Good morning everyone,
Rev. Moodie is preaching in Killinchy today and Rev. Stephen Reain Adair is leading the service in Banbridge. We hope to have a recording of his sermon up on the website later today.
What is Leviticus all about?
Out of all the Books of the Bible, the book that is perhaps most confounding and perplexing (apart from Revelation) is probably the book of Leviticus.
I am sure that there have been countless numbers of people who have made a very noble resolution read read through the Bible from cover to cover and have very quickly found themselves stuck in a quagmire of strange laws and practices upon reaching the book of Leviticus ending their resolution in failure..
If one had to boil the book down to it’s essence, the central concern of Leviticus revolves around the question of holiness. If God is Holy, what does that mean for those who wish to draw near to God and walk in God’s ways?
And what exactly does that word “Holy” actually mean? Holiness is a very difficult concept to define. Literally it means that something is different and separate. The word also conveys a sense of mystique as well as a sense of the sacred.
All ancient cultures have had some conception of that which is holy or sacred. For many ancient cultures the concept of holiness has particularly had to do with taboos surrounding religious ritual. In the ancient mind, when dealing with the world of the spirit and the world of the Divine, it was believed that one was dealing with dangerous unseen powers and forces, greater than ourselves and therefore it was necessary to tread carefully, rather like working with live wires at a power station. When approaching the world of the spirit, most ancient cultures therefore had certain rules and taboos that were to be followed in order to help a person to tread carefully in the presence of the Divine. This I believe was true of the ancient Israelites as well.
In my understanding of the book, Leviticus therefore represents some of the early Israelite wrestling with the question: What it means to be holy? And how does one come into the Presence of a God who is Holy?
In the book you will find a whole array of ideas (at times one might be inclined to call it a hodge-podge) that were supposed to help the people of Israel live in right relationship with the Divine, with Yehovah Elohim. Some of these ideas have to do with cultural taboos around death and dead bodies, as well as certain bodily fluids that could make a person clean and unclean as well as regulations around mould and mildew.
Part of the idea of God’s holiness for the writer of Leviticus was the intuition that there is a purity about the Divine that somehow needs to be honoured and respected. And so one of the themes in Leviticus is about keeping things separate as an expression of this idea of purity. In the book therefore the Israelites are therefore exhorted not to plant two kinds of seeds in the same field (19:19). They are also exhorted not to wear clothes made of two different kinds of fabric (19:19)… which would mean that most of us here today would be in breach of these holiness laws.
There are also many cultural taboos around some animals, birds and insects being clean and others being unclean.
From a modern perspective, there are also some rather distasteful and abhorrent laws about people with physical deformities and disabilities, that in the minds of the ancient Israelites left people unclean and therefore unholy, and therefore unfit to come close to the Divine.
The book of Leviticus also contains lists of rituals and sacrifices that were to be performed in order to make people clean and therefore holy once again.
At the very centre of the book is the idea of the Day of Atonement in chapter 16, where once a year, in order to restore the people of Israel’s relationship to Yehovah Elohim, the high priest would pray over two goats laying the sins of the people upon them. One would then be sacrificed and the other would be sent away into the desert, which is where the term ‘scapegoat’ originates from.
As I have said, the book is a real mixture of ideas covering purity laws, ritual sacrifices, regulations for priests and regulations for the main Israelite religious festivals. Some are cultural taboos about ritual cleanliness and ritual uncleanliness that just seem foreign and alien to us today. Others are just plain abhorrent to us today, like instructions for the daughter of a priest who becomes a prostitute to be burned in a fire and the permission to have slaves from other nations. Also the idea that a man is valued higher in monetary terms than a women, a male between the ages of twenty and sixty having a monetary value at fifty shekels of silver, and a female’s value being set at at thirty shekels of silver.
Now many would read the book of Leviticus as though it were the words of God dictated directly to Moses and then written down. But if one were to read it in that way, one might well ask: What on earth was God thinking? Why these strange, and often distasteful taboos? Why some of these primitive and barbaric practices?
