If you're making your way through Leviticus with us this week, about now you could use a change of pace. Here is the Bently Brothers take on Leviticus:
Leviticus is about the details of the Law. Way back in Exodus 20, the Law is introduced with the Ten Commandments; ten broad imperatives that govern both our relationship with God and with each other. When most people in church talk about “The Law,” they’re really talking about the Ten Commandments rather than the entire Law given at Mt. Sinai. In the New Testament, when Jesus (or anyone else for that matter) touches on the subject of “the Law”, most often they’re not talking about just the “big ten” from Exodus 20, but all 613 commands God gave Israel at Mt. Sinai. The Law moves from the broad general commands of Exodus 20 to an amazing degree of granularity and specificity in the very details of life. By the middle of Leviticus, we’re concerned about mold and fungus, skin rashes and hair loss.
As we read through Leviticus, we need to keep the words of 2 Peter 1:20-21 (ESV) in mind:
First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation,
because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.
2 Peter is talking specifically about the Old Testament prophecies that pointed to Jesus of Nazareth as God’s unique and chosen Son; such prophecies served to confirm what Peter (and the other Apostles) had witnessed. These prophecies didn’t come into being by the hand of any individual, but Peter says that the prophecies of the Old Testament were the intertwining of a person who spoke (or wrote) and God who gave a message.
From this, we understand that Scripture contains two things: a message from God and a very human context through and into which this message is given. With respect to Leviticus, we have both a message from God (broadly about what holiness looks like in all the different aspects of life) and a human speaker and context in which this message came. For example, from Leviticus 13:47-59 we know that mold growth in clothing was a problem. Imagine living in a world that has NONE of our modern tools (detergent, bleach, flowing water). Clothes could for a variety of reasons become contaminated with what they understood to be similar to leprosy. We know that mold is unrelated to skin disease, but God’s message (don’t ignore it, take care of it, respect the needs of the community for cleanliness and purity) is communicated through their worldview.
Mold must have been a major issue. Notice that it comes back up again in Leviticus 14:33 and following with respect to mold in a home (“a leprous disease in a house”). Again, we know that mold isn’t related to leprosy, but Leviticus was communicated through and to a community that had a pre-modern understanding of such things. From beginning to end, the Bible is God’s message communicated through human messengers and cultures. As you work your way through Leviticus, don’t miss watching for these two different “words” that come to us: what did this Late Bronze Age culture think about their world, and what did God say to them in that world.
And now we’re in Exodus. The Bible jumps around a lot so let me help you to put Exodus into a context. First, let’s talk a bit about time. We can broadly date the setting of the Book of Exodus in the Late Bronze Age (1600 to 1300 B.C.), but we really can’t be more specific than that. To put the time into context, the Great Pyramid of Giza would have been about 1,000 years old when Moses was born. The nile delta region (“Egypt” in the Exodus narrative) was something of a crossroads where various people groups came from Africa to the south or the Middle East to the north and exerted political power. What it meant to be “Egyptian” varied from time to time depending on which group of people was in power. There are other stories from the ancient world that are similar to the Exodus narrative. We think those narratives are really about the interplay between the people settled in the region and people coming from outside and exerting influence.
We often overlook the geographic sweep of the Old Testament. Way back in Genesis 11, Abraham’s father Tarah started out in a place called Ur of the Chaldeans. That would be as far to the east and north as was known in ancient Mesopotamia. The nile delta is as far to the south and west as the ancient non-european world knew. What strikes us as a narrative that is contained in a small geographic region is really an epic sweep. The story of Abraham and his descendants went from one end of the known world to the other. They were the original citizens of the world.
As a kid growing up, I looked forward to the annual showing of The Ten Commandments every Easter. I remember how grand and sweeping the movie seemed; the great contrast between Yul Brenner and Charlton Heston and the cutting-edge-for-its-time special effects. I think that’s how the story originally struck its audience, a group of people moving from one end of the known world to the other, the settled Egyptians and the nomadic Hebrews locked in a profound struggle. It is an epic story so enjoy it.
Don’t miss the story of the women of Genesis. There is no escaping the observation that the Old Testament comes from a patriarchal culture where men were the composers, the transmitters and the intended audience of most literature. Let me suggest that while the Old Testament does come from and display the characteristics of a patriarchal culture, it is subversive of the male dominant worldview in important respects.
You can see this most clearly by looking at who is dominant in shaping several key turning points in the Genesis story. Think for a moment about Genesis 16, the story of Abram, Sarai and Hagar. It isn’t Abram who initiates the Hagar and Ishmael part of the family tree; the coming together of Abram and Hagar is the brainchild of Sarai. Abram is the passive character in the chapter as first Sarai then later Hagar shapes the events of the chapter. Abram is almost a passive bystander in his own story.
