Leviticus 06 – Tending the Altar Fire

12 The fire on the altar must be kept burning; it must not go out. Every morning the priest is to add firewood and arrange the burnt offering on the fire and burn the fat of the fellowship offerings on it. 13 The fire must be kept burning on the altar continuously; it must not go out. (Read the rest of the chapter, here.)

A structural note

We’ll get to those altar fires and their metaphorical application to today’s life. But first, I want to draw your attention to some structural aspects of Leviticus. Leviticus is written in repeating patterns. This means that we see instructions regarding different offerings in different places throughout the book. At first that seems a little scattered, but it does follow a logic.

Chapters One through Five are the “What” chapters. In them, we are introduced to the five offerings: Burnt, Grain, Sin, Guilt, and Fellowship. The Burnt Offering is a young bull (or if you can’t afford that, a young ram or young pigeon), the Grain Offering is made without yeast, etc etc. So now we know “what” to offer.

Leviticus Six and Seven answer “How” they are to be presented, with additional reiterations as to the forbidden nature of fat and blood and stipulations about the priests’ share. How priests dress themselves, how they tend the fires, how they present the grain, all of that is stipulated here.

Much of the rest of the book then answers “when” and “why” questions: when is a fellowship offering to be made after a birth, when can a person suffering from a skin disease become ceremonially clean enough to make a guilt offering, why is a sin offering sometimes not enough (as in the case of sacrificing your children to Molech, Leviticus 20:1-5) and how to deal with it.

I don’t think this reveals any sort of larger truth in this particular case, but I did want to point it out. I think we often get bogged down in individual verses and miss some of the larger literary characteristics of the Bible, which can be informative. I do find it endearing that the easiest question, the “what” of a sacrifice, is answered first. When you read with small children, those are the first questions you ask them – “What color is the bird? What is the bunny doing?” “Why” questions are some of the last to be addressed in learning comprehension, and that is no different here. God, or at least, the writer of Leviticus, sets us up for success by building our knowledge from foundational building blocks to more complex understandings.

Restitution

This week brought news of the grand jury deciding none of the police officers involved in killing Breonna Taylor would be criminally charged. I am grieved and frustrated, as many others in the country are. Reading this chapter, I wanted to print out v. 5 for everyone claiming to be Christian to read and memorize. “He must make restitution in full, add a fifth of the value to it, and give it all to the owner on the day he presents his guilt offerings.” This passage, of course, is talking about tangible property that has been stolen. But wasn’t Breonna Taylor’s life stolen? Isn’t she and her family owed restitution? You cannot put a dollar value on life, and you cannot bring a life cut short back, but we seem to have lost — if indeed this country ever had — a spirit of contrition and restitution.

If society had said to those police officers, “you took at least sixty years from Breonna. As restitution, you owe us seventy two,” how different things might look now. If every tree cut down carried the responsibility of sequestering 600 pounds of carbon (50 years of 48 lbs per year, plus that twenty percent), how much more carefully would we cut? And I don’t even know what the restitution math would look like for lands stolen from the first peoples of the Americas, but it’s daunting to think about.

Ongoing work

This is all going to take long and thoughtful work. Being agents of God’s change in today’s world is more like tending the altar fire than presenting a one-time guilt or sin offering. And perhaps that’s the mentality we need to cultivate: a priestly attitude of devotion to justice being done in God’s name. A calling, a work that is never done. “The fire on the altar must be kept burning,” v. 12 reads, and again in v. 13, “the fire must be kept burning on the altar continuously, it must not go out.”

Is it glamorous? No. Tending the fire is probably right up there with doing the dishes or the laundry. But we all know what a mess things can be when you stop doing the dishes or the laundry, even for just a little bit of time. It is hard work, but it is very, very necessary work. Do take time to take care of yourself, but know that God is counting on us to keep the fires burning. The fires of justice, of compassion, of doing what is right: those are the fires we are called to tend. In times when everything seems dark and cold, it is especially important that those fires do not go out, and we can make sure that that doesn’t happen. Raise your voice, add fuel to those fires, and burn for justice in God’s name. Justice for all.

