March 16, 2012

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Biblical readings: Books of Leviticus and Numbers

John F. FinkAfter spending three weeks on the Book of Exodus, next week the Office of Readings disposes of the books of Leviticus and Numbers in seven days. Obviously, the biblical readings are selective from those books.

Leviticus gets its name from the Israelite tribe of Levi, the priestly tribe, because a good part of the book consists of instructions concerning the sacrifices and rituals performed by the priests. Sunday’s reading, for example, begins with Chapter 8, with Moses ordaining Aaron and his sons.

The readings then skip to Chapter 16 with details regarding exactly how Aaron was to observe the Day of Atonement. It is quite elaborate.

It is also where we get the word “scapegoat.” It is the goat that Aaron is to “set alive before the Lord, so that with it he may make atonement by sending it off to Azazel in the desert” (Lv 16:10). This is the only time, by the way, that “Azazel,” apparently a name for Satan, is used in the Bible.

On to Chapter 19, in which the Lord gives more laws to Moses. It ends with, “Be careful, then, to observe all my statutes and decrees. I am the Lord ” (Lv 19:37).

The Office of Readings then turns to the Book of Numbers for four days. This book is so named because of two censuses of the Israelites, one near the beginning and the other toward the end of their journey in the desert. The readings selected for the Office of Readings, though, basically from Chapters 11-21, have nothing to do with them.

Rather, they show the problems that Moses had with the people, who were constantly complaining about the food—and who can blame them? “Would that we had meat for food! We remember the fish we used to eat without cost in Egypt, and the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, the garlic. But now we are famished; we see nothing before us but this manna” (Nm 11:4-6).

On top of that, the spies that Moses sent into the Promised Land come back with stories about how strong the inhabitants are: “The people who are living in the land are fierce, and the towns are fortified and very strong” (Nm 13:28).

The people demand a leader who will take them back to Egypt. God threatens to destroy them, but Moses pleads with him not to do so. So God forgives the people, but also decides that none of the people 20 years or older would enter the Promised Land, except Joshua and Caleb who were faithful.

That included Moses. He was excluded for a slight infraction. Once again, the people were rebelling because they had no water. The Lord told Moses to take Aaron’s staff in his hand and then, with the people assembled, to order water to come from a rock. Moses took the staff and struck the rock twice, and water gushed out.

Since he was told only to hold the staff while ordering the rock to yield its water, God told Moses that he would not lead the Israelites into the Promised Land. Joshua would do that. †

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