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.
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.
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.
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