Leviticus 10 – Nadab and Abihu

Understanding our ever-evolving relationship with God.

Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Moses then said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord spoke of when he said:

“‘Among those who approach me
    I will be proved holy;
in the sight of all the people
    I will be honored.’”

Aaron remained silent.

Moses summoned Mishael and Elzaphan, sons of Aaron’s uncle Uzziel, and said to them, “Come here; carry your cousins outside the camp, away from the front of the sanctuary.” So they came and carried them, still in their tunics, outside the camp, as Moses ordered.

Then Moses said to Aaron and his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, “Do not let your hair become unkempt and do not tear your clothes, or you will die and the Lord will be angry with the whole community. But your relatives, all the Israelites, may mourn for those the Lord has destroyed by fire. Do not leave the entrance to the tent of meeting or you will die, because the Lord’s anointing oil is on you.” So they did as Moses said.

Then the Lord said to Aaron, “You and your sons are not to drink wine or other fermented drink whenever you go into the tent of meeting, or you will die. This is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, 10 so that you can distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean, 11 and so you can teach the Israelites all the decrees the Lord has given them through Moses.”

12 Moses said to Aaron and his remaining sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, “Take the grain offering left over from the food offerings prepared without yeast and presented to the Lord and eat it beside the altar, for it is most holy. 13 Eat it in the sanctuary area, because it is your share and your sons’ share of the food offerings presented to the Lord; for so I have been commanded. 14 But you and your sons and your daughters may eat the breast that was waved and the thigh that was presented. Eat them in a ceremonially clean place; they have been given to you and your children as your share of the Israelites’ fellowship offerings. 15 The thigh that was presented and the breast that was waved must be brought with the fat portions of the food offerings, to be waved before the Lord as a wave offering. This will be the perpetual share for you and your children, as the Lord has commanded.”

16 When Moses inquired about the goat of the sin offering and found that it had been burned up, he was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s remaining sons, and asked, 17 “Why didn’t you eat the sin offering in the sanctuary area? It is most holy; it was given to you to take away the guilt of the community by making atonement for them before the Lord. 18 Since its blood was not taken into the Holy Place, you should have eaten the goat in the sanctuary area, as I commanded.”

19 Aaron replied to Moses, “Today they sacrificed their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord, but such things as this have happened to me. Would the Lord have been pleased if I had eaten the sin offering today?” 20 When Moses heard this, he was satisfied.

It is October, the month of Halloween, so I thought we might read some scary Bible stories.  Why I thought this would be a light-hearted idea I’m not sure, because things get real extra-fast.  But I’m going to stick with it, because there are some really thought-provoking stories here.

A little background for this first story about Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu.  Aaron was Moses’ brother, and the first high priest of the New Covenant God made with Israel after delivering them out of Egypt.  He was consecrated as priest, along with his two eldest sons, Nadab and Abihu.  All three of them literally saw God during a special worship at the base of the mountain.  Now, the first seven chapters of Leviticus go into great detail about how the Lord is supposed to be worshiped in this New Covenant, specifically how offerings should be made.  And there’s a lot: the burnt offering, the grain offering, the fellowship offering, the sin offering, and the guilt offering – all topics for another day.  Then, chapters eight and nine specifically deal with the ordination of the priests and detail how they begin their ministry in running the offerings.  Everything goes swimmingly – Aaron does all the right things, says all the right words, and the Fire of the Lord comes down to consume the burnt offerings and all of Israel sees his presence and falls down and worships in joy.

Now, the above-mentioned fire from God is important, because it was an unauthorized fire, in other words fire made by man, the Nadab and Abihu brought to altar when it was their turn to make offerings.  As an aside – not only was it unauthorized fire, it was fire all tarted up, if you will, by added incense.  Long story short – actually, short story made longer via explanation, but whatever – by bringing this man-made fire to the altar, Nadab and Abihu were indicating one of two things: either that they held the power to consume the burnt offerings alongside God, or that they didn’t trust God to send holy fire to consume said burnt offerings.

Either way, God literally just established a new covenant with Israel, and can’t have these new priests going rogue so early in the game.  Nadab and Abihu’s deaths were a signal to Israel that God alone is almighty – only God has the power to consume the burnt offerings; and that God is always ready to act – holy fire will always be sent for the burnt offering, and sin can and will be punished when it happens.

