Friday, June 7

Acts 7:11-25: Stephen’s point in verse 11 is that the Israelites, not able to feed themselves, were dependent on a pagan people. Thus Jacob, father of all Israelites, died outside of the Holy Land, along with all the tribal patriarchs. Though they were buried in the Holy Land, the site of their graves was purchased from yet another Gentile (verse 16). Meanwhile, it was in a Gentile land that the Israelites experienced their phenomenal growth. Even Moses was raised in a Gentile home and received a Gentile education (verse 22). He too was repudiated by the other Israelites, who have never, Stephen contends, shown themselves satisfied with the leaders that God sent them.

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).

Saturday, June 8

Mark 1:12-20: Mark’s brief narrative of Jesus’ temptations conveys a considerable amount of its theology:

First, the Holy Spirit, who has come down upon Jesus at his baptism, now “drives” him into the wilderness. As we shall observe, all three accounts of Jesus’ temptation include this detail about the Holy Spirit. All of them agree that his experience of the Holy Spirit prompted Jesus to go into the desert to face “the Tempter”—ho Peirazon (Matthew 4:3).

Second, for Mark there was a pastoral significance in the fact that Jesus’ trial in the wilderness followed immediately on his baptism. That significance arose from the recognition that Christians, in their baptism, enacted a ritual replication of Israel’s passage through the Red Sea in the Exodus. After that “baptismal” passage, the Israelites experienced various temptations in the wilderness.

Third, as though further to emphasize Jesus’ humanity in this story, Mark mentions that during this time in the wilderness He was “with the wild beasts.” That is to say, in his experience of temptation, Jesus returned to the situation of Adam, who lived with the animals. Unlike Adam, however, he did not succumb to temptation.

Fourth, the period of forty days, during which Jesus was tempted, is a further correspondence to the “forty years” of Israel’s time of testing in the wilderness.

Fifth, the tempter here in Mark is called “Satan,” the demonic name derived from the Book of Job. This is an important component in the story of Jesus’ temptations. Consider the correspondence with Job: God has just identified Jesus as the Son “in whom I am well pleased.” Satan heard God say this about Jesus, just as he had heard of God’s similar pleasure in Job.

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.

Sunday, June 9

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, June 10

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 plausible 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, June 11

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 the 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, June 12

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 that 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, June 13

Acts 8:5-13: Chapter 8 will treat of the ministry of Philip, Steven’s companion (6:5), chiefly concentrating on his dealings with two types of people who were regarded as “outsiders” with respect to Israel: Samaritans and eunuchs. Through Philip’s preaching, both of these are now brought into the Church, illustrating a standard Lukan theme of the raising up of the downtrodden and the dispossessed.

Philip’s preaching in Samaria, like that of Stephen in Jerusalem, is accompanied by miracles, especially the expulsion of demons (verses 6-7). The most notable of his converts, Simon Magus, was also the most troublesome. Justin Martyr, himself a Samaritan, tells us that Simon came from the hamlet of Gitta in Samaria (First Apology 1.26,56; Dialogue with Trypho 120.6). In spite of having his own enthusiastic following, Simon, persuaded by the preaching and especially the miracles of Philip, was baptized. The next scene, however, will suggest that his conversion was still something short of complete. Simon’s endeavor to purchase spiritual authority by means of money has given us the word “simony.”

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).

Friday, June 14

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 references: “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 their departure from 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 of 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. Josephus recognized the military purpose of this survey: “Now when the things pertaining to legislation seemed to [Moses] to be in good order, he undertook a survey of the army, with a view to preparing for battles” (The Antiquities of the Jews 3.12.4, 287).

In addition to 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?