Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Rest of Leviticus

Leviticus 18-27

The rest of Leviticus includes more rules to structure the Israelites' life together in community. Here are a few that especially caught me by surprise:

  • "You shall not put on a garment made of two different materials" (Lev 19:19).
  • "You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard" (Lev 19:27).
  • Every seventh year is a sabbath for the land! So, farm laborers, as well as the land itself, had sabbaticals (Lev 25:2-7)!

Sexual Ethics

I also found myself a little surprised about the detailed prohibitions about sexual behavior (Lev 18 and Lev 20). I wasn't surprised that there were prohibitions, but I was surprised that they needed such detailed specification. Why not just say, "don't have sex with anyone except your spouse"? I'm not sure if the detailed prohibitions suggest (a) having sex with those not explicitly prohibited was okay (in general, anyone not already married or close of kin), or (b) these were really details about who could be chosen as a wife (remembering that, during this time, men were allowed to have multiple wives). Also, the intended audience seems to be men. Were the rules a little different for women? (Or is this a translation issue -- was the gender meant to be neutral?)

Eye for an Eye

I had earlier noted that the context of the first "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" passage was much more specific than I had expected. I wondered then whether a more general statement would come up later. Yes. See Leviticus 24:19-20.

More on Slavery

Earlier, I had also puzzled over the issue of slavery. A passage in Leviticus clarifies the difference between hired labor and slavery. If Israelites themselves came upon hard times and had to sell themselves, they were not to be regarded as slaves but as hired laborers (who would be freed again in the jubilee year, every 50th year). So the only people who could become slaves, as such, would have been aliens (Lev 25:39-46).


I am very struck with the claim that people did not really "own" land in a permanent sort of way, but the land belongs ultimately to God (Lev 25:23).

But at the same time, the land was to be laid out in a surprisingly permanent way (once they reached the promised land), with a portion for each of the Israelite tribes. People could sell off parts of their land, if they needed to do so for money, but there would be a "jubilee year" every 50th year in which the land would be restored to its original tribes. Additional rules structured how this would happen in a fair way. Since everyone knew this would eventually happen, the buying and selling of land would be regarded as temporary, and thus would affect the pricing (Lev 25).

These are very powerful ways to establish a community's relationship to the land: to regard the land as ultimately God's, and to establish a practice that ensures that that sometime during every generation the whole economic system would be "reset" to give everyone a fresh start!

What if we now also took seriously the notion that no one ever "owns" land or other material property or resources in any permanent way?

And what if we were to establish a practice of re-distributing resources every 50 years? Imagine, for example, everyone's assets being tallied and then redistributed, giving everyone an equal amount! What would such a practice do to our economy?

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Cleanness and Uncleanness

Leviticus 11-17

When I was in college, I remember a professor telling us one day in class that he had learned that not all cultures around the world have a distinction between good and evil, but all cultures do have a distinction between clean and unclean. This professor then speculated that maybe the clean/unclean distinction was more basic than a good/evil distinction. It is only sometimes that a culture will develop out of the pragmatic clean/unclean distinction the moral good/evil distinction.

When we read moral connotations onto the clean/unclean distinction, that is because we come from a culture that does have a strong good/evil distinction as well. Having this latter distinction, we sometimes use clean/unclean as a metaphor for the basic moral distinction.

But we wouldn’t have to regard cleanness/uncleanness as any more than a pragmatic issue impacting on health and aesthetics. In fact, in many contexts, we do not regard it as more than this. When a child comes into the house with dirty hands and feet from playing in the mud, we normally don’t regard him or her as having done moral wrong. Kids play in the mud. We still ask them to wipe their feet and wash their hands, but that’s just so they won’t muddy the carpets or contaminate their food.

So, as I read the chapters in Leviticus (11-15) on cleanness and rituals of purification, this part does not seem very different from our current views. Some of the details may vary, but, in spirit, we continue to follow rituals of purification in an attempt to prevent contagion and contamination.

It is interesting that the rules in Leviticus also address clothing and houses! While the passage about houses may seem strange (Lev 14:34-53), I cannot help but think of the “rituals” we follow for asbestos removal, or the “rituals” we are to follow if the carbon monoxide detector should go off, or if a gas leak is detected.

