When I enlisted in the Army National Guard, I knew I there was a chance I could be placed in danger. When I was sent to Iraq, I knew my obligation and service were taking me directly into danger. I signed up for that. I knew the danger involved in what I willingly and gladly signed up for. Years after my time in Iraq, I felt and followed a call into professional, pastoral ministry. I didn’t expect this to involve any real danger. I still don’t believe this to be an inherently dangerous service. Serving God as a pastor may be, at times, difficult and stressful. But I’ve never seen it as deadly. Apparently, the similar call to priesthood was for the Levites even more dangerous than my time in a combat zone. Nadab and Abihu took lightly the prescriptions and warnings of God. They used instruments of the Tabernacle and the worship of God in a foolish and unprescribed manner. For their foolish disrespect, they were killed on the spot. Unfortunately, they will not be the last priests who lose their lives for disobeying the rules and abusing their position as priest.
The ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests for the people of Israel is also quite different than was my ordination as a pastor in the EPC. There was prayer, there were vowels, there was a charge, there were words of ordination. But there was no blood. There were no special clothes or robes or a headpiece placed on me. There was no oil poured over my head, or animals killed and burned on an altar. I’m particular drawn to the rubbing of blood and oil on the right earlobe, right thumb and right big toe. This is different. I believe the symbolism relates to the priests dedicating their steps, the work of their hands, and their ears to the Lord. The right side represents strength and intentionality. This was a way of saying that their focus was on serving the Lord, and his people as a mediator. They are to put all of their effort toward this ordained service. Of course, almost immediately Nadab and Abihu forgot and violated this vowel.
In the midst of all these guidelines, something stands out to me. There is provision for those who cannot provide or afford the “standard” sacrifice! You committed a sin of some kind and need to make the guilt offering, but you don’t have a fitting female sheep or goat. Your poorer and can’t afford to buy one either? No problem, bring two turtledoves or pigeons. Still too much for you? Your covered. Flour can work also. None of God’s people are left out; no one is excluded from worship or from receiving forgiveness. Other religions, other systems of worship didn’t offer this. If you couldn’t afford the animal for sacrifice the priest might confiscate your land, or require your daughter for a temple prostitute, or take you as a debt-slave, or even replace the animal with one of your own children. But God desires that none be excluded from worshipping him. So he give Israel alternatives for those who cannot afford the prescribed sacrifice. Just make sure you are honest, and not looking for the easy way out.
Leviticus focuses on the priestly duties, the sacrificial system and the details of worship in Israel. Its name derives from the tribe of Levi who are the designated priests of Israel. The priestly order begins with Aaron and his sons. As we see in today’s reading, much of this book describes in detail how to prepare the sacrifice and minister in the Tabernacle. It gives more information on what are considered sins and unclean, what is clean, and how to ritually purify what has become unclean. Some of what we see in Leviticus might make sense. Some of it will seem confusing and even unnecessary. A lot of it will be foreign and unusual to us. We are not familiar with religious practice which involves such specificity and includes sacrifices. Much of the world today has little experience with this.
But in the ancient world, almost every culture and religion practiced animal sacrifices. Many even required human sacrifices. According to some sources, the Baal of Canaan, which Israel was strictly forbidden to worship and which emerged as an enemy of Yhwh, may have involved child sacrifices. It was not unusual for Israel to sacrifice animals to God. This seems barbaric today, but it was normal and considered necessary in the ancient world. In the case of the Bible, the sacrifices prescribed remind that all things belong to God and come from him. They signify dedication and subjection to the Almighty. And, they point to the coming sacrifice of the Messiah. It was a bit more unusual that their practice did not include human victims or at times cutting or mutilating themselves, as the priests of Baal do in the times of Elijah.
The real issue is the impatient and fickle people, who would worship a god of their own making. But before that, the ransom price catches my attention. If I’m not mistaken, this is what became known as the temple tax in later years. The idea of paying a tribute to God as ransom for their own lives seems so fitting, and an interesting way of annually reminding Israel how and why they belong to God. It is unfortunate that this eventually became seen as a tax and lost the meaning of its institution. It was used for the temple – much like our practice of tithing today. Would we be more willing and diligent in tithing if we understood it as a ransom price for the freedom and forgiveness we have in Jesus?
