Why I Love Leviticus

There’s nothing quite like the book of Leviticus for getting a feel of what scripture means when it calls God holy. When I was doing my doctoral studies my dissertation advisor, Gordon Wenham, told me that in all his years of being an Old Testament scholar the thing that had the biggest impact on his faith was writing a commentary on Leviticus. Why? What are we supposed to get out of Leviticus?

Leviticus Teaches that Holiness is a Real Thing.

If I had to boil the book of Leviticus down to one sentence it would be: How does a holy God live in the midst of an unholy people? Holiness in ancient cultures was not an intangible, abstract notion of ethics or morals as it is for the modern west. Holiness was just as real to them as nuclear or biohazardous waste is for us and the measures taken to prevent outbreak were tangible.

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They would fear an outbreak of the holy the same way someone living near a nuclear reactor might fear an outbreak of radiation from a meltdown. Think of the response of sheer terror of the Israelites towards Achan when he took some of the things devoted to Yahweh. The book of Leviticus makes God’s holiness concrete.

Leviticus Shows that God Actually Likes People.

The whole point of the sacrificial system introduced in Leviticus is to figure out how God can be near his people. I go back to what the book is about: How to have a holy God live in the midst of unholy people. The story of the construction of the tabernacle in Exodus is a story of going from a seemingly absent God (Ex 1-2) to Yahweh living in a tent in our midst (Ex 40). The tabernacle was a tangible way God could remind people of his nearness to them. Yahweh loves people and desires to be with them.

Leviticus Brings a Deeper Understanding of Christ.

Just as the sin offering in Leviticus was meant to cleanse the tabernacle, Jesus’ blood sacrifice is meant to cleanse people so God can live in them via his Spirit. People become the tabernacle and the sacrifice required to cleanse people is above and beyond what was required for the tent. Knowing Leviticus gives clarity to the flow of thought in Hebrews 9-10, a couple of the most epic chapters of scripture.

I wrote about this in chapter four of my book Jesus Prequel. I hope you’ll take a look at it. If it inspires you in your faith even 1% of how much writing it inspired me it will be worth your time.

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Moses the Prophet

I would imagine most of us are pretty familiar with Moses as the guy who led the Israelites out of slavery, or Moses the guy who went up on Mount Sinai. But maybe what we’re not as familiar with is the fact that in the Bible Moses is often described as a prophet. In fact, he was the model/prototype prophet of the Old Testament. God said that he would raise up others like him (Deuteronomy 18:14-15), which is why in John 1:19-23, the Jews sent priests and Levites to ask John the Baptist if he was the Prophet, a reference to Moses. Moses proclaimed his message using the dual avenues of critique and hope, casting a vision for a different reality.

A Prophet’s Two-Part Approach

It’s worthwhile to look for a moment at the role and ministry of the prophet in the Ancient Near East. Prophets were not mere fortune-tellers. The primary role of a prophet in any ancient Near Eastern culture, including Israel, was to declare a message, or “oracle,” from a deity. Therefore the role of biblical prophets was to pass along oracles from Yahweh. Although these messages sometimes h ad a future outlook, that future was always discussed with an eye to the present. A prophet’s message was never simply forecasting for the sake of knowing the future; it was an urgent critique of the present coupled with a vision of things to come.

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Walter Brueggemann, whose work The Prophetic Imagination, a rich meditation on the role of the prophet, contends that

“the task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”

Awakening our consciousness and perception can be done using a dual approach. The first part of the approach involves issuing a critique of the current situation on two grounds: social (how the current situation negatively affects people) and theological (how the current situation displeases God).

The second part of the prophetic approach offers hope for an alternate, a better situation in the future. Critique and hope together motivate people to work toward this alternative. The scriptures demonstrate again and again the power of this pattern to move people out of their apathy and toward the worship of God.

Moses Delivers a Social and Theological Critique

To Pharaoh, the critique delivered by Moses contained both the social and theological directive. The social one is easy to identify: God’s people would no longer be slaves; they would instead be formed into an independent, self-governing entity. In other words, “Let my people go.” Then Moses issued the theological critique, showing through the ten plagues that the Egyptian deities did not have the power or freedom to act as the Egyptians believed they could. This is important because the social situation, the enslavement of the Hebrews, was directly connected to the Egyptian religious system. For Egyptians of the period, Pharaoh was regarded as the manifestation of the sun god. His power was absolute. At the lowest rung of Egyptian society were shepherds, and sheep herding was the traditional livelihood of the Hebrew people. So the enslavement of Hebrews arose logically from Egypt’s religious system and was manifest in their social structure.

