Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Numbers 1-4: Let's Talk Math

It took me a while to get this far, because honestly, this book gave me some trouble from the beginning. I kept getting distracted by the fact that there were so many dang Israelites, and I didn't know if the numbers in the Bible were reasonable. I since found a site that really helped me out (click here).

Anyway. This is a difficult book for me to read when I'm trying to learn things about God. Why? Because so far it's a lot of lists and counts and repetition. It's very easy to start skimming and write it off as not important. I mean, how many sermons have you ever heard on any of the first four of Numbers? Speaking for myself, I haven't heard any (although I'm sure there have been some - my parents' church is reading through the Bible in a year and the sermons each Sunday reflect the week's readings).

I was going to do the first six chapters in this post, but chapters 5 and 6 are really on a different subject, so I'll do those next.

Here's the first four chapters of this book in a nutshell:

  • Chapter 1: All the men in Israel who are of fighting age (20 or older) are counted. The heads of each tribe and the number of fighting men in each tribe is given. The Levites aren't numbered because they don't fight.
  • Chapter 2: God tells Moses where each tribe should camp (north side, west side, etc.), and it tells you again who the head of each tribe is and how many fighting men are in each tribe, in case you had forgotten.
  • Chapter 3: Now the Levites get numbered (all the males 1 month old and up), but they are given jobs in the tabernacle. Each clan has a different area of focus. Then all the firstborn sons of Israel are numbered, and the numbers of the Levites are supposed to match up, but there are 273 fewer Levites so the Levites get 5 shekels for every man they lack. This is part of the redemption of the firstborn thing that I'll come back to.
  • Chapter 4: The duties of each of the three Levite clans are explained, and they're counted again but only the men between ages 30-50.
So as you can see, not a lot happens. What can we learn about God from this passage? What does the author, Moses or whoever, want us to know from reading this?

I think the first and most obvious answer is history. Judaism revolves around the exodus from Egypt. What happened between Goshen and Canaan is not only the basis their holidays, dietary customs, and moral code; it is their heritage. My family has this book of genealogical records that reads like this:
  1. (first and last name) and wife, (first and last name).
    1. (1st kid's name)
    2. (2nd kid's name)
    3. (3rd kid's name, etc.)
  2. (1st kid's name) and wife, (first and last name).
    1. (1st kid's name)
    2. (2nd kid's name)
You get the picture. That's all the book is. Why the heck would somebody want to write about that? Because it's history. It tells me where I came from and to whom I belong. There's not a single complete sentence, or even a verb, in the whole thing, but from reading it I learn a lot about my past. I think Numbers is kind of the same way.

In keeping with that, I think another main point of Numbers is that it's history, not fantasy. The numbers in this book are intended as real numbers. Figurative and symbolic numbers in the Bible are generally 3, 7, 10, 12, and 40 (and a few multiples), along with "ten thousand times ten thousand" and "seventy times seven." The author of this book intends for the audience to know that what they are reading is a real story.

Let's keep going with that thought. When God spoke to Abraham and promised to make him a great nation, He gave a figurative number as well: "as numerous as the stars in the sky, and as countless as the sand on the seashore" - that's how many descendants Abraham would have, right? Now in Numbers, we see that God has turned that figurative number into a real number. The promise that existed only as an idea for so long has become a reality, and we can see that the Hebrews are a huge group of people, perhaps 2 million or more in total. God was faithful to Abraham in making his descendants numerous, and because of that, we can trust that God will be faithful to give Abraham's descendants the land He promised them as well, even though we won't see it happen for a few more books.

Now I would like to talk about the redemption of the firstborn. This seems to come up a lot in the Torah, and always under different circumstances. We first saw in Exodus 13 that God said the firstborn of every human and animal belonged to Him and was sanctified (set apart), because of the plague of the firstborn that freed the Hebrews from slavery. Because of this, every firstborn had to be redeemed (bought back). The animals and the sons were redeemed by sacrificing a lamb. Next, in Exodus 22:29-30, we see God mention giving the firstborn of their sons to Him again. Exodus 34 repeats what we saw in chapter 13. Finally here, in Numbers 3:40-51, it says that the firstborn sons are redeemed moreover by the Levites, who do not own any land or fight in battle but are constantly serving as priests, intercessors between God and man. That's why there were supposed to be as many Levites as there were firstborn sons, but they were just short so they had to substitute with money.

