May 21, 2017
Leviticus 1:1-3; 19:1-2, 16b; 25:8-10, 35-37 CEV
Yahweh spoke to Moses from the sacred tent and gave him instructions for the community of Israel to follow when they offered sacrifices….
Yahweh told Moses to say to the community of Israel:
“I am Yahweh, your god. I am holy, and you must be holy too!….”
“I am Yahweh, and I command you to love others as much as you love yourself.”
Yahweh said to the people:
“Once every forty-nine years on the tenth day of the seventh month, which is also the Great Day of Forgiveness, trumpets are to be blown everywhere in the land. This fiftieth year is sacred—it is a time of freedom and of celebration when everyone will receive back their original property, and slaves will return home to their families….”
“If any of your people become poor and unable to support themselves, you must help them, just as you are supposed to help foreigners who live among you. Don’t take advantage of them by charging any kind of interest or selling them food for profit. Instead, honor me by letting them stay where they now live.”
Numbers 10:11-13; 11:1-3; 13:1-2; 25-26; 14:2-4; 26-30
On the twentieth day of the second month of that same year, the cloud over the sacred tent moved on. So the Israelites broke camp and left the Sinai Desert. And some time later, the cloud stopped in the Paran Desert. This was the first time Yahweh had told Moses to command the people of Israel to move on….
One day the Israelites started complaining about their troubles. Yahweh heard them and became so angry that he destroyed the outer edges of their camp with fire….
Yahweh said to Moses, “Choose a leader from each tribe and send them into Canaan to explore the land I am giving you….”
After exploring the land of Canaan forty days, the twelve men returned to Kadesh in the Paran Desert and told Moses, Aaron, and the people what they had seen. They showed them the fruit and said:
Look at this fruit! The land we explored is rich with milk and honey. But the people who live there are strong, and their cities are large and walled….
After the Israelites heard the report from the twelve men who had explored Canaan, the people cried all night and complained to Moses and Aaron, “We wish we had died in Egypt or somewhere out here in the desert! Is Yahweh leading us into Canaan, just to have us killed and our women and children captured? We’d be better off in Egypt.” Then they said to one another, “Let’s choose our own leader and go back….”
Yahweh told Moses and Aaron to give this message to the people of Israel:
“You sinful people have complained against me too many times! Now I swear by my own life that I will give you exactly what you wanted. You will die right here in the desert, and your dead bodies will cover the ground. You have insulted me, and none of you men who are over twenty years old will enter the land that I solemnly promised to give you as your own…..”
Debate With The Rabbi Howard Nemerov
You’ve lost your religion, the Rabbi said.
It wasn’t much to keep, said I.
You should affirm the spirit, said he,
And the communal solidarity.
I don’t feel so solid, I said.
We are the people of the Book, the Rabbi said.
Not of the phone book, said I.
Ours is a great tradition, said he,
And a wonderful history.
But history’s over, I said.
We Jews are creative people, the Rabbi said.
Make something, then, said I.
In science and in art, said he,
Violinists and physicists have we.
Fiddle and physic indeed, I said.
Stubborn and stiff-necked man! the Rabbi cried.
The pain you give me, said I.
Instead of bowing down, said he,
You go on in your obstinacy.
We Jews are that way, I replied.
We last left our band of escapees at the foot of Mount Sinai. They escaped from Egypt and received the Ten Commandments (and a few others) inscribed on two stone tablets. They followed instructions and built a portable, tiny tent for Yahweh. Inside the tent rests the ark of the covenant that contains the stone tablets. Yahweh lives with the Hebrews inside the tent. From there he instructs Moses who in turn instructs the people.
Today an overview of Leviticus and Numbers.
Before I do that I should take a few moments to offer the theory of how the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) was constructed. A man named Julius Wellhausen formulated “the Documentary Hypothesis” back in the 1800s. The basic thrust of that theory is still the consensus today for how the documents of the Torah or the Pentateuch were formed.
Since Wellhausen’s time scholars have learned more about oral tradition. We don’t think so much as individual authors sitting down and writing things. It is more accurate to see these sources as strands of different oral traditions.
Wellhausen changed the way we looked at the formation of the Torah. In his theory, there was an original epic, modified by a storyteller we call J. Four hundred years later, this epic is modified by another storyteller we call P. Of course, long before anything is written, these stories are told and retold in oral form.
