An Eye For An Eye

I once wrote that the only instance we have in the torah — the teaching — of someone being put to death for violating any commandments was in Numbers 15.

Well, I was wrong.

There are two instances of people being put to death for violating commandments. And both are instructive.

The first is in Leviticus 24, and it includes the extended version of the teaching on injuries and recompense, “fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him.” (Leviticus 24:19–20, also Exodus 21:22–25 and Deuteronomy 19:21) But the story this teaching is wrapped up in — and it’s odd in Leviticus being part of an actual story — has nothing to do with murder, manslaughter, or the killing of animals.

10 Now an Israelite woman’s son, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the people of Israel. And the Israelite woman’s son and a man of Israel fought in the camp, 11 and the Israelite woman’s son blasphemed the Name, and cursed. Then they brought him to Moses. His mother’s name was Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan. 12 And they put him in custody, till the will of the Lord should be clear to them.

13 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 14 “Bring out of the camp the one who cursed, and let all who heard him lay their hands on his head, and let all the congregation stone him. 15 And speak to the people of Israel, saying, Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin. 16 Whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall stone him. The sojourner as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death. …

23 So Moses spoke to the people of Israel, and they brought out of the camp the one who had cursed and stoned him with stones. Thus the people of Israel did as the Lord commanded Moses. (Leviticus 24:10–16, 23 ESV)

Note the detail here. We know who this is, we know his lineage, even as we do not know his name. But he is a person here, a real person. We do not know exactly how he has done what he has done — blaspheming, cursing “the Name” — but clearly he has done it.

And he is held, because it is not entirely clear what is to be done, until the the “will of the Lord” should be made known.

The second example comes from Numbers 15, and is shorter.

32 While the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. 33 And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation. 34 They put him in custody, because it had not been made clear what should be done to him. 35 And the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” 36 And all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, as the Lord commanded Moses. (Numbers 15:32–36 ESV)

Again, a sabbath breaker is found in the wilderness, and he is detained because no one is entirely sure what to do with the collector of sticks. (It is also unclear whether or not he is an Israelite, though I usually assume he isn’t, though that’s just an assumption and we all need to remember that. It would be an equal assumption to say he was an Israelite.)

In both instances, there is uncertainty. Even though the teaching has been given about cursing the name of the Lord and seeing the Sabbath holy, there is uncertainty. The Lord has to speak in these matters.

And he does. In Leviticus, God teaches about the value of human life and the proper response to those who take life. About what is owed to God and to whoever is wronged by an act of violence which injures or kills. Which, it has to be admitted, has squat to do with blaspheming the name.

This is an interesting place for that teaching.

There is no teaching in the Numbers passage. This is a one-off, like the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court decision, an important ruling that does not seem intended to set precedent.

But there is something interesting in common with these two passages.

“All the congregation shall stone him” Leviticus reads. “All the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him with stones” reads Numbers.

This stoning, this putting to death, is a communal activity. This isn’t merely delegated to paid agents to do, a bureaucratic or even mechanical process left up to law and administration. There can be no self-righteous accusers of sabbath breaking or blasphemy (or murder, for that matter) who do not share in the righteous shedding of blood here. This is a communal, collective act in which all must participate.

All must gather a stone. And hurl it.

Jesus understood this when, in John’s gospel, he saves the woman caught in the act of adultery by telling the Pharisees, “Let him who is without sin among be the first to throw a stone at her.” He understood the communal and participatory nature of this punishment. The Lord is speaking again here, in John 8. Jesus does judge — he knows she is a sinner, what she has done, and what the teaching demands. But he does not condemn her. He send her on her way, and commands her to “sin no more.”

The stones stay where they belong — on the ground.

Throughout the gospels, Jesus works on the Sabbath. He gathers food, heals, casts out demons. And he blasphemes fairly regularly, at least in the eyes of the Pharisees who administered the law.

This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. (John 5:18 ESV)

Blasphemy is the primary charge leveled by the Pharisees against Jesus in Mark and Matthew. Jesus pays for the price for that blasphemy, like the son of Shelomith did (though claiming to be the Son of God was probably not his sin).

The point here is that Jesus specifically breaks commandments for which we have very specific death penalties in scripture. He works on the sabbath. He is accused of blaspheming. As a man, he is subject to the law. He is killed. We kill him.