The same thing happens with respect to Isaac and Rebecca in Genesis 27. When it is time for Isaac to pass down the family blessing to his son, it’s Rebecca who takes events into her own hands and makes sure the blessing goes to Jacob rather than Esau. The family line running through Jacob was her decision, Isaac is simply an instrument in her hands.
The women of Genesis, when compared to other great stories in antiquity, are at times dynamic and powerful characters in their own right. They suggest that Father doesn’t always know best, and that God brings about Divine ends through all kinds of people. You have to take the time to see them, but they are an important part of the story of the Old Testament.
Someone caught me in the hallway at church this week and asked, “what book do you have us reading Pastor Clint!?” The answer of course: the Bible! This has been the week of the Jacob story and all it entails. Some of you are thinking, “why do I need to read this stuff?” Let me ask you to think about the big picture for just a minute.
Genesis is the book of beginnings. Notice in the larger picture how those beginnings are going about now. The creation is marred by the inability of the man and woman to obey the creator’s voice. The garden is lost, the offspring of the man are scattered and harried by crises: the flood, barren wives, wars, famine, etc. A few heroes emerge: Abraham who grows from doubt to trust, from self-reliance to the prototype person of faith. Jacob makes a very similar journey from making his own way to following the way of the God of his grandfather Abraham. The story of the twelve sons of Jacob introduces yet another twist into the narrative. By the time we come out of the stories about selling the next-to-youngest son Joseph and the children produced by incest between Judah and Tamar, the whole creation-of-the-nation-from-Abraham narrative is once again in doubt. Don’t miss the problem with the beginnings. With frightening consistency, the “created-in-God’s-image” guardians of the creation bring chaos to order and from wholeness give birth to brokenness.
Genesis 38 is an admitted low point in the story, but the low points are there for a reason. In spite of the depth to which Abraham’s great grandchildren sink, the God of the Covenant is at work. It’s easy to miss the connection between Genesis 38:29 (the birth of Perez and Zarah, Tamar’s twins by Judah) and Matthew 1:3 (again, one of those endless genealogies), but the connection is important. The lineage of Jesus of Nazareth, the whole point of this story in the end, runs through the children born from the illegitimate relationship between Judah and Tamar. God is somehow always in the deep background of these stories, working ends from the crises and chaos that are unseen and perhaps even unimaginable. From the muck and mire of Judah’s depravity and Tamar’s cunning comes the one who will set everything right.
Speaking of the larger picture, please note the relationship between Genesis 38 and 39. If Genesis 38 is a low point, then the next chapter is a high point: this is how a follower of the Covenant God of Abraham and an image bearer of the Creator should act. Joseph seeks the good with passion and zeal. If God is quietly at work in the mess of Judah’s family, God is very publicly and demonstrably at work in and through Joesph’s life. The messiah’s blood line may run through Judah’s family, but that family only exists through the famine-to-come because of Joseph. Joseph’s two sons by his Egyptian wife Asenath will be the heads of two of the twelve tribes of Israel. There could not be two more contrasting characters than Judah and his younger brother Joseph.
So yes, it's a colorful, R-rated story full of very flawed people and a very amazing God who is doing everything possible to create from the old something new. All this puts into new light a familiar passage from the New Testament:
Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it!
2 Corinthians 5:17 (The Message)
And then we meet Abram (or Abraham depending on where you are in his story), and everything changes. The Abraham story comprises a full fourth of the entire book of Genesis. By the time we’re through reading about him early next week, we’ll have a feel for why James (Jesus half-brother and the leader of the church in Jerusalem) calls Abraham “the friend of God” (James 2:23). A few pointers may help you as you make your way through his story:
First, geography and names are critical. Abraham’s movement north (towards Haran and Mesopotamia) and south (towards the Negev and Egypt) tell us a lot. I understand the city and region names are unusual with letter combinations we don’t often see, but where Abraham is in relationship to other people is sometimes the point of the story. People come and go through Abraham’s life at an astounding pace, but they often loop back. A name raised in one place becomes and important actor in another. For example, Abraham’s daughter-in-law (Rebecca) is introduced to us several chapters before she marries into the family.
Speaking of marriage, remember that Abraham lived in a very different culture. His family will intermarry for several generations (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob will all take brides from within their close family). It reminds me of the European nobility which almost intermarried itself out of existence. Sometimes this leads to unexpected consequences as in Abraham’s tendency to protect himself by claiming that Sarah was his sister (a half-truth) rather than his wife.