Brueggemann claims the theological cause at stake here is the freedom of Yahweh. In order to challenge Pharaoh, Moses had to issue a critique of Egypt’s gods, which included Pharaoh himself. When Pharaoh didn’t respond to the social directive by freeing the Israelites, God used the plagues as a judgment against him and all of Egypt’s gods. Only the freedom of Yahweh could result in the freedom of the Israelites.

Prophets after Moses also motivated people toward an alternative reality via this two-part approach: critique and hope. This duality is present in much of the Old Testament as God makes covenants with Israel and prepares them for the coming of the Messiah. Old Testament prophets continually critique Israel’s (and other nations’) sin and social problems and hold forth visions of change and blessing to motivate faithfulness. The first twelve chapters of Isaiah offer a clear example of this pattern. The book cycles back and forth between calling Israel to repent of her unfaithfulness to God, and offering her a new vision of restoration and hope.

Reflect on the Past, Move toward Hope

Vision begins with looking back. Brueggemann argues that

“the prophet is rooted in energizing memories, summoned by radical hope. The church,” he says, “has no business more pressing than the reappropriation of its memory in its full power and authenticity.”

Thus we must begin by looking at the work God has done in the past. This means reviewing Scriptural narratives of God’s power and work again and again. It also means that we must think back to God’s work in our own stories. This can be done corporately, by discussing current ways God is bringing his kingdom in our midst. It can also be done privately by reflecting on our own histories and experiences. Recalling God’s faithfulness in the past emboldens us to respond to the vision of new reality and to change.

But we do well to acknowledge that hoping for change is hard. At the risk of making generalizations, we tend to ridicule hope. For many of us, both believers and unbelievers, hope is countercultural. We can always draw on our experiences to show us that hope is a risk. It’s much easier to forget what God has done for us and accept our lot than it is to hope for something new. Brueggemann calls it “the depreciation of memory and the ridicule of hope.”

The prophet demands that mindful of God’s work in the past, we push through our fear and embrace hope. Like the Israelites who crossed the Red Sea and saw their enemies defeated, we crave the joy of a new vision. Like the prophets, we must critique passivity and forgetfulness. We must rehearse God’s work in the past. We must grasp a vision for an alternate reality God offers. If we can effectively ponder the ways God is working, the natural result is heartfelt praise.

God Commanding the Watery Chaos

Genesis 1:2 presents the world in watery chaos. How is Yahweh going to bring order? Why a watery chaos? Ancient Israelites would have seen a watery chaos at the beginning of a story as a genre trigger for a creation story (what we call a “cosmogony”). In the same way we think, This is going to be a fairytale, when we hear the words “once upon a time,” an Israelite would think, This is going to be a creation story, when they heard “watery chaos” (i.e. “now the earth was formless and void and darkness was over the surface of the deep”).

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There are four elements at the beginning of creation that find close parallel to Egyptian beliefs about creation (a separate post will look at Mesopotamian parallels): Emptiness (i.e., an earth that is “formless and void”), darkness, the deep (i.e., the primeval sea), and the spirit of God (some translations have “mighty wind,” – but that’s a post for another day). Egyptian texts (more specifically, Hermopolitan texts) feature four deities that are frequently called “the chaos gods”: Nu, whose name means the watery one and who is called the father of the gods (His name is later rendered Nun from the Egyptian word for inert.); Huh, whose name means infinity or boundlessness; Kuk who is darkness; and Amun, the god of wind, whose name means hiddenness.

J. Hoffmeier, an evangelical Egyptologist, and bible scholar propose the following parallels:

Nun = the deep

Huh = the earth that is ‘formless and void’

Kuk = darkness

Amun = spirit (or wind) of God

The image portrayed both in Genesis 1:2 and in Egyptian texts is that of a cosmos that is without proper form. The creative activity of the deities brings order and function out of the initial inert chaos. Which god is actually doing the creating varies in Egyptian texts. No attempt is made to explain the origin of the watery chaos in any text from the ancient Near East. Apparently, they didn’t care. However, there is general agreement that life springs from the primeval sea.