But he is also God speaking in our midst. He is the giver of the law. His “go and sin no more” follows “I do not condemn you.” He judges, but he forgives. His work on the Sabbath involves not just gathering food or healing, but proclaiming himself Lord of the Sabbath (blasphemy!) and announcing that good deeds are an acceptable Sabbath practice.

Certainty and confidence with mercy. A bold sinning that reminds those around him that to pronounce condemnation also requires taking up a stone and throwing it.

On Being Forgiven

I was perusing the first couple of chapters of Leviticus yesterday afternoon, between noodling on my guitar and reading online essays, when I noticed something beginning in chapter four that seems crucial to the whole system of repentance and sacrifice:

And the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven. וְכִפֶּר עֲלֵהֶם הַכֹּהֵ֖ן וְנִסְלַח לָהֶֽם (Leviticus 4:20)

Some version of this is repeated four times in chapter four, which describes sin offerings for sins by the priest (which brings “guilt upon the people”), the whole congregation, a leader, and one of the common people. In each instance, the priest will accept the sacrifice required, make atonement, and forgive the person who is seeking forgiveness.

This is for sins committed without intention to sin — accidents, mistakes, forgetful or thoughtless moments. It’s clear here intent is important. One who intends to sin is measured by a different standard.

Which makes sense to us.

What struck me here is how central forgiveness is here. The priest shall make atonement, and they shall be forgiven. There is no examining of the heart here, no querrying of intentions. To bring the required sacrificial animal to the priest, one without blemish, is enough. That in and of itself signals a desire to repent, to atone, and then have that atonement accepted and forgiveness — סָלַח — is required. At least here.

This is true for individual sin and collective sin:

If the whole congregation of Israel sins unintentionally [make a mistake], and the thing is hidden from the eyes of the assembly, and they do any one of the things that by the Lord’s commandments ought not to be done, and they realize their guilt, when the sin which they have committed becomes known… (Leviticus 4:13)

Yes, this requires an understanding of sin — its being revealed, made known, and guilt realized — but that requires atonement made, and once atonement is made, the sinner(s) forgiven.

But forgiveness … is pronounced. To all who come, knowing they have sinned or having had their sin made known to them, and wish to repent.


This strikes me because the church (especially the liberal church) has confused inclusion with forgiveness. Yes, inclusion of those formerly excluded by the teaching from the community of God’s people is a prophetic promise and a gospel realization (Acts 8:26–40). Those who had been excluded may indeed feel themselves broken, unclean, cast out, rejected, and certainly understand the welcome of Jesus to eat at his table — even to sit at the head! — as long promised redemption.

They may also feel like sinners, having been told most of their lives they are sinful simply for being who they are, and excluded for their own good. And the good of those gathered at the table.

But sinners are also those who have done wrong, made mistakes, and through their acts, separated themselves from the presence of God in the tabernacle at the heart of God’s people. The church still struggles with that residue of pietism, of being the true body of Christ, of being a people pure and sinless, a people in no need of redemption to begin with. (If you need God’s grace, you clearly haven’t earned it!) The church — liberal and conservative — would still rather be that church, I think, than deal with this real, bloody, messy, gut-spilling work of atonement.

And forgiveness.

How Sex Is Different

I wrote at length earlier this year about sexual ethics — who Israelites were not allowed to have sex with, who Israelites are allowed to marry, why God’s marriage to Israel/Church is a really awful marriage, and who apparently is not off limits according to the law of God — in order to show that homosexuality (or rather, homosexual acts) are no different in scripture from adultery or cavorting with one’s daughter-in-law. Or the neighboring Canaanites.

Because homosexual acts — specifically men lying with men as with women, whatever that might mean — are bundled with a whole bunch of other acts in Leviticus 18 & 20 which are condemned, and which Israel shall not do “as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you.” (Lev. 18:3) So, while homosexual acts may not be different from any other breaking of the covenant in Leviticus, sex itself is different from all the other rules and teaching God gives to Israel.

