for ordinations in Exodus 29.
The vestments of the priesthood were sacramental, inasmuch as they not only symbolized the office and authority of the priests, but also were the means through which that office and authority were conferred. The investiture of the priests was part of the consecratory act itself (verses 7-9; Ezekiel 44:19-20).
Also essential to the ordination was the oil with which the priests, the altar, and its instruments were consecrated (verses 10-12). This oil, mixed with the sacrificial blood (verse 30), also consecrated the priestly vestments. The mixing of oil and blood is not found in the Bible except in the rite of ordination.
There seems to be a detailed symbolism in the smearing of the sacrificial blood on the right earlobes, thumbs, and big toes of the priests. These latter were to be consecrated in their obedient hearing of God’s Word, their executing of the ministries through their hands, and their walking into the holy place.
The priestly ordination is called a “fulfillment” (milu’im), evidently indicating that all the prescriptions of the ritual were carried out to perfection (and thus were “valid”). The Septuagint translated this word literally as teleiosis, “perfection” (verses 22,28,31,33; cf. 7:37; Exodus 29:22,26,27,31,34), and the normal Greek verb meaning “to ordain” as teleio, “to perfect” (verse 33; 16:32; 21:10; Exodus 29:9,29,33,35; Numbers 3:3).
It is theologically significant that this same verb is used in the Epistle to the Hebrews to designate the priesthood of Christ (2:10; 5:9; 7:28). It is also the verb used of Christians, who by baptism share in the priesthood of Christ (9:9; 10:14; cf 7:11,19). Consecrated by Jesus’ own sacrificial blood (9:13; 10:22; cf 1 Peter 1:2), they can “approach” or “draw near” to the true sanctuary of which He is the High Priest (4:16; 7:19,25; 10:1,22).
Sunday, May 26
Leviticus 9: We come now to this book’s first reference to the “eighth day” (verse 1), a symbolic time that will become a virtual theme in Leviticus (12:3;14:1023;14:14,29; 22:27; 23:36,39). Because seven days represents the work (and rest) associated with Creation, the eighth day signifies the beginning of history, the work of man that follows the work of God. It is the new day of the new week. Hence it represents renewal.
For this reason, it is the day that separates the Israelite from the rest of the human race. As all men were created during the first week, so the sons of the Covenant are created on the first day of the second week. Hence, circumcision takes place on the eighth day.
If this eighth day was so important for the Jew, how much more for the Christian! The eighth day, after all, is Sunday, and “Sunday seems to be an image of the age to come. Notice that although Sunday is the beginning of days, Moses did not call it the first day, but one day: ‘And there was evening and there was morning, one day,’ because this day would recur many times. Therefore ‘one’ and ‘eight’ are the same, and the ‘one’ day refers to itself and to the ‘eighth’ day. Even the Psalmist follows this custom in certain titles of the psalms [e.g., Psalms 6 and 12 in the LXX]. This day foreshadows the state that is to follow the present age, a day without sunset, nightfall, or succession, an age that does not grow old or come to an end” (St. Basil, On the Holy Spirit 27.66).
For this same reason, major feast days in the Christian Church often last eight days—what we call an “octave.” Easter, Pentecost, and Christmas come to mind. One likewise recalls that the traditional baptismal fonts of the Church are commonly octagonal, in accordance with the number eight associated with Baptism, the beginning of the new life (cf. 1 Peter 3:20-21).
The whole congregation “approaches” (qarab) and “takes its stand” (‘amad before God (verse 5). To “approach” or “draw nigh” suggests the intimacy of worship (cf. Hebrews 10:22), whereas “standing” indicates the respect due to the majesty of God. The latter word, for example, is used with respect to throne rooms (cf. 1 Kings 1:28). The priest always stands before God (Deuteronomy 10:8; 2 Chronicles 29:11; Hebrews 10:11).
This chapter twice refers to “the glory of the Lord” (verses 6,23), the divine radiance that prompts the respect and reverence indicated by the “standing” of verse 5. Israel has beheld this divine glory in the desert (Exodus 16:7,10), on Mount Sinai (Exodus 33:18,22), and at the consecration of the tabernacle (Exodus 40:34-35), which will become the regular place of its appearance (Numbers 14:10; 16:19,42; 20:6).
Monday, May 27
Leviticus 10: The prohibition against drinking alcohol prior to divine services (verse 8) immediately follows the tragic account of Nadab and Abihu (verses 1-7), a fact suggesting that these two priests may have been intoxicated when they undertook the unauthorized liturgical rite that cost them their lives.
In any case this latter incident discloses the danger inherent in divine worship. This probably needs to be emphasized, because some of those who drive off to church each Sunday morning seem not to be aware that they are placing their very souls in peril. (Otherwise they would be dressed with modesty and dignity, arrive on time, stay until the service is over, and avoid distraction and gossip while they are in church. Indeed, sometimes the behavior of the clergy up in the sanctuary is even worse.)