To be honest, I'm not entirely sure what all the symbolism behind this concept means. On the surface, it's plain that God wanted the people to know they belonged to Him, and that their possessions - whether livestock or their own children - were a gift that He had given and could take away, as He took the firstborn of all Egypt. I feel like there's more to this, but I don't know what. If anybody has studied this passage, please elaborate on it for me.

Numbers is a difficult book because it appears so surfacey. I think, though, that there's a lot more depth to it, and that the more I read it the more I will understand. As I posted in my Xanga the other day, I'm glad that I don't understand this book very well, because it reminds me of how much more the Bible has to teach me.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Leviticus 23-27: Final Laws

Here I am again. I'm going to finish the book of Leviticus even though I was originally going to break it into two sections, because I really want to move ahead into Numbers as soon as possible.

Chapter 23: Laws of Religous Festivals

That's the heading that my Bible gives for this chapter. It's about all the things the people have to do for certain holidays, and specifically for the Day of Atonement. I think it's generally well-known that the word "holiday" literally means "holy day." I dn't usually think so much about what that implies, but this chapter makes it pretty clear. It calls certain days "holy convocation," "sabbath of complete rest," and "appointed time of the LORD." It wasn't really about going water-skiing or picnicking with your family; it was about remembering God's faithfulness and worshiping Him for it for the entire festival.

What amazes me about these holy days is that they weren't just one day long. In fact there were some holidays that lasted for an entire week, and during that whole week the people couldn't do any "laborious work." I think that means there was -some- work they could do (and they kind of had to because back then you really couldn't cook a whole week's worth of food ahead of time).

Holidays were important to God. They were memorials, so that the Israelites would remember where they had come from and what God had done from them. It would be like having Black History Month, only specified to your own ancestors, and with God as the focus. And even though I said it wasn't all about water-skiing or picnicking, it was about celebrating. God told the people to get palm branches, which I guess they would wave around, and rejoice and celebrate before God for seven days. Have you ever celebrated about anything for seven days straight? I haven't. But there's a really good opportunity coming up, because next Sunday is Palm Sunday, the first day of Holy Week. I think Easter is definitely worth celebrating for seven days straight (at least).

Chapter 24

The chapter heading I have is "The Lamp and the Bread of the Sanctuary," but the chapter is not really all about that. In fact, this chapter is weird. It starts off talking about the instructions for the lampstand and the table of the showbread, which were both in the tabernacle, but then in the middle of talking about that, a horrible thing happens. A half-Israelite man and a full-Israelite man got in a fight, and the half-Israelite man "blasphemed the Name and cursed," so they brought him before Moses, and God told Moses that the man had to be put to death. Then God talks about some other things, like how if a man kills another man, he should be put to death, and if you injure somebody then whatever you do to them will be done to you (fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth). Then they take the man who blasphemed God's name outside the camp and stoned him to death.

Isn't that awful? Now, I don't know exactly what "blaspheming the Name" is, but I'm pretty sure it's not like saying "OMG," because the word "Name" is capitalized, which means it's not the generic word for God, which is "El," but God's holy and personal name, YHWH. Jews didn't even -say- this name verbally, which is why we don't know exactly how to pronounce it, so I'm guessing that to blaspheme this Name was a really, really big deal - a direct and deliberate disrespect and rejection of God. And apparently this was a really big deal.

I always find it interesting that freedom of religion wasn't allowed in Israel. Israel, you see, was not supposed to be a model governmental system; other nations are not supposed to look like Israel, and America certainly isn't supposed to look like Israel. Israel was supposed to be a symbol of God's holiness, a beacon to the rest of the world that showed who God is, what He is like, and what He wants from people. Think of a lighthouse. We don't really use lighthouses anymore, but you know the general idea - the glass which surrounded the flame had to be kept clean all the time, so that it reflected the light the best it could. If the glass was dirty, the light wouldn't reflect well, and that might mean that a ship would be unable to see the lighthouse in a storm, and that could be deadly. God wanted people to have a clear reflection of Him, which is why He was so strict with Israel.