It’s different because God says something very specific about the consequences that will flow from Israel’s failure to adhere to these specific rules:

24 “Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, 25 and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. (Leviticus 18:24-25 ESV)


“You shall therefore keep all my statutes and all my rules and do them, that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out. (Leviticus 20:22 ESV)

The word vomit here comes from the Hebrew root קיא which means roughly what it says — to spew out, throw up, disgorge, cast out. It’s a very physical act. And an unpleasant one, an involuntary one, something a person does when she or he is very sick. Or poisoned.

Israel faces a lot of penalties for failing to keep the covenant — disease, pestilence, famine, conquest, exile, slavery. But those are all externally imposed. They come from outside the land of Israel, in the form of Assyrians and Babylonians. Only in the case of these sexual sins does the land itself threaten to grow sick and expel Israel.

That’s what makes sex different, and what makes these acts unique. (The passage does not say why sex is different. We are free to speculate, but any conclusions we come to are just that — speculation.) They poison the very land, which grows so ill that it will expel Israel, just as God expelled the Canaanites so that Israel may take possession of the land.

But that said, nothing I wrote in my first essay on Leviticus 18 & 20 is changed. Israel is still built upon a violation of these very commandments — Abraham married his half-sister; Jacob took two sisters as wives; Judah impregnated his daughter-in-law; and Moses, Aaron, and Miriam were all born because their father took his aunt to be his wife. Granted, all of these things took place before the teaching was given (though the teaching was given to Moses, who by all rights should be excluded from the assembly as per Deuteronomy 23:2 because he was born of a “forbidden union”), but Israel would not exist — would not be standing before Mt. Sinai or wandering in the wilderness receiving this teaching — were it not for its sister(s)-marrying and daughter-in-law-fucking ancestors.

Again, this sounds like so many of the if/then, else/then construction that comes with the Torah. If Israel can stay clean, can keep from worshiping other gods and doing all these things it is told not to do, then Israel can stay in God’s good graces and keep the land. The land won’t be poisoned with its sin and will not vomit Israel out.

But none of this can be seen as an abstract command to the people of God. It cannot be read outside of the story. And in this story we have, Israel cavorts with other gods, it sacrifices its children to Molech, and very likely continues to do all of the things condemned in Leviticus 18 and 20. Because of this, the Assyrians and the Babylonians come. Israel is conquered. And exiled.

The land does vomit Israel out.

Israel pays a harsh price for all of its sin, for all of its idolatry, for all of its faithlessness.

But never does Israel stop being the people of God. Never, after God’s initial pique of rage in Exodus 32 to destroy Israel and start over with Moses, and a terrifying threat to walk away completely from Israel in Judges 10, does God ever disown Israel. Or abandon Israel to the ultimate fate of annihilation. Resurrection always looms as a promise. Jeremiah’s valley of slaughter becomes Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, and the very breath of God makes new life where there was only stillness, silence, and death.

Where there was only the faint memory of a people.

Christians have longed feared the consequences — both collective and individual — of sin. We read the Bible and fear the wrath of God. Sinners didn’t just put their eternal souls at risk, they also put the wellbeing of the entire community at risk as well. Famine, pestilence, rebellion, and foreign invader were all seen as consequences of allowing sin. So we teach ourselves to keep the law, to adhere to the teaching, if for no other reason than because that’s what virtuous and upstanding followers of Jesus do. And possibly because to do otherwise invites divine retaliation, the punishment of God, upon all of us.

But that’s not what God really tells Israel, not in the Old Testament nor in the New. The promise of God is not prosperity and success for those who walk the straight and narrow path (not even in Deuteronomy!), but resurrection for those of us who have perished in our sin. Christ came not to bear a burden for us, but with us. His defeat of death is the defeat of sin. It is the promise that whatever the judgment of God upon our sinful, chaotic, and deeply disordered lives (as individuals and as the people of God), our bones will not lay bleaching in the sun forever. Our dust will not moulder in the graves for eternity. Death has no hold over us. We are raised with him who rose.

We are raised with him who rose.

The Wages of Sin is … What, Exactly?

On my recent drive from Indianapolis to Baltimore, Jennifer and I sang some of my songs. (Just the words. I don’t play guitar or ukulele and try to drive at the same time. I fear that would end badly.) We do this often. One of the songs I started singing was this, something I wrote for a friend’s installation as a pastor in Virginia and based on a passage in Deuteronomy:

Basically, it’s a fairly faithful rendering of this:

15 “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. 17 But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” (Deuteronomy 30:15-20 ESV)

And as I worried about whether our van would overheat as it crossed the hills of West Virginia and western Maryland, I found myself thinking about what it means that God has set before us “life and death and good and evil” (my rendering; the actual passage bundles the good and the bad together). And what it meant that Israel would perish if it failed to adhere follow the path of life.