Finally, often individual narratives are interwoven across chapters. For example, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is told across a broad swath of Abraham’s narrative. To understand what happens there (or really anywhere in the Abraham story), we’ve got to follow the entire thread across the chapters.
I always find the Abraham story slightly surprising. I’m shocked at his multiple make-an-heir projects that often lead to calamity. Early in the story, Abraham (very much like us) seems to struggle with whether he can trust God. On the other side, one of the last big scenes in his story is the offering of Isaac. I’m shocked here at Abraham’s blind obedience, his trust that God will provide an offering and his promise to the servant that Abraham and Isaac will return after the offering. Measured by his growth across his life story, Abraham’s life has much to teach us about growing, changing and becoming “friendly” with God.
The book of Genesis is about “beginnings.” Like any great story, the characters and plot need introduction; Genesis fills this need in the story of the bible. Here, we meet a Creator God who shapes and connects and gives roles. We meet the man and the woman, and through them the people of both Israel and the nations that surround them. The man and woman are given a special place in the creation: they continue God’s work of creating, sustaining, nurturing and guarding.
By the third chapter, Genesis takes a tragic turn as the man and woman listen to a voice other than the Creator’s and pursue an agenda of their own choosing rather than the one given by the Creator. This leads to the expectation of another major character in the story, one who will wrestle with the serpent and deal with what went so wrong in the garden. We will catch glimpses of this promise from time to time in the Old Testament, but for now the promised one is a vague and fleeting idea.
Genesis is a series of halting starts and stops. The creation ends in banishment from the garden, the first son of Adam in the death of his brother, the world after the flood is tainted by Noah’s son, and finally there is the Tower of Babel. God is creating, but no one seems particularly interested in cooperating. Then in Genesis 12, the creation takes another turn: the Creator begins creating a nation (or rather nations) through a single man and woman.
All of these things are held together by a series of genealogies (all the “sons of” statements at the end of Genesis 4 and 5 for example). As the scope of the book narrows from the entire creation to the fate of the descendants of Adam and Eve to the story of a particular man and woman, these genealogies connect the parts to each other. Enjoy the beginnings…all of them!
It hit me while I was in Germany in the Fall of 2017 standing in the church where Martin Luther gave birth to the Protestant Reformation: what's next? it has been half a millennium since Luther, Calvin, Knox and Zwingli rethought what it meant to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus in the world. From my theological corner of the world, we're quick to confess that the church is "Reformed and always reforming" but slow to give definition to what "always reforming" means.
Over the course of my adult life, I've seen wave upon wave of reforming and rethinking take place. In the 1970s, just as I was coming to political consciousness, it was the political power expressed by the churches that was radical and new. In the 1980's, it was the seeker sensitive church, then the big box church, the missional church, the emergent church, the new-Calvinist church; and those are just the movements in my rather small tribe of churches. It is apparent to me that something larger than a new movement is afoot.
The first Protestant Reformation was really a confluence of changes: the printing press allowed mass communication, humanism suggested a new perspective through which the world could be viewed, and theologians like Luther and Calvin suggested a fresh reading of what God was doing in the world. We are, it seems to me, in the same kind of confluence of changes. The social sciences suggest that the world each of us experiences is the product of our culture, our language and our individual histories. While our worlds have become indiviualized, commnications technologies have drawn us closer to each other at precisely the time when we are most acutly awair of our differences.
It ocurs to me that the next reformation will need to start in the same place that gave birth to the Protestant Reformation five hundred years ago: Scripture. Too often, we treat the Bible like a background conversation or make it into a collection of proof texts for our individual perspectives. I can't tell where the current series of changes will lead us, but I do know that our ability to contribute to the journey through our reflection about what God is doing in our world depends on our desire to hear God's voice in the pages of the Bible, our willingness to understand that God's voice is speaking directly to us, and our committment to obey the voice of God as we hear it.
So Southminster Presbyterian Church will take a modest step this year: we will read through the Bible together. While I'm sure that we will learn a lot in the process, our goal isn't necessarily gaining new knowledge. While I'm confident that reading through the Bible will make some of the "stuff" of church life make sense, we're not retreating into the Bible to find shelter or support for our particular way of "doing" church. We will read through the Bible this year because in confusing times, we need to hear God's voice, to sense God's direction, and to direct our spirits into conformity to what we think God is doing in our world.
Four chapters a day, six days a week. It is, it seems to me, a small price to pay to be part of the next reformation.