Tag Archives: Luke

The Shallow Pond Dilemma

It seems appropriate in this time of gluttony and the consumer frenzy of consumerism known as Black Friday, to talk about the ethical dilemmas of the financial choices we make.

A long time ago, I listened to Episode #100 of the Diet Soap podcast and it sparked a lot of thoughts and conversations, mostly with myself, about the nature of charity and justice and how to get from one to the other. More recently at Hope Fellowship we’ve been reaffirming our membership and commitment to the values of our little ekklesia . The last couple weeks has been teaching and discussing the value of tithing and sharing. While we can always do better, I really appreciate that we attempt to tackle one of the most touchy subjects with a little more depth, transparency and thought…how we deal with our finances. So, I thought I’d tackle some thoughts from the podcast and current conversation on the difference between charity and justice and why we should all be Mother Theresa.

The Shallow Pond Gets Deeper
In the podcast the host, Doug Lain, shares an analogy from the ethicist Peter Singer. He imagines that you are standing at a shallow pond where you see a child that has fallen in and is going to drown. The pond is shallow. So, you have no risk of injury yourself, but you have on an expensive pair of fancy shoes that you don’t want to get all muddy. In this situation it seems ridiculous to choose to preserve the muddy pair of shoes instead of the child’s life. But Singer argues that this is what we do all the time through the consumer choices we make. So, his conclusion goes something like, “You should give the money you would spend on fancy shoes to Oxfam or Unicef to take care of a starving child.”

So, Singer has highlighted the ethical dilemma involved in how we deal with our finances in light of inequality in the world. However, there are some problems with Singer’s analogy. The limit of what Singer can imagine people doing is giving lots of money to charity. Charity is the ultimate act of an utilitarian ethic. So, within the confines of an unjust social structure the best we can do is charity. Justice requires something more radical. The guest, Ben Burgis, argues that Singer’s own analogy undermines his ethic of charity,

If you go with Singer’s argument then and embrace his conclusion, then, not only should we give to charity, but even living a comfortable First World lifestyle is morally unacceptable.

Singer’s analogy presents an individual ethical dilemma where you are face to face with a choice, but when you are shopping you’re part of a mass. We don’t really make consumer choices on a purely individual basis. Within our capitalist framework we insist on the individual ethic, but there are spaces where we don’t act as individual agents, but as a collective. The forces of the economy and consumerism that create and reinforce injustice and inequality are not face to face with us when we make purchases in the supermarket or a store. As Doug Lain points out,

If you want to have a more ethical system you can’t stay within the context of that system…To ask people to invest in Oxfam instead is to ask them to do something counter to the ethics of the culture they’re in.

The Counter-Cultural Ethics of God’s Economy
This is partially the purpose of how the church is supposed to function. It intends to be an alternative to the way the world organizes itself. The hope and purpose is to embody the ethic of the reign of God that we see in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. One of the ways is by committing to share our resources with this particular community. This takes different forms. One is the tithe, where ten percent of goes to the common treasury of the church. Far from absolving us, this practice is meant to invite us further in to how this is used in the life of the church and its mission in the world. But in many ways the tithe is really the lowest common denominator form of economic participation in the life of the people of God.

In a section of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus challenges us to engage systems of domination with creative nonviolence, he offers this final, perhaps most radical, word, “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Mt 5:42). This verse challenges our most precious possession, control. When faced with how to best use our resources, this verse challenges our addiction to those resources and the power and privilege of deciding how they are used. Elsewhere, Jesus tells the rich young man that following him requires divesting himself of all his possessions and give to the poor, enacting Jubilee in his own life (Mt 19:16-22; Lk 18:18-30). There is a radical principle here summed up in the Psalms and the Jubilee in Leviticus 25 that God is the only absolute owner. Followers of Jesus are called to hold their possessions loosely as things to be used for God’s purposes and not their own accumulation or comfort.

The next post will attempt to think about ways that we can live out these ideas in our daily lives.

Coveting, Control and Captivity (Leviticus 25)

You can search this site for “jubilee”, “leviticus 25″ and “sabbath” to read more about the connections I make between Sabbath practices, ecology, economics, Jesus and Isaiah. To find something fresh to say about this central passage in the biblical narrative I turn to one of my favorite scholars.

