Brother’s Keeper

Our Daily Bible Readings this week took us through Leviticus 19, which, at first glance, appears to be a hodge-podge of commandments covering a variety of subjects.  The chapter, however, is  a quite clever composition and central to the book of Leviticus.  Within it you will find all of the ten commandments but there is at least one main difference between it and the other two places where those occur: The basis for these commands in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 6 is that God brought Israel out of the land of Egypt.  The basis for the commands in Leviticus 19 is that He is “Holy.”  Because God is holy, His people are to be holy.  One writer calls Leviticus 19 the “highest development of ethics in the Old Testament.”

But one command stood out to me, found in the latter part of verse 17: “Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt.”

“Neighbor” in this text is not just one who lives in close proximity to you, but, in the Old Testament, refers to a fellow Israelite.  In other words, God’s people have a responsibility to one another to look after one another, to look out for one another, and if we observe failing on the part of our fellow family member – we must speak to him (or her).

The passage is central to the idea of loving your neighbor as yourself (verse 18), but it is also central to personal well-being.  If a Christian is headed down the wrong road, the Christian who sees it is responsible for warning.  There are no options for non-involvement. To refuse is to enter the fate of the misdirected.  From the beginning of the Bible, we are our brother’s keeper.
Mike

Leviticus 21

Beginning in Leviticus 21, the Lord turns from various instructions about living for His people to instructions specifically for the priests, and if you think He’s been a bit strict up to now, it gets worse for the priesthood.
The presence of a priesthood emphasized the holiness of God. Israel, though they were all God’s people and all called to be Holy, they were not able to come directly to the Lord. In fact, they were forbidden to do so. Anyone who tried was to be “cut off” from among God’s people, and therefore cut off from God (see Leviticus 17:1-9).
The function of the priesthood was to facilitate a relationship between God and the rest of Israel. They were also to help the people understand what it meant to be holy. They could not, however, do that job if their lives were but a mirror image of the community in which they lived. They had to be better, and they had to be different. The community was not allowed to eat the same food the priests ate.
It’s difficult for us to see grasp a relevance from all this for our lives, but perhaps these three points are at least implied:
As priests of God, Christians are not to mirror their community. The community does not lead us. We must live above the community, and the life must be so different that the community knows we are different – not just because we say it, or because of a haughty spirit, but because we act better. And in our own minds, we must remember that what God has promised to us, he has promised to no one else. We must believe that the rewards of holiness are superior to those prized and received by the community, for ours come from our preferential place with God.

Friday, January 31. Leviticus 8 – 10

Leviticus 9 is Aaron’s first service. Everything up to here has been preparatory. Aaron and his sons will experience the opportunity to offer every kind of sacrifice except for those offered for specific sins (sometimes called “reparation offerings” – see chapter 5), and the sacrifices common to the poor (birds).

The first offering is a sin offering, made to receive forgiveness. It is interesting that Aaron makes one of these for himself and his sons despite the fact that such a sacrifice had already been offered by Moses the week before. Sin is ever before us.

The second offering was a burnt offering. Having received forgiveness, this offering preceded the rest. It might be likened to visiting in someone’s home. You take off your shoes as you enter the house, and you present your gift to your host. Everything else follows this.

Aaron then offered these two offerings for the people of Israel, followed by a “fellowship offering” (an offering of thanksgiving) with its accompanying cereal (grain) offering.

There are several lessons here: First, before one presumes to give God a gift or make any effort to serve Him, there must be a recognition and cleansing of sin. Before leaders look to intercede for the lives of their followers, the leaders must see to the cleansing of their own lives.

Second, in service to God, it is important to be scrupulous about doing as God says. Everything is done “as the Lord commanded” (vss. 6, 11) or “prescribed” (9:16).

Finally, after everyone responds to God in His way, God makes His presence known. We cannot live lives inattentive to the will of God and sin and expect His presence.

Wednesday, January 29. Leviticus 2 – 4

Commit a crime, and something dies – at least, it dies if you expect forgiveness from God.  Know something that will help others, yet you refuse to speak up?  It’s a crime (sin) and to be forgiven, something must die.  Make a commitment and then thoughtlessly fail to keep it?  Something must die to be forgiven.

No one was exempt from the law – not the king, not the priests, not the common man.   Ignorance was no excuse.  If you committed sin, and weren’t aware of it, you were still guilty before God.

