Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Bible in a Year: Leviticus 23-Numbers 19

Old postcard of my childhood church, where
I first learned Bible stories and psalms. 
I’m reading through the Bible this year at a rate of about 22 chapters a week (1189 total chapters divided by 52 weeks), and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we tend to read verses and passages without also digging into the context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

This week, I’ve been studying Leviticus 23 through Numbers 19. The material from Exodus 25 to Numbers 10 reflects the time when the Israelites sojourned at the foot of Mount Sinai. But as they moved northeast toward the land of Moab, at the outskirts of the Promised Land, the Israelites lost their chance to enter the Land and camped for many years at Kadesh-Barnea. The Bible seldom dates anything, so it's good to realize that, when we begin Numbers 20-22, we've jumped over 38 years to the near-conclusion of the wilderness period.

Numbers has many more stories than Leviticus, but legal material spreads across Numbers and continues from Leviticus. As I wrote about in previous posts, the Priestly Code, a hypothesized pre-canonical collection of mitzvot, is found in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. The code includes offerings and sacrifices (Lev. 1-7), priests (Lev. 10), dietary laws (Lev. 11), diseases and discharges (Lev. 12-15), vows, tithes and offerings (Lev. 27). Continuing into Numbers, the Priestly Code includes the passages on uncleanness (Num. 5-6), Passover (Num. 9-10), priestly laws (Num. 18), inheritance laws, festivals, and vows (Num. 27-30), and also Levitical towns, more inheritance laws, and laws concerning murder (Num. 35-36). So all these passages are interconnected, and they also connect back to the Sinai covenant and the Tabernacle (see my Exodus 19-40 post.)

Here is the outline for the remainder of Leviticus---including the block of laws that begin with chapter 17.

Holy living (17-26)
 Prohibition of eating blood (17)
 Unlawful sexual relations (18)
 Other laws about holy living (19)
 Punishments for sin (20)
 Priestly regulations (21:1—22:16)
 Acceptable and unacceptable sacrifices (22:17–33)
 Annual feasts (23)
 Use of oil and bread in the Tabernacle (24:1–9)
 Punishment for blasphemy (24:10–23)
 The Sabbath and Jubilee years (25)
 Covenant blessings and curses (26)
Regulations for Offerings Vowed to the Lord (ch. 27)

My Harper’s Bible Commentary indicates that the chapter 20 laws have two purposes: inculcating the obedience that protects the land from uncleanness/defilement, which in turn ensures that the people won’t be expelled from the land. God has set aside the people from others of the land, so they would be a holy people. The priests are to be particularly holy, even lacking physical abnormalities (chap. 21). The single narrative in this section, the execution of the blasphemer (chapter 24), illustrates the concern in Leviticus for removing unholiness from among the people.

Chapter 23 reiterates the importance of the Sabbath and also provides the mitzvot for Peach, ‘Omer Reshit, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. Mitzvot for the Sabbath of the land and the Jubilee year, both very important for social equality and ecological renewal, continue in chapter 25.

Chapter 27 forms an additional section to the other mitzvot, this one concerning holy things devoted to God. Chapter 26, however, is a divine speech that could summarize the book, wherein God reiterates the possibility of judgment—in quite fierce terms—but also promising compassion and restoration to those who turn back to God.

Leviticus 26 contains difficult theology: the connection of piety and virtue with earthly rewards, the connection of wrongdoing and retribution, the idea that the people would proper or suffer together, and the idea that morality alone brings prosperity or disaster. As The Torah: A Modern Commentary notes, the book of Job provides a corrective to these ideas; although good and bad actions do lead to corresponding results, good people do suffer while many evil people do seem to prosper. Likewise, whole peoples have suffered terribly in spite of their virtue (for instance, Native Americans, victims of Soviet persecution, Holocaust victims, and others) (pp. 954-956). The straightforward theology of this chapter, meaningful in its early context, requires ongoing prayer and reflection. But, as that same writer points out, Leviticus 26 also stresses that faithfulness and morality are among the keys to an upright society, and also that hope is always available even in difficult circumstances! God never abandons his people Israel and never will (p. 956)

Here is the outline for Numbers 1-19, taking us to the end of the old generation.
Israel prepared to depart for the Land (1:1-10:10)
  The census (1-4)
  The commands concerning purity of the people (5:1—10:10), which includes among other things the Nazarite vow and the Aaronic benediction (6), the observance of the Passover (9:1-14).
  The Journey from Sinai to Kadesh (10:11—12:16)
     The journey commences (10:11–36)
     Fire and quail (11)
     The sin of Miriam and Aaron (12)
Israel at Kadesh, and God's judgment (13:1—20:13)
     The report of the spies (13)
     The people's rebellion and defeat (14)
Several laws on offerings, the Sabbath, tassels on clothing (15)
Korah's rebellion (16)
The budding of Aaron's staff (17)
More laws about the priests (18)
The red heifer (19)

The Hebrew title of the book translates, “In the wilderness,” which is perhaps a more comprehensive title than “Numbers,” which comes from the census that dominates chapters 1-4, with lists of the adult males—those who can go into battle—among the twelve tribes. But the transition from the old to the new generation is nevertheless a theme of the book, and the initial census forms an arc over to chapter 26, the census of the new generation. As Israel sojourns at Sinai and then moves toward the land, their experience of wilderness is critical, as I write about in another post:

The section 5:1-6:21 gives us more laws, also regarding purity as the people begin their approach to the promised land. 6:22-27 gives us the beautiful priestly blessing used in many Jewish and Christian traditions.

