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.

Psalm 139 – Thoughts for Pride Month 2019

We are all fearfully and wonderfully made.

You have searched me, Lord,
    and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
    you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
    you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
    you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
    and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
    too lofty for me to attain.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
    and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
    the night will shine like the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

13 For you created my inmost being;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
    when I was made in the secret place,
    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
    all the days ordained for me were written in your book
    before one of them came to be.
17 How precious to me are your thoughts, God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
18 Were I to count them,
    they would outnumber the grains of sand—
    when I awake, I am still with you.

19 If only you, God, would slay the wicked!
Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!
20 They speak of you with evil intent;
your adversaries misuse your name.
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord,
and abhor those who are in rebellion against you?
22 I have nothing but hatred for them;
I count them my enemies.
23 Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

I’m taking a one-post break from Matthew right now because I didn’t want Pride Month to pass me by without mentioning it, and it’s almost the middle of June!  Also, this seemed like a natural break since I finished Chapter 10 last week, and read Chapter 11 back in December, so we’ve got a gap.

Pride month is rapidly becoming one of those odd events where we focus on the celebration and not the underlying cause, kind of like Memorial Day.  All the barbeques and sales of Memorial Day and beginning-of-summer-fun mentalities seem a little tawdry when you consider we’re supposed to be remembering those who died in service of the country.  Just an example.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a good party.  But the original Pride Parade was a commemoration of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, when tensions between police and the gay community reached a breaking point at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village.

But now, Pride Month is a profitable, cool thing to do.  Businesses of all stripes are on board. Lots of straight people attend (selfie-ing away in rainbow tees).  And while this isn’t inherently bad, I have several gay friends who make a point to remind people each year that this hasn’t always been some big giant block party.  It came from a real place of pain and inequality, and people have been fighting for fifty years since Stonewall to end violence, increase awareness, and promote equality for our LGBTQ siblings.

So, in the effort to find an appropriate Bible passage to recognize Pride Month, I Googled…well… “Bible passages for Pride Month.”  Psalm 139 was my favorite hit.  “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well,”  the author says.  And really, that is something we can all say, for we are all children of God.  God made each and every one of us perfect, and knows us even before we know ourselves: “You have searched me, Lord, and know me.”  God creates us all, and knows Xyr creation, and loves each and every one of us.

This goes so much farther than just Pride, too.  I found this psalm intending to use it for Pride Month, but it immediately made me think of my Autistic daughter.  My biggest concern for her is that she will not be accepted into society the way she is.  As she gets older, her differences are becoming more and more noticeable.  She doesn’t talk to people, but her echolalia (repeating things over and over and over) is pretty constant.  I actually love it, because I get to hear her voice, and not all moms can say that about their special needs children.  It also gives me a way to interact with her, because I know the “script,” if you will, and we can do a call-and-response sort of thing.  Additionally, she has trouble regulating her voice and reactions appropriately in certain social situations and can sometimes be extremely anxious – if she’s getting overwhelmed she will scream at (and sometimes try to hit) unfamiliar people who try to talk to her. We’re working on things to make navigating this world easier for her, but I am in no way looking to “cure” her.  She is smart, beautiful, funny, and completely cherished.  God made her the way she is (not vaccines or any of the other bullshit people sometimes throw out there related to Autism), and she, too, is fearfully and wonderfully made.  As are we all.

As the psalmist says: even the darkness is not dark to the Lord.  God knows all, and knows us.  Isn’t that a wonderful thing?  We are not perfect, and yet we are:  we are perfectly loved and perfectly formed by our God.  Let’s honor that fact by loving others, no matter how they may have been formed – Christian or not, gay or straight, abled or disabled, man, woman, or somewhere in between: we are all children of God, fearfully and wonderfully made.  Happy Pride, everyone – God loves us all.

Matthew 5:27-32 – Adultery and Divorce

The best example yet of Jesus the Feminist.

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

I love Jesus’ passages on anything marital because it throws people through a loop.  It sounds like he’s saying one thing, but in reality, he’s saying another.  He’s so freaking subversive, in a lot of things, but especially talking about marital relations.  Remember, he’s up against an establishment.  Actually, several establishments, but particularly the Pharisees.  Here, Jesus is not speaking directly to the Pharisees (he will speak to them directly in chapter 19 on the subject of marriage), but you can bet that every idea conveyed by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount made it back to them.  The very fact that many of Jesus’ teachings can be taken two ways must have been maddening to the Pharisees.  They were smart guys, if misled, and they wouldn’t have missed this.

But let’s back up a little bit, before we get into subliminal messages, let’s talk about hyperbole again really quick.  A few posts ago I mentioned that Jesus loved to use hyperbole to make his point.  This is a classic, perhaps the classic example of that.  Jesus is NOT advocating self-mutilation, but using the cutting off of body parts as a visceral metaphor for removing yourself from sin and temptation.  (As an aside, I’ve written about what I think “sin” is. You can read more about it in that post, but in a nutshell: the greatest commandment is to love one another. The greatest sin is to act out of not-love.) There are whole programs that help people overcome their shortcomings, like Alcoholics Anonymous, that center around this idea of avoidance.  Even if you aren’t actually plucking out your eye, it can feel like you’re losing part of yourself: the friends you had when using might disappear if you don’t sever ties yourself; your personality might change-hopefully for the better, but it can still be disconcerting to realize you’re not the person you thought you were; even your daily routines may change to avoid temptation.  No one thinks that cutting off the hands of an unrepentant alcoholic is going to keep them from drinking.  Believe me, where there’s a will, there’s a way.  But if you are dedicated to sobriety, you will learn how to avoid your triggers for using.  The same is true for sin, for which “lust” is a stand-in here – if you’re dedicated to the teachings of Jesus, you’ll search for ways to avoid sinning.  And I very much doubt it means plucking out your eye, but rather changing your behavior to better reflect your values.

