Thursday, April 20, 2006

Aaron's beard, Zion's dew

Leviticus 8:10, 12
And Moses took the anointing oil, and anointed the tabernacle and all that was in it, and sanctified them…. And he poured some of the anointing oil upon Aaron’s head, and anointed him, to sanctify him.

Psalm 133:1-2
Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that runs down upon the beard, Aaron’s beard, that runs down to the hem of his garments.

The Talmud makes the connection between these two passages (cf. Horayot 12a, Keritot 5b). Psalm 133 is heaven’s response to the actions of Moses and Aaron as they fulfilled their roles as servants of God. Moses and Aaron were brothers who stood together as one before God, especially as Moses anointed his brother Aaron for the service of the tabernacle, and together they blessed the people (cf. Lev. 9:23).

Peace and unity between brothers is not a given. The stories of brothers in Genesis do not assume that they “dwell together in unity.” Nevertheless, reconciliation between brothers is clearly a value emphasized by these same stories: Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father, Esau greets Jacob in peace, and Joseph forgives his brothers. We miss the point of all the conflict if we do not see the resolution.

Moses and Aaron are something of an exception to the usual painful process leading to peace. In spite of their long separation as children and young adults, they come together through God’s purpose to build the community of Israel even as they build the tabernacle. They walk together “in the light of the Lord.”

Moses anointed the tabernacle and all of its contents by sprinkling the oil on them (Lev. 8:11). But when he came to Aaron his brother a sprinkle of oil was not prescribed (cf. Exod. 29:7). Instead he poured the anointing oil on Aaron’s head, as if to demonstrate the abundance of God’s light and peace and mercy which the tabernacle service would bring to Israel. Psalm 133 responds in poetic language to say that so much oil was poured on Aaron’s head that it ran down his beard and over his garments!

Lev. 9:22a
And Aaron lifted his hands toward the people, and blessed them.

Psalm 133:3
Like the dew of Hermon descending upon the mountains of Zion; for there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life for evermore.

Jacob Milgrom* says of the phrase, “Aaron lifted his hands,” that this is a posture of prayer, and that in fact Aaron lifted his hands toward heaven, to the Lord, as in Exod. 9:33. But the verse here does not say anything of the sort, and the priestly blessing is not a prayer to heaven. Instead, “Aaron lifts his hands toward the people,” because the blessing flows from heaven through the priest to the people. Some blessings are prayers: “Blessed are you, O Lord our God….” But the priestly blessing is commanded by God for the benefit of Zion, that they might enjoy the favor of God and dwell together in unity forever.

*Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, The Anchor Bible, pp. 586-587.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

From Pauper to Prince

Psalm 113:5-8 MT
Who is like the Lord our God, who sits enthroned on high,
yet deigns to look on heaven and on the earth!
He raises up the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heaps, to set them with princes, with the princes of his people.

Lev. 5:11-13
But if he is not able to bring (lit., his hand does not reach) two turtledoves or two young pigeons, then he shall bring as his offering for what he has sinned the tenth part of an ephah of semolina for a purification offering; he shall not put oil on it, nor shall he place frankincense on it; for it is a purification offering.
Then shall he bring it to the priest, and the priest shall take his handful of it as a token portion, and burn it on the altar, with the offerings made by fire (or, food gifts) to the Lord; it is a purification offering.
And the priest shall make atonement for him for the sin he committed…, and it shall be forgiven him; and [the rest] shall belong to the priest, as the cereal offering.

The Torah makes provision for the poor and needy in various ways, some explicitly stated in commandments such as leaving the corners of your field for the needy and the stranger (Lev. 19:9-10), others implicitly understood such as extending the Sabbath rest to the servant in your household and the stranger within your gates (Exod. 20:10). On the Sabbath even the pauper is a prince!

The voluntary and mandatory offerings also reflect this consideration. As in the passage from Leviticus quoted above, the benefits of participation in bringing offerings to the Lord were not limited to those who could afford a bull or a sheep. Here in Leviticus chapter 5 this is made explicit: those who could not afford a lamb could bring two domesticated birds, and if this was still too much then a cereal offering would be acceptable. But that is not all.

