Friday, 5 March 2010

Heavy Going

If we were to have a competition to find the most tedious and irrelevant chapter in the Bible, the seventh chapter of Numbers would be a strong candidate.
It describes the offerings brought to the tabernacle when it was dedicated. The leaders of the twelve tribes brought in their offerings on twelve consecutive days. There were silver plates, silver basins full of fine flour, gold dishes full of incense, and a number of bulls, lambs, rams and goats.
Again, the question arises: where did they get all this gold and silver in the middle of the desert, and where were the plates, basins and dishes made? But the most striking thing is that although all the twelve offerings were identical the list, which takes up five verses, is repeated word for word twelve times! I suppose the point was to show that all the twelve tribes had equal status, or perhaps it was originally meant to help people learn the list by heart - whoever it was who needed to know it by heart.
But what can we honestly say it means to us today? How do these plates and basins and dishes, and all these poor animals brought for slaughter 3000 years ago, have any interest for us? What benefit do we get from reading it, apart perhaps from training in patience?
Just before this, at the end of chapter 6, is the blessing that 'Aaron and his sons' were to give to the people, those beautiful words that are valued as much today as they were then: 'The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you: the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace'.
How can this and chapter 7 be equally 'the word of God'?

Saturday, 20 February 2010

So that's where it comes from!

Right there in the middle of Leviticus, among all the complicated rules about sacrifices and priests and the extreme punishments to be meted out to sabbath breakers, not to mention adulterers and homosexuals, we suddenly find those immortal words that have always been regarded as the foundation of the Christian way of life: 'you shall love your neighbour as yourself' (Lev.19:18).
Coming a little later, not quite as well known and even less observed, is the command 'you shall love the alien as yourself' (v.34).
This chapter does say quite a lot about ordinary social justice, honesty, concern for the poor, and so on - something more relevant to life as we know it. But even here we have some peculiar and apparently arbitrary commandments. Immediately after 'love your neighbour as yourself' comes that odd command about not letting your animals breed with a different kind (no mules then!), sowing your field with two kinds of seed (does this apply to herbaceous borders too?), or wearing a garment made of two different materials (so it's out with most things we wear today!).
Leviticus is one of the clearest illustrations of the complex nature of Scripture, and indeed of religion in general - sublime truths and ideals mixed up with irrational and sometimes barbaric taboos. There is no alternative to being selective, and letting our conscience and common sense tell us what to choose and what to reject - Jesus himself did it.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

An Interesting Bit

Leviticus 12 is interesting because of a link with the New Testament. It gives the rules for a woman's purification after childbirth. She has to bring a sacrifice of atonement for her 'uncleanness'. It should be a lamb and a pigeon or turtledove, but if she cannot afford a lamb she can bring two pigeons or turtledoves.
In Luke 2:24 we read that after the birth of Jesus Mary and Joseph went to the temple for her purification, taking 'a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons'. This indicates that they were relatively poor - a point often made in sermons.
But this raises at least two questions. First, why should a woman have to make a sacrifice to 'atone' for having given birth to a child? And secondly, how does this fit in with the Roman Catholic idea of the immaculate conception and perpetual virginity of Mary? Why did she, of all women, need to be purified?

Sunday, 14 February 2010

The Holy Slaughterhouse

The first seven chapters of Leviticus are also a bit of a fag to read. They give all the rules for the offering of the various sacrifices - sin offerings, thank offerings, whole burnt offerings etc etc. Then the eighth chapter describes how Aaron and his sons were ordained as priests (more sacrifices), and the ninth describes how they made all these sacrifices, and then the glory of God descended on the Tabernacle and the fire of God consumed the burnt offerings.
We get all the details about killing the animals, removing the fat and the offal, what to do with the blood and so on. It looks a bit like a butcher's manual. If you are squeamish and really think about what you are reading, it's all a bit sickening. It makes you wonder whether, if the Temple was restored today, modern Jews would want to go back to all that.
We tend to think of a place of worship as somewhere clean and quiet, with a peaceful atmosphere. But the Temple in its heyday was evidently flowing with the blood of rams, bulls, goats and all sorts, not to mention the noise they all must have made when they were dragged in and slaughtered. It was certainly no religion for vegetarians!
Again, I can't help asking: how, for Christians today, can this be the word of God?

Monday, 8 February 2010


My reading through the Bible has slowed down a bit recently, but I've now got to the end of Exodus. Reading through the last six chapters was hard work. It's a description of the building and furnishing of the Tabernacle - loads of gold, silver, linen, silk, scarlet and purple. How did they find it all in the desert? The probable answer of course is that this is really a description of Solomon's temple read back into the desert days.
But my reaction is: do we really want to know all this? Even to the description of the pans, shovels and washing bowls, repeated three times - first planned, then made, then dedicated - there is so much unwanted information.
This is one of my problems with talking of the Bible as the Word of God. I can cope with its scientific and historical inaccuracy. I can understand how some people cope with the morally questionable parts by talking of 'progressive revelation'. But what about those vast stretches that are simply irrelevant? Is there anything in the last six chapters of Exodus that has anything to say about morality, the meaning of life, the nature of God or the gospel? If not, how can it be the word of God?
I don't recall ever hearing a sermon on it!