Alright, with that rather lengthy note about hyperbole aside, let’s talk about Jesus’ sly little speech here.  Surface reading:  Get married so you can look at your wife without sinning, squirrel your wife away so she doesn’t unintentionally cause a man to sin by looking at her, and divorce is bad but here’s this broad loophole for “sexual immorality,” which history has interpreted as anything from a full-out affair to wearing the wrong dress, so don’t worry too much about it, you can interpret that at your will.  It’s advice for a “godly man” trying to build a “virtuous” world that best suits him.  And that is how, for the majority of Western history, it has been interpreted: by the patriarchy subjecting women to their rule.

But Jesus was way more egalitarian than that.  I just finished reading an article about how radical it was that Jesus ate with women at the same table.  Apparently, the only women at a co-ed table were the ones there as sexual objects.  So the fact that he elevated women to an equal status at the table, eating and exchanging ideas with men, was like, super crazy radical.  There’s no way this same guy would be saying “here’s a way to dominate women through marriage and policing how and when they appear in society.”

Let’s revisit that lust and adultery thing of vv. 27-30.  Jesus is saying if a woman is causing lustful thoughts in a man’s mind, it is the MAN’S responsibility to remove himself from that situation, NOT the woman’s responsibility to modify her clothing or behavior.  “Pluck out your eye,” (aka stop looking at her) Jesus says.  Police your own actions, not the woman’s.  I. Cannot. Make. That. Clear. Enough.  It is the responsibility of the person who lusts (or sins in any other way) to remove themselves from the sinful situation.  No one else’s.  Through this verse, Jesus is fully recognizing a woman’s right to move through society unmolested, and reminding men that their actions are their own responsibility.

This bit about divorce and adultery that follows all this talk about lust is mostly about protecting women’s rights as well.  The part of Deuteronomy that Jesus quotes, “anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce,” is a law that was trying to codify a modicum of protection for women, who were, at the time, not much more than their husband’s property.  The full verse reads “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him, because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house,” (Deut. 24:1) Subsequent verses then goes on to describe who that woman can and can’t marry.  To make that very clear, a man could divorce a woman simply because she is displeasing to him.  Yes, it has that vague bit about being indecent, but we have seen through history how that has been manipulated to mean any sort of thing:  an infertile woman was often thought to be “cursed” because of some immoral transgression, and therefore expendable; a woman who suffered an illness and therefore displeased her husband could be seen as similarly “cursed;” a woman who boldly spoke her mind was displeasing to her husband as he found her indecent in her speech.

A divorced woman had little agency in society.  Her financial support had been taken away, and there were not a lot of jobs for single mothers out there.  She had limited options for remarriage and the financial support that came with it.  Oftentimes her family wouldn’t or couldn’t take her back in.  Remember, even with this “certificate of divorce” she has been declared “indecent,” and what upstanding citizen would want to be associated with that?  So, the divorced woman, often through no fault of her own, faced social ostracization and poverty.  So when Jesus basically negates divorce (except for true charges of infidelity), he gave blanket coverage to any and all wives of the men who chose to follow him.  As for those who do marry divorced women, in Jesus’ society, that made them complicit to the system.  By including those second marriages in his condemnation, I think Jesus was underscoring just how important a societal change of attitude towards women’s rights was.

All that said, I do believe that Jesus really means that divorce is bad, in any circumstance.  Before you get all huffy and stop reading on me, let me just say, as much as Jesus speaks out against divorce, I don’t think he condemns anyone for it.  In an ideal world, everyone would have the time, money, emotional capacity, and levelheadedness to sit down with their intended and make sure that yes, this is a good decision.  And once married, again, everyone would have the time, money, emotional capacity and levelheadedness to do the hard work of keeping a good marriage strong.  But the truth is, that’s just not the case.  So, if you made a mistake in your first marriage (hell, even in your second or third), I do hope you learned from it, but rest assured that God knows you are human, and that mistakes are pretty much what we do.  The glorious thing about God is that there is no sin too great to be forgiven, if we come to Xyr with a repentant heart. For one more silver lining: I do think we are headed in the right direction (even if it is slowly) when it comes to marriage and divorce.  The most in-depth study I could find was from the UK, but I bet it’s similar in the US: Couples are waiting until their early 30’s to get married, are dating almost 5 years before marriage, and the divorce rate is the lowest it’s been (and still falling) since 1971.

The main takeaway, folks, is that Jesus recognized how women in his society were underserved.  He couched it in language that wouldn’t immediately get him thrown into prison: on the surface it looks like a support of the patriarchy, but those that have the ears to hear would hear his true message:  one of recognition, of equality, of love.  Let’s help spread that message of love and equality to all women, to all people, everywhere.