The Israelites’ approach to the land includes the guidance of God through the cloud (Numbers 9:15-23, which echoes Exodus 13:21-22), the sounding of the trumpets (10:1-10), and then the march toward the land, nineteen days after the census and eleven months after the people had arrived at Sinai (Num. 10:11).

But then chapters 11-14 is a terrible “twist” in the story. After all the preparation to ensure the people’s faithfulness and holiness, the people rebel and are punished. First there is a general complaining about misfortunes (11:1-3), then there is controversy among the people for variety of food (11:4-35). In chapter 12, even Miriam and Aaron speaking ill against Moses because of his foreign wife. Miriam is stricken with leprosy for seven days, so that she stayed outside the camp. The Torah: A Modern Commentary suggests that although Aaron was not similarly cursed, he may have suffered the psychological pain (arguably worse than some kinds of physical pain) in having to submit to his younger brother. (On the other hand, it may also be a case of patriarchy: in the thinking of the time, Aaron was too important to be exiled from the camp for a week, but being a woman Miriam was more expendable.)

God authorizes Moses to send spies into the land to gather information (13:1-14:45). One man from each of the twelve tribes set out, and forty days later they return with a favorable report of the land, but with a fearful report about the strength of the inhabitants. Only Caleb and Joshua recommend that the people trust God. (Some of my books point out that two ancient sources underlie this story, one in which Caleb is the faithful one, and the other in which both Caleb and Joshua are the heroes.)

In response to the fearful report, the Israelites rebel and plan to find a leader which will help them return to Egypt. As the Harper Bible Commentary discusses, this is a far worse sin than the golden calf, for that sin was “only” a way to represent God in a familiar image, while the rebellion struck at the heart of all of God’s promises and preparation. If you read the Bible from Exodus 19 through Numbers 14, you do get a sense of the tragedy of the people’s rebellion after so much preparation and guidance by God.

So…. the people were afraid to die at the hands of the Canaanites, and instead they must die at the threshold of the land. Of the first generation, only the faithful Caleb and Joshua will enter the land. And yet, God’s promise endures. While God could have wiped the people out (cf. Num. 16:38-50), the second generation will endure and will live in the land.

At this point, the major part of the first part of the wilderness journey ends, but we also have the story of the rebellion of Korah and 250 laymen, and the subsequent rebellion that results in a divine plague. The Korahites complain: If the people are holy, a “nation of priests,” why can’t non-priests bring incense to the tabernacle? It is actually a very good question, pushing the envelope concerning holiness and identity. Norah and his people claim the status of holiness and resent Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership.

Things end badly for the rebels—-and in the Numbers story, that’s what they were, rejecters of God’s chosen intermediary and shepherd, Moses. But somewhere in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, the great theologian comments that although Korah and his followers perish in God's judgment, the Korahites are honored later in scripture, as singers (2 Chronicles 20:19), and as authors of Psalms 42, 44-49, 84-85, and 87-88. Barth sees therein a subtle affirmation of Korah's original concern: what does it mean to be a holy people?

Other laws in this section emphasize priesthood and validates the Aaronic priesthood and the service of the Levites (17-18). The section ends with the strange mitzvot about the Red Heifer. Once such a heifer is sacrificed and burned, its ashes purify from uncleanness---and yet the ashes confer short-term uncleanness upon him who handles them! In the Jewish tradition this is a famously difficult mitzvot, making Solomon himself despair of his own wisdom (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, p. 1149). The placement of the mitzvot at this point in Numbers forms "a literary bridge that now binds the red heifer ritual with the concern for uncleanness from the dead” (Harper Study Bible, p. 196). Tragically, death will be a concern for the next 38 years, as the old generation dies.

Here are the parshah and haftarah (from the Judaism 101 site):

Emor                     Leviticus 21:1-24:23 Ezekiel 44:15-44:31
Behar                    Leviticus 25:1-26:2        Jeremiah 32:6-32:27
Bechuqotai Leviticus 26:3-27:34 Jeremiah 16:19-17:14
Bamidbar Numbers 1:1-4:20           Hosea 2:1-2:22
Nasso                   Numbers 4:21-7:89         Judges 13:2-13:25
Beha'alotkha Numbers 8:1-12:16         Zechariah 2:14-4:7
Shelach                Numbers 13:1-15:41 Joshua 2:1-2:24
Qorach                Numbers 16:1-18:32 I Samuel 11:14-12:22
Chuqat                Numbers 19:1-22:1          Judges 11:1-11:33

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