But who you were did affect the cost of the sacrifice.  If you were a priest, you offered a young bull.  Significantly, if a whole community sinned, a bull was also to be offered.  In other words, the guilt of the Priest was equal to that of the whole community.  If a leader sinned, he offered a male goat.  If an ordinary individual sinned, his offering was simply a female goat, or, if he was poor, two doves or two pigeons.  The higher up the ladder you were, the more elaborate the sacrifice.  Greater position requires greater responsibility before God, and the seriousness of sin in positions of leadership is greater than for ordinary people.

Little has changed.  God is still serious about how we live and his code of ethics did not “lighten up” with the coming of Jesus.  We are responsible for knowing how to live, and guilty for living improperly – whether we are aware or not.  Greater position means greater responsibility.

The one thing that has changed is that Jesus, our High Priest, has made atonement for our sins, and he did it not with the sacrifice of an animal, but with the sacrifice of his own life.  God takes sin seriously.  We should too.

Sunday, February 17. Leviticus 24 – 27

In general terms, a “covenant” is an agreement between two or more parties. But in the ancient world, a covenant was not so loosely defined. A covenant was an agreement between a lesser party and a greater party. There was no real choice about entering a covenant. Conquering kings made covenants with those they conquered. It was a sort of “agree or else” kind of thing.

God made a covenant with Israel, but no one should think Israel had a lot of choice about it. They could have refused, but the result would have been mass destruction.

Covenants committed the kings to certain promises to the conquered – and often, the promises were elaborate. They also committed the conquered to certain obligations. As long as the conquered kept their obligations, the kings were required to grant their promised favors. On the other hand, covenants always stipulated the penalties for disobedience.

We are reminded at least three times in the Pentateuch that Israel’s relationship with God was one of covenant. Chapter 26 is one of those times (others can be found at Exodus 23:25-33; Deuteronomy 28:1-68).

There is a main difference between the covenants of the ancient world and the one God makes. God always acts first in the best interests of His people. God does not subjugate and then offer terms of peace. God frees (as He did in the exodus), then calls the freed to covenant.

These are important points. God has provided freedom from sin and an invitation into His family. Refusal is an option, but not a good one. It will result in certain destruction. Acceptance will lead to great blessing, provided we are faithful to the covenant’s requirements.

One final matter. God believes that punishment is a way to encourage behavior. Our world today is loath to punish, but God knows it works – and even if it doesn’t change the impenitent, they still get the justice of God and precisely what they deserve.

Saturday, February 16. Leviticus 20 – 23

Do you know the word “persnickety”?  It means “fastidious” or “fussy about small details.”  That’s what I think of when I come to chapter 22.

Leviticus contains not just regulations for the priests (or Levites), but for both priests and the people. The priests were held to a higher standard of conduct than the people because they were to be examples for the people, but you shouldn’t think that the moral code applied to them was only for them.  God cared every bit as much how the rest of Israel lived.

God’s “persnicketyness” is seen in the way priests were to handle their duties, and the closed nature of the priestly system.  The priests received much of their food from the sacrifices offered by Israel.  But that food was only to be eaten by them and their families.  Outsiders, guests even, were forbidden to eat it.

It put the priests in an awkward position.  Imagine having out of town guests come in and not being able to feed them from a full pantry because that food was “priest food.”

But all of this served a purpose: God was not like humans, nor even like other gods.  He had to be treated differently, and his people had to act differently.

As you read these chapters, keep in mind how serious God has been about what it means to be His people.  We operate under a different set of parameters that look nothing like the thought processes and value systems of our non-Christian neighbors.

At least, we ought to operate differently.

Friday, February 15. Leviticus 17 – 19

Little children love to ask “why?” The problems with giving an answer are many. First, children have a limited ability to reason. The ability does not begin to take shape until a child is well into his twenties. Second, in order for reasoning to work, there must be knowledge and an experiential basis for that knowledge. Children, by virtue of their lack of both, are poor candidates for reason.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that you shouldn’t try. Correct reasoning takes practice and children should be taught the correct basis for doing it.

But sometimes, you just want to say: “Because I said so.”

My mother was good at reasoning and helped us learn to do it, considering evidence and learning to follow where it lead. But sometimes, either because we failed to understand the process or because she knew we were just wearying her with the hope she would change her view, she would reply: “What did I say? That’s what I mean.”

The argument was closed.

In Leviticus, more than in any other book of the Old Testament, the basis for God’s law is: “Because I said so.” It is expressed, beginning with chapter 18, with the words “I am the Lord your God.” God doesn’t take time to reason through the “whys” of these laws. He simply says: “This is the way it is.”

Something you should not miss is how the chapter opens: ‘Don’t live like the people in Egypt live. Don’t live like the people in Canaan live.’ In other words, when you read the laws of chapter 18, you should understand that both the people of Canaan and Egypt were living in violation of these morals. It is one of the reasons God required his people to leave and stay out of Egypt, and one of the reasons he required the expulsion or extermination of the people of Canaan.