If you are learning from what you read here, please follow the blog so you don’t miss what’s next.  Click the folder icon in the upper left corner of the menu, and you can follow via WordPress or email.  Please also consider supporting the blog through Patreon or Venmo.  Donations tagged #dontcallthepolice will be specifically earmarked for printing up hardcopy resources that give people in my community alternative numbers to 911 for everything from domestic and child abuse to suicide prevention to animal control. Thank you!

Job 17 – Sarcasm, or Righteous Anger?

“God has made me a byword to everyone,
    a man in whose face people spit.
My eyes have grown dim with grief;
    my whole frame is but a shadow.
The upright are appalled at this;
    the innocent are aroused against the ungodly.
Nevertheless, the righteous will hold to their ways,
    and those with clean hands will grow stronger.
(Read the rest of the chapter, here.)

Guess what – someone has made a play out of Job, accurately titled….The Book of Job.  This is probably only exciting to Bible and literature nerds like me.  But over and over again I have thought how much this play reminds me of early English morality plays. (Remember reading Everyman in high school?  That’s a morality play.  Like I said, total nerd over here.)  Perhaps it’s truly the other way around, with morality plays being modeled after stories like Job…which may have been influenced by (or have influenced) Greek choral plays…but I won’t go down that rabbit-hole.

The reason I bring it up is because I think that so much more could be gained from Job if it was spoken.  It’s whole meaning might change based on how the actor chose to portray a certain section – such as this section here.  The general consensus is that Job is getting more and more sarcastic: he asks God for a pledge, knowing that it will not be forthcoming.  Then Job blatantly mocks his friends, telling them their minds are closed to understanding” and quoting a retorting parable back at them, in answer to all of theirs from earlier.  This section, vv. 6-9, is supposedly uttered with dripping sarcasm, and then Job goes on to get all morbid and talk about how the grave is his only hope.

I think this is a very accurate understanding of it, but part of me can’t help but wonder – again because Job is such a self-conscious piece of writing – if Job is actually getting more emboldened. From a dramatic standpoint, this could make sense.  We, the reader/audience, know Job is righteous, thus he is reacting in a way we would want him to.  Perhaps his friends false comfort and piety has had an unintended “reverse psychology” effect on Job, rousing in him a sense of purpose he didn’t have before.  Maybe, if his friends hadn’t come along, he would have cursed God and died, as his wife suggested he do way back in chapter two.  Instead of wallowing in agony and self-pity, Job feels driven to proclaim his innocence.  In that light, perhaps he isn’t asking God for a pledge with a tone of sarcasm, but truly asking (maybe even demanding) that pledge.  Demanding something of God seems impudent, to say the least, but it has been made clear the Job is, in God’s own words (twice!), “blameless and upright.”  So if anyone could demand something of God, it would be Job.  And then perhaps vv. 6-9 are not spoken in sarcasm, but yelled out in defiance at his friends, because they are actually true.  He gets worked up even further, challenging them in v. 10, “But come on, all of you, try again! I will not find a wise man among you!”  Perhaps the only sarcastic part of this speech is the last part, where Job talks about his only hope being the grave.  His is a righteous anger now, and he knows that God will bring him justice.

Perhaps. Or perhaps not.  It would be interesting to see the two versions – a sarcastic vs. a righteously angry Job – and see how the play, or indeed the whole story, of Job would change.  Just a thought.

If you are enjoying what you read please follow the blog for more!  Click the folder icon in the upper left corner of the menu, and you can follow via WordPress or email.  And don’t forget to check us out on Instagram and Twitter, too!

Job 15 – The Highly Literary Job

“Are you the first man ever born?
    Were you brought forth before the hills?
Do you listen in on God’s council?
    Do you have a monopoly on wisdom?
What do you know that we do not know?
    What insights do you have that we do not have? (Read the rest of the chapter, here.)