J gets her name by calling God, Yahweh. J’s narrative was formed in the 10th century BCE.
E calls God, Elohim. E represents the Northern Kingdom’s view of history after the Israelite monarchy split in 922. (J represents the Southern Kingdom’s view and eventually J and E are combined).
D stands for Deuteronomic history which accounts for the Book of Deuteronomy and the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, and 1 & 2 Kings (7th century BCE).
P gets his name because he is a priest. P’s narrative is dated in the 6th century BCE.
Why is it helpful, spiritually, to understand that different sources compiled the Torah? One of the reasons is that it helps us to understand where the really off-putting stuff originates. For instance, Yahweh often comes across as small and petty. Many of the laws from our perspective are ethically-challenged (such as treating other human beings like property).
Source criticism shows that these laws and stories didn’t originate with the Hebrews. They are long-standing rules that were invented long before them such as the Code of Hammurabi, or the mythologies of the gods in the Eneuma Elish. Those ancient sources are even more weird and barbaric than what we find in the Bible. A case can be made that the Torah actually humanized and demythologized these more ancient accounts and added an element of social justice.
As we read Leviticus for instance, keep an eye on who has power and agency, how the most vulnerable are to be treated, and who controls wealth. For instance, how is debt to be managed and wealth distributed?
Leviticus begins with Yahweh instructing Moses from his tiny tent on how to properly kill animals and cook them so Yahweh can enjoy the smell. Weird, right? Yes, but this is how it worked everywhere all the way up to the time of Jesus and past. Religion was animal sacrifice whether you were Greek, Hebrew, Babylonian, Persian, or Roman. In fact, you had all kinds of gods you needed to please. Each god had its own priesthood and bureaucracy.
You had to make your rounds, sacrificing to this god and that one. What happens when you miss one? What happens when you simply don’t have enough animals to pay off the priests and their gods who in turn sell the meat? The gods and their priests can be oppressive. The movement by the Hebrews to one jealous god, Yahweh, was actually a way to simplify things and to localize the economy.
Leviticus begins with rules for sacrifices. It is similar to the Presbyterian Book of Order because it is really about how to structure governance and manage power. There are laws and regulations about a wide of variety of things including separating clean from unclean, how to deal with skin rashes, mildew, birth, death, and sex.
I offer a challenge to those of us with modern sensibilities. In Leviticus 25 we learn about the Year of Jubilee or in the Contemporary English Version, the Year of Celebration. Leviticus 25:10:
“This fiftieth year is sacred—it is a time of freedom and celebration when everyone will receive back their original property, and slaves will return home to their families.”
This is radical. This rule makes Bernie Sanders look like a neo-con. Every fifty years we start over. All the money the wealthy made and the land they possessed gets redistributed. Imagine that. Written in to the constitution is redistribution of wealth so that you won’t end up with a wealthy few controlling the lives of the many.
This is from the Institute for Policy Studies. It is an article entitled “Billionaire Bonanza: The Forbes 400 and the Rest of Us.”
Here are a few bullet points:
• America’s 20 wealthiest people — a group that could fit comfortably in one single Gulfstream G650 luxury jet – now own more wealth than the bottom half of the American population combined, a total of 152 million people in 57 million households.
• The Forbes 400 now own about as much wealth as the nation’s entire African-American population – plus more than a third of the Latino population – combined.
• The wealthiest 100 households now own about as much wealth as the entire African American population in the United States. Among the Forbes 400, just 2 individuals are African American – Oprah Winfrey and Robert Smith.
• The wealthiest 186 members of the Forbes 400 own as much wealth as the entire Latino population. Just five members of the Forbes 400 are Latino including Jorge Perez, Arturo Moreno, and three members of the Santo Domingo family.
• With a combined worth of $2.34 trillion, the Forbes 400 own more wealth than the bottom 61 percent of the country combined, a staggering 194 million people.
• The median American family has a net worth of $81,000. The Forbes 400 own more wealth than 36 million of these typical American families. That’s as many households in the United States that own cats.
The United States is also predominantly religious, mostly Christian, the majority of whom read the Bible as the Word of God, except of course Leviticus 25:10.