Rather, Israel waiting at the foot of the mountain better represents even our own hearts and frail allegiance to God. I can’t blame them for figuring Moses to be lost forever. He disappeared into thunder, clouds and fire on top of the mountain, and was gone for forty days. Of course they thought he had died. I suppose they only knew God through Moses, and he spoke through Moses, so it may make sense that they were at least unsure of their position with God now. But after coming to know the one, true, God Yhwh, I don’t know how anyone could then attempt to fool themselves into replacing him with another mythical god. They did not worship the metal calf, but rather the pretend god whose image he represented. And what a priest Aaron shows himself to be! Jeremiah should never have been surprised at the prophets who “tickled the ear” and proclaimed what was not. The very first priest of Israel was no different! The people wanted new gods and idols, and he granted this with no hesitation or persuasion otherwise. It’s good that Moses interceded for the people. It is good that Christ intercedes for us!
It’s a little difficult to follow the description and specifications of furniture and robes. If the Tabernacle was amazingly grand and beautiful, so were the garments of the priests who ministered there. Aaron, the high priest, was dressed fitting one who entered the throne room of God and who stood as mediator between him and the people. With 12 jewels set in gold on his chest, engraved onyx stones on his shoulders, the best blue, purple and gold cloth, the high priest definitely commanded attention and awe. The names of the tribes engraved on both the shoulder pieces and the ephod reminded him who he represented and served to bear all of Israel before God when he ministered in the Tabernacle. And the priests who served alongside Aaron, his sons, were also dressed accordingly. The consecration ceremonies were just as striking and inspiring. A week of worship, sacrifices, washing, anointing, and though it’s not mentioned, I imagine singing.
Yesterday our reading left off with Moses and Joshua back on Mt. Sinai. They disappeared from the camp of Israel into a thick cloud on the mountain. To the people down below, it looked like Moses and Joshua had been consumed in a fire. What they couldn’t see was that Moses went into the cloud and there he talked with God. Chapters 25 – 31 tell us what God said to Moses for those full forty days on the mountain. He gave details about the Tabernacle – the tent of worship, the priests, the sacrifices, and how to worship God.
The Tabernacle was surely an impressive structure. Its name means “to dwell”. This was the home of God, the tent where he dwelt with Israel. The Tabernacle was God’s mobile throne room. It was built of the best and finest materials. The curtains were made of expensive materials, dyed with purple, red and blue. Furniture was made of acacia wood – a tree prevalent in the Sinai, darker and harder than oak, and generally free of any insects. Everything was overlaid in gold, silver, or bronze. The leather used for the tent is somewhat debated; the word used is not known. Some think it may have been from a sea animal – dolphin or porpoise which are common in the Red Sea. Some translations (NIV) call it a “sea cow” – maybe one of the species of manatee. Others translate as a badger (KJV). I believe it was probably dolphin or porpoise, or maybe manatee, since they are available near by and have been used by the Bedouin for thousands of years to make clothes. Overall, inside the tent itself intentionally resembled the heavens, with blue, purple, red and gold thread and angels embroidered into the fabric. The full structure was 150 ft. long and 75 ft. wide. The tent itself, set in the west side (back) was 30 ft. by 15 ft. and 15 ft. high.
Here’s the really interesting part. This design and the concept of a traveling throne room would not have been new to Israel. The Pharaohs of Egypt are known to have used very similar traveling throne structures. Inside the tent, the inner room (the Holy of Holies) was the Pharaoh’s throne itself where he sat and ruled. The decorations in this throne room resembled the heavens and the throne was guarded by winged creatures (angel-like). Sometimes, in the throne room under Pharaoh’s feet were stored written covenant treaties. God used what was familiar to Israel so they could understand how to worship and honor him as their king. By carrying the tabernacle with them, they also found a deeper identity as a nation. Further, this was a statement of Yhwh’s power and absolute sovereignty. What a slap in the face of the reigning super power, whom he had just defeated! The Ark of the Covenant, resembling Pharaoh’s throne, was God’s seat, the mercy seat, the very essence and reminder of atonement – God at one with man. Inside the ark were the articles which reminded of God’s providence, his power, and the covenant between he and Israel. But there was a difference. No man sat on this throne. Israel was freed from enslavement to any man or oppression. God himself sat on this throne.
The ten commandments, a guideline for society, life and order for Israel and a basic outline to all mankind of decency, worship and respect for God and for all people. An Army chaplain helped me to see a benefit for Israel of their time in the wilderness. During this period, God took steps to shape the multitudes into a nation. Yesterday’s reading saw the beginnings of leadership and order through the elders, judges to help Moses keep peace. The ten commandments take another step in establishing laws for the nation. And from these continue further detail for establishing law and order, which is based in the respect for human life.