For me, the words in the book of Leviticus were not dictated by God and then written down by Moses. For me, the words of Leviticus represent the ancient and often primitive people of Israel wrestling with the question of what it means to be holy, what it means to live in relationship with the Divine and how they could restore their relationship to the Divine when it felt like that relationship had been broken or disrupted in some way.
Despite all the strange and weird cultural taboos contained in the book of Leviticus, and despite the many downright primitive, distasteful and abhorrent ideas that are contained within it, one also has the sense that in the midst of all that wrestling with questions of what it means to be holy, there were some real shafts of light that were beginning to shine through within the thinking of these ancient and primitive people. It is certainly not all weird and distasteful.
Within the book, as with the book of Exodus, there are also the stirrings of a very real social consciousness, a deep concern for the poor and the dispossessed and especially widows and orphans, and treating other people justly and with fairness. And these elements seem to be connected with the experience of having been slaves in Egypt and recognising that no human being should be treated in that way, but somehow the dignity of our common humanity needs to be honoured, although these ideas in the book are clearly not always consistently applied. Along with these, there are also profound social laws, like the concept of the year of Jubilee. Every 50th year, those who had lost their property and found themselves in debt, poverty and even slavery, should have their debts wiped clean, their land and property restored to them and be set free. Holiness for the people of Israel was not only about ritual holiness and ritual purity, but also had social implications about how people lived together and treated one another.
And so, in the midst of some very strange, sometimes primitive and even distasteful ideas, it would seem that some very real spiritual light and awakening was beginning to take place as well amongst them. Signs of the stirring of God’s Spirit one could say.
For me, apart from the fact that I just cannot imagine the God revealed by Jesus ordering prostitutes to be burned in fire, the evidence that the words of Leviticus were not dictated to Moses by God, lies for me in the fact that in the New Testament, Jesus clarifies the true meaning of holiness and in effect sweeps away many of the laws, taboos and requirements of the book of Leviticus. For example he dismisses all the dietary regulations of Leviticus when he says in Mark 7:15 “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”
For Jesus, holiness is a matter not of outward observance or outward ritual or outward purity, it is a matter of the heart. And so Jesus says in Matthew 5 Blessed are the Pure in Heart, for they will see God. It is the pure hearted, those with pure, undivided, unselfish motives, those with loving hearts who are able to ‘see’ God.
While in Leviticus, the disabled and infirm are regarded as unclean and therefore unacceptable to a pure and holy God, Jesus draws near to them and affirms their human dignity and humanity. He also reaches out and touches a man with a skin disease, which is against the holiness rules of Leviticus.
And yet, despite cutting through and dismissing huge portions of Leviticus, Jesus extracts one line of it as distilling the very essence of his teaching: When asked what the greatest commandment is, part of Jesus answer is a quote from Leviticus 19:18 You shall love your neighbour as yourself. It is the punchline that comes at the end of a long list of instructions in Leviticus 19 on how one should treat other people with fairness, justice and care.
Finally, in the book of Leviticus, twice the reader is instructed to be holy as God is holy. Very interestingly, in Matthew and Luke’s Gospel, Jesus quotes this verse, but each time with a twist.
In Luke’s Gospel (6:36), instead of using the word ‘holy’, Jesus uses the word compassion. Instead of saying ‘be holy as God is holy’ he says instead ‘be compassionate as your Father is compassionate’, suggesting that compassion is at the heart of holiness. For Jesus there is no holiness without compassion.
And in Matthew’s Gospel (5:48) he says: ‘Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect’, and immediately after clarifies that he is actually instructing his followers to emulate God’s perfect Love, who makes his sun to shine on good and bad a like, and sends his rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. It suggests that true holiness has everything to do with growing in love.
Leviticus is a mixed bag, and just as Jesus used it with discernment, extracting the light that is to be found within it and discarding the rest, so I believe we too are invited to read it in the light of Jesus and to do the same.
