26 February 2007

What Leviticus Taught Me

It taught me that Jesus was stubborn and impossible.
According to Leviticus, no priest with any deformity could serve in the once a year Holy of Holies ceremony. (Note: said priest would still be part of the priesthood, would still have duties and would still receive their pay. The important factor is that they could not be in the presence of God.) Nothing but perfection could go before the Lord (c.f. the passages describing the requirement of sacrifices: again, perfection – nothing blemished). Priests could not touch any dead body (except for their wife, children, mother, father and siblings, although not siblings by marriage). (Note: this explains the Good Samaritan. The priest in the story wanted to make sure he didn’t touch a dead body, so just in case the body laying on the side of the road was dead, he went around the long ways.) A jug that contained a dead fly would have to be smashed. Carcasses found dead in the fields could not be touched. Nothing that came into contact with this death and decay could be in the presence of God (except for the sacrifices). Anyone who came into contact with a woman on her period or anyone with a hemorrhaging problem would be considered unclean and would have to go through a slew of cleansing rituals.
I want to make sure that I don’t present God as unkind. He also told them to treat the foreigner as one of them (scandalous!), to treat their slaves kindly (unheard of!), and to leave part of their fields unharvested so that the poor could come in and take some (uneconomical!). He called the Israelites to live hospitable and generous lives, too.
But back to Jesus. Jesus touched dead bodies and a woman with a hemorrhaging problem and men with leprosy. Instead of becoming defiled, he gave life with these touches. However, the Pharisees saw a breaking of the law. He’s touching everything God said not to touch. He’s touching everything God said couldn’t be in His presence because of His holiness. And this guy is claiming to be God! Right. Yeah. Except that it goes against everything we believe, the Pharisees said. This guy is immoral.
Leviticus taught me to understand the Pharisees. I didn’t say they were right, mind you. I just said I understand. If a guy acting immorally claimed to be Jesus, I’m not sure I would believe Him either.
Of course Jesus exuded God’s love and redemption, something the Pharisees didn’t understand, something that was supposed to be part and parcel of the whole purpose of the Israelites.
And Numbers (while we’re at the hard books of the Bible to get through): all those countings of all those Israelites. Man, oh, man, can that be boring. But here’s the thing. Over 600,000 men of fighting age accounted for at the time Moses wrote the book. Which means well over 1 million Israelites if you add in all the women and children. All from Abraham, who, after 100 years of infertility hanging on a promise that God would make him the father of a great nation, had one son. 400 years later, voila! A nation of 1 million people.
Here’s the other crazy thing: these Israelites, over 600,000 of fighting age, in tip-top shape from years of hard labor and camping in the wilderness, tremble in their sandals at having to go in and fight the Canaanites. This is after hearing the stories of Abraham and his faith and the time Abraham fought and beat the Canaanites with just over 300 men, and this is after they saw the 10 plagues and God deliver them from slavery and the parting of the Red Sea. Imagine walking through a sea with hundreds of yards of water wall tall on either side, fish and sharks and whales swimming through. But they walked through. They experienced it all. And they whined.
Today’s theme, I think: stubbornness.


Erin said...

This sheds so much light on the Pharisees! I have been examining my own Pharisaical tendencies these last few weeks, and your insights have added a new dimension.
I'm working through the Sermon on the Mount right now, and Christ doesn't have many pleasant words to describe the Pharisees. It's made me wonder how they got from being the nation of Israel's interface with God and His representative amongst the people, to arrogant law-lovers who couldn't see Jesus as the Promise that He was. As you said, to them he was a highly offensive blasphemer and law-breaker, NOT the Messiah.

How did they become that way? And how can I guard myself from going the same route? (If you have any further thoughts... gimme, gimme!)

In reference to Jesus (the Word made flesh), I just read this over the weekend: "His Word cannot be defiled by the mouth of an impure priest; it can only burn and consume our own lips..." (The Wife; Sigrid Undset)

Jesus touched the dead, the bleeding, the diseased but He was not defiled. His holiness was what made them alive, whole and well. Amazing to think on! And, I dunno, but if I were a Pharisee hanging around Jesus and witnessing his supernatural ability to not only NOT be defiled by the very things that were taboo for me, but instead REMOVED the defiling condition... I sure hope I would've caught on. There's something very different about this guy.