But what of this talk of slaves? Does this mean God approves of, even makes a system of slavery? We must be careful when we read the Bible not to read it strictly through a 21st century lens. We have a tendency to perceive slavery through the narrow understanding of our society’s shameful experience. And even worse, many Christians, preachers and teachers appealed to Scripture, like Exodus 21, to defend the horrible practice. The slavery referred to in Exodus was not like what Israel experienced in Egypt; and, it definitely resembled nothing like the evil perpetrated in America. Certainly such barbaric practices have persisted throughout the history of mankind. But that is exactly where we begin to see the difference described here. This is more akin to indentured servitude, a bondservant,and was mostly a financial arrangement to repay. We see something similar to Exodus in the Code of Hammurabi, often considered the earliest written civil law and praised for itsfairness and justice in the Ancient Near East. That code also addressed this similar servanthood. When we compare Exodus to Hammurabi’s law, we see specific guidelines which place an even higher value on the life of the servant and provide for more fair treatment.
Israel cried out to God for help and relief. They suffered and wearied and grew hopeless enslaved to Pharaoh. God heard their cries, remembered his covenant with their ancestors, cared for them, and came to their aid. He did what was required, what was needed to rescue and redeem Israel from Egypt. He gathered what was before a pitiful mass of slaves into a free people, organizing and moving toward a land of their own. He brought them miraculously and safely across the Red Sea, ensured their escape from the Egyptian army, leads them, provided water and food. In return these grateful people continue to complain at every turn. Any sign of complication and they whine like children. At every little difficulty they pine for the days when they were slaves in Egypt. I want to dislike these people. I wonder at their disbelief and mistrust. I think them weak. But then I wonder how I would act in their position. Would I be any different? Would I show more faith, more resolve? Do I trust, obey, and follow God any better than Israel did? In this way, they represent all of mankind; they show how we all respond to God’s great provision and mercies.
An old story goes something like this: A young preacher, fresh from divinity school and steeped in the latest academic biblical studies, began to explain how Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea was no miracle. From the back of the church he heard an elderly man shout, “Amen!” A little startled but undeterred, the preacher persisted in describing how the Red Sea often dries out in certain climates. He detailed historical records of periods when the Red Sea had withered to little more than a trickle, and how, at these times, one could cross the sea on foot with ease. Satisfied with his explanation and sure he had educated the congregation, the preacher was started when the same elderly man shouted again, “Amen!” Confused, the preacher asked, “Why are you still so excited by this account of Exodus?” The gentleman replied, “It’s just such a wonderful miracle that God was able to drown the entire Egyptian army in the trickle of water you just described!”
In my younger years, I tried to find more rational and scientific answers to the indulgent stories of the Bible. I wanted it all to better square with the realities and natural laws of our experience. But, like the preacher of this story, every way we try to rationalize the miracles of the Bible creates more problems than they answer. The truth is that either the Bible is complete myth, or it is an accurate account of a powerful Creator God who remains sovereign over his creation and shows this in miracle. This was the very reason for bringing Israel through the Red Sea. It was the final proof of his might and his ability to bring them safe out of Egypt. This is why the Passover and the escape at the Red Sea are still to his day defining events for Israel, part of the Jewish identity, and examples of their relationship with God.
Again and again we hear the “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart”. I wonder, is this fair? Why was it necessary to prolong the devastation of Egypt this way? Would Pharaoh really have given in much earlier? I believe Pharaoh’s heart was already arrogant, self-centered and turned against God. I believe he was already exceedingly sinful, with a heart of stone toward God and his people. God started with what was already there, and then highlighted it to humble Pharaoh, Egypt and any who would ignore him. Even if Pharaoh had relented much earlier, how long would it have been before he changed his mind and chased after Israel. How much more would they have suffered when he caught them? Even after all this, he does just that. It is only by God’s intervention that his people are freed, his name is feared, and his holy and ever-loving character is shown and understood.
The plagues and the plight of Israel culminate in the most memorable of them all. A story which has largely focused on second born and younger sons now centers greatly on the first-born. On this night, all of Egypt learned what it is to mourn the death of an oldest child. And Israel, with their doorposts smeared in the blood of sacrificial lambs, understood the cost and the sacrifice associated with freedom. The imagery is not lost. It is the center of the gospel story. By the death of the firstborn is anyone granted adoption as sons and daughters of God, younger children, chosen for covenant relationship. Through the blood of a perfect, innocent, sacrificial lamb is anyone freed from bondage, slavery, to sin, Satan, and death. This lasting ordinance is still observed by Jews around the world, and its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, which the Passover foreshadowed, is still celebrated by Christians.