Chapter 25 is about the Sabbath Year, the Year of Jubilee, and all the things that went along with that. Basically, every seven years, the people didn't plant any crops but let the land lie fallow, which replenished the soil and all that good stuff. And every seventh sabbath year was called the Year of Jubilee, which was when all debts were cancelled and slaves were set free and all sorts of wonderful things like that happened. It was like a "start over" year, so if you were really poor and had to sell your house and sell yourself into slavery, you could get everything back at the Year of Jubilee.

The rest of the chapter is about what happens when somebody becomes really poor and can't take care of themselves. What I find really awesome is that God commanded that if a countryman became poor, the other people in the community had to help him out and sustain him. I think that's something that the Church is really bad about today. We kind of let everybody mind their own business, and if somebody's having a hard time we feel bad for them, but we don't want to give them much because we don't want them to take advantage of us, but God makes it clear that we are not supposed to just let people stay desperate. Even if they had to become indentured servants, the poor were to be taken care of.

I'm going to do chapter 27 next. I don't really know what it's about, actually. It has something to do with values and how different people are worth different amounts of money, and it has something to do with making vows. I haven't done any research on the subject; does anyone have a clue what's going on here?

I'm doing chapter 26 last because it kind of sums up the whole book of Leviticus, and actually the rest of the Law as well. In this chapter, God tells the people what will happen if they obey Him and what will happen if they disobey Him. What is really neat about this part is that when He tells them about the consequences of disobedience, it's not like "if you mess up, BAM you're dead." There are punishments, but with each list of punishments there's the phrase "and after that, if you don't turn back, then this will happen." Meaning, the punishment only happens when the people are disobedient. If at any moment they repent, the curse will be lifted. God says, "If they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their forefathers . . . then I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and I will remember also My covenant with Isaac, and My covenant with Abraham as well, and I will remember the land. . . . When they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, nor will I so abhor them as to destroy them. . . ." That was really abbreviated, but the idea is that God will never completely give up on His people, and that if they turn back to Him after messing up, He will forgive them. And that is what's going to happen, many times, in the next several books.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Leviticus 16-22: Atonement and Holiness

I'm covering a lot of ground in one post here, and if you look at the chapters you might think, that's a lot of different subjects, but the more I've been reading and thinking, the more I see a very strong connection between them. I apologize if this is a little disjointed; unfortunately, it seems that I have the most difficulty articulating the most profound concepts.

In a nutshell, chapters 16-17 talk about Atonement Day, when once a year the high priest would enter the Most Holy Place and make a sacrifice to cover the sins of all the people, as well as sacrifices the people had to offer to the Lord. Chapter 18 lays boundaries for sexuality. Chapter 19 starts off talking about idolatry and then goes into a bunch of miscellaneous laws. Chapter 20 goes back to the immoral relations and then introduces the idea of clean and unclean animals. Chapter 21 is about how priests are supposed to be clean and the things they have to abstain from, and chapter 22 goes into more rules for priests and what they're supposed to do with certain offerings.

Some of the little things that stuck out to me:

God makes a connection between certain sins - human sacrifices and sexual immorality, namely - and the land. He says that the land became defiled when the pagan people did all these things, so it "spewed them out" - kind of like in Genesis 3 when God said that the ground was cursed because of Adam and Eve's sin. Paul says somewhere that the whole world is groaning, as if waiting for the day when it too will be redeemed.

There's a debate I've had on the Circle a few times over whether it is moral to lie in order to protect someone's life (think about Jew-smugglers during the Holocaust, or members of the Underground Railroad). The Bible says not to bear false witness or lie, but in Leviticus 19:16 it says "you are not to act against the life of your neighbor." That's kind of like "you shall not murder" expanded - even if you're not the one killing somebody, anything you do that acts against the life of your neighbor is sin. Regardless of your position on this particular argument I mentioned, I think this verse really shows that morality isn't always as clear-cut as we wish it were. And I think that points to the fact that really, it's about your heart even more than it's about your actions. If your heart follows God, then your actions will be right. So in that sense, it's really more simple than we think it is. Sort of a paradox I guess.