What’s the point?
Two things:

1) We need to understand that ancient Israelites, especially the Exodus generation, were not monotheists. They needed to be taught that their God, Yahweh, was in fact the creator God. They needed to understand that their God put each facet of the created world into its correct place, for a specific purpose.

2) For us, I think it’s helpful to see that God enjoys and is capable of bringing order out of chaos. God has an ability to make things, even seemingly crazy, chaotic things in our lives, work together for good.

What Does “Fear of the Lord” Mean?

‘Fear of God / Yahweh’ is a consistent theme of wisdom literature. Proverbs famously asserts, “Fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7). But there seems to be a fair amount of confusion about what scripture means when it exhorts us to fear God.

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With or Without God

In my opinion, the easiest way to understand the concept of fearing God is to think about what it looks like not to fear God. Someone who does not fear God has no concern for accountability for actions. To fear God is to live with a healthy sense that we will have to give account for our actions. As Ecclesiastes says in summing up the message of the book: The very essence of what it means to be human is to fear God and keep his commands (Ecc 12:13-14). Going through life with no regard for the fact that God cares about how we live our lives is what it means to live without fear of God. However, the one who fears God is consistently cognizant of the fact that God is present, watching, and concerned for how we represent him in the world.

Fear of the Lord

The word translated ‘fear’ can run the gamut from respect all the way to outright pee your pants horror and it is difficult to come up with a direct English translation. Most uses of the phrase in the Old Testament have a positive spin, but some scholars believe there are instances where fear of God is a negative, particularly in Ecclesiastes 3:14. Although the phrase ‘fear of God’ is usually positive, there are times when God tells people not to fear him, as when Yahweh appears to Isaac (Gen 26:24). This indicates that when the phrase ‘fear of God/Yahweh’ is used the idea is not one of dread or horror since this is what God attempts to alleviate when he says, “Do not fear.”

Fear Leads to Wisdom

The important thing is not the exact meaning of fear, but the object of the fear: Yahweh.
To fear God is to realize our creatureliness in light of the
sovereignty of Yahweh over all his creation. Fear of God leads to wisdom simply because our realization that we are creatures utterly dependent on God naturally results in seeking him, the source of wisdom and understanding.

Strength and Wealth

If you’ve been teaching the Bible, reading the Bible or just curious about the Bible you know the inevitable question:  What’s God’s deal with money?

First some context: In some ancient Near Eastern languages the words for ‘strength’ and ‘wealth’ are interchangeable. In Deuteronomy 6:5, the so-called shema, Moses tells the Israelites to love the Lord their God with all their hearts and with all their souls and with all their strength. The problem with this verse is that it literally says to love God with ‘all your exceedingly.’ Obviously, ‘all your exceedingly’ doesn’t make sense and so translators had to figure out how to put that into sensible English.

Not a New Problem

The funny thing is that ancient translators experienced the same problem. The translators of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament made before the time of Christ, used the words power or might. This is where we get the translation ‘all your strength.’ The targums, Aramaic translations of the Old Testament, use the word mammon. This is the very word Jesus uses when he says, “You cannot serve both God and mammon,” i.e., money.

Beyond Money and Guilt
The point is that in Deuteronomy we are being told to love God with everything we’ve got, including our money. It’s not about tithing. It’s about loving God with all you’ve got, not just the first ten percent. It’s also not a guilt trip. Moses wasn’t some greasy con-man who just wanted people’s money. Moses was telling us that God wants us to love him with every financial decision we make: paying rent, eating out, buying groceries, investing in your 401(k)… everything. God’s desire is that we revel in his blessing while eagerly desiring to pay that blessing forward.

November 30, 2015

Finding Favor

 

When we tell our kids the story of Noah and the ark, we tell it in its simplest form, a high-level overview of someone who obeyed and trusted God. But if we will look closer at this Old Testament story, we find answers to some of our big questions about what it means to walk with God.