Leviticus 16 begins with a reference back to the death of Aaron’s two sons: “The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the Lord and died” (Lev 16:1). I quote this passage because it offers a somewhat different interpretation of why they died: they drew too near the Lord.

The rest of this chapter is about the rituals for the Day of Atonement, and shows the origins of the notion of “scapegoat.” The “scapegoat” is not sacrificed, but is presented alive before the Lord. The priest confesses over it all of the sins of the people, and then the goat is sent out into the wilderness, carrying those sins away (Lev 16:7-10, 20-22).

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Lessons in Meaning-Making

Leviticus 8-10

This passage covers the ordination of Aaron and his sons. Here, something happens that totally caught me by surprise.

At first, as I read along, all goes as expected: Moses guides Aaron and his sons through their ordination. After the initial sacrifices are done, and Aaron and his sons are anointed, they remain in the tent of meeting for 7 days. On the eighth day, they come out and now perform their first sacrifices as priests.

Aaron himself does all right with these, but two of his sons do not perform their sacrifices correctly, and so they die: “they offered unholy fire before the Lord, such as he had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord” (Lev 10:1-2). This is the part that surprised me!

Since Aaron and his other two sons were now priests, and still had to finish with their initial sacrifices, they were not permitted to mourn in the usual way.

Part of what I'm finding strange about reading the Bible is how little there is about how people actually felt about the events they were participating in. This probably reflects a different style of storytelling. Events are described, and interpretations are layered over these events, and that's it. (Note the passive construction of the previous sentence: that was intentional!) The only moments that reveal glimmers into people's thoughts or emotions are when they are talking to God or to others -- then you can sometimes catch in their words their anxieties or uncertainties. Another way that emotions are described is somewhat symbolically, as in the struggles with God that I mentioned in a previous post. The struggles are not described in inner emotional terms, but externalized as, for example, a literal fight with an angel.

One of the implications of this kind of storytelling is that, not only does it have an almost dream-like sense of detachment, but also the layered-on interpretations read as definitive truth (instead of interpretation). Let me give an example:

After Aaron's sons die, here's what comes next (an interpretation of why that happened, and what it meant): "Then Moses said to Aaron, 'This is what the Lord meant when he said, "Through those who are near me I will show myself holy, and before all the people I will be glorified."' And Aaron was silent" (Lev 10:3). The textual notes in my edition of the Bible try to explain further: the sons must have done something wrong; Aaron's remaining silent means that he refrained from the normal cries of mourning because he was a priest now and priests weren't supposed to do this sort of thing, etc.

But the passage in the text is very sparse. We guess that Aaron and his two remaining sons must have been horrified, because we are horrified. Moses' words are hard to understand and seem almost stern and unfeeling. It is, though, an attempt to make sense of what had happened. But, written in a way that hides everyone's immediate emotional reactions, the interpretation reads as literal truth (instead of interpretation: a people's attempt to make sense of the unexpected).

But understanding it instead as interpretation, we can ourselves choose to read it differently. We can imagine ourselves back in the scene. What exactly happened? Was it that the sons were unprepared for how much the flames would burst out, and maybe their clothes caught on fire? What a tragedy, in the midst of such an important holy event! This, remember, is the first formal ordination of priests! This surely was not what anyone expected would happen! Of course it was urgent for Moses to try quickly to explain why this happened, in a way that wouldn't now discredit God (or Moses' own authority as spokesperson for God) and undo all of the religious practices he had been trying to establish among his people.

And we are all, always, doing this sort of thing: trying to make sense of what happens to us and around us. We try to weave it into our own accounts of an overarching orderliness of the world, even when things may take us by surprise and seem chaotic. We don't want the disasters and tragedies that befall us to gain any more power over us than they already have. We try retrospectively to regain a kind of control (or re-establish the control of a higher being whom we want to trust as ultimately benevolent) by re-writing it into our life histories in as meaningful a way as we can.

Even though Exodus and especially Leviticus are filled with passages that describe the proper ways to do things, it is striking that this passage is not described in those terms. We are not told exactly what Aaron's sons did wrong; nor is there then the pronouncement that performing the rituals incorrectly will always result in death, and so let this be a lesson to future priests! The lack of detailed explanation seems to suggest this really was a surprise that they found hard to understand.

