Chapter-a-Day Leviticus 21

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God spoke to Moses: “Tell Aaron, None of your descendants, in any generation to come, who has a defect of any kind may present as an offering the food of his God.” Leviticus 21:16 (MSG)

One of the tasks of my job is helping companies establish a standard for quality when it comes to serving customers on the phone. My experience is that most companies establish a low standard because they want to make sure that all of their employees can meet the standard with very little effort. Some companies establish a very high standard so that their employees must work very hard to improve their performance and reach their goal. I have never watched a company set such a high standard that a perfect score always meant an exceptionally great service experience. Even with the toughest quality scales, you can listen to calls that received the highest possible score and find opportunities for improvement.

As I read today’s chapter, I couldn’t help but see a parallel. I read the list of rules and expectations for the priests and I felt like I was reading a list of performance management expectations from God’s HR department. And, the scale was unbelievably tough. The smallest defect in person or performance rendered the priest unfit to serve on God’s team.

Once again, I find myself left with a clear picture of a holy God demanding holy perfection. The result is a quality assessment scale which sets the bar so high that no one ever reaches 100. And, that is the point of the scale. When we finally realize that we can never reach the demands of moral and spiritual perfection from holy God, we will be ready to understand God’s priceless gift and sacrifice God made on our behalf.

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Chapter-a-Day Leviticus 20

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“Set yourselves apart for a holy life. Live a holy life, because I am God, your God. Do what I tell you; live the way I tell you. I am the God who makes you holy.” Leviticus 20:7-8 (MSG)

When I was a child, the rules of the house were strict and the punishment for infraction were (at least to my child’s mind) severe. Childhood was when the folks “laid down the law” and taught life lessons in black and white terms. As I grew into an adult, I watched the authoritarian parental regime wane. I was given free rein to live on my own, make my own choices, and learn from the consequences of my own foolishness.

As a parent, I gained an even greater perspective. Parenting is about preparing children for life. It starts with helping them understand basic black and white rules for their safety and propriety. It progresses to teaching them principles for successful living and eventually becomes an advisory role as you assist them in grappling with the mysteries of this life journey as they walk it for themselves.

I find it helpful to view the authoritarian rules of Leviticus and their stiff penalties in view of the big picture. It’s easy to get mired in the minutiae and lose sight of the whole. On the surface, the purpose of the law was to protect the people by keeping them spiritually, morally and physically safe and healthy. But on a larger scale, in the linear life cycle of God’s relationship with humanity on Earth, the long list of black and white rules would teach us it is impossible to attain holiness and spiritual wholeness by simply keeping the rules. Keeping the rules cannot, and will never, address the fundamental issue of our sinful condition. It is not the symptomatic behaviors that are the problem, but the underlying sinful nature of our hearts. Like the common cold, you can treat the symptoms and dry up a runny nose, but the virus remains inside affecting the whole body. To address the root problem will require healing that can’t be found within ourselves.

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Chapter-a-Day Leviticus 19

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“When you harvest your land, don’t harvest right up to the edges of your field or gather the gleanings from the harvest. Don’t strip your vineyard bare or go back and pick up the fallen grapes. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am God, your God.” Leviticus 19:9-10 (MSG)

It is spring in Iowa and as I drive down the highway I can see the perfectly planted rows of corn and soybeans emerging in bright green dotted lines on a canvas of thick, espresso and black soil. Farmers have planted their fields wisely to get as many seeds in each row and as many rows in each field to ensure, God willing, a high yield and a measureable profit. Come harvest, they will gather as much grain as they possibly can for market.

I found it an interesting contrast to read God’s command to the farmers in the days of Moses. Poverty was as much a social issue and economic reality for people in the days of Moses as it is today. What I find fascinating in today’s chapter is that God’s prescription was for individuals to take personal responsibility for giving of their own means to the poor in their own community. The farmer left some of his field unharvested so that the poor in his community could eat and have a little to trade for their needs. There was a direct transaction of goods between people who knew one another and lived together in community. I also note that God did not command the farmer to harvest the crop and give some his profits to the poor, not did he command Moses and his cabinet of elders to take grain from farmers and administrate a system of distribution among the poor. The crop was left standing and the gleanings left so that the poor had to go to the field and do the work of harvesting it for themselves. It was a constant reminder to those of fewer means that the harder they worked, the more they had to eat and trade. There were no food stamps in the law of Moses, only food available for those who were willing to do the work to harvest it.

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Chapter-a-Day Leviticus 18

creative commons photo via Flickr & eyeliam

God spoke to Moses: “Speak to the People of Israel. Tell them, I am God, your God. Don’t live like the people of Egypt where you used to live, and don’t live like the people of Canaan where I’m bringing you. Don’t do what they do. Obey my laws and live by my decrees. I am your God. Keep my decrees and laws: The person who obeys them lives by them. I am God. Leviticus 18:1-5 (MSG)

When, as parents, we make rules for our children there is generally a reason behind the rules. A young child doesn’t like, nor does he or she understand, the need to be strapped tightly into a car seat. It’s uncomfortable and confining to a little one naturally given to constant movement and squirming. Any parent can attest to the screams, tears and rebellious striving which occurs when strapping a squirmy toddler into a car seat. We as parents understand, however, that in the big picture we’re preserving and protecting life.