There is no online sermon today because Rev. Moodie is at Ballyclare this morning to declare the pulpit vacant. He will be back next week with a reflection on the book of Leviticus.
If you would like to watch a service this morning from an NSPCI church, the service from Dublin will be live at 11am at the following link:
Alternatively our Church in Cork will also be broadcasting their Sunday Service on Facebook at 11am and will be available thereafter if you would like to watch their service too:
Exploring Exodus - Rev. Brian Moodie
Last week we explored the book of Genesis. Today we explore the book of Exodus which picks up the story.
The book of Genesis, ended with Joseph and his brothers living a good life in Egypt. Exodus jumps forward in time a number of generations later, describing how the Israelites fortunes in Egypt have taken a major down-turn as they end up being oppressed and exploited as slaves by the Egyptians.
The story of Exodus tells of the Israelite’s escape from Egypt. Some have called it the founding narrative of the nation of Israel giving the people of Israel a sense of identity and destiny as God’s chosen people in the world.
How historical is the book? Many would read it as pure history. My own perspective is that it should be read more like history that has become mythologized, theologised and embellished in the re-telling of it, and the reasons I say that might become clearer later on.
From an historical perspective there are a lot of details we don’t have. We do not know which Pharaoh was ruling at the time. We do not know exactly where the escape and crossing took place. Many scholars would suggest that it was not the Red Sea which they crossed, but more likely the “Sea of Reeds” which is a more accurate translation of the words yam suf in the Hebrew Scriptures.
We do not know the exact date of the Exodus with different scholars suggesting that it took place in different centuries, some suggesting that it took place during the oppressive reigns of Set 1 and Ramases II around 1300 – 1200 BC. Others suggest that it could have taken place around 1550 BC.
We also do not know the actual number of people involved in the Exodus. Some suggest that it is more likely that it was few thousand people rather than the 2-3 million men, women and children as well as sheep and cattle as suggested by figures in the book itself which some suggest is an exaggeration which would have been a totally unworkable feat to get them out of Egypt within a single night. It would have been a little bit like trying to evacuate the whole population of Northern Ireland with all the sheep and cattle in a single night without the use of buses, trains and taxi’s.
And so in reading Exodus I would suggest that the ancient Hebrew story-tellers were far more interested in conveying meaning than in recording facts. I would suggest that what we are dealing with is what some scholars would call Epic History in which events have been simplified and dramatized and wrapped in symbolic elements. Our task I believe is not to ask ‘Did it happened exactly like this?’, but rather, ‘What did it mean to the ancient Hebrews, and what could it mean for us today?’
A summary of the book is as follows:
The book begins with the birth of Moses who is saved from certain death by some careful planning by his mother and by the compassionate response of one of the daughters of Pharaoh after Pharaoh has ordered the putting to death of all newly born Hebrew boys. Moses thus grows up in Pharaoh’s household while all his countrymen live as slaves. He is saved, or blessed as we shall see, for a purpose it would seem.
As an adult, when Moses sees one of his own Hebrew people being beaten by an Egyptian, he murders the Egyptian in anger, but is strangely rejected by his own people, perhaps because they feared the repercussions of what he has done.
After fleeing to the wilderness, where he marries a Midianite daughter, Moses encounters God in the narrative of the burning Bush. It is there that God reveals the Divine Name to Moses and calls him to return to Egypt to begin a campaign to free his people from slavery.
And so Moses returns to Egypt and pleads with Pharaoh to release the Israelites, but Pharaoh fails to listen. We are told in the text that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart and then in response, God sends 10 plagues upon Egypt which finally causes Pharaoh to relent. The night before the Israelites leave, the people celebrate the passover feast. They leave Egypt, with God parting the sea for them to go through on dry land. Pharaoh’s armies however pursue them, but they are drowned in the sea when the waters return.
Moses then leads his people into the desert to Mount Sinai where Moses receives the 10 commandments and a covenant is formed between God and the people of Israel based on the Law.
Most of the rest of Exodus gives lists of laws including laws about social responsibility (caring for others, especially widows and orphans), protection of property, justice and mercy, as well as instructions for building the Tabernacle, or the Tent of Meeting as a place of Worship.