Welcome to Lent 2020.  If you’re new to the blog, I started reading Job last Lent, and will continue for this year and the next.  It’s one of the few readings that has been pre-planned on this blog (but, in a lack of time and foresight, not written more than 24-48 hours ahead of time).  I picked Job because it is a book about suffering and patience, a book where Job spends much of his time away from God, being tested by Satan, which seems a good topic for the time of year remembering Jesus’ 40 days in the desert.

I strongly encourage you to go back and read through the first 14 chapters of Job and the corresponding blog posts.  I just did, to refresh myself on what is happening in Job and some of the things I discussed.  I forgot that some of my favorite revelations from last year actually came through Job, such as finding another way to think about Satan, and discovering the term pluralistic ignorance while finding ways to speak out against injustice without having to actually speak.  I was also reminded that Job was a highly stylized book, and just wanted to point some of these literary elements out to you.

First, the overall structure of the book is very symmetrical.  This is easy to lose track of when you’re doing a deep reading of a book, chapter by chapter, but a brief read-through reminded me of that fact.  It starts with a prologue in the divine court, in which Job loses all he has, then there are three speech cycles between Job and his friends, all of which go Eliphaz-Job-Bildad-Job-Zophar-Job, with Zophar’s last speech being replaced by Elihu’s, and then the closing scene brings God back in, restoring Job’s fortune and mirroring the divine court from the beginning.  It also seems very much like a legal trial: God delivers the charge, then stands back and listens impartially to the arguments from both sides (Job and his friends’), allowing for Job and Elihu to make closing statements. God then delivers his verdict.

Second, we can view Job’s friends as literary agents that remind us of what exactly is going on here (Job’s faith is being tested by Satan while God observes) and to goad Job to more and more impassioned speeches. In their false comfort they allude to several things that we know as readers, but that Job does not. This chapter is a perfect example.  “Do you listen in on God’s council?” Eliphaz asks, reminding us that yes, actually, the readers did get to listen in on God’s council.  “What do you know that we do not know?” He asks a line later.  He is, of course, talking to Job, but if we could answer that question, the answer would be a lot. Earlier, Zophar says “Oh, how I wish that God would speak, that he would open his lips against you and disclose to you the secrets of wisdom.”  Well, we know that God is going to do that.  The friends also make several overt court references, reminding the reader that we are essentially witnessing a court case in action.  The word “court” is used by Zophar in 11:10 and Eliphaz in 5:4, and other court-like words (“charge,” “guilt,” “prison”) appear throughout the text.  Every time Job’s friends break that fourth wall, to borrow a term from theater, they draw our attention to the broader drama of the story.

Finally, it is important to remember that the story of Job may date back to as long ago as 2000 BC.  As it was told and re-told, and traveled between different groups, different traditions may have sprung up in its telling.  When it was codified into writing, it is possible that the compilers may have tried to stitch some of those traditions together.  I wonder about this when Elihu suddenly pops up, almost without introduction, to start speaking in chapter 32.  Was he always a fourth companion, and if so, why wasn’t he introduced at the beginning?  Was he sometimes the third companion, replacing Zophar in some of the tellings?  We’ll talk more about Elihu when we get to him, but I just point him out here to remind you of the long and complex history Job has had in its construct.

Which, I suppose inevitably, leads us to the question we all seem driven to ask about the Bible – is it true?  Did Job really exist, and did God really test him? I don’t see why he couldn’t have existed, but I think we miss the larger point.  Job, if he was a real person long, long ago, has grown into a myth larger than himself, like Johnny Appleseed or Paul Bunyan.  Job has become an allegory for our own trials in life, a way to explain the endurance of faith, the justice of God, and the evils that befall innocent people.  I’m looking forward to starting it back up again, much more so than I was when beginning it last year.  I hope you’ll join me in reading it this Lent, and discover the literary prowess, beauty, and greater truths that Job has to reveal to us.