Worship, after all, is encounter with God, and God is anything but safe. Throughout Holy Scripture, therefore, we find the theme of danger with respect to the things of God, particularly the rites and appointments associated with the divine worship. Nowhere in Holy Scripture is worship portrayed as completely safe.
In this sense biblical worship is nearly the opposite of “seeker friendly,” the adjective describing worship along lines dictated by the religious tastes of the uninitiated, worldly, unrepentant, and spiritually immature folks who are likely to drop in at church on Sunday morning.
Those that would draw near to God must resolve to feel uncomfortable (very much like Moses, when he was commanded to take off his shoes at the burning bush), at least until they become accustomed to the discipline of the worship. The experience of the holiness of the true God is not native to man (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:27-32; Hebrews 12:28-29).
These reflections pertain with special intensity to those charged with the oversight of divine worship, the stewards who safeguard the sacred mysteries (1 Corinthians 4:1-5; 6:9-11; Revelation 22:14-15). It is instructive to observe that St. Paul warns such men—for Holy Scripture never envisions women in this ministry—especially against the evils attendant on the drinking of alcohol (1 Timothy 3:3; 2 Timothy 4:5).
Tuesday, May 28
Leviticus 11: We come now to five chapters specifying many rules concerning ritual purity and impurity. These rules form a logical sequence after the story of Nadab and Abihu, who perished from their thoughtlessness about the holiness required in God’s true worship. They also prepare the reader for the section on Yom Kippur (chapter 16), which provides a general rite of purification. These five chapters, then, join Yom Kippur back to the tragedy of Nadab and Abihu.
This section, which interrupts the narrative of Leviticus, is sometimes called the Manual of Purity. Its structure consists of six divine revelations: four to Moses and Aaron (11:1; 13:1; 14:33; 15:1), and two to Moses alone (12:1; 14:1). In these three instances, when the subject matter of the revelation is intended for the general instruction of the Israelites as God’s holy people, Moses is instructed to hand the material on to them (11:2; 12:2; 15:2). Each of these revelations concludes with a summation the material contained (11:46-47; 12:7; 13:59; 14:32,54-57; 15:32-33). The final revelation ends with a general summary (15:31).
This first chapter deals with the difference between “clean” and “unclean” meats, both adjectives being understood in a ritual and cultic sense. The distinguishing characteristics of these two classifications were probably more obvious at the time than they are to us, but this consideration is not important to the theology of the chapter. In principle, the Israelites are to be governed, even in their diet, by distinctions that do not govern the rest of mankind. This restricted diet was a sign of the holiness of God’s people. Why God chose to make one animal “clean” and “another” unclean is, after all, a matter that can safely be left to God.
That principle established, it is worth reflecting on the Bible’s general classification of the animal world into wild, tame, and swarming (Genesis 1:26). Only the tame animals, the domesticated animals, properly share in man’s daily life. Some of these could be used for food (sheep, cattle), others for labor (horses, oxen). No animal could be used for both.
Among wild animals, preference is shown for animals that feed on grass, not those that feed on flesh. Those animals that feed on carrion (vultures, bottom-feeder fish) are unclean.
These rules do not govern the diets of Christians (Mark 7:19; Acts 10:9-16) for two reasons:
First, Gospel purity is of a more spiritual nature. This is why the determining factor for dietary purity in the Christian Church is related to demon worship (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:21).
Second, the distinction between Israelite and Gentile, a distinction expressed in these ancient dietary laws, is destroyed by the common source of holiness, which is the sanctifying blood of Christ.
Wednesday, May 29
John 19:23-27: Uniting John’s portrayal of Mary at the wedding at Cana (the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry) and at the foot of the cross (the end) is what we might call “the theme of the royal mother.” John stresses Mary’s maternal relationship to Jesus; his use of the term “mother of Jesus” seems to convey a certain reverence, much as it does in Luke’s portrayal of the nascent Church gathered in the upper room, waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:14). This maternal relationship of Mary to Jesus is linked to John’s emphasis on Jesus’ kingship, particularly in the context of his passion. (More on this theme tomorrow.)
Leviticus 12: Among all the purification rules in Leviticus, those contained in this shortest chapter of the book are probably the most offensive to modern sensibilities. It is very difficult for us today to think of childbirth as “defiling.”
If we look a bit more deeply into the subject, however, the meaning of these prescriptions will become clearer. The defilement involved here has to do with the shedding of blood, which is normal in childbirth. It is the impurity of the bloodshed that must be purified.