And so it is a touching story. After all, you detect their shock and grief, and you perceive their humility in the face of the unknown and unexpected. Despite this tragic event, they proceed with their rituals and finish the ordination. They do not pause to demand a better explanation before they will continue to accept their God. They trust, even though they do not fully understand. They move into deeper relationship with God, letting this kind of story stand as part of the ultimate mystery of it all.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Sacrifices and Atonement

Leviticus 1-7

In Leviticus thus far, there are detailed instructions about how to perform animal sacrifices.

On the one hand, it’s a little gruesome reading all of these details about exactly how animal sacrifices are performed. But many humans do eat animals, even today, and eating them requires killing them first. And so, in a society that eats animals, having animal sacrifices in religious rituals means that at least some of the killing of animals is done with real reverence.

It is important to remember that these are a people in transition, who have not yet settled the land they hope to inhabit, but are wandering in a wilderness. Their livestock may be their most reliable food source. In this context, sacrificing animals is sacrificing something centrally important: fundamental to the very sustaining of life. They must choose the best (animals without blemish). In some of the rituals, people do eat some of the meat; but in others, the entire animal is offered to God. So the meaning of sacrifice is clear: when they offer animal sacrifices, they offer that which gives them life.

Sacrifices are offered for the following purposes (at least so far):

  1. For sins of omission or sinful thoughts.
  2. Offerings of well-being.
  3. Purification offerings: for having unintentionally sinned or for having become ritually unclean.
  4. Sins against the Lord (those having to do with desecrating holy objects or failing to fulfill vows to the Lord).
  5. Sins against others (deceit, robbery, fraud, lying).
  6. Votive offerings (when a person has successfully fulfilled a vow made to God).
  7. Freewill offering (spontaneous expression of happiness or gratitude).

These rituals then become a means of cultivating awareness and self-reflection. You must pay attention to how you live your life. You won’t do everything perfectly, but most of the common kinds of mistakes are forgivable. Having rituals gives you something specific to do when you realize the mistakes you have made. They mark your awareness (confession), and bring atonement.

I am moved by the reverence and humility in this way of life.

I reflect on the reasons for offering sacrifices above and ask myself whether there are things I should do to more clearly acknowledge my mistakes, and also to acknowledge my successes and times of well-being and happiness.

Friday, February 03, 2006

A People Consolidating their Spiritual Identity

Exodus 25-40

This time my readers will be relieved to see that I’m finally finding something positive as I continue my way along this rugged journey of reading the Bible from beginning to end. But before I get to the positive, I must note first a few anomalies and puzzlements.

Anomalies and Puzzlements

In trying to trace the actual story of the 10 Commandments, I am very confused. Last time, I noted that after the listing of the 10 Commandments (Ex 20), the story seemed to begin over again (Ex 24), leading me to think that Moses hadn’t really come forth yet from the mountain with the 10 Commandments carved onto tablets of stone. In Exodus 20, the Lord tells Moses “the ten commandments” (along with all of the other ordinances), but it is never mentioned that Moses has a chance to tell the others, because then in Exodus 24 he actually goes up the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, disappearing now for 40 days and 40 nights. It is unclear what exactly will be on these tablets of stone (see Ex 24:12).

Next there is a long account of how to make the tabernacle; how to make vestments for Aaron and his sons, who will become priests; and finally how they should be ordained (Ex 25-31). Presumably the Lord is telling Moses all of this while he is in the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights. This section culminates with his now having tablets to take back down, but it’s really hard to tell what is carved on these tablets, because in the context of this entire part of the story, from the promise of tablets (Ex 24:12) to the presentation of them (Ex 31:18), the instructions that are given are about the tabernacle, clothes, and ordination procedures. There is no mention here of the ten commandments, as such. The word that is used is simply the Hebrew word eduth which gets translated “covenant” but could also be translated “treaty” or “testimony.”