After all, God commands Israel, through Moses, to “choose life.” Not just for ourselves, but for our children and their children (and their children) as well.

This passage is part of the blessings and curses that God proclaims to Israel regarding the following — or lack thereof — of the teaching God has just given to Israel through Moses. It’s echoed by Paul when he writes in Romans:

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23 ESV)

And this verse is, at least in my experience, frequently used by fundamentalists to try and persuade. (I remember this from a lot of Chick tracts.) “If you are a sinner, you will surely die,” it says. The implication is, I think, that you will suffer for your sins, or perhaps even be struck down. God has no tolerance for sin. (That’s it part of a lengthy discourse on sin and reconciliation that begins with Paul speaking of Christ’s death, and our baptism into his death, frequently is ignored.)

I thought about these verses, about the promise from God that Israel would perish if it failed to adhere to the covenant.

Because Israel failed. It’s interesting, the Deuteronomy passage included blessings and curses. And both came true. Israel was blessed. Israel was cursed. The has been blessed. The church has been cursed.

Israel’s story is the story of failure. Of defeat. Of conquest and of exile. That fact — that Israel failed, and doing so, tells us what the church’s life as the people of God has will look like. In Leviticus 18, for example, after God gives Israel the long list of sex acts Israelites are not allowed to do:

24 “Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, 25 and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. 26 But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you 27 (for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean), 28 lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. (Leviticus 18:24-28 ESV)

This bit about the land vomiting Israel out if it fails to adhere to these rules is repeated in Leviticus 20:22. And given the history, of Israel’s conquest, of the disappearance of the norther kingdom (Israel/Ephraim), and the conquest and exile of the southern kingdom (Judah, Benjamin, and Levi), it would be easy to describe what happened as exactly that — the land vomiting Israel out.

We tend to look at the law and consider the matter of consequence and punishment. The wages of sin are death, as if somehow we can avoid death.

But we all die. Jesus died. So, when God tells Israel that failure to adhere to the convenient means Israel will perish, he’s merely describing what is to come. When Paul speaks of sin and death, he speaks of something we all experience. As the Qur’an says,

Every soul shall taste death. And only on the Day of Resurrection shall you be paid your wages in full And whoever is removed away from the Fire and admitted to Paradise, he indeed is successful. The life of this world is only the enjoyment of deception. (3:185, modified Khan & al-Hilali)

And so, threatening me with death for sinning is merely stating the obvious. I’m going to die anyway.

No, God has another answer to sin. To Israel’s failure — to our failure. And that’s resurrection.

It’s already there in Deuteronomy.

1 “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, 2 and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, 3 then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you.” (Deuteronomy 30:1-3 ESV)

It’s already there in Ezekiel 37, where God asks if the dry bones, the dead things, can live. (Ezekiel 37 seems like an answer to Jeremiah 7 & 8, in which God promises nothing but suffering and death for Israel. “Do not pray for this people,” God tells Jeremiah, “for I will not hear you.”) And then brings them to life.

This is why Jesus died. Because we die. Because our deaths are meaningless without his death. Because he rose and in him we rise. Long before writes of the wages of sin, he confidently tells the church in Rome:

5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:5-11 ESV)

Dead to sin. Alive to God in Christ Jesus. There can be no real resurrection without death. And yet, in our baptisms, we are made part of the death of Christ. We taste his death, so that even before we die, we may taste something of his resurrection. And know it’s real. And live like it’s real.

A Note to the Supporters of Josh Duggar…

For those of you who are coming out in support of Josh Duggar — that is, forgiving what he has done and accepting his very public repentance — and yet still base your opposition to homosexuality on texts in Leviticus, just remember this:

You shall not uncover the nakedness of your sister, your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter, whether brought up in the family or in another home. (Leviticus 18:9 ESV)

And this:

If a man takes his sister, a daughter of his father or a daughter of his mother, and sees her nakedness, and she sees his nakedness, it is a disgrace, and they shall be cut off in the sight of the children of their people. He has uncovered his sister’s nakedness, and he shall bear his iniquity. (Leviticus 20:17 ESV)

I await Josh Duggar’s expulsion and exile. I await the young women’s punishment as well. There is no statute of limitations here. And if we take Leviticus seriously, forgiveness is not an option.

