Friday, June 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 13

Mark 2.13-17: Since the initial profession of faith is means conversion and baptism, it is significant that Jesus teaches at the waterside, and it is here that He summons Levi.

This new disciple, because he collects taxes on behalf of the hated Roman overlord, belonged to a class of citizens odious to most Jews (except the Herodians, who favored Roman rule), and especially to Israel’s rabbinical leaders, identified here as “the scribes and Pharisees.” Moreover, when Levi invites all his friends to a party, so that they may meet Jesus, Jesus shows no concern at all for the scruples of those who oppose such things.

He comes to Levi’s house and enjoys what appears to have been a jolly good time. It was from this occasion, apparently, that Jesus’ enemies tagged Him as a partygoer (Matthew 11:18-19) and a friend of sinners. The Lord nowhere disowns this latter label. Indeed, He is certainly the friend of sinners. After all, He has demonstrated that He knows exactly what to do with sins, and in the present scene He gathers the sinners unto Himself as special objects of His mission (verse 17). To the shock of the Pharisees, he insists on being the sinners’ friend who suffers and dies to redeem them, and one of the great ironies of the Markan gospel is that Jesus’ enemies are the very ones who make this redemption possible.

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

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

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

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

This spirit of holiness, which requires Israel to accept an either/or with respect to the Lord, took root very deeply in the prophetic movement of the ninth century, chiefly in the preaching of Elijah. The tone of the Holiness Code in Leviticus permeates Elijah’s message, and it is easy to discern: “How long will you falter between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him” (1 Kings 18:21).

Likewise, the references to being “cut off from the people” are amply illustrated by Elijah’s treatment of the baby-killing prophets of Baal Moloch: “And Elijah said to them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal! Do not let one of them escape!’ So they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the Brook Kishon and executed them there” (18:40). In short, there are no compromises with the God of the Bible.

Monday, June 14

Mark 2:18-22: Whereas the Lord’s enemies had earlier complained of His eating with sinners (2:16), in this story they are bothered by the fact that His disciples are failing to keep the Jewish weekly fast days.

We know from the Mishnah and the Talmud that devout Jews regularly fasted on Mondays and Thursdays, two days equally distant from the Sabbath, to commemorate the forty days fast of Moses on Mount Sinai (the first of those being a Thursday and the last a Monday). Indeed, the Pharisee in the parable boasted of observing that discipline (Luke 18:12).

In response, Jesus does not denigrate the importance of fasting but directs the structure of the fasting observance to His own person, explaining that His presence with the disciples is sufficient warrant for their not observing the fast (verse 19). Then, aware what His enemies are even now plotting against Him, He foretells His coming death, “when the Bridegroom will be taken away.” Then, says Jesus, fasting will be appropriate. “They will fast on that day,” He declares, in our earliest reference to the traditional Friday fast that Christians maintain to give weekly honor to the Cross of their Lord. By the year 100, and perhaps decades earlier, the Christians added Wednesday as another weekly fast day (the day on which Judas sold Him — Mark 14:1,10), so as not to be fasting less than the Jews did (cf. Didache 8). To the present day the Christian churches of the East maintain this discipline of fasting on Wednesday and Friday each week.

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).

Tuesday, June 15

Mark 2.23-28: Another story about eating: Walking with Jesus through a field of standing grain on a Sabbath day, the disciples reach out and pick ripe kernels from the stalks that have grown up to about the level of their hands. They rub the kernels between their fingers to remove the residual chaff and begin eating them. Most of us would probably not think of such activity as “harvesting a crop,” but to the scrupulous, supercilious minds of Jesus’ enemies it amounts to nothing less than a violation of the Sabbath by “laboring.”

As in the previous story Jesus assessed the value of fasting solely in terms of His own identity (“Bridegroom”), in the present account He does the same with respect to the Sabbath (“Lord of the Sabbath”). In both cases He is once again teaching “as one having authority” (1:22).

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.

Wednesday, June 16

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.

Thursday, June 17

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).

Friday, June 18

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).