The text of Leviticus 25 asserts both Yahweh’s radical intention and the radical social practice of entitlement that necessarily accompanies Yahweh’s intention. (103)

So, Walter Brueggeman sums up the well-known Jubilee chapter of Leviticus. Many people, particularly conservatives, hear the word entitlement primarily with negative connotations. However, the concept of predistribution which I mentioned before in relationship to Peter Barnes’ book Capitalism 3.0 is a more positive description of what Brueggeman means. Brueggeman also supports what I’ve often claimed for the importance of this chapter for understanding Israel, the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament in his book Finally Comes the Poet,

Israel’s theological conviction about the land is asserted positively in the great social vision of Leviticus 25, the text on the Jubilee year. A number of scholars now argue that this text provides the cornerstone for Israel’s ethical practice. (102)

Brueggeman makes this claim in the context of his exegesis of the command not to covet (Ex 20:17) in which he says,

Marvin Cheney has argued, and I agree, that covet in the Decalogue refers in principle to land tenure systems and land management policies. To covet means to arrange loan credit, tax, and inheritance so that some may have land that others should rightfully possess. That is, it is the systemic economic practice of greed. (99)

It is helpful to put the redistribution scheme of Leviticus 25 in the context of prohibitions against covetousness and greed. In other words, the Jubilee is the positive vision of what the world could or should be in light of the negative reality highlighted by the prohibitions in the Decalogue. Greed, or covetousness, is both based on and results in inequalities of the distribution of wealth and power. For the biblical world this comes primarily in the form of access and ownership of land. Brueggeman goes on to explore this further,

There is an important line of scholarship that argues that early Israel (which gives us the seed of all biblical faith) is essentially a social revolution concerning land tenure systems. This charter for “egalitarianism” culminated in the commandment against coveting that prohibits the rapacious policies of the state that characteristically monopolize law, power, and wealth… The Bible has understood, long before Karl Marx, that the basic human issues concern land, power, and the means of production. (99-100)

I have argued before in these virtual pages that a biblical economy is based on the land, and I’m happy to find confirmation from such a highly respected biblical, particularly Old Testament, scholar. Some will dismiss everything at the mention of that dreaded name, “Marx”, but will have missed the point Brueggeman makes that, far from being “Marxist”, the Bible is fundamentally human. Where Marx gets things right he happens to agree with the biblical emphasis on justice, egalitarianism and land reform. Most Christians read the Ten Commandments (and the whole biblical narrative) primarily in individualistic terms. What they miss is the socio-political context of these commands which were understood in much more radical terms by the original hearers.

So, Jubilee is the antithesis to coveting, but Brueggeman unpacks this further in terms of control and captivity,

The theological issue related to the land is sharing— respecting the entitlement of others. The preacher’s theme for those who gather is greed. Greed touches every aspect of our lives: economic, political, sexual, psychological, and theological. Greed bespeaks a fundamental disorder in our lives, a disorder that reflects distortion in our relation with God.

Central to this issue is the addiction to control that permeates human history. In verse 6 the text poses the question most people probably have when reading about letting the land lie fallow for a year, “What then shall we eat?” I hope to explore this aspect of Jubilee further, but the response of the text is that God provides abundantly, such that the people will still be eating from the produce of the Sabbath year three years later. Loss of control is scary, but God clearly promises that letting go of control is actually better than when we hold tightly to the reins.

This addiction to control is a kind of captivity or slavery. When we hold our possessions and wealth tightly, we are possessed by them. We become slaves to the things we pretend to have control over. Their is a subtle reversal in the relationship to material goods that most people don’t recognize in their daily lives. The logic of greed and coveting and the systems that perpetuate these values traps us in a spiral from which we cannot extricate ourselves. This kind of captivity is picked up by the prophet Isaiah (61:1-2) when he proclaims “good news to the poor”, “liberty to the captives” and the “year of the Lord’s favor”. Many scholars argue that this is a reference to the Jubilee, which is then appropriated by Jesus when he quotes Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth and says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21). This proclamation of liberation from captivity which is good news to the poor is a thread connecting the Torah, Prophets, Gospels and on through Paul and James. This Jubilee thread weaves a tapestry that paints a picture of the “kingdom of heaven” at the core of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

But Brueggeman also admonishes that the prohibition against coveting and the positive command of the Jubilee are not based on a revelatory “because God said so”, but instead on real world experience.

