Today’s Passages: Leviticus 16:29-31, Leviticus 23
Leviticus! Everyone’s favorite book of the Bible, next to Ecclesiastes! Seriously, though, ever since I read through it during the summer after my sophomore year of high school, I’ve found Leviticus interesting. Which laws are meant to be distinguishing marks for the ancient Hebrews as God’s chosen nation? Which laws constitute moral principles that all of us benefit from following? Which laws are oriented toward ancient agrarian culture and are of little concern to us in the 21st century because, for example, we don’t own any oxen? Sorting out what the laws say and what they mean for us today takes work, but I’ve found that it’s worth tackling.
Today we’re opening up Leviticus and looking at the Sabbath as it relates to the Jewish religious festivals instituted in chapter three. The Sabbath wasn’t the only day that the Hebrews took off from work. For instance, the Feast of Unleavened Bread takes place during the week after Passover, which begins “[i]n the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at twilight” (23:5), and the first and seventh days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread are days off from work. Then, after the wave offering (23:9-14), which is associated with bringing in the harvest, there’s another day off: ” You shall count fifty days to the day after the seventh sabbath; then you shall present a new grain offering to the Lord” (23:16). The fifteenth of the seventh month is the Feast of Booths (23:34), and that day and the twenty-second of the same month are both days with no work. And then we come to Yom Kippur.
In Leviticus 16, God institutes the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. It’s always a day to refrain from labor: “You shall humble your souls and not do any work” (16:29). It’s a day to confess your sins from the past year to God, repent, and accept forgiveness. And it’s mandatory, under penalty of death: “If there is any person who will not humble himself on this same day, he shall be cut off from his people. As for any person who does any work on this same day, that person I will destroy from among his people” (23:29-30). And this kind of enforced rest still bothers me; I can’t shake the mental image of celebrating the Fourth of July with a gun to your head. Sometimes you’ve got to let verses like these trouble you. You don’t get answers right away, and you’re left with questions on the back burner. I’m not going to have a Chocolate Book Meltdown here, but I’d be lying if I said this business wasn’t on low to medium heat.
So what can we take away, concretely? We can see that the Hebrews had days of rest beyond just the Sabbath as part of their society. They gathered together and set aside their work to remember who they were as a people. I think God wants us to do that too–and we don’t have to keep the holidays of the Jewish calendar, and we don’t even have to keep exactly the same number of holidays. Here in America, we’ve got our Christmas, our Thanksgiving, our Labor and Memorial Days and our Fourth of July, and we can take the day off from work on these and spend time together in rest. We can observe these holidays in ways that are pleasing to God.
And thank God that we aren’t forced to observe them under penalty of death. Sorry, I’ll pull it together tomorrow.