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.

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