Friday, 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 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).

Saturday, 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 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).

Sunday, July 7

Acts 7:17-36: The differences between the Stoics and the Epicureans had to do with the structure of existence. The Epicureans, who conjectured that the world consisted of essentially unrelated small parts (“atoms”), thought that existence was ultimately meaningless. The thinking man, they believed, should simply try to enjoy it, especially by those disciplines of self-control and sobriety that would preserve his health and keep him out of trouble.

The Stoic world, on the other hand, is far from meaningless. Indeed, it is utterly suffused with meaning (logos). Existence, for the Stoic, has so much intrinsic meaning, that man is quite unable to add to it. His moral task is conform his inner life to that meaning.

To these two groups of philosophers, the Stoics and the Epicureans, Paul preaches a theology of history, in which the deeds of men will be judged, not by themselves in accord with their varying moral theories, but by God who “has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained.”

In this earliest encounter of the Gospel with pagan philosophy, we observe especially the difficulty experience by the latter in dealing with the material world (the Resurrection!) and the moral structure of history. Paul can barely begin this discussion, so great is the mix of opposition and boredom.

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).

Monday, July 8

Numbers 1: 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?

I believe 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. Those Israelites 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—who 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 their memory into the Sacred Scriptures. The Medieval rabbi, Rashi, commented: “He counts them from time to time, because they are dear to Him” (on Numbers 1:1).

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.”

Tuesday, July 9

Numbers 2: Whereas the previous chapter had recorded the troop strength of each tribe, the present chapter strategically distributes that strength. In addition, each tribe was answerable to a single commander, identified in every instance (verses 3,5,7,10,12,14,18,20,22,25,27,29). No good military leader would be satisfied with less organization.

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

In fact, the strategic position of each large unit was made visible by its corresponding ensign, which served as a symbol of every soldier’s position and direction on the field (verses 2,3,10,17,18,25,31,34; cf. 1:52). Later rabbinic sources suggested attractive features of these flags. Thus, Ibn Ezra pictured each flag as bearing an image symbolic of a particular tribe, much as we find in Jacob’s prophecies in Genesis 49: a lion for Judah, a serpent for Dan, a ship for Zebulon, and so forth.

As the people marched eastward, with the entrance of the Tabernacle facing forward, the foremost troop was formed by the largest of the tribes, Judah, flanked by Zebulon and Issachar (verses 3-9). Directly behind this large formation marched Aaron and the other priests, forming the immediate front guard of the Tabernacle (3:38).

To the south of the Tabernacle, forming the right flank of Israel’s total force, were placed the tribes of Gad, Reuben, and Simeon (verses 10-16). To their immediate left, forming the southern guard of the Tabernacle, marched the Koathite Levites (3:29).

We should particularly note that the Reubenites (including Dathan and Abiram) marched and camped adjacent to the Koathites (including Korah), on the south side of the army (verses 10-11). This arrangement would, in due course, provide opportunity for the two groups to share the grievances they had respecting the leadership of Moses and Aaron. In due course these groups of Reubenites and Levites would join forces in rebellion against Moses and Aaron in chapter 16.

To the west, directly behind the Tabernacle, were the Gershomite Levites (3:23), behind whom marched—as the rear guard of the whole force—the tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin (verses 18-24).

On the north side, forming the left flank of Israel’s force, were the tribes of Dan, Naphtali, and Asher (verses 25-31), directly south of whom—guarding the north side of the Tabernacle—marched the Merarite Levites (3:35).

Wednesday, July 10

Numbers 3: An important aspect of the Levitical ministry is that of custodianship over the precincts of the sanctuary. Indeed, this component of the ordained ministry remains perpetually valid for the People of God, those charged to stand guard over the gifts of God. These gifts include, first of all, the Gospel itself, which must be protected against heresy, but also included the Sacraments and the actual texts of Holy Scripture.

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

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

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

Third, there is the census of Levi (verses 14-39), the clerical family that marched closest to the Tabernacle of the divine presence. The census of the Levites is twofold: First, there is a counting of all the males of at least one month in age (verses 14-39), and, second, a census of those Levites, who, having reached the age of thirty, are qualified to participate in the Levitical ministry (4:1-49).

There are two reasons children are included in this initial census: First, unlike the census in the previous chapter, this census has nothing to do with military service. Second, because the tribe of Levi did not defect when all the other adults in Israel did, in the incident of the golden calf, the Levites did not fall under the “death curse” imposed on the rest of Israel’s adults. Hence, when they are counted, the children are counted too.

This initial census of the Levites divides their three groups (verse 17), assigning specific duties to each. Unlike chapter 4, which stresses the “labor” of the Levites, the present census concentrates on their “guard duty.” Of these two censuses, the present one is the larger, since in principle all Levites stood guard. Contrast the totals of these two censuses by comparing 3:39 with 4:48.