That is one punitive God, and I hope not the same one that I’m counting on.  This story has, in fact, opened up some uncomfortable lines of questioning for me, which have lain dormant for some time.  In a nutshell, is God as omnipotent as loving as we would wish Xyr to be?

In college I first came across the idea of the evolution of God in Karen Armstrong’s book A History of God.  I’m paraphrasing like crazy here, but basically there is a line of thought that believes the God of the Old Testament is a different God than the God of the New Testament.  Either a lesser God was overthrown and replaced with a new God, or the old God turned into something new with the arrival of Jesus.  And there is plenty of evidence to support this idea:  The God of the Old Testament looks nothing like Jesus and the Holy Father.  The Old Testament God is vengeful and punitive – wiping entire villages or nations out because they have committed some offense or stand in the way of God’s chosen people.  Additionally, the Old Testament God “hardens the heart” of Pharaoh and others so that they won’t listen to the warnings of holy men, like Moses, which just seems unnecessarily cruel to everyone involved.

The God of the Old Testament kills his priests after one mistake.  Not a warning, not a demotion or removal from office, not even banishment: straight to an abrupt and painful death without warning.  And then, their father isn’t even allowed to fully mourn for them.  Moses, as the mouthpiece of God, makes it clear to Aaron that he and his remaining sons have to keep on fulfilling their duties in the Temple:  No ripping their clothes or letting their hair grow long (traditional signs of mourning), they must keep up their ceremonial dietary restrictions, and no drinking.  They aren’t even allowed to leave and bury the bodies of these two dead sons because that would make them ceremonially unclean. How poor Aaron must feel I can only imagine.  His marked silence in verse three speaks volumes. The words he must be holding back in grief, in fear, in anger are too much for any spoken language.  When he does finally speak, in verse nineteen, we can still hear his anguish.  “Such things as this have happened to me today,” he says, referring to his sons’ deaths. “Would the Lord be have been pleased if I had eaten the sin offering today?”  Aaron is too deep in mourning to provide the grateful heart necessary for receiving the gifts from God’s altar.  He recognizes that in himself, and instead of bringing further wrath upon his own person, he abstains as respectfully as possible.  Additionally, fasting may have been the only way he could actively and outwardly mourn his sons given the circumstances.

What hard, vindictive God would wound a father so?  Specifically a man he called to be the first high priest of a New Covenant with a chosen people?  Clearly, this is a different God than the God of forgiveness, of pure love, that we come to know through Jesus Christ.

So what happened?  Did God change?  Because an evolution of God would imply that God was not perfect and whole at one point, and therefore may not be perfect now.  It also means it might be possible for our God of Love to change again, into something new and even better than a God of Love, or back into something more demanding and vengeful.  The idea of an imperfect, changeable God – or even worse, a God who can be challenged and even overthrown by another deity – is a terrifying prospect.  It would mean the rock upon which we have founded our faith as Christians is not as stable as we were lead to believe.

I’m not ready to believe the foundation of my faith is unstable.  Perhaps some people will call the explanation I’m about to give a textbook example of rationalizing – but really, isn’t any theological talk just rationalizing in some form or another?  There really is no way to know God, that is why faith is required of us instead.  But here’s the conclusion I came to:  God has not changed, but we have.

Let’s go back to parenting again, my favorite long-running analogy.  Your relationship with your parents changes as you get older.  You go from complete dependence to complete independence.  Their authority goes from total authority to varying degrees of influence, depending upon the relationship you have with them.  As hard as the God of the Old Testament seems, perhaps that was the God that Israel needed then.  The punishment of Nadab and Abihu was swift and severe, especially from today’s standpoint.  But remember: the covenant with Israel had just been established – this is a nation brand new in it’s faith.  Yes, the Israelites had been worshiping Yahweh for some time, but it was a completely new chapter with new rules (literally new rules, like the ten commandments) in a new country.  Boundaries had to be established, and quickly.  The extreme reaction to Nadab and Abihu’s unauthorized offering helped establish those boundaries and demonstrate the God was very much in charge.  You know, the more I think about it the less it sounds like parenting (because what newborn is really going to challenge your authority?) and more like training a puppy: as an owner, you have to establish your alpha position early on.  But I think the underlying point is clear:  God was demonstrating Xyr power.