God Has Second Thoughts 

As we edge into chapter 6 of Genesis, we find that things are starting to get really bad for humanity. We see that the wickedness on earth is so extreme that every intention of the thoughts of people is only evil all the time. That’s quite the indictment. We read that God, grieved in his heart, regrets having created people. As a result, he decides to take action saying he will “blot out man” from the face of the earth (verse 7).

One Guy. Really?

Then we find a fascinating statement: “But Noah found favor in the eyes of Yahweh” (Genesis 6:8). In the midst of things being all evil all the time, one man finds favor in God’s eyes. Why? Was he super righteous? Really good looking? A master at giving great sacrifices? In chapter 7 we are told, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God” (verse 9).

There it is! Noah was righteous and blameless. Apparently walking with God is connected to being righteous and blameless. But we still might wonder, “What does that look like, and who could really achieve that anyway?” Jesus says that no one is good except God (Mark 10:18, Luke 18:19). If that’s the case, why does Genesis say that Noah was righteous? Was Jesus just wrong? Had he never read Genesis?

Don’t Skim Over the Best Part

Genesis 6:14-7:5 gives God’s specific directions for constructing and outfitting the ark. We like to skim over this section the same way we skim over a genealogy because we’re not sure why it’s there. I’d argue that the instructions are included so that we can see that Noah followed them just as they were given. What seems at first to be the boring plan for a construction project is in fact a picture of what it means to walk with God: Obedience to his word. The bottom line on walking with God is that you listen to what God says and do it.

Here’s the point: Noah was righteous because he believed God and demonstrated his belief by obedience. This is what set him apart from the wickedness surrounding him and it will do the same for us. We can complicate this message all we want but it really can be that simple.

Genealogy: So What?

 

Could a genealogy of guys who lived really long lives be useful for showing us how to walk with God? Let’s take a look and see what we find. Right off the bat we’re given an account of Adam’s line:

The List Begins

When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathers a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth. The days of Adam after he fathered Seth were 800 years; and he had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days that Adam lived were 930 years, and he died. When Seth had lived 105 years, he fathered Enosh. Seth lived after he fathered Enosh 807 years and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days of Seth were 912 years, and he died. (Genesis 5:3-8)


And Goes On…

I’ll stop before your eyes glaze over, but suffice it to say that it goes on like this. Did you notice the formula? So and so lived a certain number of years, had children, and died. In fact, you probably start skimming over genealogies as we usually do when we recognize a pattern. We also have a tendency to get sidetracked by the ridiculously long lifespans, but that’s not really the point of the passage. No, I think what we are supposed to notice is that every entry ends the same: “and he died.”

Wait! Here’s Something Different

Genesis 5 says Mahalalel lived sixty-five years, had a son, named him Jared, lived another 830 years for a total of 895, and then he died. Jared lived 162 years, had a son, named him Enoch, lived another 800 years for a total of 962 years, and then he died. Enoch lived sixty-five years, had a son, named him Methuselah, lived another 300 years for a total of 365 years, and then “he was not, for God took him.” (Genesis 5:24)

The break in the pattern means that we should pay attention. Something’s different with Enoch. Verse 24 tells us that unlike the others in the genealogy Enoch walked with God. A quick scan of the next verses shows that Enoch was unique; all the other men on the list died. In the entire list of generations, one person managed to escape death, and we’re told he walked with God.

A Man Who Knew Who He Was and Where He Came From

For Enoch, walking with God was simply doing what was commanded. That’s why Jesus says, “If you love me you will obey my commands.” (John 14:15) Jesus echoed this concept of walking with God when he spoke to his disciples shortly before his death in John 15, saying “Abide in me and I in you.” (Verse 4)

It’s as much about being with Jesus as it is active obedience. This is sometimes hard for us to grasp. It’s not about perfection; it’s about knowing the one who created us. And it’s what separated Enoch from the rest of his genealogy.

Cain & Lamech: Two Murders, One Appeal

 

You’re probably familiar with Cain’s story, Lamech maybe not as much. These two men from the Old Testament both demonstrate an approach to confront and deal with our sin, though the outcomes are very different. Cain, though an unlikely example, offers an excellent paradigm for what it looks like to have an ongoing relationship with God.