This census first traces the descendants of Levi (verses 18-20), a lineage corresponding to Exodus 6 and later reflected in 1 Chronicles 5 and 23.

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

Thursday, July 11

Acts 8:26-40: The conversion of the Samaritans, who may be described as half-Jewish, was a step toward the universalizing of the Gospel. Now, however, we come to the case of someone of completely Gentile blood, one of the many Gentiles who maintained some active interest in Judaism without joining it.

Philip is instructed by an angel to proceed south toward the coastal road near Gaza (8:26), a route much used by pilgrims who came to Jerusalem from Egypt and other parts of Africa. Here Philip is directed by the Holy Spirit to encounter one such pilgrim, an “Ethiopian,” a word at that time normally referent to Nubians who lived between Aswan and Khartoum in Upper Egypt and the Sudan.

This man, a treasury official in the service of the queen mother, is returning from Jerusalem, where he had been to worship (8:27–29). As Philip approaches the man’s carriage, which is either parked or making its way very slowly along the crowded road, he heard the pilgrim reading the Book of Isaiah. There is nothing particularly remarkable about this, for in antiquity it was normal to read in an audible voice, especially a work of literary merit. (So much was reading considered an auditory exercise in olden times that Augustine remarked at
some length on Ambrose’s strange custom of reading silently—Confessions 6.3.3).

Philip overhears the prophetic reading, interprets the Isaian text in the light of the Christian Gospel, and, in one of the swiftest conversions ever recorded, brings the man to baptismal faith (Acts 8:30–39).

It is also significant that this conversion takes place near Gaza, an ancient capital of the Philistines, as though to symbolize the Christian reconciliation of the Israelites with those European invaders whom they had bitterly battled for possession of the Holy Land more than a thousand years before.

His new convert properly baptized and sent along his way, Philip, walking north along the coast, “preached in all the cities till he came to Caesarea” (8:40), where Luke would interview him nearly two decades later.

It should be noted that this first completely non-Jewish person to become a Christian was from Africa. He was a governmental official of “Candace,” which is not a proper name but, like the word Pharaoh, the title of an office, in this case the queen of Ethiopia (the kntky of Egyptian inscriptions).

Friday, July 12

Numbers 5: These next two chapters give various prescriptions partly repetitious of the Holiness Code in Leviticus 17-26.

The present chapter has three parts: First, statutes about exclusion (verses 1-4); second, rules for confession and restitution (verses 5-10); third, provisions for trial by ordeal (verses 11-31).

First, then, there are statutes about exclusion. In accordance with this book’s concern with proportion and due order, this section begins with the “cleanliness” of the camp, the marked term referring to both hygienic and religious considerations (verses 2-4). These prescribed expulsions from the camp did not involve a removal of citizenship; those affected by the statutes did not cease to be members of the congregation. Their condition, nonetheless, and a solicitude for the welfare of the congregation, required that they should be treated in a special way that involved a measure of exclusion.

The holiness and wellbeing of God’s People in this world have ever required exclusionary canons of this sort, analogous to the laws of quarantine by which other societies are protected from harm. The notion of “infection” covers a wide application of pathologies, whether moral, psychological, intellectual, or physical (Cf. 1 Corinthians 5:7-13; 2 Corinthians 6:16-18; Revelation 21:27). As long as we are in this world, healthy societies will necessarily resort to censure and exclusion from time to time.

Much as there are isolation units in hospitals, the Church has canons and pastoral provisions to safeguard Her general membership from the toxic influences of those who violate charity, truth, justice, and good order. Pastors should take these provisions very seriously. I confess to having seen a number of examples of both parishes and monasteries where life became nearly unbearable by reason of the pastor’s failure to impose the discipline necessary to curtail such abuses.

A pastor’s first responsibility is discernment, and the most elementary form of pastoral discernment is the ability to distinguish between a sheep and a wolf. It is sad to say—but also honest—that many a pastor who went out to retrieve what he understood to be a lost sheep, returned to the flock carrying a wolf on his shoulders.

The second part of this chapter (verses 5-10) provides the rules for repentance and restoration that follow those of exclusion (verses 5-10). We observe that such repentance and restoration also involve an open, audible confession of the offense (verse 7), a confession explicit enough to determine the size of the restitution and nature of the sacrifice offered for its atonement. This confession is official, in the sense that it is received by the established priesthood. Even in the Old Testament, therefore, the priest served as a Father Confessor.

In both the Old Testament and the New, the priest represents the qahal, the ekklesia, God’s people in assembly. The priest, in both covenants, is the man designated to receive the repentance of the sinner on behalf of the Church.