This claim about God and the distribution of land is not accepted simply on the basis of revelation, but can be established in terms of social experience. Excessive land grabbing leads to death, whether in the family, in the church, in the faculty, or in Latin America. (101)

Living among people that are desperate for access to land, I can attest to the timelessness of this assertion. North American and western cultures have isolated themselves from the death that the injustice and inequality of economic systems creates, causes and exacerbates, but it is very real. Those at the very bottom understand that their inability to access land is the basis of their poverty and exploitation. For middle class westerners so detached and abstracted from their land base, it seems strange that people are still fighting over access to land. We have been sold the lie that we can solve poverty and basic inequalities in the system without dealing with the most fundamental issue of access to land and exploitation of natural resources. It is so important to recognize that this is not an arbitrary commandment, but one based on the social and economic realities of human existence which continue to apply today.

I’d like to share a story that Brueggeman relates which, I think, helps connect this ancient text and practice to our current context,

A concrete embodiment of the Jubilee command- ment was evidenced in a rural church in Iowa during the “farm crisis.” The banker in the town held mortgages on many farms. The banker and the farmers belonged to the same church. The banker could have foreclosed. He did not because, he said, “These are my neighbors and I want to live here a long time.” He extended the loans and did not collect the interest that was rightly his. The pastor concluded, “He was practicing the law of the Jubilee year, and he did not even know it.” The pastor might also have noted that the reason the banker could take such action is that his bank was a rare exception. It was locally and independently owned, not controlled by a larger Chicago banking system. (104)

Finally, let me end with this challenge from Brueggeman,

What if the central claim of the Tenth Commandment is true: that coveting kills, that taking what belongs to another destroys, and that life-giving social practice requires giving things back to people! (106)

Holy Bread Batman! (Leviticus 24:5-9)

Leviticus 24: 5-6, 8-9 You shall take fine flour and bake twelve loaves from it; two tenths of an ephah shall be in each loaf. And you shall set them in two piles, six in a pile, on the table of pure gold before the LORD… Every Sabbath day Aaron shall arrange it before the LORD regularly; it is from the people of Israel as a covenant forever. And it shall be for Aaron and his sons, and they shall eat it in a holy place, since it is for him a most holy portion out of the LORD’s food offerings, a perpetual due.

Baking God’s Bread
Bread is one of the most common foods around the world. Almost every culture has some form of it whether it’s tortillas in Mexico, naan in India, pita in Greece or any number of variations across cultures. So, it seems both unusual and obvious that this staple is a part of sacred rituals. The unleavened bread prepared in the Exodus for a hasty departure is enshrined in the rituals of Passover. Later Jesus takes this Passover bread along with wine, another ordinary staple of the time, and institutes a new ritual to remember his life and coming death. These ordinary things are consecrated and made holy in their rituals.

The passage under consideration from Leviticus 24 concerns how to prepare and arrange the consecrated bread “as a memorial portion as a food offering” and for the priests to eat. There is nothing very interesting about the passage that I can see, except that something so ordinary as bread is made into something holy. In my post What’s for Dinner? on Leviticus 11 and the dietary laws I considered the distinction drawn in that chapter between what is holy and what is common. In that post I asked, “So, what separates the holy from the common? What turns bread and wine from a simple meal into a holy ritual? How does this union of the holy and the common teach us to live?” Perhaps we can find some answers in an incident involving this holy bread.

One Order of Holy Bread… Comin’ Up!
In 1 Sam 21 David is fleeing the wrath of King Saul and comes to the priest Ahimelech in Nob. David lies to Ahimelech about being on a secret mission from the king and asks him for “five loaves of bread, or whatever is here” (1 Sam 21: 3). Ahimelech responds, “I have no common bread on hand, but there is holy bread—if the young men have kept themselves from women.” (1 Sam 21:4) Notice the distinction of holy and common once again. David promises the men are pure enough to receive the holy bread. The bread is handed over without reservation. It doesn’t seem that David is crossing some sort of religious or ethical boundary by taking the bread, nor the priest by giving it. Perhaps the urgency of a secret mission under the authority of the king made it a situation in which this use of the bread was more acceptable. The text, however, does not indicate that there is any problem with the bread being used for such purposes. The text explains, “So the priest gave him the holy bread, for there was no bread there but the bread of the Presence, which is removed from before the LORD, to be replaced by hot bread on the day it is taken away.” The rationale is simply that there was no other bread available.