This point will perhaps be clearer if we remember how we speak of “purifying” the chalice after everyone has received Holy Communion. We use this expression even though what must be “purified” from the Eucharistic chalice is the blood of Christ! That is to say, the word “purification,” used in a ritual context, does not necessarily mean that something is dirty. The woman is no more “defiled” by childbirth than the chalice is defiled by the Blessed Sacrament. In matters of ritual, the word “purify” means something different.
We recall that the last of the Queen Mothers of Judah was subject to the prescriptions contained in this chapter (Luke 2:22-24). The Holy Family being poor, the redemption in this case was effected by two small birds, not by the customary lamb (verse 8; Exodus 13:2,12; Nehemiah 10:36).
With respect to the abysmal (but apparently widespread) custom of requiring Christian women nowadays to observe forty days of seclusion and absence from the worship of the Church following childbirth, one hardly knows whether to weep or just to feel embarrassed. Like the other prescriptions in Leviticus, such rules were for those living under the old law, not the Gospel. The continued value of such prescriptions lies entirely in their prophetic quality, not in their practical application to Christians.
Thursday, May 30
John 19:38-42: John has gone to some length to stress that Jesus died as a king. Unlike the other evangelists, John shows how Jesus’ claim to kingship was made a major component of his trial before Pilate (18:33, 36-37). The Roman soldiers mock Jesus with the words, “Hail, King of the Jews!” (19:2)
At the last it is Jesus’ assertion of his kingship that becomes the decisive charge leading directly to his condemnation (19:12-15). Although the other gospels do speak of the sign over Jesus’ cross identifying him as “King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38), only in John does this designation become a point of controversy between Pilate and Jesus’ accusers (John 19:18-22), thereby drawing more explicit attention to it. In John’s account Jesus is even buried in a garden (19:41), like His royal ancestors, the covenanted kings of Judah (2 Kings 21:18, 26). Jesus’ cross, then, is inseparable from his kingship.
Leviticus 13: Modern readers, sensitive to the dangers of infection, will be more kindly disposed toward the prescriptions in this chapter, which have to do with various skin diseases, most of which are covered in the Bible by the noun “leprosy.” These, too, “defile” a person, in the sense of rendering inappropriate his participation in the congregation’s sacred worship.
The priests are authorized to declare when such an affliction has been healed (Luke 17:14).
Jesus’ curing of such people was one of the signs by which His contemporaries could recognize Him as the Messiah (Matthew 8:3; 11:5; Mark 1:41; Luke 5:13; 7:22). Indeed, after curing these lepers Jesus goes on to commission His apostles to do the same (Matthew 10:8). The curing of leprosy, then, becomes one of the great symbols of the power of the Gospel itself.
The real healing, however, takes place when Jesus Himself becomes, as it were, a leper in order to take away the sins of the human race (Isaiah 53 passim).
Friday, May 31
Leviticus 14: We come now to purification from blights, both blights of the flesh and blights of the home.
With respect to the first (verses 1-32), we have already considered its significance in our reflections on leprosy in the previous chapter.
The blights on human flesh lead to a consideration of the blights on human homes (verses 33-57). This sequence is both logical and symbolic. As a person’s social relationships are “defiled” by his appearance, the same is true for the appearance of his home. The rules for each, accordingly, are similar.
In this legislation we perceive a relation between the Israelite’s house and the house of God. This relation is continued in the New Testament, where Jesus enters the homes that would receive him (Mark 2:14-15; 14:3; Luke 19:9).
Indeed, the apostolic ministry itself was directed to the home. This truth is very clear in the Gospels: “And when you go into a household, greet it. If the household is worthy, let your peace [shalom] come upon it. But if it is not worthy, let your peace [shalom] return to you. And whoever will not receive you nor hear your words, when you depart from that house or city, shake off the dust from your feet” (Matthew 10:12-14). It was to homes, to households, that the authority of the Apostles was sent.
A Christian home is a home where the Apostles are invited in and well received. A Christian home is a household where the apostolic authority holds sway, and this fact proposes a challenge for all our homes. Do we live in households that are governed by the presence of the Apostles? Or are our homes places where the apostolic authority is not admitted? When the Apostle bids shalom to our homes, does that greeting abide therein, or does it return?
The authority and teaching of the Apostles is not something found in a church building. After all, Christians spend very little of their time at church. Indeed, we would be subject to apostolic authority on a few hours each week if we found it only in church. In the Gospels, however, the Apostles are chiefly sent to homes, places where people actually live.
This truth poses certain questions for each household: “In what measure does the authority of the Apostles actually live and prevail in my home? Do the behavior and conversation in my home reflect the active presence of the Apostles? Do the values and entertainment in my home manifest and respect the authority of the Apostles? Worse yet, do we live in homes where the Apostles have already left in disgust and shaken the very dust from their feet?
In this respect the Apostles replace the Old Testament priests in their capacity of “home inspectors.”