I also want to point out that nowhere are Nadab and Abihu condemned beyond death.  While their brothers and father are not allowed to participate in their funeral rites, they do, in fact, receive funeral rites, officiated by their cousins and uncle.  In this I take great comfort.  I like to think that their death was the only atonement needed for their sin of arrogance, and that on the other side of it God said something to them along the lines of,  “I had to make an example of you two, you understand.  Your presumptuousness could not be the leading example for the new covenant with Israel, and had to be dealt with harshly.  Your deaths have served a great purpose, all is now right and you are fully forgiven.  Come and be with me now, my children.”

I don’t think we’re fully spiritually mature yet, but it’s a phase I’m looking forward to.  I’m blessed with a good relationship with my parents. Getting to know them as adults has been really wonderful. When you think about it, it is an amazing thing to have someone who has known and loved me since before I’ve even known myself.  I’m mature enough now to hear family stories – both funny and sad – that perhaps I wasn’t privy to as a child and allow for a lot of family and personal insight.  They trust me in (most of my) decisions but can still offer sound advice when I need it.  I want that kind of relationship with God, too.  My ardent hope is that we are, collectively, older and wiser than the Israelites wandering around the desert, new in their faith.  I hope that we have grown, and that our relationship with God has grown into one where we are ready for more than just a God of strict discipline, but a God of love and forgiveness.  Like good children, even and maybe especially good adult children, let’s keep working to prove to God that this is true, and in turn I have a feeling that our relationship with God will just keep getting better.  Perhaps one day we’ll even be able to ask God directly about Nadab and Abihu, and fully understand all sides of the story.  Lord, let it be so.

3 John – A Letter Between Friends

Petty infighting or kind conviction?

The elder,

To my dear friend Gaius, whom I love in the truth.

Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well. It gave me great joy when some believers came and testified about your faithfulness to the truth, telling how you continue to walk in it. I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.

Dear friend, you are faithful in what you are doing for the brothers and sisters, even though they are strangers to you. They have told the church about your love. Please send them on their way in a manner that honors God. It was for the sake of the Name that they went out, receiving no help from the pagans. We ought therefore to show hospitality to such people so that we may work together for the truth.

I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. 10 So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.

11 Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God. 12 Demetrius is well spoken of by everyone—and even by the truth itself. We also speak well of him, and you know that our testimony is true.

13 I have much to write you, but I do not want to do so with pen and ink. 14 I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face.

Peace to you. The friends here send their greetings. Greet the friends there by name.

As a 21st century woman married to and mother of minority individuals, I must admit I read the Bible with a highly skeptical eye: one that seeks out the less than noble impulses of the writers and compilers.  I am quick to find the sexist, racist, and power-hungry undertones in a passage.  I’ll be honest: the first impressions I got from this book were that it was divisive, complaining, and controlling.  But the longer I sat with it, the more I was able to see God’s true message of love and friendship shine through.

This little book is fascinating from a historical point of view:  We get a glimpse of how the early church was working and forming, how different people and factions were jostling for control.  First, the Gnostics. Remember, a theme throughout John’s letters is his concern that Gnosticism might infiltrate the wider church.  While not as directly referenced here as in 2 John, that concern is still indirectly visible.  Basically John is saying,”Hey, don’t accept those doing evil, like those Gnostics. Instead, here’s my letter of recommendation for Demetrius – someone with a message I personally approved.”  Second, this Diotrephes guy.  John almost sounds like a little old church lady here, doesn’t he?  Maybe that’s just a fault of translation, but accusing someone of “loving to be first” and of spreading “malicious nonsense” just sounds like church lady accusations. That, coupled with the sending of a warning letter and promising to call Diotrephes out in person makes me picture John in a Sunday hat and a jello-salad in hand, quivering from head to toe in self-righteous anger.  Clearly, I’m poking a little fun at John here, but as discussed in 2 John, these early factions were of real concern, as they often did lead to schisms in the church.  There were people (including John) who knew Jesus personally still living at the time of this writing, and even with that close-to-the-source knowledge, we already see these factions – like Gnosticism and Cerinthianism – peeling away.

