5. Leviticus (1)

Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 5.  Leviticus (1)

Lev 4:2,3  Say to the Israelites: ‘When anyone sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the LORD’s commands …. he must bring to the LORD a … sin offering for the sin he has committed.

For many people the book of Leviticus is a no-go area, a book of strange practices, practices that verge on horrible things, at least according to the modern mind, Thus we write the book off or shy away from it and certainly don’t expect to find any ‘highlights’ in it. However our two verses above present us with something that we, as Christians, may take for granted, and the unbelieving world fail to see as of any relevance, but for those with a mind to use, a necessity.

It is all about failure and restoration. Do you see the starting point: “When anyone sins.” Now of course the modern world denies there is such a thing as sin and denies the existence of God, but that is more to allow them freedom to do whatever they like than for any intellectual reason. My definition of ‘Sin’ is “self-centred godlessness that leads to unrighteous thoughts, words or deeds”, and there is a lot of that in our world!

But this goes to the root of the entire teaching of the Bible. Summing it up as a big picture, if you like, we might say, there is a God who created all things and made them perfect, including the first human beings. However, when He gave them free will they used it to express their self-centred desire that was godless in its outlook (they pretended God was not there and would not mind, that is what is behind their thinking in Gen 3, at least for a few seconds). That was sin and human beings (every single human being) has been doing that ever since.

But here’s the thing: God holds each and every person accountable for what they think, say or do. He respects our personal individuality that enables us to choose the sort of person we will be and what we will do. Yet, He says of everything that is contrary to His original design, that is Sin. You weren’t made to be like that. Now a long study that I have made over several years suggests that, contrary to popular belief, God is not so much concerned about punishing sinful acts (although justice demands that wrongs be punished and dealt with) as delivering us or changing us so we stop living like that and are able to return to the original design which involves being at peace with ourselves, and with one another, and with Him, as we live out love and goodness.

If we take the Ten Commandments (Ex 20) as a starting place, we see a certain set of rules for living that can apply to all of mankind. The Ten Commandments are so general that they can apply to any person on earth. The first commands are about relationship with God but if we go to the second half we find such simple commands as don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery etc., rules or laws which any person in their right mind would say are wisdom for a peaceful and harmonious society which, we would all aspire to on a good day. But following those ten commandments, come a series of other laws (in the following few chapters of Exodus) that put more detail to living out life in an agricultural and somewhat basic society, under God – that of Israel – with many more ‘guide-lines’ to be followed to achieve that peaceful and harmonious society that we just referred to.  (And remember that that is the basic purpose of God’s rules, the Laws of Moses).

But then comes this amazing understanding on the Lord’s part, “‘When anyone sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the LORD’s commands.” The Lord knows we are prone to failure but He doesn’t get all upset about it, He simply provides a way for human beings who do get it wrong, to get back into a good place with Him. The assumption was clearly that He expected His people, who had entered into covenant with Him, to not want to break the laws but live by them to create that peaceful and harmonious society, and yet we all of us stumble and trip over our feet, so to speak, and get it wrong from time to time – and the Lord understands that! It is what we think and feel when we come to our senses and realise we have done wrong is what He is concerned about. He assumes repentance, a change of heart and mind, and a desire to put things right, but how could they do that in respect of God.

The incredibly simple answer is the law of sacrifices that we find in the early chapters of Leviticus. Now we all like to ‘make up’ by doing something after we have sinned. Some of us try to make up to God by going to church, or by doing charitable service or a whole variety of other things, all designed to get on God’s good side. But we are still expressing our self-centred outlook when we do that.

The Lord says, simply come the way I have provided, it is so much easier! For the Israelites it was simply to bring an animal to be sacrificed, i.e. put to death and presented to God. That action would certainly have added a serious dimension to this act, it was no mere casual performance. Often you, the offender, had to put the creature to death in front of the priest and as you saw it die you would have realised it was your sin that deprived this creature of its life and that would help you determine never to fail in that way again.

Since Jesus gave his life on the Cross, as a one-off sacrifice for our sins, we do not have to make such sacrifices, but perhaps the sacrifice we have to present is that self-centred desire to make ourselves good. No we cannot make ourselves good, only He can do that. All we can do is believe that Jesus died for us, died for my Sin (to set me free from that inherent tendency to be self-centred and godless) and for my individual sins, all those myriads of times when I have thought, said or done wrong. Justice has been satisfied and I must lay down ‘self’ that wants to still DO something to appease God. No, He has been appeased by Jesus’ death.   He just wants my belief in that – and of course when we do, all other things follow – our thoughts, our words and our deeds; we are transformed, and this is His desire for us, that we may be blessed by these new lives we live.

No, these verses in Leviticus are indeed highlights; they reveal a God of understanding, a God of compassion and care, a God who wants our restoration more than anything else. Isn’t that incredible!

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35. Childbirth

Meditations in the Law : No.35 : Childbirth?

Lev 12:1-4 1The LORD said to Moses, 2″Say to the Israelites: `A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period. 3On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised. 4Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over.