This episode is picked up by Jesus when his disciples are rebuked by some Pharisees for plucking heads of grain and eating them on the Sabbath (the same day that the bread described in Levticus 24 and 1 Sam 21 was made). This incident occurs in all of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 12:1-8; Mark 2:23-28; Luke 6:1-5) and has very little variation between the Gospels. The Pharisees ask, “why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” (Mt 12:24) To which Jesus responds,

Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him? (Mt 12:25-26)

Leviticus does make it clear that the bread was “a perpetual due” (Lev 24:9) for the priests, but does not forbid its consumption by others in this passage. Certainly that tradition came from the ritual purpose of the bread and its intended consumption by the priests who depended on the sacrificial system for their food. Matthew’s Jesus responds by saying “something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the guiltless.” (Mt 12:6-7) This recalls the words of the prophet Isaiah concerning the emptiness of sacrifices in the presence of injustice (Isaiah 1:11-17). It raises the question concerning the purpose of sacrifices and things consecrated such as the bread.

I Am The Living Bread
Jesus calls into question the assumptions that had developed over the years in terms of his own mission and vocation. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (Mk 2:27-28). The first part of this statement reorients the Sabbath tradition and practices around their intended purpose. It is not an arbitrary rule which people must follow in order to fulfill some religious law and achieve purity or holiness. No, the Sabbath is permeated by an acknowledgment of right relationships throughout creation. I have previously written about connecting the Sabbath day to the practices of the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee as a nexus of practices that are interwoven and interrelated. I have also pointed out previously that the Sabbath is first a practice of remembering and retelling the creation story including and perhaps most importantly our place as human beings and creatures within that creation.

The statement that Jesus is “lord of the Sabbath” is the concluding statement in all of the Synoptic Gospels. In light of our broader understanding of the nature of Sabbath practices this statement is far more than an assertion of religious authority. It gather together the Sabbath practices and asserts that right-relatedness to God, other people and the earth finds its ultimate revelation in the person of Jesus. It is this principle of right-relatedness that governs religious practices such as the Sabbath. On the surface this conflict with the Pharisees and Jesus over his disciples’ breaking of Sabbath observance concerns primarily what is or is not allowed during the weekly observance of the Sabbath day. However, Jesus’ response to the confrontation clearly places it within a larger context and places himself at the center of mediating the right-relatedness at the heart of the Sabbath observance.

Returning then to our initial question concerning what makes something holy, we find that Jesus has, as usual, subverted our questions by shifting the focus. The point is not what is holy or common, clean or unclean. The proper perspective concerns our relationship to our fellow humans and our individual and collective relationship to the earth. The fact that sacred rituals make common elements and objects into holy things teaches us that they are not magic talismans. They remain ordinary staples that can be consumed in a moment of need. The Sabbath can be broken based on its own inherent principle of right-relatedness. This teaches us the principle that our relationships to our neighbor and the biosphere take priority over religious rituals, even when, and especially if, the rituals intended to serve that purpose fail to do so.

The Law of Love (Leviticus 19 The New Testament Remix)

I began looking at Leviticus 19 a couple weeks ago in terms of its original context. This is part two in which I hope to draw some important connections with the New Testament, in particular Jesus and Paul. Because of the scope of what I’m trying to cover, I will conclude with a post connecting Leviticus 19 and the letter of James with some concluding remarks. I will warn you ahead of time that this is long and could easily have been a thesis paper for seminary, but I believe it is well worth your time and was edifying to me as I studied and wrote it. First, I would like to rant a little and clarify something.

“Various Laws”
The title given in some Bibles for this chapter is “Various Laws”. Indeed it seems to be an amalgamation of leftover laws, thoughts and ideas that didn’t make the cut or reiterations of laws found elsewhere. Yet, we should remember that the system of chapters and verses was added after the fact and certainly the designation of “Various Laws” for this chapter is not part of the inspired word. While people who publish Bibles like to add these little things (not to mention all the sidebars, boxes and inserts in many Bibles) in order to help us read the Bible, they act as a filter and mediator for our reading of the text. The title “Various Laws” tells me what to think about the text that follows. Instead, we should assume that those ancient editors who put together the version of Scripture that we have today did so with intention and purpose, not haphazardly. What appears to be a random collection of laws probably serves some particular purpose. The fact that Leviticus 19 contains the verse on which Jesus said all of the Law and Prophets hinged (19:18b) should also tell us that something more than “Various Laws” is going on here.

Jesus, Paul and James all refer to Leviticus 19:18 in different contexts. With the previous post on Leviticus 19 in its original context as our background, I would like to consider each of the eight passages in which it is mentioned and attempt to synthesize the importance of this verse and chapter of Leviticus for a New Testament theology.