But why was this letter included in the Bible? It seems rather petty, doesn’t it?  John accuses Diotrephes of gossiping, but it doesn’t seem like John is doing much better here.  This short letter is a catalog of various in-fighting. Were there no other more uplifting and noble letters left behind by any of the other apostles?

There were lots of books left out of the New Testament, as it turns out.  Some of clearly dubious authorship, and others that required more debate. It seems generally accepted that the New Testament wasn’t canonized (aka set in stone, if you will) until the first half of the fourth century.  And the truth is, we may never know why, exactly, early church leaders decided to include this letter instead of, say, the Gospel of Thomas.  Perhaps these books are truly divinely inspired, which is where many online articles on the subject of New Testament canonization leave it.  Maybe it’s a little faithless of me, but the inclusion of 3 John just seems more like something man would do than God. My guess is that early church leaders liked the historical aspect of the book, and can claim that “true Christianity” won out over the warring factions that John faced.   This is a letter in which church leaders can point to and say, “See? We’re winning!  We are right and they are wrong!  John faced this sort of resistance, too, and our [insert any cause, belief, or crusade here] is righteous and justified.” In short, I worry that this book is one that can be used by those doing harm, by those so convinced that their way is right they have become blind to the love and guidance of God, to justify their bigoted beliefs.  It’s a book that encourages Christians to feel at war with anyone who doesn’t share their beliefs, especially to be at war with other Christians who don’t share their beliefs.

That sounds awfully jaded, I know.  But one of the amazing things about Jesus is his message can transcend petty human politics.  So even if this book was included in the New Testament for more worldly than divine reasons, God can still speak to us through it.  Let me tell you what else I got out of this book, and what I believe we should focus upon. It is, above all else, a letter of encouragement between friends.  John opens his letter with a kind wish: “Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health.” He calls Gaius “dear friend” four times in these fourteen short verses.  He offers Gaius encouragement in the face of adversity, and sends help in the form of Demitrius.  He praises, advises, and commiserates with Gaius.  In short, John is an exemplary friend in this letter.

Also, it’s critical to point out that even though John disagrees with Diotrephes, he is still reaching out.  John mentions having already sent Diotrephes a letter.  He has sent emissaries to Diotrephes’ church.  John even plans on addressing the problem in person (health and time permitting – remember, he’s an old man at this point). “If I come,” John says in v. 10, “I will call attention to what he is doing.”  This, I think, is so different than many warring factions within the church today.  We would rather hurl insults at each other than reach out to each other and try to resolve our differences.  As I’ve said before, I don’t think anyone should suffer toxic abuse, and it is 100% okay to cut vitriolic, hateful people out of your life for the sake of your own mental well-being (and definitely for your personal safety, should it sadly come to that).  But if we continue to reach out to those different than us, my firm belief is that we will, eventually, win them over.  “Kill them with kindness” was one of my grandmother’s favorite sayings.  Somebody will always manage to do so, but it’s generally hard to hate someone who is warm and open and caring, even if they are completely different than you.

This week I encourage you to be firm in your beliefs while at the same time being caring towards others.  That’s a hard balance to strike.  But kindness, coupled with strong conviction, can go a long way towards making a difference.  Just look at John: his conviction in Jesus Christ helped shaped the Christianity we know today.   The next question is, how will our belief in Jesus shape the world going forward?

2 John – The Importance of Context, Again

And also the fallibility of Christianity and why that’s not a bad thing.

Hello again dear friends, it’s been a minute…long story short, we jumped into full-time farming much sooner and with less money than expected. Due to the generosity of friends, family, customers, and even complete strangers we successfully raised funds through our Kickstarter campaign (it’s not accepting funding anymore, but you can read to whole story at the link) that will allow us to make our next transition.  We’ve been working hard, and still have a long way to go til the season is over in November, but I’m gaining a little more breathing room every week.  For now, I’m going to stick with one post a week, published on Sunday, and build back up to three posts when I’m done processing broilers.  As of this writing, I only have 1,000 more (about eight weeks) to go! I’m excited to get back to reading the Bible with you all.

The elder,

To the lady chosen by God and to her children, whom I love in the truth—and not I only, but also all who know the truth— because of the truth, which lives in us and will be with us forever:

Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, will be with us in truth and love.

It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as the Father commanded us. And now, dear lady, I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another. And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.

