Reading the Bible purposefully presents a challenge to a contemporary reader. Vast cultural differences divide the Church of first-century Rome from that of twenty-first-century North America. The gulf widens immensely as we go back centuries further, to the early stages of Israel’s life with God. Reading these texts demands that we try to absorb and understand a way of life that differs greatly from ours. At this point in our study, that learning curve might seem pretty steep!
There is a beautiful discovery ahead for those who persevere in learning God’s Word: despite our different locations in time, space, and cultures, human beings are remarkably similar. We all seek a life that is secure; we want to provide for ourselves and for those whom we love. We try to make meaning out of our brief lives, to plumb the mystery of death, and to connect with the One who is the source and the destiny of our existence.
As we read the scriptures, note the strange and different cultural aspects of our ancestors in faith. But do not miss their essential unity with us--that we all have been called into loving relationship with the Holy One: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ; the one, true, living God.
Old Testament Readings: Leviticus 24-27, Numbers 1-7
Our final chapters in Leviticus address a variety of different concerns. Leviticus ch.24 opens with worship instructions about the lamps and bread for the Tabernacle; it then recounts a cautionary story of one stoned to death for blasphemy. This chapter is the source for the familiar law regarding revenge: “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (24:17-22). Though people today commonly use this phrase to excuse or encourage retaliation, it likely intended to limit conflicts by preventing them from escalating.
Chapter 25 offers a rich vision for life in community that is based in the confidence of God’s care for us. Just as the Israelites rested from labor on the Sabbath (Hebrew “seventh”) day of the week, so the Lord invites Israel to observe a Sabbath year by allowing their fields to rest every seventh year. God promises to meet their needs by providing a superabundant harvest the prior year (25:21-22). As with the Sabbath day each week, the effect of the Sabbath year is to provide needed rest for all the Creation—people, animals, and land—and to teach the Israelites to trust the provision of the Lord.
An even grander vision follows. The Year of Jubilee is a sort of super-Sabbath year, after seven sets of seven years. In this fiftieth year Israel enacts the freedom and redemption of God’s rule by freeing all who have become servants and by restoring the land to its original owners. God does not want and will not allow a perpetual poverty class in the land of milk and honey. The rest of the chapter continues this concern toward the poor. God’s people must extend the same generosity they received from the Lord while slaves in Egypt (cf. 25:55).
A concluding motif in Leviticus is the exhortation to obedience in ch.26. There is a clear connection linking obedience to blessing, and disobedience to cursing. (We will see the same emphasis toward the end of Deuteronomy). God offers the Law to the people as guidance for their right living. By obeying God’s expressed will, Israel will not only avoid the logical consequences of bad behavior but also demonstrate their covenantal loyalty to the Lord.
If Leviticus reads like a priestly worship handbook, the Book of Numbers sounds more like archival statistics. The census in Numbers 1 enumerates all the people in the wilderness, and the detailed lists account for all the tribes and leaders—over 600,000 men, not including all the women and children. You may find interesting the orderly arrangement of the camp in ch.2: the tent of meeting (Tabernacle) with the Levites in the middle, with the other tribes assigned locations around the compass points or clockface.
Chapters 3-7 revisit the priestly work of Aaron, the Levites, the Kohathites, as well as providing particular rules for situations like uncleanness and adultery. It describes a special consecration, the Nazirite vow, by which one could signify particular devotion to God. Our OT readings this week conclude with the offering for the consecration of the Tabernacle. The highly repetitive ritual indicates the purposefulness of all who participated; their lavish generosity shows a wholehearted devotion to the God whom they seek to honor and worship.
Do not miss the blessing that the Lord gives to Moses for Aaron to use in blessing the people (Numbers 6:22-24)! This familiar and memorable blessing depicts the kindness of the Lord and the promise of our lives in God’s care.
New Testament Readings: Hebrews 9-13
The Letter to the Hebrews is exhorting Christians not to fall away from their faith in Jesus, arguing that the new covenant in Christ is superior to the original covenant of God with Israel.
Chapters 9 and 10 bring this comparison into sharp focus. As the OT priest would enter the Tabernacle and offer sacrifices for the sins of the people, so Christ has entered “the greater and more perfect tent” (9:11)—that is, heaven. The sacrifice Christ offers is not annual, like the Jewish Day of Atonement, but “an eternal redemption” (9:12). The earthly sacrifice is material, the blood of animals for “the purification of the flesh” (9:13), but Christ’s sacrifice is his own blood, offered “through the eternal Spirit . . . without blemish to God” (9:14). Christ is the great high priest, offering to God the sacrifice to atone for our sins; at the same time he is the sacrificial victim, whose death secures our forgiveness.
The new and better sacrifice offered by Christ signifies a new and better covenant with God. Christ’s death has satisfied and fulfilled the demands of the earlier covenant. As a will provides an inheritance after a death, so “those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance” through Christ’s death (9:15-18). Implied is that as children of God, we are the heirs of this covenant.
The letter emphasizes at length that Christ’s sacrifice is once for all, unlike Israel’s sacrifices that had to be repeated (9:23-10:18). This truth offers us great comfort: we need not fret about what we must continue to do to remain “saved.” Instead, we can accept the grace of God in Christ’s once-for-all, irrevocable sacrifice for the sins of the world. We can accept our acceptance by God.
Having demonstrated Christ’s superiority, the author urges the reader to hold onto Christ in faith, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (11:1). Chapter 11 offers a parade of Biblical heroes who lived by faith, whose example we are to emulate. The ringing exhortation of 12:1-2 makes clear that Jesus Christ heads this procession, charting the path toward our salvation and leading us there. Our following Jesus takes us to God’s throne.
The letter concludes with various instructions and warnings. The author knows that life in community is challenging and that living faithfully takes constant effort. This letter strengthens us for that challenge with its magnificent portrayal of the saving work of God in Jesus Christ. What God has done in Christ makes Jesus a person worthy of our following, no matter the cost.
Psalms: 81, 112, 64
Psalm 81 likely comes from the worship life of God’s people, perhaps in the temple during one of the festivals (vv.1-3). The Lord addresses the people, reminding them of their liberation from Egypt and decrying their flirtation with idols. The psalm represents God’s desire “that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways!” (v.13). Our doing so promises God’s gifts: “with the finest of the wheat and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you” (v.16).
Psalm 112 starts like a hymn of praise—“Praise the Lord!”—but functions like a wisdom psalm: one that celebrates the good life of those who faithfully follow God’s instruction. The various verses depict the blessings enjoyed by the righteous one, contrasted with “the wicked” one who rejects the truth of the Lord. This psalm is another acrostic, each line beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
Psalm 64 is a prayer for God’s protection from “the enemy . . . the wicked” (vv.1-2). As in many psalms, these threats are vague and unspecified, but these enemies clearly oppose both the righteous speaker and the God unto whom he cries out. In the typical pattern of such psalms, the tone here shifts from complaint to confidence. The second half of the psalm asserts the victory of God over the wicked and celebrates the Lord’s protective care for the upright who seek refuge in God.