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.

Matthew 5:1-12 – The Beatitudes

“Presenting a new set of ideals that focus on love and humility rather than force and exaction.”

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad,because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

The Sermon on the Mount runs Matthew 5:1-7:29 and is loaded with teachings and subcontexts.  I am going to be breaking it down a little further than my normal chapter-by-chapter discussion, because I don’t want to gloss over anything. As Wikipedia says, “The Sermon is the longest continuous discourse of Jesus found in the New Testament, and has been one of the most widely quoted elements of the Canonical Gospels. It includes some of the best known teachings of Jesus, such as the Beatitudes, and the widely recited Lord’s Prayer. The Sermon on the Mount is generally considered to contain the central tenets of Christian discipleship.”  In other words, The Sermon on the Mount is a BFD.

The Sermon on the Mount opens with the Beatitudes, or “blessings.”  There’s some varying schools of thought as to whom these Beatitudes address (especially the rather vague “poor in spirit”) and what they mean.  Most hold that these mostly undesirable positions (mourning, meek, etc) are rendered desirable because that very condition described allows us access to the Kingdom of Heaven.  Others hold that Jesus was indicating that the Kingdom of Heaven is accessible to everyone regardless of their station in life or what they had or had not suffered.

As I mentioned a few posts back, I think the Beatitudes offer dual blessings on those who suffer and those who help the suffering, as they have close parallels.  There are eight total blessings, and the first four can be paired with the last four: “poor in spirit” with “those who are merciful;” “those who mourn” with “the pure of heart;” “the meek” with “the peacemakers,” and “those that hunger and thirst for righteousness” with “those who are persecuted because of righteousness.”  Again, I have no theological training so this is just personal opinion, but let’s start with that “poor in spirit” phrase.

I take “poor in spirit” to mean anyone struggling with any sort of mental or emotional duress, whether that be PTSD, depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, or even temporary, sub-diagnosable anxiety and stress just brought on by difficult times in life.  This would make sense as a group recognized in Jesus’ blessings:  with today’s understanding of mental health, many of Jesus’ healings and casting of out demons is actually thought to be for people with clinical psychiatric disorders.  They weren’t “crazy” or “demonic,” but sick.  Jesus recognized that at a time when many did not.

The parallel blessing to “the poor in spirit” is “those who are merciful.”  Remember, during Jesus’ time there was a huge stigma against those suffering many illnesses, whether physical or mental.  So, to be merciful to the sick or “demon-possessed” really took some courage.  We’ve come a long way, but the stigma around “invisible illnesses” still exists. Invisible illnesses include mental disorders, such as anxiety or depression, but also things like food allergies and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.  The “but you don’t look sick” mentality is actively hurting people in today’s society – not to mention our crap health care system in general – so we still have a way to go as a society to being worthy of the merciful blessing.

Going back to the blessings of those who suffer is “those who mourn.”  I think readers throughout history have agreed this is the most straightforward blessing.  It is easy to identify those who mourn, and it certainly doesn’t feel “blessed” to be the one mourning, but through the Beatitudes, Jesus reminds those who are mourning that God sees them, and cares for them, and that in the Kingdom of Heaven there will be no more tears.

Following our pairing structure, “those who mourn” is coupled to “the pure of heart,” and I’ll admit it’s probably the most clunky pairing.  But taken in the context of mourning, I think it can be seen as a blessing for those whose faith is strong enough to see themselves (and maybe even others) through times of mourning.  Many people lose faith after the death of a child, or during war-time, or from suffering abuse.  And God doesn’t love those people any less, but perhaps Jesus just wanted to acknowledge the special faith of those who mourn and don’t lose faith.  They may suffer sorrow just as everyone does, but their hearts are pure enough (i.e., faithful enough) to not let it dissuade their following God.

Next up: the meek.  This one has been contentious throughout history, some claiming it promotes a slave morality.  Certainly it has been used to promote that: a good slave submits to his master, a good wife submits to her husband, etc, etc.  But I think anyone wielding this verse in that way is working off a misinformed reading.  I think Jesus is recognizing those without agency in society.  The shut-ins, the forgottens, the cast-offs.  Jesus sees the slave, the abused wife, the ones who have no voice, and says as much with this line.

Just a few verses later, Jesus blessed those that speak out for the meek: the peacemakers.  True peace cannot be achieved through the oppression of others, so the peacemakers may not always be the pacifists one might immediately picture.  In fact, some peacemakers are downright strident.  Jesus himself has some stern rebukes for those who may harm the weak.  Telling off the crowd about to stone a prostitute to death is one example that comes to mind.

Last of the “suffering” blessed: those that hunger and thirst for righteousness.  This group could be lumped in with the meek, but I think it implies more of a pervasive societal context.  For example, a victim of elder abuse might be one of the meek, but a black man wrongfully imprisoned would be one of those that hunger and thirst for righteousness.  “The system,” if you will, isn’t prejudiced against the victim of elder abuse – perhaps they are in late stages of dementia and truly unable to make decisions for themselves.  Their family put them in a home without knowing what was going to happen to their loved one, and that, while a very sad story, is not one of systemic injustice.  A black man wrongfully imprisoned, however, is.  This country’s judicial system is set up in a way that ensures higher and longer incarceration rates for black men than their white counterparts.  Righteousness is nowhere to be found, and those that fall victim to the biases of the system do, indeed, hunger and thirst for righteousness.

Finally, blessed are those that are persecuted because of righteousness.  Anyone who has ever been arrested for participating in a civil rights march, for defending sacred grounds against pipelines, or for standing up for the rights of others has received Jesus’ blessing, regardless of their own religion.

