Leviticus 02 – Why Does God Hate Yeast and Honey?

11 “‘Every grain offering you bring to the Lord must be made without yeast, for you are not to burn any yeast or honey in a food offering presented to the Lord. 12 You may bring them to the Lord as an offering of the firstfruits, but they are not to be offered on the altar as a pleasing aroma. 13 Season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings. (Read the rest of the chapter, here.)

Spoiler alert: God doesn’t “hate” yeast and honey. In fact, in v. 12 yeast cakes and honey are encouraged to be brought as an offering of firstfruits, they just shouldn’t be burnt on the altar. As throughout much of Leviticus, the instructions for the grain offering found in the chapter are a combination of symbolic and practical.

Symbolic reasons for the rejection of honey and yeast

Let’s start with the symbolic, which, based on my Google research, seems to be two-fold. Bread (or wafers or cakes or whatever) made without yeast is a food that can be made quickly – hastily, even. It is what the Israelites ate as they fled Egypt, because you need to eat something and letting a loaf of bread proof is going to take too long. Also, pre-packaged granola bars weren’t around. This is why unleavened bread is eaten during Passover, as well: in remembrance of fleeing Egypt in haste, under the protection of the Lord.

Leavening, such as yeast or even fermented honey, is also a symbol of pride and corruption. It makes the dough puff up, much like a prideful chest, but if left unchecked turns sour and ruinous. Viewed as such a symbol, it’s not exactly what you want to be offering to God.

It is also possible that honey was used in Canaanite religious rites. As I’ve discussed in a previous post, Canaanite and early Israelite religious practices shared many commonalities, and Israelite leaders were very intentional in separating themselves from anything that might connect them to the Canaanites and their false Gods. If honey did factor into Canaanite religious practices, then it would be important that it not factor into the new, codified Israelite religious practices.

Practical reasons for the rejection of honey and yeast

There are also practical concerns with bread and honey offerings in a time that lacked refrigeration and modern food preservation methods. Bread goes moldy. Homemade bread using homemade yeast and unbleached flour goes moldy even faster. The priests took some of this grain offering for their own consumption. If you have pre-prepared foods as part of your sustenance, you want to make sure that those foods aren’t going to go bad before you can eat them. The shelf-life of unleavened bread is longer, therefore more practical.

As for honey, it’s messy. It’s a sticky liquid that gets even more runny when hot, and it can fuse into a carbonized mass onto wherever it burns. Pouring honey onto the altar was probably just not a good idea from a housekeeping standpoint. So there you have it, practical and symbolic reasons for keeping yeast and honey off the altar.

Some closing thoughts

I don’t want to leave this chapter without pointing out that God makes a special stipulation not to leave salt out of the grain offering. In v. 13 God say three times to add salt. Not once, but three times. This may be partly a practical concern: salty food keeps longer. But it really sounds like God needs some seasoning! No bland food for the altar!

It is yet another subtle indication that God loves the physical world. Xe wants to taste it in all its glory! Much of Biblical scholarship and interpretation has focused on a rejection of the physical world. In fact, one reason offered up regarding the rejection of honey on the altar was that honey is a symbol of sensuality and pleasure, the opposite of devotion and worship. But I want to reject that rejection, because if God wants salt, and fat, both tasty components of food – why wouldn’t God want sweet, too? Maybe it’s not right for the altar, but God still wants it in the form of firstfruits.

I think the takeaway from this chapter is that there are many right ways to worship God. Some are more appropriate sometimes, others at another time. As I mentioned in my last post, God wants to invite us to their table. The grain offering, and the mention of firstfruits offerings, are two more ways for Israelites to join in given in Levitical law, inviting them into communion with God. And now, just think how many new ways we have to join God at their table, since Jesus paved the way with his blood. And how many more ways we have to join in that worship with the advent of the printed word, mass communication, and the internet. God is constantly opening new paths to Xyrself, and that is a wonderful thing! Have a great week y’all, and spend a little time praising God, however you best deem that to be.

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Leviticus 01 – God Loves a Barbeque

The sons of Aaron the priest are to put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire. Then Aaron’s sons the priests shall arrange the pieces, including the head and the fat, on the wood that is burning on the altar. You are to wash the internal organs and the legs with water, and the priest is to burn all of it on the altar. It is a burnt offering, a food offering, an aroma pleasing to the Lord. (Read the rest of the chapter, here)

The book everyone loves to hate.