This is going to be a challenge!  If I was a betting man (which I’m not) I would place a mighty wager that this chapter probably rates as one of the least read passages of Scripture. The reasons are obvious: it needs thinking about to make sense, especially in the age in which we live. There are some obvious things that need to be dealt with before we move on to consider the detail.

The first is that this IS part of the Law that was given by God to Moses. It is not something that goes with the cultural mores of that day; it is specific instruction from the Lord and, as we’ve seen previously, God has practical reasons for everything He says. Second, we need to remind ourselves that specific Scripture is to be read in the light of overall Scripture. We may jump to the (wrong) conclusion, that when the word ‘unclean’ appears it means that there is something nasty about childbirth. No, definitely not. It was God who said, “Be fruitful and increase in numbers.” (Gen 1:28) and then, For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” (Gen 2:24,25). Sex is God’s idea and so the sexual act and childbirth are God’s design and are not to be seen in a negative light. Similarly in the psalms we find, “Sons are a heritage from the LORD, children a reward from him.” (Psa 127:3). Having children is good! To make the point even further, the blessing on a godly man was, “Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house,” (Psa 128:3) which is a clear indication of divine approval to having a family. Childbirth was God’s idea, so what is this chapter about?

Well, let’s see the various things this chapter speaks about. First, “A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period.” (v.2) Please observe the word ‘ceremonially’. Ceremonially refers to everything that happened at the Tabernacle (and later on the Temple). The word ‘unclean’, I would suggest, refers less to any moral or sanitary state but simply means ‘not in a fit state’ to go through the various rites of the Tabernacle worship. We may live in a day when drugs help many women to cope with their menstrual period, but many would still acknowledge that this is an ongoing painful period in their monthly cycle that they would rather do without. In Old Testament times such helps were not available and a woman’s period would often be quite debilitating. Indeed Rachel, Jacob’s wife, used it as an excuse not to get up: “Rachel said to her father, “Don’t be angry, my lord, that I cannot stand up in your presence; I’m having my period.” (Gen 31:35). What we thus come to realise is that the Lord in fact excused the woman having her period, or recovering from childbirth, from having to attend the ceremonial rites. It was in fact, a relief for her.

The next item covered was that of circumcising the boy: “On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised.” (v.3) Modern science tells us that the eighth day is the very best time to carry out such an operation with as little pain or risk as is possible. We then find, “Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over.” (v.4) Again ‘purification’ simply means ‘is completely finished with and her body is starting to return to normal’. The ‘not touch anything sacred’ simply is an embargo on her going anywhere near the Tabernacle and the required rites. She is excused all this while she gets over her childbirth. If we think negatively of her in all this, it is more an expression of our prejudices than of God’s feelings towards her. If anything these rules highlight the special feeling of the time of childbirth and say, “You don’t have to worry during this time about all the ceremonial things; you just concentrate on recovering.”

Now I am aware that there will be those who feel that this interpretation of these rules takes away from the awareness of God’s holiness which was emphasized in the Law by the requirements of cleanliness, but I when I look at all of these laws I see God’s concern for His people – all His people – and He is constantly making provision for their well-being. He is not putting down any particular group, especially when they are performing the most natural procedure than ensures the ongoing human race. No, it’s our own legalistic and ‘nasty’ prejudices (because we feel badly about sex or about bodily functions) that see these laws negatively.

But there is more to come: “If she gives birth to a daughter, for two weeks the woman will be unclean, as during her period. Then she must wait sixty-six days to be purified from her bleeding,” (v.5) i.e. the periods are doubled for a girl. Commentators go all over the place in trying to deal with this. I’d like to make a simple suggestion, which may or may not be true, and perhaps only science will verify this, that in fact, even as the apostle Peter spoke of the ‘weaker’ sex (1 Pet 3:7), it is may be possible that the Lord knows that female babies were weaker and more vulnerable than male babies and therefore He allows a longer time of recovery and caring. Someone suggested to me that perhaps baby girls need a longer period to bond properly to their mothers. I don’t know the answer because we aren’t told. Time, science and medicine might shed light on this. My certainty is that whatever it is, we see here rules that provide God’s care and concern for women.

The final verses of the chapter are about the woman then bringing a burnt offering and a sin offering (v.6) to make ‘atonement’ (v.7). Is this because she has been sinful? Of course not!   Even the Virgin Mary had to do this. It is simply a recognition that for the times prescribed she has been out of contact with the available access to God (the Tabernacle) and these offerings bring her back into complete communion with the Lord. The very act of going and making these offerings, brings her right back into the life of Israel with God. It is to reassure her and re-establish her in the covenant community so she can have no doubts. Every new mother did it so there was no stigma attached to it. It was just part of God’s process for making sure she would come to meet Him after having been through childbirth. Perhaps we cannot understand the reassurance that she would receive; a re-establishing of ordinary life after this most significant of events in her life! How wonderful!  ‘Atonement’? See it as being re-established. ‘Clean’? See it as being brought back into the covenant process and being able to stand before God with thankfulness. Remember, ultimately the function of all the offerings was to bring the people to God and deal with anything that might separate them from Him. Hallelujah!