Unexpected Grace

Cain is remembered for committing the first murder when he killed his brother in a jealous rage. Genesis 4:10 records that God confronts Cain with his sin and tells him that he’s banished from God’s presence, destined to live as a fugitive and wanderer on the earth. Cain cries out to God for mercy, which may seem like an incredibly cheeky thing to do, for someone with blood on his hands, but Cain clearly knew enough about God’s character to appeal for mercy.

Even in his righteous judgment, the Lord responds to Cain’s plea with a gesture of grace. He places a mark of protection on him and says, “If anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over.” (Genesis 4:15) Note that Cain is still banished, but because he called on the Lord, even in his punishment God demonstrates mercy.

A Dangerous Assumption

Later in Genesis, we read about Lamech, who commits the second murder. Like Cain, Lamech speaks about his guilt, but instead of crying out to Yahweh, he assumes the same mercy extended to Cain will be extended to him. But there is no indication in the text that his words are sanctioned by God, and thus I don’t think God is bound by Lamech’s insistence that God avenge him.

We are given these parallel stories to show us something about the Lord’s character and how he invites us to deal with our sin. Lamech takes matters into his own hands and declares that anyone who touches him will be in big trouble. When Cain is confronted with his sin, he calls out to God and is met with grace. This theme is echoed at the end of the chapter, “At that time, people began to call on the name of Yahweh.” (Genesis 4:26)

We don’t have to wait until we get to the New Testament to see a God who meets us with grace and mercy.

“Hey! Remember Me?”

 

Our world is a busy place, and a noisy one too. We have stuffed life so full of competing priorities that it’s easy to let our relationship with God slip into second, third, or seventh place. The Bible has a remedy for this: remembering.

Forgetting Means Trouble

The idea of remembering what the Lord has done runs all throughout scripture. Even in a casual read of Deuteronomy you’ll continually see, “Hey, remember what the Lord has done” and it continues all the way to the end of scripture. When you read Revelation, you see God giving letters to the different churches and to the Church of Ephesus and he says, “Hey, you’re doing great, but I’ve got this problem. You’ve slipped away from your first love.” The remedy God gives for this loss is to remember, “Remember the heights from which you have fallen. Repent and do the things you did at first” (Revelation 2:5).

Recognize the Author and Tell the Stories

The point is that we need to be continually in the habit of remembering, and enumerating, or bringing to mind and replaying the different things that God has done in our lives. And it doesn’t have to be just our lives. There is power in hearing the stories of what God has done in the lives of others.

Even recalling the daily things like the flowers in your garden or the smell of fresh cut grass, things that remind you of God’s goodness, can be powerful. The little things that God puts in our lives—remember them and remember what God has done. Remember what God has done for others and what he has done throughout history. This is how we guard our hearts from gradually slipping away from our first love.

First Fruits

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The Old Testament describes several rituals and ceremonies, including the consecration of the firstborn, which is tied in with the celebration of the Passover. It’s a commemorative sign of what God did for the Israelites; a ritual they would perform to remember.

Let’s Remember Where This Came From

But the firstborn ceremony is not the only first-fruits type offering. There is an offering described in Deuteronomy 26 that is specifically about the first fruits of the soil. The point is this: the first thing you do when you receive your income—the first fruit of your labor, so to speak—is give some of it back to the Lord as a reminder of who provided for you in the first place. When the first fruits offering were presented in Deuteronomy 26, it was accompanied by a narrative: “Our ancestors were in Egypt and the Lord delivered us and he brought us into this good land so we give back to the Lord a part of what he has given to us.”

In other words, “Hey Israel, God delivered you from Egypt, and as a way of remembering who ultimately provides for you, you need to give back the first fruits of all of your income.”

Be Creative in Your Offerings

Let’s think for a moment about the implications for us. There are two big ramifications for us as believers: First, God really likes it when we commemorate his provision by giving back to him. It doesn’t really matter what it is, though it’s easy to think in terms of income. I’ll give back a certain percent of my income right off that bat and that makes good Biblical sense. But we’ve got to think in terms of everything. What is it that the Lord is giving us? If you have a plot of ground in your backyard where you grow some awesome corn, when you harvest that corn, take a little bit of it and give it away. Or throw a party with your friends and eat some awesome corn. The nitty gritty details of exactly how we give back to God are not important. The important thing is that we continually remind ourselves of who is ultimately our provider.