Toward a Biblical Sexual Ethic

Nothing seems to be dividing the church (at least in the relatively wealthy West) quite like the matter of sex. Particularly homosexuality, and whether or not gays and lesbians can be included in the community of those called to follow Jesus.

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni put it starkly in a recent column when he wrote that church teachings stating homosexuality is a sin is a “choice” that “prioritizes scattered passages of ancient texts over all that has been learned since — as if time had stood still, as if the advances of science and knowledge meant nothing.” Continue reading

The Lectionary This Week — How to Love God and Love Your Neighbor

Where I contemplate on the Sunday scripture readings according to the Revised Common Lectionary.

Reformation Sunday, 26 October 2014 (Year A)

  • Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
  • Psalm 1
  • 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
  • Matthew 22:34-46

After several weeks of difficult and even unpleasant readings from Matthew, this Sunday’s readings — and it’s Reformation Sunday for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — give us something that, at first blush, seems a lot less problematic. Something we can find some grace in. Something that doesn’t involve kings and masters burning villages and consigning the improperly dressed to outer darkness.

The gospel reading is from Matthew 22, verses 34-46:

34 But when the Pharisees heard that [Jesus] had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, 42 saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43 He said to them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying,

44 “‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet”’?

45 If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” 46 And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions. (Matthew 22:34-46 ESV)

“On these two commandments depend all of the Law [νόμος] and the Prophets.” Loving God with heart, soul, mind, and body, and loving your neighbor as yourself. These are the whole of not just the Law, the Torah, the teaching that God gives to Israel as it wanders in exile, but also of the prophetic critique God makes of Israel as the divided kingdoms are sliding toward conquest, exile, and oblivion. Israel is called to love God, and to practice love toward others, as its part in the call by God to follow. And the failure to love God, and love neighbor, will be the cause of the disaster looming over the divided kingdoms as Assyrians and Babylonians bear down upon them.

Love is that important.

We’re lucky, this Sunday, for having some real guide to what that love looks like. Too often, we’re deprived of concrete examples of what “love of neighbor” look like in daily living. But the first reading from this coming Sunday, from Leviticus 19, does a very good job of laying out in black and white what that love is supposed to look like as God’s people strive to live with each other (the lectionary reading excludes verses 3-8, but I have included them here):

1 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. 3 Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father, and you shall keep my Sabbaths: I am the Lord your God. 4 Do not turn to idols or make for yourselves any gods of cast metal: I am the Lord your God.

5 “When you offer a sacrifice of peace offerings to the Lord, you shall offer it so that you may be accepted. 6 It shall be eaten the same day you offer it or on the day after, and anything left over until the third day shall be burned up with fire. 7 If it is eaten at all on the third day, it is tainted; it will not be accepted, 8 and everyone who eats it shall bear his iniquity, because he has profaned what is holy to the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from his people.

9 “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. 10 And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.

11 “You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; you shall not lie to one another. 12 You shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God:I am the Lord.

13 “You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired worker shall not remain with you all night until the morning. 14 You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God:I am the Lord.

15 “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. 16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor: I am the Lord.

17 “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:1-18 ESV)

“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” This is about being holy — קָד֔וֹשׁ — and so it would be fair that in these commands God gives to Israel, God is describing what holiness looks like.

And it looks like generosity. It looks like grace.

All of these acts are relational. The you here in the commands is singular, and all this is spoken to the individual Israelite. The commands and prohibitions are about life together as the people of God. How I treat you, and how you treat me, matters. These commands speak to what it means to live with each, and how each us should live with each other. Especially with the most vulnerable — we aren’t to strip our fields bare, whether to maximize our own gain or to keep all of the produce for ourselves. There are people who rely on gleanings, on the grapes dropped in the vineyard, on the fat of the land, for their sustenance. Just as Israel relied on manna gathered daily — and only daily — for food in the wilderness.