Heather said...

Great thoughts, Erin. You're absolutely right: God could never be defiled by anyone. The rules were there for protection of the Israelites so that they wouldn't die in His presence. Even Moses could only see this tiny tail-end of God's glory.
Years and years and years of waiting, of nothing, of being under the power of another nation when they were supposed to be the Chosen Ones. Maybe if they just made everything righteous enough, if they did everything right, than God would make everything as it should be. After all, didn't the Mosaic covenant say that righteousness would be blessed and unrighteousness cursed?
Then Jesus comes along and says that, actually, their so-called righteousness is unrighteousness.
How many ways in my own life is my believed "righteousness" actually "unrighteousness"?

Pamela said...

I'm too tired to say anything worthwhile, but I'm so glad those standards are no longer applied.

No one could live up to them.

Kelley said...

So, are you reading thru the chronological Bible too? I just finished Leviticus, as well, and am into Numbers...all those numbers...

The significance of observing and re-learning the absolute purity God demanded was the timing--I finished right around Ash Wednesday. That evening I attended a service in which the pastor emphasized confession, coming clean, getting right in our relationship with God before moving into the celebration season of Easter. I was struck by the parallels--God demanded cleanness of the Israelites, providing many rules for staying clean and many regulations for regaining cleanness. He would not be defiled. Through Jesus, God has made me--and all believers--clean. I cannot clean myself; it's a done deal. But I certainly can acknowledge my fallenness, my failures, my sin, and "come clean" to him through confession and repentance. I've often thought the Catholics know more about the benefits of confession than Protestants do--it's a required obligation at least once a year before Easter. Where they go wrong is that they require one to confess to the priest. The Bible makes it clear that we should confess one to another--find the person you hurt, or a trustworthy friend who will keep you accountable to growing past that sin...whoever. Doesn't have to be a pastor, because absolution comes from God directly.

Thanks for sharing your lessons learned. Leviticus gets a bad rap sometimes.

L.L. Barkat said...

Leviticus... this is a book I've tried to read differently, through the lens of grace. Amazing what happens when one looks through a different glass.

In any case, my favorite thing you say is about "if a guy acting immorally claimed..." I am sure there are some people who the Christian community (me included) deem immoral, when in fact they are living the deepest grace of all.

One More Writer said...

Looks like you and I are tracking together on our Bible reading these days. Isn't it amazing the things you can gleam from yet anothe reading of books like Leviticus and Numbers?

Thanks for sharing!

Mirtika said...

If Jesus had NOT been the Son of God, God incarnate, he would have been a lawbreaker. But as God, he had the power to heal. His touch wasn't for touching's sake, for rebellion's sake. His touch was to heal, and that makes a big difference. :) And as Erin pointed out, nothing could defile Christ, for he was the source of that healing and purity, not a mere ordinary man.

I cannot just decide I want someone to rise from the dead. Jesus could.

Jesus didn't break any moral law. He broke what we'd call ceremonial or civic protective laws. He did not fornicate. He did not get falling down drunk. He did not murder. He did not lie. He did not blaspheme (although that is what he was charged with, a charge that would have been true had he not been who he was and is). He did not steal.

All the laws that we call the moral laws, he kept. He honored and loved God, he honored and loved his parents, he was honest, he loved his neighbors, he was lacking in covetousness, he valued life.

Anyone who comes and says he's Messian today and behaves in hedonistically immoral ways would get a pass from me. But if he says, "These traditional things you do as a Baptist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Mennonite" are mere customs. Look to God. Love him and each other. Be holy. Be pure. Seek God with all your heart. Give up what you have to those who have not. Don't indulge yourself, but follow the hard road. Eat and rest, then give your life without fear for the glory of God.

That's someone who will resonate even today and be a cause of upheaval..still. Because we are like the Pharisees. We still set up artificial customs and call them sacred, and look askance at those who don't do like we do.

And we never got out of the habit of judging beyond the bounds. (Which even heathens do quite well, so it's a human thang.)