What are some of the essential lessons that the author is seeking to convey through the retelling of the story:
1. God calls weak and frail human beings to be God’s partners in the world – Moses is a murderer who is so unsure of himself that he requires his brother to talk on his behalf, and yet God calls and uses him to act on God’s behalf in liberating the oppressed Hebrews in Egypt.
2. Secondly, the story suggests that God has not made human beings for exploitation and oppression. The book speaks of God hearing the cry of those who are exploited and oppressed, suggesting that all human systems and cultures that are exploitative and oppressive are out of sync and out of harmony with God.
3. The book suggests that Laws are important in life to protect our freedom – Isn't it interesting that the first thing God does in the story after liberating them is to give them a new set of laws to protect and enhance their freedom, providing a framework for harmonious common living. It suggests that without ethical and disciplined living there is no true freedom
4. Fourthly, the book emphasizes the importance of worship. Large sections of the second half of the book give regulations for worship and the building of a tabernacle as a tent of worship. It suggests that giving worth to something greater than ourselves is important for human beings in helping us to grow into our true nobility and true potential. The important question is ultimately: What or who do we give ultimate worth to, because that will determine how we live in the world. Worshipping a God for example, who sets oppressed and exploited slaves free, would lead one to hold certain values that would determine how we live in the world.
5 Fifthly, the book contains lessons in sharing – while living in the desert, the God-character in the story provides manna and the people are required to gather enough for their needs for the day and not to try and hoard more than they need. And so we read that no-one collected too much and no-one collected too little. In the story, the Israelites are learning how to live in such a way that none amongst them should end up exploited and living as slaves again. The story invites us to imagine a world, and to work towards creating a world in which no-one has too much and no-one has too little.
This is a challenging message for the world today where some live with such an abundance of stuff and food that it regularly gets thrown away, and other struggle just to get by. The book suggests that to a people who worship a God who sets enslaved people free it is perhaps a failure in religion if we are not working towards a world where no-one has too little, and indeed, where no-one would have too much.
6thly, the book suggests that true freedom means that human beings need time for rest and play. A key law in the 10 commandments is the commandment to rest. It is what distinguishes a free people from an enslaved people. Slaves and the oppressed are not given adequate time to rest. An essential part of what it means to be free is to be able to have enough time not just to work, but also to rest and play.
I would like to close by examining briefly some of the difficulties of the re-telling of the Exodus story, because there are a number of aspects of the story that fall short when critically evaluated against the life and teachings of Jesus.
1. The killing of the first born of Egypt in Exodus 11:1-10. When Pharaoh refuses to set the Israelites free after God has hardened his heart, God kills all the firstborn of Egypt. It is indiscriminate, and involves the killing not only of adults but also children and little babies. This is a picture of God that seems diametrically opposed to the God we see revealed in Jesus, and is perhaps one of the main reasons that I would struggle to read the book of Exodus as literal history. If God is able to indiscriminately kill the firstborn including babies and children, what stops someone like Putin thinking he can act in a similar manner? This is perhaps one of the uncomfortable questions this aspect of the book raises for us.
2. Secondly, we find in the book the strange statement repeated a few times that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 4:21). Why would God harden Pharaoh’s heart, when at the same time, speaking through Moses and Aaron, God was asking Pharaoh to let his people go? It sounds like an odd strategy on God’s part and rather counter-productive. If God had the power to harden Pharaoh’s heart, then why didn’t God choose instead to soften Pharaoh’s heart in order to avoid the pain and suffering not only of the Israelite people, but also upon the Egyptian people in the 10 plagues. An explanation for this is that the writer wished to preserve the concept of God’s sovereignty. How can one say that God is sovereign and all powerful if Pharaoh can defy God’s wishes? Instead, the story teller preserves God’s sovereignty by saying that if Pharaoh resisted, then it must have been because God hardened his heart.