Certain sexual sins got the death penalty, whereas with others it says something like "he will bear his guilt" or "They will die childless" or "they will be cut off from among their people." The latter two are a little more self-explanatory, but I wonder what it means by simply "he will bear his guilt." And I do think it's interesting that we like to say sin is sin, it's all equal - and in a sense that is true - but the Bible also implies otherwise, that some sins deserve to be punished more than others.

Now, the thing that struck me the most while reading this whole passage, and later when I read through Matthew 4 and 5, is just the sheer complexity of this whole law system. Some of the rules seem a little weird, like don't cut your sideburns and don't mix two different kind of cloth. The priests especially had to stay away from a lot of things - they couldn't even touch a dead person unless it was an immediate family member.

A guy at my small group said once that the ceremonial law was really about making a distinction between the Jews and the Gentiles, a way of showing what holiness is. I think he had a point. The word "holy" means literally "cut off" or "separate." And when God brought Israel out of Egypt, He had to show them that they were no longer to live like Egyptians, nor like anyone else. He wanted them to be different, different in a very noticeable way.

God seems to have a thing against mixing. Don't mix fabrics, don't mix with other nations, don't mix different species in breeding. I wonder if the point of all that was to show that righteousness and sin don't mix. There is perfection, and there is sinfulness, and the two cannot go together. A lot of these things seem to be metaphors - not that the laws weren't literally followed, but that they existed to point to a spiritual truth. In this case, maybe they were pointing to God's nature as holy and separate from the world, from sin. He was calling His people to be separate too, not just for the sake of being separate, but so that the entire world could see that God is radically different from humans, unlike the petty humanoid deities they made up. You see, as much as people say that Jews didn't proselytize, I wonder about that. I think God was trying to make a statement about Himself to the world through His dealings with the Jews. Why did God send the plagues on Egypt? So the Egyptians would know He was God. What did Moses say when God said he was going to destroy the Hebrews? The other nations would see it. I think God was globally minded, even from the beginning.

Now, when I read Matthew 5, Jesus was talking about the importance of the Law and how nothing in it would be abolished, and how the people had to surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees in order to see the kingdom of God. In light of all the rules and regulations in these chapters here, that seems pretty insurmountable. But I think that, with the New Testament, we can see the bigger picture of what was going on: all those laws were there to show us how holy God is and how different He is from us. Jesus came and He kept the law, but more than that - He made it possible for us to have access to God. Under the old covenant, only priests could come before God, and only if they were flawless. The point is that none of us is really flawless, but Jesus opened the door to us all anyway. He kept the law in our stead, because there's no way we could do it all.

That's what atonement is all about. It's about Jesus doing what we were incapable of in order to make peace with us. So chapters 16 and 17, which are all about the blood of the atonement, serve as a picture to show what would later happen, how Jesus would cover our sins with His blood in order to make us holy. You see, God called the Israelites to be holy in what they did, but Jesus makes His followers holy by His own proclamation. That was the point from the very beginning, but the Old Testament was a picture, foreshadowing what was to come. We have to know who God is, have an idea of the infinite gap that separates us from Him, and understand what it was that Jesus saved us from, what it was that He accomplished by living a sinless life.

The Law is holy because God is holy. It shows us God's character in that His perfection is so complete, so utterly impeccable, that we can't even understand all the ways in which God is unlike us (perhaps like we can't really understand all the ways God demanded the Hebrews be different from the world). It shows us that God's demands are beyond our ability to reach - it shows us that we cannot meet His demands. We need a scapegoat to take our sins on Himself, and we need a sacrificial lamb to cover us with His righteous blood. So when God says to us, "Be ye holy, for I am holy," it is not our actions which accomplish this, but His. That was just a picture; the reality is that Jesus separates us and declares us righteous by the offering of His blood which wipes away our sins.