Jacob Milgrom’s excellent commentary* on Leviticus identifies several aspects of the offerings that have as their purpose to encourage the poor and needy:
(1) The very manner in which the bird is placed on the fire of the altar, by tearing and therefore spreading its wings (1:17), would “increase its size and give the appearance of a more substantial gift.” (p. 172)
(2) The cereal offering (Leviticus chapter 2) is essentially “the offering of the poor” (p.179) in place of the more expensive burnt offering.
(3) Even among the different forms of the cereal offering there is a gradation which allows the poor more access. The cooked cereal offerings are presented without frankincense. “The omission of the frankincense requirement may be regarded as a deliberate concession to the poor. That is, if they cannot afford it… they have the option of bringing a cooked cereal offering….” (p. 183)

What is God that he should show regard for paltry offerings, for our pitiful attempts to honor him? Yet, the God who reigns over heaven and earth deigns to look on our forms of worship and accept them, and shows special attention to the poor and needy. Even the pauper is a prince in the courtyard of the tabernacle, when he brings his heart and his offering before the Lord.

Mishnah Menachot 13:11 (adapted from Soncino edition)
It is said of the burnt offerings of cattle, an offering made by fire of a sweet savor (Lev. 1:9), and of the burnt offerings of birds, an offering made by fire of a sweet savor (Lev. 1:17), and of the cereal offering, an offering made by fire of a sweet savor (Lev. 2:2), to teach you that it is the same whether a man offers much or little, so long as he directs his heart to heaven.

*Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, The Anchor Bible, 1991.

Monday, April 03, 2006

As the Lord commanded

Pure and Holy

Exodus 39:30
And they made the plate of the holy rim of pure gold, and wrote on it a writing, like the engravings of a signet, Holy to the Lord.

In this verse two descriptive words appear that are closely related though not synonymous: pure (tahor) and holy (qodesh).

There are 24 references to pure gold (zahav tahor) in the chapters of Exodus describing the design and construction of the tabernacle. The other 3 references in the Hebrew Bible have to do with the temple.

Compare the words of the psalmist about the ordinances of the Lord:

Psalm 19:10b-12 MT (cf. Psalm 119:127)
The ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
They are more to be desired than gold, even very fine gold;
sweeter also than honey and [the drippings of] the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them your servant is warned, and in keeping them there is great reward.

The ordinances of the Lord, which include the instructions for the tabernacle service, are seen as pure as the gold worn on the priest’s forehead.

The second word, holy, can be defined negatively and positively.

Negatively it can mean “unapproachable” or “withdrawn from common use” (Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, vol.3, The Anchor Bible, 1991, pp. 730-731). The unapproachable aspect of holy may also carry a sense of terror and a threat of death. Things that are withdrawn from common use or their former use are called holy.

Positively it can mean set apart to the service of the Lord, as in “holy to the Lord.” In this sense the Sabbath is holy (Exod. 16:23, 31:15), the people of Israel are called to be holy (Deut, 26:19), and the service of the priests is holy (Ezra 8:28).

Together the words pure (tahor) and holy (qodesh) summarize the service of the priests in the tabernacle, and point forward to a major theme of the book of Leviticus:

Leviticus 10:10 (cf. 11:47, 20:25)
Distinguish between the holy (qodesh) and the common (chol) and the impure (tamei) and the pure (tahor).

Ezekiel’s complaint about the corruption of the priests is worded in these same categories:

Ezekiel 22:26
Her priests violate my law and profane my holy things. They do not distinguish between holy and common, and they do not teach [the difference] between the impure and the pure. And they shut their eyes to my Sabbaths so I am profaned among them.

Not a slob like you

The God who designed the tabernacle service and saw it through to completion paid attention to detail, meticulous detail. Not only does he plan the construction and furnishing of the tabernacle, but then the entire process is described again as it is done, with the refrain “as the Lord commanded Moses” after each part is finished. This God is not a slob like you. His personality type revealed in this section of Exodus is that of a Felix Unger, not an Oscar Madison. Attention to every detail: that’s the God of Israel.

I say the God who designed the tabernacle service in a loose way, because I do not actually see the tabernacle as literally designed by God in every detail, but by the community of Israel in their attempt to approach God in appropriate forms of worship. In that light we do not have to defend each detail of the tabernacle service and the sacrifices, but we can still appreciate how these particular forms reflect their understanding of God and what was thought appropriate to worship him in purity and holiness.