At any rate, when Moses returns he is so upset at the chaos he finds (in his long absence, the people have made and have started worshipping a golden calf) that he dashes the tablets down and breaks them. (Given that he is only just returning with the tablets that we all now interpret as containing the 10 commandments, how can he be so upset that people have disobeyed rules that they did not even know about yet? Or was it that he did tell them the 10 commandments before he went up onto the mountain? If so, what was on the tablets then?)

So, Moses gets upset at Aaron for letting this all happen (and Aaron lies about his role in this). Then Moses calls forth those who are “on the Lord’s side,” and has them go forth and kill people (“Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor” (Ex 32:27)). 3000 people thus are killed. What’s clearly troubling about this is that it is a direct violation of one of the 10 commandments (Ex 20:13). Even more astonishing: their killing people is how they (the killers) are cleansed and ordained!!! (Ex 32:29). And in the long run, even though Aaron cooperated in their falling into this grievous sin of idolatry (Ex 32:4), and later lied about it (Ex 32:24), took no responsibility, and blamed the people instead, he is in fact later ordained as the first priest of the new covenant!

But back to the story at hand: next, Moses goes forth to atone for the sin of his people and beg for the Lord’s forgiveness. While the story seems to indicate a new covenant, the Lord asks Moses to make new tablets and take them up the mountain “and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets, which you broke” (Ex 34:1).

But here’s what’s really strange. This time the Lord says this (shortened version of what can be found in full in Ex 34:17-26):

1. You shall not make cast idols.
2. You shall keep the festival of unleavened bread.
3. All firstborn livestock and children are mine.
4. No one shall appear before me empty-handed.
5. You shall rest on the Sabbath.
6. You shall observe the festival of weeks, the first fruits of wheat harvest, and the festival of ingathering at the turn of the year.
7. Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord God, the God of Israel.
8. You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leaven, and the sacrifice of the festival of the passover shall not be left until the morning.
9. The best of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring to the house of the Lord your God.
10. You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

Then: “The Lord said to Moses: Write these words; in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel. He was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments [or ten words]” (Ex 34:27-28).

So it is not at all clear to me from my reading so far that the tablets of stone really do contain the 10 commandments; nor is it clear what exactly constitutes the “covenant.” It may be that these are clarified later. It may be that this is unclear because of the difficulties of translation. But I am surprised not to find a clearer statement!

One more troubling note: Exodus 34:11-16 is chilling. The Lord promises to help Israel drive out the people who already live in the land they are to settle, and insists that the Israelites not make a covenant with those people, but instead destroy their altars, etc. Here then we have what appears to be the Lord’s approval that one people invade and violently drive out other groups of people, and the Lord’s command that trying to understand the Other sympathetically is a dangerous idea. Recall that the Israelites have been gone from their promised land for 400 years! So this is a really crucial passage for understanding the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict – and maybe many other land disputes as well!

Leaving this huge issue for the moment, I do want to turn my attention to what I have very much appreciated about the story in Exodus.

Appreciations, At Last!

After the new covenant is established, the Israelites now enthusiastically come forth to build the tabernacle and make the vestments, offering their best to these tasks. The end of Exodus thus gives a detailed account of the establishment of the practices of worship, and the reader gets a sense that this is a time of clarification and consolidation of their identity as a people. Most significantly, this identity is rooted in the fundamental importance of a good relationship with God. That is central.

Furthermore, this task takes something like nine months. So, Part I of the story was God’s leading them out of bondage and into freedom, and Part II is how the people must organize themselves into a community that must keep trying to stay in good relationship towards God. Before they embark on the rest of their journey, they must take this long time to organize themselves and establish the right kind of relationship with God.

I also appreciate the themes of: (1) offering your best to God—contributing your finery and best talents for the creation of something beautiful that is shared by the community and whose purpose is to honor God; (2) the structuring of both space and time to place relationship with God at the center; (3) God’s compassion receiving more prominence in how the story is told; and (4) a subtle but important shift in the human side of the relationship with God, as exemplified by Moses.