3. Thirdly Some of the laws in the book might horrify us today, like laws about selling one’s daughter as a slave (Exodus 21:7-11). The book of Exodus is not a book dictated from heaven and absolutely valid for all time. I believe it is a book written by someone, or a people who are wrestling with the true nature of the Divine and beginning to see shafts of light in the midst of some pretty dark and primitive behaviour. There are many laws in Exodus that can hardly be called God’s word in any literal sense. But in the midst of many laws that are of no religious value for us today, and some that are even abhorrent, the book is significant in that it reveals and ancient people beginning to wrestle with laws of fairness, justice and social concern. The laws are really the Israelite people’s attempt to wrestle with the question of what it really means to be free.
And so, the book of Exodus is not without value. There are many aspects of the story that contain values and themes that I believe have deeply and profoundly influenced the growth and development of western society and culture, human rights, fairness, justice, social concern but there are also part of the story that we would do well to think critically about in the light of the life and teachings of Jesus. I hope that this gives you a little bit of food for thought until next week when we explore the book of Leviticus.
New Year's Day - What's Genesis all About?
Over the next few weeks I would like to do a preaching series giving short summaries of each of the first five books of the Bible. If it goes well we could extend it further. But today we start with the book of Genesis.
It should be remembered that the Book of Genesis is not a scientific textbook, neither is it a history or an archaeological textbook. It is a book of archetypal stories inviting us to explore the mystery of our human experience and our human destiny and purpose. The validity of the book does not therefore stand or fall on the accuracy of the information it gives, but rather, it stands or falls on the assertions it makes about the meaning and purpose of human life and existence.
The Book can be divided into two sections:
The first section runs from Genesis 1 to Genesis 11:26
The second section runs from chapter 11:27 to the end of the book, chapter 50
In the first section we read two accounts of the origin of the universe and the world. The first gives a kind of a bird’s eye view and the second focus’s on the so-called first human beings, Adam and Eve. The rest of the section runs from Adam and Eve to Cain and Abel and their descendents, down to the story of Noah and the Flood and ending with the story of the Tower of Babel. From the initial harmony of the Garden of Eden, the story tells of the rapid descent into disharmony, waywardness and self-destruction. In the middle of this first section there is an initial attempted reboot where the God character sends a flood to wipe the slate clean and to begin again, exterminating the bad and starting again with Noah and his family,. But the plain fails and humanity very quickly descends again into disharmony, waywardness and disharmony again driven mostly it would seem by human pride, which culminates in the building of the Tower of Babel in which humanity are pictured trying to build a tower up to heaven, bridging the gap between heaven and earth through their own misguided ingenuity and technological advance. Apparently they have become a danger not just to themselves and the earth, but also a potential danger to heaven as well, and so God scatters them across the earth giving them different languages to prevent not just the corruption of the earth but also the corruption of heaven too it would seem.
The second major section of the book from chapter 11:27 to the end of chapter 50 represents a change in strategy by God. The quick fix method of exterminating evil failed and so the God character in the book adopts a strategy for the long term. And this involves God calling and befriending Abraham and Sarah and their descendents and taking them into the school of his love and wisdom so that they might slowly learn God’s ways and the ways of faith and trust in order to be a blessing to the rest of the world. The second half of the story follows the descendents of Abraham and Sarah, most especially, Isaac, Jacob and Jacob’s 12 sons who become the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel. The book ends with the story of Joseph who is betrayed by his brothers who are jealous of the favouritism he receives from their father Jacob. Joseph ends up a slave in Egypt but rises up the ranks to become Pharaoh's regent which enables him to provide sanctuary to the very brothers who betrayed him when the land they were living in is struck by famine.
That’s a brief outline of the book:
What are some of the major themes and lessons of the book:
The first major assertion of the book of Genesis is that there is a Higher Power or a Higher Wisdom at work behind the scenes of life constantly bringing order our of chaos, light out of darkness and life out of nothingness as the Book describes God doing at the very beginning of creation. In the language of the book of Genesis itself, this mysterious Higher Power and Greater Wisdom is called by four names Elohim, the Supreme or the Most High, and also called Yehovah, which later on in the book of Exodus we find out means “The I Am”, Adonai, meaning the Lord, and El Shaddai – the Provider. And often the first two names are used together: Yehovah Elohim.