As I journey through Leviticus, I’m not just looking at God’s rules, but trying to discern our Heavenly Father’s motivation in making the rule in the first place. As I read through the laundry list of rules regarding sexual behavior in today’s chapter, a couple of thoughts came to mind:

  • The cultures of that day were given to sexual immorality. The beginning of today’s chapter makes it clear that these rules were meant to differentiate God’s people from the people around them. Incestuous relationships in ancient Egypt are well documented by historians. God wanted His people marked by their purity, not their perversions.
  • There is a constant theme in the chapter, not just about sexual acts, but the violation which takes place within the act.  Sex outside the lines creates personal, relational, spiritual and societal violations. Rather than building healthy souls, relationships and a stronger society, sexual violations tear individuals and relationships apart, weakening the societal fabric. Historians have clearly linked moral decline with the demise of multiple ancient societies. It’s not rocket science.
  • There is a direct connection between the sexual and the spiritual. Many of the gods and idols in ancient times were fertility gods whom cultures worshipped by committing sexual acts. Fertility gods became a kind of spiritual cover for prostitution and any number of sexual behaviors the fell outside God’s intentions. There is a particular reference to Molech (a.k.a. Moloch) in today’s chapter, who was a god worshipped by many of the cultures in the area where the Israelites wandered. People brought their children to be sacrificed (typically burned alive) to Molech. It is often argued that gods like Molech rose from sexually dysfunctional, spiritually dead cultures as they sought to justify their behavior and eliminate the unwanted consequence of their illicit sexual activities. It was a pretty preverse cycle. Give yourself over to unbridled sexual activity in the worship of a fertility god, but when the sexual act actually results in fertility you sacrifice the baby back to the fertility god.

I have to connect the dots here. Sex outside the lines creates personal and relational violations in which individuals are victimized. To perpetuate and justify the repeated violation,  we must depersonalize and diminish the victim, as well as eliminate the unwanted result [read: children].

I have to dig one level deeper. I have to believe that it is not just about society as a whole with which God is concerned. Any who have struggled with pornography or sex outside the lines can attest to the truth that a microcosm of this same destructive spiritual regression can occur within the individual human soul.

God made his motivation clear in his preamble to the sexual rules in today’s chapter. The rules were intended to preserve and promote individual, spiritual, relational and societal life. God was tightly buckling his young nation of sinful people into a cultural car seat knowing that death would result on many levels for not doing so.

Summer Sets Sail

Captain Ron's pirate shipt "The Gypsy Rose" sails down the cove and by our dock.

For the past several years, the official start to our summer begins with a trip to the Playhouse with our friends Kevin and Becky. This year was no exception. The weekend started out with weather which suited the girls’ shopping trip and my staying in to get a little work done, but by Saturday the weather turned beautiful and we enjoyed a day on the water and in the sun. As is always the case, the food was fabulous as well as the fellowship.

Let summer begin!

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Chapter-a-Day Leviticus 17

Moses with the tablets of the Ten Commandments...
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This is so the Israelites will bring to God the sacrifices that they’re in the habit of sacrificing out in the open fields. Leviticus 17:5a (MSG)

We are creatures of habit. In fact, we’re selfish creatures of habit. We want things the way we want them, and in a largely consumer-driven economy, we’re used to getting what we want, when we want it, how we want it served. I found out recently that our local body of Jesus followers is eliminating the worship service which Wendy and I have faithfully attended the past several years. It’s become our worship home and an integral part of this leg of our faith journey. We’ve built community there. We’ve connected to God and others there. We’ve grown spiritually and matured there. We’ve served God and others there.  Now, our service is being eliminated and two services will be offered at two different times in its place.

The news creates a heady mixture of emotions in me. Frustration and anger are easily identified emotions on the surface, but as I trace the emotions to their roots I find grief and the pain that comes from feeling slighted. I don’t think that this is a bad decision. In fact, I can see that it’s likely to be a good decision long-term for our church as a whole. Nevertheless, like a child I tend to react negatively when decisions are made inconsiderate of how it affects me or makes me feel. We are selfish creatures of habit in a consumer driven society. I’m used to having my feelings and expectations considered in surveys, discussed in focus groups, and catered to in products and services. When something is taken away from us irregardless of our feelings, we tend to get annoyed. Just last night Wendy complained to me about her facial scrub which was recently removed from the market by the people at Neutrogena and replaced with something she doesn’t like. We like what we like and we don’t want someone taking it away.