The morals themselves are self-explanatory. The thing to remember is no one engaging in these prohibited practices is allowed community with God or His people, because, God is the Lord, our God..

Thursday, February 14. Leviticus 14 – 16

There are times, especially when I am under a deadline (to prepare a sermon or even this blog) and besieged with visitors and phone calls, that I long for some isolation. But probably none of us wants to actually live in isolation.

Yet a person with an infectious disease must live isolated from others. On the rare occasions we have the flu at our house, isolation is the order. We endure isolation for the good of the family community. When we have colds, we stay out of crowds, especially away from the elderly and small children, for their benefit, not for our own.

Chapter 13 detailed the kinds of infectious diseases that could separate one from the community. Chapter 14 details the process of re-integration within the community for those who, because of communicable illness, have been separated from it.

It’s a really big deal.

The cost of the ceremony is high – even for the poor. The ceremony itself is elaborate.

Why?

Because being a part of the community of God’s people is serious business. Separation from it is catastrophic. It is why no one in the community of faith should be allowed to “fall through the cracks,” and why, when a wandering member returns, there should be contrition on the part of the wanderer, and recognition on the part of the Church. In the story of the prodigal son, the father threw a party when the wayward son returned. So too, “there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”

You thought we were talking just about obscure sacrifices and cleansing ceremonies?

We are. The importance of the community, and being a part of it, is precisely the point of the somewhat tedious prescription of chapter fourteen.

Wednesday, February 13. Leviticus 11 – 13

It is difficult to read Leviticus 12 without coming to the conclusion that God has it in for women. It is, however, an unwarranted conclusion.

Keep in mind that it is God’s will for mankind to reproduce. Paul will write that this is a woman’s purpose (though please do keep in mind it is not her sole purpose) and children are considered in scripture to be a gift and reward from God (Psalm 127:3). A woman who bears many children is prized as a “fruitful vine” (Psalm 128:3).

Why then is she considered “unclean” for having children?

The answer has to do with the bodily secretions during and after childbirth (note her uncleanness is like that of her “monthly period”). As the next chapter will detail, God is a fairly hygienic God. Vaginal discharge is common for 4-6 weeks after giving birth (which might explain that 41 day period of uncleanness in verses 3-4), and the fluids are far from benign.

“Uncleanness” does not, in and of itself, designate disfavor in the sight of God. After all, God created unclean animals as well as clean. As the next chapter will show, a person might be unclean, but that not affect his relationship with God. It simply means those people should be held separate. A woman who has a child is held “separate” because of her uncleanness, but it doesn’t mean God is upset with her. A man, however, who approaches his wife during her uncleanness violates the will of God. His resultant uncleanness does mean disfavor with God because he violated God’s will.

Why then is the woman unclean for twice as long when she has a female child? The text doesn’t say, but one obvious reason is to preserve the distinction between the sexes. Boys and girls are not the same, a fact our own society seems to have forgotten. As I write this, the Boy Scouts of America is wrestling with whether to accept gay members. As much as I oppose discrimination, this, it seems to me, is asinine in the extreme. We would not think of bunking boys and girls together, or allowing the kind of exposure in mixed company that is common when sexes are segregated. The reasoning, at least to men (who in the majority oppose this move), is obvious. Men are men. Gay or straight, we are not ambivalent about our sexuality. A society that treats men and women as if they are the same is headed in a direction that can only lead to social disaster.

Tuesday, February 12. Leviticus 8 – 10

In Exodus 29, God specified the clothing of the High Priest, as well as the process of his ordination.  Israel did not “appoint” a High Priest on her own, nor by her own methods.  God’s High Priest could only be appointed by God and in His service, must not appear like other people.

Though the vestments of the High Priest were elaborate and ornate, God does not specify the significance of each article of clothing – or of any of the articles.  Perhaps the significance of this is so that Israel might not be emboldened to give greater significance to one part over the others.  Elaborate though it was, confined to the High Priest though it was, it was, still, just clothing.

Israel, of course, influenced by the paganism around her, ended up worshiping the whole garment (Judges 8:27; 17:5).

The High Priest’s garments did not signified nothing about him except that He was God’s man in God’s service.

In Exodus 25 – 30, directions were given for building the tabernacle.  In Exodus 36 – 40, Moses notes that Israel followed those instructions to the letter.  Here in Leviticus 8, Moses indicates that the instructions of Exodus 29 were likewise followed to the letter.