Let’s spend a little time with the book everybody loves to hate, Leviticus. About the only thing “in style” about Leviticus right now is spending time refuting it. Two of the six clobber passages (passages used to denounce homosexuality) are found in Leviticus. Almost any compilation of “weirdest rules” or “strangest passages” in the Bible samples heavily from Leviticus.

There’s a pervasive need of modern readers to patronize Leviticus. We’ve all seemed to develop a sense of superiority sitting here looking at it, almost four centuries after it was written. Sometimes, that sense of superiority is factually based in the cumulative knowledge that time has brought, but other times I think it’s just a bit haughty of us.

If we take the time to research Leviticus it not only brings the past – in this case, the time of Moses, to life – but also presents us with (you guessed it) even more examples of God’s unending love for us. A book of rules – very specific rules, at that – seems a strange place to look for boundless love. But I’m happy to report I’ve found a lot of it, and I’m excited to share that with you here. Some of the more perplexing verses can be understood in context: obsessive directives about skin diseases and mold make more sense when you remember that this is a time before bleach and antibiotics. But more than anything it is a book about care: God caring for Xyr people, and those people caring for each other and God in return. It is a book of joyous communion.

God loves a barbeque.

And bless my southern little heart, what is a more joyous communion than a barbeque? If you come away from Leviticus learning one thing, let it be this: that God loves a barbeque. The phrase “aroma pleasing to the Lord,” in reference to the animal sacrifices made on the altar, is mentioned three times in this opening chapter alone. I cannot stress enough: God opened this book of rules with a cooking lesson. How to present the meat, butcher the meat, and prepare the meat is all detailed, similar to how a pit master might do. Come to think of it, another name for the first few chapter of Leviticus could be “this is how we eat together.”

I realize that whole last paragraph might come off as a little trite. But really, these opening chapters are a codified invitation to sit at the Lord’s table. And God makes it available to all: If you can bring a bull, definitely bring a bull. Can’t afford that? No worries, bring a ram, or even a bird. Can’t bring any meat? How about a grain offering? God wants us, all of us, with them. Because what is a barbeque without lots of people?

Practical concerns surrounding sacrificial butchery.

I’m also enjoying these opening chapters because, for those of you that don’t know, I am a farmer in my other life. I have herded cows, castrated pigs, and eviscerated chickens. I have carved a pig head, among other things, and make stock from chicken feet. So reading some of the practical instructions surrounding animal sacrifice is particularly amusing. Today’s winning line is verse 1:16, “He is to remove the crop with its contents and throw it to the east side of the altar, where the ashes are.”

First off, the word translated as “contents” is uncertain, according to my NIV study notes. Some translate it as “crop and feathers.” I don’t need to be a Hebrew or religious scholar to tell you that word means “anything you wouldn’t want to eat on the bird.” Having removed thousands of them myself, I can tell you that crops – the “holding stomach,” if you will, on birds, is stinky. As are their intestines and feathers. You do not want any of that burning on your holy altar – it would not be an aroma pleasing to the Lord. (Imagine diarrhea and burnt hair, and that’s probably a pretty close approximation of what burning bird offal smells like.)

I also like that it is further explicitly stated that said gross stuff be thrown away on the east side of the Altar. There are detailed descriptions of how the Tabernacle should be constructed (we’ll get to them when we read Exodus), and my study Bible has a handy little drawing of how the Tabernacle was set up. Sure enough, the east side of the Altar is the farthest side from the Most Holy Place, where the Ark of the Covenant rested. Basically, God is like “keep that nasty stuff over there.” I’ve smelled a gut bucket full of the offal of 100-plus birds. It is not conducive to communing with the Lord.

Alright enough about bird guts, for now. But be prepared: we’re going to talk more about animal entrails in the not too distant future. My writer’s block seems to have cleared, Leviticus is thoroughly enjoyable, and I’m looking forward to sharing chapter two with you all next week. Remember that you are always welcome at God’s barbeque, for God loves us all.

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Leviticus 10 – Nadab and Abihu

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.