The Great Commandment
The most important parallel references are in Matthew 22:39 and Mark 12:31 in which the scribes or Pharisees question Jesus about which commandment is the greatest in the Torah. Matthew’s Pharisees intend to “test” Jesus with their question, while the scribe in Mark affirms Jesus’ response and is in turn affirmed by Jesus with the words “You are not far from the kingdom of God”. In both cases the answer to the question is the same. The greatest commandment is the Shema, “
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut 6:4-5). This was the expected traditional Jewish answer, but Jesus adds another qualifier to his answer and quotes Leviticus 19:18b “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Remember that Jesus was only asked to give one command, the greatest. Instead Jesus, I believe, correctly interprets the Torah and refuses to separate love of God from love of neighbor. In Matthew he then orients the entire Hebrew Bible around the connection of these two commands by saying “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Mt 22:40).

We should also read these passages within their greater context of questioning by the scribes and Pharisees and Jesus’ responses aimed at undermining oppressive structures, religious, political or otherwise. Matthew 22 begins with a parable about the kingdom in which the uninvited and unwanted become guests of honor at the wedding feast. Both Mark and Matthew connect this with the question about paying taxes to Caesar and Jesus’ subversive response. Mark concludes his chapter with the observation of the poor widow who gave “everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mk 12:44) and was thus deprived of subsistence by an unjust temple tax. Therefore Jesus’ insistence that all of the Torah and Prophets depend on the understanding that our social relationships reflect our relationship to God and vice versa means that justice and right-relatedness is at the very heart of his understanding of the “kingdom of God” that he preached.

Who Do You Love, Neighbors or Possessions?
The other parallel reference is in Matthew 19:16-22 and Luke 10:25-37. Both passages begin with someone coming to Jesus to ask, “what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Lk 10:25). In the Matthew passage Jesus initially deflects the question and tells him simply to keep the commandments. When the man presses him asking, “Which ones?”, Jesus lists off half of the Ten Commandments and ends with “love your neighbor as yourself”. The man claims that he has kept all these commandments. But when Jesus tells him to “be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven”, the man refuses and leaves in sorrow “for he had great possessions” (Mt 19:21-22). In light of our reading of the command in Leviticus 19:18, it is clear that the man cannot fulfill the spirit of the commandments because he refuses his social connection and responsibility to those around him. Indeed, his confession that he has kept all these commands is revealed to be false when the practical application and implications of these commands is taken to their logical conclusion. He cannot maintain his “great possessions” and confess to love his neighbor. They are mutually exclusive.

Neighbor is a Verb
The reference in Luke to the neighbor commandment comes in the context of a lawyer trying to test Jesus. Luke’s passage does not end with the lawyer retreating. Instead the lawyer “desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, And who is my neighbor?” (Lk 10:29). Jesus responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan in which the question is changed from “Who is my neighbor?” into “Who is a neighbor?”. The attempt to find loopholes in the law is subverted by transforming the idea that the “neighbor” is an identifiable group of people into the idea that it is our job to be a neighbor to others, to “go and do likewise” (Lk 10:37). So, Jesus adds another dimension to this command about loving our neighbor. It is not possible to fulfill the command while simultaneously trying to exclude any group of people from its implications.

Finally, Jesus also refers to the “love your neighbor” passage in his Sermon on the Mount when he transcends the “eye for an eye” ethic of the Hebrew Bible (which was intended to limit excessive punishment) and reframes it in these terms, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44). So, neighbor is equated here with enemy and the division that makes it possible to draw lines between humanity is obliterated.

Love Is Not Against the Law
Paul refers to the “love your neighbor” command in Romans 13:9 where he says that all the commandments “are summed up in this word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. First we should simply recognize that Paul is picking up on Jesus’ teaching about the Torah and reiterating it here for us. What is more interesting to me is that this occurs directly after the passage which many Christians and theologians use to justify subservience and acquiescence to governmental authority regardless of the nature of its laws, governing or authority. I tend to agree with John Howard Yoder’s interpretation of Paul’s words concerning the Christian’s relationship to authorities and government in this passage which you can read in his book Politics of Jesus. It is as if Paul intends to clarify his previous statement, perhaps to prevent it from being misconstrued, by placing it squarely in the center of Jesus’ teaching about the commandments in the Torah.