12. A Holy God

(We resume our series in Isaiah that we started several weeks ago)

MEDITATIONS IN ISAIAH – No.12

Isa 6:5 Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”

Part of our task, you may remember, in this set of meditations, is to see the same God in the Old Testament as is described in the New, especially in the light of the apostle John’s assertion that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8,16). Now when we read Isaiah, chapter 6, you may think that is not immediately discernable, but I want to suggest otherwise. Come with me and see.

Isaiah 6 is one of the relatively few instances in the Bible when we are given a deeper insight into God or into heaven. It happened as a clear event at a particular point in history: “In the year that King Uzziah died.” (6:1a). Historians tell us that this was 740BC. In that year something very special happened to Isaiah: “I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple.” (6:1b). Now we have to assume this was a vision because we are not told he was lifted up into heaven, but nevertheless it is very clear. We don’t need to go through the details of the vision here except to note that the emphasis that comes through the vision is God’s holiness.

Now the concept of ‘holy’ or ‘holiness’ is unique to God. It has no meaning outside of God. God, the Bible tells us, IS holy. In respect of Him it suggests being utterly different, perfect, entirely without flaw in any way. When it is used in respect of a person or thing, it means given over to or dedicated to God so that it may take on His characteristic of perfection.

It is this idea of holiness that produces in Isaiah such a strong response: “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” (6:5). Something about the presence of the Lord, conveyed to Isaiah the Lord’s perfection and his own absence of perfection or, to put it another way, his uncleanness. Now this is a similar reaction to that which we find in Simon Peter when he realises something about Jesus in his boat (Lk 5), a sense of unworthiness to be in the presence of this One.

Now I don’t know if you ever watch adventure or sci-fi films but every now and then the hero finds himself (and it tends to be a man) before some great being, and the thing that is always conveyed is a sense of fear of what this great being might do to the hero. They have it in their power to, at the very least, kill the hero. That is quite a different experience from what we have here. Isaiah is filled with a sense of his own doom, certainly, but it is because of his own inadequacy, his own failures, his own sin – especially in the light of the perfection of the One before him. This guilt is what so many of us struggle with and, despite the protestations of atheists who don’t like this talk, it is the biggest problem that we wrestle with, as so many therapists or counsellors will testify.

So here is Isaiah with a problem. He is a sinner in the presence of a holy and perfect God and he realises that he is guilty of having said wrong things (his lips) which reveal what he is like on the inside. He is guilty. There is no question about it; justice demands his punishment, he feels. It is an instinctive response within him. He is doomed! But what do we find? “Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” (6:6,7). One of the angelic beings, who do the bidding of God, does something so that his guilt is taken away. Note that Isaiah didn’t do anything. It was done for him.

Now fire in the Old Testament has a double meaning. It is first the wrath of God that destroys sin but, second, it is also the work of God burning up and dealing with sin so that the sinner is freed. Thus we have in this vision a burning coal taken from the altar that was there, which is clearly a place of meeting with God where sin is dealt with. Thus the coal from this altar is taken to Isaiah and he is cleansed. An altar in the Old Testament is a place of sacrifice where a life is given up, a substitute for the sinner, and his or her sin is visually and graphically destroyed before their eyes. Thus Isaiah’s guilt is dealt with and he is freed from this feeling, so that now he can stand before God guiltless and is now available to be used by God to go and speak to His people, which is what follows.

Now of course in the Old Testament, there was no more explanation given than we have mentioned above, but the picture was very clear. Part of God’s design-rules (the Law) told the sinner who felt guilty how to deal with their sin. Take an offering and sacrifice it at the Tabernacle or Temple, as a substitute for their own life, and God would see it as a sign of their repentance and He would grant them forgiveness. It is only when we come to the New Testament that we see the eternal sacrifice offered for every person who wants to avail themselves of it, Jesus Christ the Son of God. He stood in as our substitute when he died on the Cross at Calvary. Only an eternal being could do that for the sin of every person who has existed and will existed, who want to avail themselves of this method of being freed from sin.

What do we have here in both Old and New Testaments? A picture of a loving God who realises, having given man free will and knowing man would exercise that free will wrongly, that man would be helpless to deal with his own guilt and for the sake of eternal justice, that guilt could only be taken by God Himself in the form of His Son. Thus we have possibly the most famous verse in the Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16) What we have here, is the God of love who is more concerned to reconcile sinners to Himself than He is to judge or destroy them. As He said through Ezekiel, “I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!” (Ezek 18:32. THIS is the God of both the Old and New Testaments, a God who reaches out to remove our guilt and reconcile us to Himself, a God who seeks to draw us into relationship with Himself so that we can be re-established in His blessings to enjoy the life and the world He has provided for us to enjoy! Hallelujah!