A second major underlying assertion of the book is that human beings have two contrasting dimensions. The greatness of our potential to reflect God’s Divine Life is mirrored by the greatness of our potential for evil destruction. It would seem that without the potential to make bad and destructive choices, humanity wouldn’t truly be able to realise our potential for goodness and true greatness. Our potential for greatness it seems lies ultimately in our ability to be victorious over our our tendency towards evil and self-destruction. As we read in the story of Cain and Abel, God says to Cain: “Sin is crouching at your door. It desires to have you, but you must gain mastery over it” (Genesis 4:7). But this, not simply by humanities own doing, as we shall see as the story unfolds, it will happen by God’s grace, God’s calling, God’s leading and God’s guidance. Left to our own devices it would seem we tend to make wayward and destructive choices, but in relationship with Elohim, human beings can begin to tap into their true inner potential for greatness and nobility. And so throughout the book of Genesis, we see God working with ordinary wayward human beings, seeking to teach them his ways of grace and truth. Jacob’s name means deceiver, and he becomes the father of the nation of Israel which means ‘wrestler with God’. In other words this journey of growth in God’s school of love and wisdom is not going to be a neat line moving in one direction, but rather a journey characterised sometimes by three steps forward and two steps back.
A third major underlying assertion in the book is that you cannot divide the world of human beings neatly into those who are good and those who are bad. This seems to be the lesson of the Noah Story. The line between good and evil does not run between people but runs through every human heart. We all have the seeds and the potential for evil, waywardness and destruction within us. Even Noah the righteous man has this potential for waywardness and destruction within him which is why the attempted reboot with the flood ends in failure.
A fourth major theme in the book is that God’s Ways are not our ways. In the story, the God character constantly disrupts the natural human assumptions to bring about God’s good purposes. The normal cultural human assumption n the book for example is that the first born should be the chosen one. But throughout the story, Yehovah Elohim chooses someone other than the first born. to fulfil the Divine purposes. This is a value that has come to be deeply rooted in Western culture, that the circumstances of one’s birth don’t need to, and perhaps shouldn’t have to determine one’s future possibilities and potential.
A fifth major theme in Genesis is that God is able to take the waywardness of human beings as well as their mistakes and to turn those around and to use them for God’s good purposes, like using a crooked stick to beat a straight path. According to the book of Genesis, there are no human mistakes or waywardness that can ultimately thwart God’s greater purposes, it can all be used as material for God’s greater design. And so the book of Genesis, which gets it name from the Hebrew word Bereshith, meaning ‘Beginning’ is a book about beginnings and new beginnings, and assets that God is a God of new beginnings for God is constantly bringing light out of darkness, order out of chaos and life out of emptiness and bareness.
A final major assertion that the book of Genesis makes is that the purpose and meaning of human existence is that we are created to be a blessing to others, blessed to be a blessing, to be value creating beings. We see it in the call of Abraham and Sarah where Yehovah Elohim says: “In you, all the families of the earth will be blessed!” Genesis 12:3. We see it also in the story of Joseph. As he finds himself blessed by rising up the ranks in Egypt, through God’s grace and through the integrity of his life, he is blessed to be a blessing to others, to the very brothers who betrayed him and sold him as a slave in the first place. According to Genesis, blessings are not for our own private pleasure but always given to be shared with others and for the greater good of God’s purposes.
Today as we stand at the beginning of a New Year the book of Genesis invites us to remember that God the Great Wisdom that brought us into being is the God of beginnings and new beginnings. What new beginnings might the year ahead have in store for us? What mistakes, waywardness and misfortunes and even tragedies of the past might become the seeds of new blessing in the future. Out of the seeming chaos of the present what is the new light that God is already speaking into the darkness. Amen.
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