Even as I process these feelings I am fully aware that a change of course, whether freely chosen or forced upon me, leads to a change in scenery, a new perspective of the landscape, and new vistas which open up on the horizon. I will grieve what I leave behind, but am grateful for the rich seeds of faith this stretch of the journey has planted in me. Those seeds will continue to germinate and bear fruit in the months and years to come. A new course creates new opportunities, new challenges, and offers new promise. That’s exciting.

I think about these things this morning as I imagine the people of Israel who’ve lived their entire lives with no religious structure but those they developed on their own. Their lives in Egypt offered them an open market of gods and idols, sacrifices and practices to choose from. They had gotten used to worshipping whichever god they chose to worship in their tents, in their fields, or among their flocks. They were used to worshipping whichever god they wanted whenever and however they wanted. Now, Moses had forcefully delivered God’s religious rule book and it demanded that they only offer sacrifices to the one true God, whose name was so holy it could not be uttered, at one specified place in the prescribed fashion. I’m sure there was a large and angry outcry from among the people. We are, after all, selfish creatures of habit.

Today, I am at once grieving the loss that change brings and excited for the opportunity which it promises.

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Chapter-a-Day Leviticus 16

“This is the procedure for Aaron when he enters the Holy Place:” Leviticus 16:3 (MSG)

Okay, just so I get this straight, I’ve listed below the procedure for the high-priest to enter God’s presence and make atonement for the sins of the people:

  1. Take a bath.
  2. Put on the appropriate attire (the scared underwear, tunic, and sash). [You look MAHVELOUS!]
  3. Bring a bull, a ram and two goats to God’s tent.
  4. Offer the bull as a personal atonement for your sin.
  5. Draw straws over the two goats. Designate one for slaughter.
  6. Slaughter the bull.
  7. Bring hot coals and incense inside the tent and burn them by the ark of the covenant [cue: Indiana Jones Theme].
  8. Sprinkle blood from the bull over the ark (or Atonement Cover).
  9. Repeat the sprinkling of blood.
  10. Repeat the springling of blood.
  11. Repeat the springling of blood.
  12. Repeat the springling of blood.
  13. Repeat the springling of blood.
  14. Repeat the springling of blood.
  15. Repeat the springling of blood.
  16. Slaughter the goat and sprinkle the blood on or before the ark.
  17. Repeat the sprinkling of blood.
  18. Repeat the sprinkling of blood.
  19. Repeat the sprinkling of blood.
  20. Repeat the sprinkling of blood.
  21. Repeat the sprinkling of blood.
  22. Repeat the sprinkling of blood.
  23. Repeat the sprinkling of blood.
  24. Sprinkle blood from the bull and goat on the altar outside God’d tent.
  25. Repeat the sprinkling of blood.
  26. Repeat the sprinkling of blood.
  27. Repeat the sprinkling of blood.
  28. Repeat the sprinkling of blood.
  29. Repeat the sprinkling of blood.
  30. Repeat the sprinkling of blood.
  31. Repeat the sprinkling of blood.
  32. Take the goat that won the lottery, lay hands on it and confess all the sins of the people over it.
  33. Give the goat to a man standing by who will lead it into the wilderness(e.g. the scapegoat), metaphorically sending the sins of the people into the wasteland.
  34. Go into God’s tent, take off the sacred clothes, and bathe.
  35. Put on the priests uniform.
  36. Offer a whole burnt offering for yourself.
  37. Offer a whole burnt offering for the people.
  38. Burn the fat from the offering on the altar.
  39. Have the man who led the scapegoat into the wilderness take off his clothes and take a bath.
  40. Take the leftovers of the bull sacrifice and the goat sacrifice outside the camp and burn them.
  41. The man who burns the leftovers must wash his clothes and bathe.

Yikes. The crazy machinations of the sacrificial system became a living metaphor to help people understand how difficult [read: impossible] it is for a person to earn God’s forgiveness and favor. That’s why God sent His son, Jesus, as the ultimate sacrifice for our sins:

That’s why blood, the evidence of death, is used so much in our tradition, especially regarding forgiveness of sins.

That accounts for the prominence of blood and death in all these secondary practices that point to the realities of heaven. It also accounts for why, when the real thing takes place, these animal sacrifices aren’t needed anymore, having served their purpose. For Christ didn’t enter the earthly version of the Holy Place; he entered the Place Itself, and offered himself to God as the sacrifice for our sins. He doesn’t do this every year as the high priests did under the old plan with blood that was not their own; if that had been the case, he would have to sacrifice himself repeatedly throughout the course of history. But instead he sacrificed himself once and for all, summing up all the other sacrifices in this sacrifice of himself, the final solution of sin.

Everyone has to die once, then face the consequences. Christ’s death was also a one-time event, but it was a sacrifice that took care of sins forever. And so, when he next appears, the outcome for those eager to greet him is, precisely, salvation. Hebrews 9:22-28 (MSG)

Today, I’m grateful for Jesus making a sacrifice once and for all for my sins. I’m thankful that I don’t have to go through an impossible 41 point checklist to try and have my sins forgiven.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and andy2580