Paul concludes his discourse on submitting to authorities by saying, “Pay to all what is owed to them” (Ro 13:7) and immediately turns and says, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Ro 13:8). This is an incredible piece of rhetoric, perhaps even political satire reminiscent of Jesus’ response to the question about paying taxes to Caesar. In the same way Jesus subverts “what is Caesar’s” by saying that the Jews should “give to God what is God’s”, Paul seems to wink at the previous advice to submit to authorities and pay what is owed by them by pointing out that “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Ro 13:10). What law is he referring to here, the law of the Torah or the law of the governing authorities? I would suggest that the answer is both and that Paul is juxtaposing the ultimate law of love with the imperfect laws of the Powers. So, the great command which integrates love of God and the social justice inherent in loving our neighbor is also inherently countercultural to the order and tendency of the Powers of the world.

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians he is primarily concerned with the influence of Judaizers who insisted that followers of Jesus had to continue to follow the laws of the Torah, in particular the rite of circumcision. The main theme of the letter is the meaning and purpose of the law, of freedom in Christ and the implications of the latter on the former. Chapter five begins, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1). Then Paul sums up his understanding of the relationship of the law to this new freedom in Christ this way, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal 5:13-14). Again, reiterating Jesus’ teaching on the centrality of the “love your neighbor” commandment in another context, Paul expands the understanding of freedom in terms of the “law of love”. The freedom we are called to in Christ is not a license to do what we want, but rather a limited freedom governed by the great commandment to love our neighbor which contains the social and political implications we have already outlined.

In the final post I will consider the connection between Leviticus 19, the letter of James and the observations we have already made concerning the original context of the Hebrew Bible and the consequent interpretations and teaching by Jesus and Paul.


Can I Offer You Something? (Leviticus 1-7)

The only reason I knew anything about the book of Leviticus growing up is because it has lots of weird rules about sex including nocturnal emissions which for a teenager was pretty entertaining. For me and most people the book is a pretty boring collection of rules and regulations about a lot of things that don’t seem to make any sense in our modern world. While there is plenty that remains a mystery to me, this book has become one of my favorites because of some of its key passages (Chapters 19 and 25 being my favorite).

The Divine Meal
That said, the opening chapters do appear to be some of the most boring in the whole Bible. Leviticus 1-7 gives instructions on offerings and sacrifices for the Israelites. There’s lots of detail and repetition and very little seems to connect to a world in which this sacrificial system is non-existent. A few things stand out to me at first glance, especially as it relates to our theme of food. First, the people making these offerings are all farmers. These are agrarian people who are bringing crops and animals that they grew themselves. This changes later and Jesus is not happy about it (see Mt 21:12-13; Mk 11:15-19; Lk 20:45-48; Jn 2:12-25). So, they are directly related to the sacrifice that they offer and it is an agricultural product, food.

The second is that for three of the five kinds of offerings there is no explicit reason given for the offering. The text simply says, “When any of you brings an offering to the Lord…” (Lev 1:2) and goes on with instructions about how it should be done. The instructions for these offerings (burnt, grain and fellowship offerings) conclude with something like “[It is] an offering made by fire, an aroma pleasing to the Lord” (Lev 1:17). While many people and theologians focus on the sin and guilt offerings (especially as they relate to the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection, particularly because of the connections made by the Letter to the Hebrews), these other offerings concern the ongoing relationship of the people to God apart from any need for atonement. This is the meal and the gift in which the people encounter the divine.

The burnt, grain and fellowship offerings are how they continue and maintain a relationship with God and they are intimately connected to the land which produces their sustenance in crops and animals. The burnt and fellowship offerings were to be “without defect” whether it was a cow, sheep or goat. The grain offering was to be “fine flour” whether it was baked into bread or not. In my mind I connect these offerings with the biblical practice of hospitality. It is as if God is a guest and we are preparing a meal to share. This is what we say to guests when they come to our houses. “Can I offer you something to drink or eat?” It is not just about being proper. It is about nurturing a relationship. I’m sure a lot could be added about “hospitality cultures” and the role of hospitality in episodes throughout the Bible, but you can see the basic connection.

Everybody’s Guilty
I noticed a couple of interesting things about the sin and guilt offerings. First, the language is not one of harsh rebuke. It does not say when you really screw up and feel guilty you should come and give an offering to straighten things out and feel better. It says, “When anyone sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden…” (Lev 4:2) There is also language about intentional sin (Lev 5:1-6; 6:1-7), but unintentional sin is referred to as the reason for making either the sin or guilt offering five out of seven times (Lev 4:2, 13, 22, 27; 5:15). Imagine the humility of bringing your most prized possession, “a young bull without defect” (4:3), to atone for something you might have done wrong but didn’t know about.