I really liked the Wikipedia article on the Beatitudes.  It summed them up nicely saying “Together, the Beatitudes present a new set of ideals that focus on love and humility rather than force and exaction.”  Just as Jesus time in the desert shows us what kind of Messiah he will be (a relatable one with a humanity just like ours), the very first message of his first big discourse shows us what he (and God) values: love above all else.  Jesus sees the unseen, as made clear by the first four blessings.  He also sees those of us that act out of love, as made clear by the second four blessings.  I pray that you do not have to suffer the misfortunes of the first four blessings, but rather that you can be an agent of the last four.  But know this: no matter what side of the coin you fall upon, Jesus sees you, and Jesus loves you.  The Beatitudes give us the proof.

Job 03-Faith in Times of Mourning

God has not forsaken you.

After this, Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. He said:

“May the day of my birth perish,
    and the night that said, ‘A boy is conceived!’
That day—may it turn to darkness;
    may God above not care about it;
    may no light shine on it.
May gloom and utter darkness claim it once more;
    may a cloud settle over it;
    may blackness overwhelm it.
That night—may thick darkness seize it;
    may it not be included among the days of the year
    nor be entered in any of the months.
May that night be barren;
    may no shout of joy be heard in it.
May those who curse days curse that day,
    those who are ready to rouse Leviathan.
May its morning stars become dark;
    may it wait for daylight in vain
    and not see the first rays of dawn,
10 for it did not shut the doors of the womb on me
    to hide trouble from my eyes.

11 “Why did I not perish at birth,
    and die as I came from the womb?
12 Why were there knees to receive me
    and breasts that I might be nursed?
13 For now I would be lying down in peace;
    I would be asleep and at rest
14 with kings and rulers of the earth,
    who built for themselves places now lying in ruins,
15 with princes who had gold,
    who filled their houses with silver.
16 Or why was I not hidden away in the ground like a stillborn child,
    like an infant who never saw the light of day?
17 There the wicked cease from turmoil,
    and there the weary are at rest.
18 Captives also enjoy their ease;
    they no longer hear the slave driver’s shout.
19 The small and the great are there,
    and the slaves are freed from their owners.

20 “Why is light given to those in misery,
    and life to the bitter of soul,
21 to those who long for death that does not come,
    who search for it more than for hidden treasure,
22 who are filled with gladness
    and rejoice when they reach the grave?
23 Why is life given to a man
    whose way is hidden,
    whom God has hedged in?
24 For sighing has become my daily food;
    my groans pour out like water.
25 What I feared has come upon me;
    what I dreaded has happened to me.
26 I have no peace, no quietness;
    I have no rest, but only turmoil.”

If you are hurting, this post is especially for you.  Let me start by saying: God has not forsaken you, you are loved. I pray that you find comfort, or at least solidarity, through this Bible verse: Even Job, a man of great faith, wept and cursed and wished for death.  What you’re feeling is normal, and, if whatever happened feels like a test of your Faith, try not to worry too much about that, just focus on getting through your sorrow.

This poem is beautiful in its anguish, something I did not notice or appreciate the first time I read through Job.  The imagery is vivid:  Even night is not dark enough for Job’s misery – he wishes a thick darkness to swallow up the (dark of) the night he was born.  He wishes he were dead.  But not just dead, never-even-been-born dead – “hidden away in the ground like a stillborn child, like an infant who never saw the light of day.” (v. 16)  And why wouldn’t he?  Beyond everything else he’s suffered, now the most basic of needs and pleasures, namely easing hunger and quenching thirst, have been taken from him:  “sighing has become my daily food, and my groans pour out like water.”

I hate it when people say “God won’t give you more than you can bear,” and “everything happens for a reason.”  Statements like that make it too easy to dismiss human suffering.  The saying I do like, and that I’ve mentioned before, is “God didn’t promise a smooth ride, but rather a soft landing.”  Hard things, sad things, are going to happen.  Maybe some of them are happening for our personal growth, but I truly believe some of them are just bad luck, too, and part of being human.  I adore my girls, but they still fall down.  I could put them in kneepads and elbow pads and not go for walks or let them play on the playground – but the occasional bumps and bruises are so worth the rest of life! 

So why is life given to a man whose way is hidden, as Job so excellently asks in v. 23?  If you have the answer, I’d love to know!  I was skimming an article just a few days ago that said there is a duality in Job we’d do well to recognize:  Job is faithful, but he is also mournful.  In other words, this question is in part a valid question: Job, and us with him, are exploring why God allows bad things to happen to good people. This is a question that any healthy faith should be able to ask. But also, this is a rhetorical question asked in anguish, a way for Job to express his distress.  I’ve written one post already about having Faith through times of Doubt, and having Faith through times of Mourning is similar.  Job curses himself and the day of his birth, and he even raises questions to God with v. 23, but he does not curse God.  Later he will plaintively make his case for being wrongly stricken by the calamities befalling him, but even in his frustration with his friends and sorrow over his situation, he will not curse God.  

We have a bird’s-eye view of Job’s story, and know things that he does not at the time he utters this lament, particularly that God has not forsaken him. Let’s try to remember that in our times of sorrow, too.  To my readers that are hurting, I’ll say again: God has not forsaken you.  Perhaps you will grow from this experience, but if you don’t that’s OK, too.  Maybe you’re sad because a shitty thing just happened, the spiritual and emotional equivalent of falling off the swing at the playground.  If it helps you cope to ask “why,” then do so, but know that you can also just mourn, as Job does, and God will listen.