Leviticus 25 that describes this Year of Jubilee is the climax of the Book of Leviticus. The book leads up to this. This is what it is really about. Yahweh says in 25:23:
No land may be permanently bought or sold. It all belongs to me—it isn’t your land, and you only live there for a little while.
Petty, angry, jealous Yahweh said that. It is the most radical verse in the Bible. It is the most radical statement ever made. None of our economists or jurists or legislators or executors or professors or bureaucrats or smart people in general have ever come up with anything as radical as Leviticus chapter 25.
If you want to be holy as Yahweh is holy, if you want to love your neighbor as yourself, if you want to live sustainably and survive in the land that Yahweh is renting to you, then every 50 years, redistribute. Start over and don’t cheat.
This rule is not based on charity or voluntarily giving up the wealth. This is the law written into the constitution itself. Justice is not charity. If we are to live justly on Earth, justice must be established by force of law. If this isn’t happening, then it is time for revolution.
Some scholars have suggested that prophets and rabbis like Jesus were announcing and enacting the Year of Jubilee. That is the kingdom of God. That is what got them killed.
I had coffee the other day with the guy who started the International Food Security Treaty, John Teton. He lives in Lake Oswego. He came up with a radical idea. Here it is:
The International Food Security Treaty seeks to promote food security by means of a universal treaty based upon four essential principles. In keeping with obligations inherent in the International Bill of Rights, each nation signatory to the IFST commits itself to:
1) PROVIDE ACCESS TO A MINIMUM STANDARD OF NUTRITION recognized by the United Nations to all people within its borders unable to gain such access on their own;
2) CONTRIBUTE TO A WORLD FOOD RESERVE AND RESOURCE CENTER as it is able, to assist any nation needing emergency help to provide such access;
3) ESTABLISH AND ENFORCE LAW prohibiting activities denying or intending to deny the minimum standard of nutrition to any person within its borders; and
4) SUPPORT UNITED NATIONS FOOD SECURITY ENFORCEMENT actions in nations whose governments are unable to enforce such law on their own, or who are found unwilling to do so through formal United Nations investigations.
We can end world hunger. We can end starvation. Not by charity. By force of law. By writing it into our human constitution and carrying it out.
This International Food Security Treaty is the beginning of a Jubilee Year. I invite you to check out the website www.treaty.org or listen to the interview I had with him on Progressive Spirit. He is saying a couple of radical things, radical in the sense that Leviticus 25 is radical. He is saying that contrary to popular mythology, hunger is not inevitable. Hunger is not part of the human condition. Hunger and starvation are human-created conditions based on greed and violence. For example, the Treaty would no longer allow hunger to be used as a weapon.
Inequality in which 400 billionaires own over half the nation’s wealth is not inevitable. It is not part of the human condition. It is not the result of the wealthy working harder than the rest of the population. It is theft at a grand scale. Every day in our country whatever protections we have left are being whittled away by these monsters who are in power and who have been gaining power for a long time. Until we begin to name this theft for what it is, we will never change it.
How do we get a revolution started? There are many paths. One of the avenues for enacting change is “The International Food Security Treaty.” If we can end hunger by force of law, we are well on our way to redistributing all the resources of Earth.
Back to the Bible.. According to the narrative, the Hebrews received the laws in Leviticus. Finally in Numbers Chapter 10, Yahweh was ready to move. Yahweh ended up leading the people through the Wilderness for forty years. Why? The wilderness wandering was a punishment on the Hebrews for lacking courage. They complained that the task ahead was too hard and too dangerous and they wanted to return to Egypt and be slaves again, where at least they had food. They wanted to give up their freedom and agency for booby prizes for security. Yahweh decided a new generation would be needed for the revolution, a more courageous generation.
In 1984, Bruce Springsteen had an interview with Rolling Stone. This is how he concluded it:
I understood that it’s the music that keeps me alive, and my relationships with my friends, and my attachment to the people and the places I’ve known. That’s my lifeblood. And to give that up for, like, the TV, the cars, the houses – that’s not the American dream. That’s the booby prize, in the end. Those are the booby prizes. And if you fall for them – if, when you achieve them, you believe that this is the end in and of itself – then you’ve been suckered in. Because those are the consolation prizes, if you’re not careful, for selling yourself out, or lettin’ the best of yourself slip away. So you gotta be vigilant. You gotta carry the idea you began with further. And you gotta hope that you’re headed for higher ground.