We would have a hard time practicing this kind of relationship to God in our churches. We are way more concerned about figuring out our own sins (and often everyone else’s as well) and doing what it takes to atone for that sin. Whether it’s confession and penance for Catholics, Eucharist for all Christians or even the fervent prayers of evangelicals and ecstatic worship of charismatics, all are (some in more ways than others) an attempt to atone for intentional, known sin. What does it look like to approach God humbly with a precious offering for our unknown sins?

The second thing I noticed is the communal language concerning the sin offering. “If the whole Israelite community sins unintentionally…When they become aware…the assembly must bring a young bull as a sin offering… This is the sin offering for the community.” (Lev 4:13-14, 21) This is so foreign to our modern sensibilities that it is almost hard to imagine how this would work. How does the whole community even become aware of unintentional sin?Then how do they collectively act together to atone? Certainly there is some hierarchy involved, because “the elders of the community” (Lev 4:15) were to act on behalf of the people. Yet there is still a sense of the communal that our concept of religion, influenced by western individualism and American exceptionalism has a hard time grasping.

Conclusion
Pulling these thoughts together I have two main issues that, I think, this reading raises concerning our understanding of atonement theology and the implications for an agrarian context on the interpretation of the Bible.

First, If our theology of atonement has developed over the centuries by connecting Jesus’ work on the cross to the sacrificial system of the Israelites as outlined in these first chapters of Leviticus, then how would our theology change with a different understanding of the nature and purpose of the sacrificial system? The Bible uses a number of metaphors to understand Jesus’ work on the cross. The judicial language predominates in modern theology where Jesus takes our place in a transaction where he absorbs our guilt and offers a way out of the conundrum of sin. This language does connect somewhat to the practice of the sin and guilt offerings, but these were less than half of the whole sacrificial system and as we have seen they also involved a communal understanding of what took place. So, a better understanding of Jesus’ work that continues to draw on the sacrificial system as a metaphor, or better parallel, should include the communal and unintentional aspects of the sin offering along side our current emphasis.

This broadened understanding of atonement should also include the other offerings that were made. How would we expand our understanding of Jesus’ work on the cross to include the offerings of crops and animals to maintain and nurture a relationship? Could it be that Jesus’ death and resurrection can also be understood as a divine act that attempts to maintain and nurture (even in some ultimate or cosmic sense) the relationship between the divine and human? The fact that Jesus, himself, instituted a meal as the ritual for remembering the sacrifice he would make strongly suggests a connection to the offerings that were in effect divine meals. It also seems that the dual nature of Christ and the idea from Hebrews that Jesus is both the High Priest and sacrifice speak to the work on the cross as somehow transcending the sacrificial system, not by doing away with it, but incorporating it into this new work, the breaking in of the new heaven and new earth. In this way we can balance the traditional emphasis on guilt and repentance, which is important, with the other 3/5 of the sacrificial system which was meant to maintain and nurture the divine/human relationship.

The subtitle of Ellen Davis’ book Scripture, Culture and Agriculture is “An Agrarian Reading of the Bible”. Her book does an incredible job connecting modern agrarian writers and thought to the context of the biblical narrative, primarily the Hebrew Bible. What is left to do after her most helpful contribution is to begin to draw out the implications for our understandings of theological doctrines, such as the atonement, and what’s more our hermeneutic for reading and interpreting our sacred text. The historical-critical method and other schools of interpretation place emphasis on understanding the cultural and historical context in order to interpret the biblical text. While some work has surely been done in this area, most of the scholarship focuses on political, economic, social, cultural and religious realities. It seems that we may have ignored a fundamental dimension of the biblical context which should shape our understanding and interpretation of the text.

The question then becomes whether what we find can be transferred to our current technological society in which we are (in “developed” countries”) far removed from an agrarian lifestyle and worldview, or does the text from an agrarian interpretation stand in judgment of our way of life in relationship to each other and the land? My guess is that the answer is both, but the latter is the aspect of the text that has been neglected. In many ways this is what my Food in the Bible project is really all about. I am trying to reclaim an agrarian reading of the Bible that reads, interprets and judges the context of the world as we experience it today.