Even though God still gets upset and impatient with the people, Moses keeps intervening and convincing God to be more forgiving and compassionate. This is striking because it shows a kind of human autonomy that contributes not what God has already ordained, but something new that persuades God to change His mind (and even to become more compassionate)! Humans are not just either obeying God or messing things up – sometimes humans can add something new to the conversation and to the relationship with God, which God respects.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Wandering in the Wilderness; Receiving 10 Commandments Plus Many Other Ordinances

Exodus 15-24

The journey of Moses and the Israelites through the wilderness lasts a long time. During their journey, there are times when they are without food or water, but the Lord always provides (see for example Ex 16).

They fight a battle agains Amalek at Rephidim (Ex 17:8-16). Israel prevails. The Lord says, “I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven” (Ex 17:14), but not right away: “The Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation” (Ex 17:16).

Moses' father-in-law, Jethro, comes, bringing Moses' wife and sons to him, and meanwhile gives Moses advice on how to manage the life of the community better (Ex 18).

The Lord said to Moses: “if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Ex 19:5-6).

The Lord promises to show Himself to the people, by coming out of the mountain in a dense cloud. There is thunder, lightning, and loud noises; the people are told that they will be stoned if they approach too close to the mountain. The mountain is wrapped in smoke and shakes violently. Moses is summoned to go up the mountain (Ex 19).

The first listing of the 10 commandments is at Exodus 20. God speaks these words to Moses. But these words are followed by many other ordinances (see Ex 20:23-26 and Ex 21-23). There is no mention of tablets of stone: instead, Moses writes all of this down (Ex 24:4).

Later in Exodus 24, it is as if the story appears a second time: Moses is called up. This time the trusted elders “beheld God” too (Ex 24:11), but then Moses alone is summoned to the mountain. In this version, the Lord does promise tablets of stone, “with the law and the commandment” (note singular) (Ex 24:12). In this account, Moses disappears into the smoke on the mountain and is gone for 40 days and 40 nights.

But I'll pause here to backtrack slightly and comment on what most surprised me. Among the many ordinances offered in chapters 20-21 is the famous "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" passage. I had always thought that this passage was a general pronoucement. On a negative reading, it sanctions revenge. On a positive reading, it at least limits revenge.

But let's look at it in context:

When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman's husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe (Ex 21:22-25).

For the full effect, imagine the following two scenarios:

Scenario 1: Some men are fighting. A pregnant woman intervenes to try to break up the fight but is accidentally punched in the mouth and loses a tooth. Greatly distressed, she also miscarries. The men, ashamed, stop fighting and tend to her. The husband demands a fine and gets paid.

Scenario 2: Some men are fighting. A pregnant woman intervenes to try to break up the fight but is accidentally punched in the mouth and loses a tooth. Greatly distressed, she also miscarries. Her husband goes into a rage and ends up killing the man who had hit his wife. So the husband is put to death.

In scenario 1, the "tooth for a tooth" rule does not go into effect because there was no subsequent harm done after the miscarriage.

In scenario 2, it is unclear whether anyone would lose a tooth in response to the woman's having had her tooth knocked out prior to her miscarriage, but at any rate, she is now left with absolutely nothing. She's lost a tooth, lost her child, and lost her husband, and there is no mention whatsoever of what should become of her then.

So, it's a very strange passage. It's not a general statement (that anytime someone knocks out another's tooth, they lose their own) -- the other ordinances make this very clear. It seems to be a rule for just this special situation -- a rule intended to stop people from fighting further if a woman miscarries -- and yet it conspicuously leaves out how the woman is to be taken care of after such a tragic event.

Other observations about these ordinances: harm done to slaves is dealt with much less severely than harm done to those who are not slaves. The passages also give insight into how people become slaves: when a man sells his daughter (Ex 21:7) or when someone steals and cannot repay (Ex 22:3). Male slaves are released in the seventh year (Ex 21:2), but can take their wives and children into freedom with them only if they were married before becoming slaves -- if they got married while in service, the master can keep the wife and children when the man is released. If the man refuses to go, he is now held in slavery forever (Ex 21:3-6). Female slaves are never given the opportunity for release (Ex 21:7).

Putting all of this together: when a father sells his daughter into slavery, she becomes a slave for life. But a man who steals, is caught, and cannot repay, goes into slavery for 6 years and then is released.

We'll continue with the 10 Commandments story next time -- the text kind of leaves us hanging here, because other things happen while Moses is gone for 40 days...