I say this because many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch out that you do not lose what we have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully. Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. 10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take them into your house or welcome them. 11 Anyone who welcomes them shares in their wicked work.

12 I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.

13 The children of your sister, who is chosen by God, send their greetings.

I picked this chapter to jump back into writing because it’s short.  This is the whole book of 2 John right here.  I’ll read 3 John next and knock out another whole book in one blog post, too, and feel super good about myself.  Also, if we’re using the Bible as a general tool of reflection and meditation, we should be able to find pertinent information in almost any part of it, so why not re-start here?

A little background on all the Johns (ha, ha) running around the New Testament.  There’s the Gospel of John, then three shorter Johns (seriously, I’m cracking myself up over here) later in the NT, of which this is the second.  All are attributed to the Apostle John, so I guess the NT really only has one John.  (Alright, I’ll stop now.)

In all seriousness, John was very concerned with two heresies cropping up in the early church: Gnosticism and Cerinthianism.  Gnostics believed that only the spirit was divine, and that everything worldly was profane.  The divine spirit of a person could only be released through some sort of special, mystic knowledge of which Jesus Christ was an emissary.  Gnosticism lead to two extremes: punishment of the flesh and hatred of the world, but also extreme licentiousness because since the body was of the profane world, anything done with it or to it wouldn’t impact your spirit’s divinity.  Cerinthianism, so-named for it’s major promoter, Cerinthus, believed that Jesus was just a man to whom the Spirit of Christ joined after his birth and left before his death on the cross.  This would mean Jesus was not divinely conceived and not wholly human and wholly divine.

The church was very young when this letter was written, like maybe eighty years old.  As in many of these early letters (we’ll see a lot of them when we get to Paul’s writings), the authors are trying desperately hard to keep their young organization together, establish some Standard Operating Procedures, if you will, and make sure that the mission remains coherent, relevant, and appealing.  If this sounds rather calculating – it was.  I’m not knocking the faith of these early church leaders. In fact, I admire them for being able to shepherd Christianity through such a trying time, but it is important to remember that history is written by the victors.  Should Cerinthus or the Gnostics gained more followers, Christianity might be completely different than it is today.

Human influences directing the course of religious thought? Gasp!  That can only mean one thing: while Christ may not be fallible, Christianity most certainly is.

A fallible Christianity may sound scary, but I think it’s liberating.  Remember, Christianity used to promote the Crusades and slavery.  There were some Christians who praised Hitler.  Those were human influences on a religion that changed (or thankfully disappeared) over time.  A fluid Christianity means we are allowed to explore our faith, our relationship with God, and know that if we mess up – or if our religion messes up – we get to try again.  Think of it like a marriage:  I love my husband, but I know he’s not perfect, and as much as it pains me to admit it, neither am I.  That doesn’t mean that I’m going to give up on our marriage.  We’ll talk through our differences, make adjustments to our relationship, and hopefully we both grow together. Faith can be like that, too.  Isn’t that so much better than a rigid set of rules we’re never allowed to question, one that stunts our thinking and never allows growth?

As we read more of John’s letters, I want you to keep context in mind.  Because having read through all the Johns (sorry, couldn’t help one last John reference), I found a lot of loving and relevant information.  But John’s fear for the early church is visible, too, and I worry that some people, throughout history, have used that fear to justify xenophobia, intolerance, and a rejection of the world – which, let me remind you, is also God’s glorious creation.

I’ll leave you with an example. In v. 9 John says “anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teachings of Christ does not have God,” and then in v. 10 warns “do not take him into your house or welcome him.” Oftentimes, churches would receive itinerant teachers, listen to their lessons, and then send them off with provisions for the next leg of their journey.  In these verses, really verses 7-11, John is warning his followers specifically about Gnostics, Cerinthians, and other “heretics.”  If you didn’t know that (or were willfully blind to it), it could be taken as a warning to never help any non-Christians, ever.  This clearly goes against Jesus’ own teaching of being kind to the stranger.  While it would certainly be easier to turn a blind eye to the sufferings of those not like us – and justify it with a Bible verse, to boot! – we would be guilty of willfully misinterpreting Jesus’ teachings.  Long story short, context is important for everyone, not just biblical scholars!  We’ll see more of that as we continue reading these letters.