Down the list, the prohibitions against stealing, lying, profaning the name of God, depriving laborers or servants — who would be neighbors — of their earnings, cursing the blind and deaf and making life unduly difficult for them, showing partiality in court, slandering neighbors, hating and taking vengeance upon neighbors — all of these things destroy trust, allow the strong to behave callously and cruelly toward the weak.

It isn’t how God treats God’s people.

Note, with the exception of not hating “your brother in your heart,” this love of neighbor isn’t about feeling good about your neighbor. It isn’t in what you think or believe about your neighbor. It’s almost entirely about how you act toward your neighbor.

Even when it seems they are solely about personal piety in which no one else is affected. How can keeping leftover meat for three days even approach sinfulness, much less the kind of sin that would merit someone being “cut off from his people”? (And that consequence for keeping leftovers is probably the reason these verses were not included in this week’s readings.) Possibly because it shows a lack of generosity, and unwillingness to share, or a belief that something must be hoarded, either because it’s scarce or simply because it’s delicious. No reason is stated here, but given what else this prohibition is bundled with, it would make sense that this is about an unwillingness to be generous. To share without fear.

While Leviticus will go on to describe holiness as being separate:

23 And you shall not walk in the customs of the nation that I am driving out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I detested them. … 25 You shall therefore separate the clean beast from the unclean, and the unclean bird from the clean. You shall not make yourselves detestable by beast or by bird or by anything with which the ground crawls, which I have set apart for you to hold unclean. 26 You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine (Leviticus 20:23, 25-26 ESV)

in our reading for this Sunday, holiness is described as generosity, honesty, kindness, truthfulness. We are not Canaanites, and we do not live like Canaanites. Not just in what we don’t do (this section of Leviticus is full of things Israel is forbidden from doing), but also in the things we do for each other. In the ways we live together. We care for one another. We create a community where the poor, the blind, the deaf (and others) don’t just eke out a living in some neglected corner, but live with some dignity in the midst of everyone.

This is what it means to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind … [and] … love your neighbor as yourself.”

If there is a weakness in this Leviticus passage, it is the sense that neighbors are largely restricted to “your own people” (בְּנֵ֣י עַמֶּ֔ךָ). This is a legitimate concern, especially since Israel has been commanded to separate itself from the Canaanites, the people whose land they have been given, who they are conquering, the people God is driving out from the land. Is nothing owed the stranger, the foreigner, even the one set aside for destruction?

Well, I cannot speak to the Canaanites — who aren’t exterminated, by the way — but God does instruct Israel quite explicitly later in Leviticus 19:

33 “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. 34 You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34 ESV)

The stranger, the sojourner, is to be treated the same as the kinsman. The stranger, the sojourner, is also a neighbor, entitled to the gleanings from the field, to the kindness and respect due every fellow Israelite.

(Don’t forget, however, that this talk of loving God and loving neighbor in Matthew comes as something of a break in a long series of deeds, parables, and discussions about the coming judgement of God upon God’s people Israel. And after this, Jesus gets serious — down and dirty — in describing the hows and whys of that coming judgement.)

* * *

And then after this, Jesus asks the Pharisees an interesting question: “What do you think of the Christ [the anointed one]? Whose son is he?”

It’s a fascinating question, since Jesus goes on to quote Psalm 110 to suggest that the Christ — the anointed one — cannot possibly be the Son of David, since David calls him “Lord.” At least I find it fascinating, since Matthew so clearly puts Jesus in line with both David and Abraham at the very beginning of his gospel:

1 The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. (Matthew 1:1 ESV)

So, Matthew puts him in this lineage, while he also quotes Jesus seeming to deny it. It’s a stunning juxtaposition. I’m not entirely sure how to make sense of it.

I think I know why Matthew roots Jesus so solidly in that lineage of Abraham and David — Jesus inherits the promises given to Abraham, bears those promises, witnesses those promises, and finally fulfills this promises. The same is true of the promises made to David. To Abraham, God promises many descendants, a land of his own, and that he will be a blessing to the world. To David, God promises to establish his kingdom forever.

Jesus is given all of these promises, and in him, they are all fulfilled. (I have come to believe that for Matthew, Jesus is Israel.) And yet, he is bigger than Abraham and Moses and David and even all Israel gathered from exile. I cannot quite put my finger on this right now. Mostly this is just churning around in my mind. But Jesus’ story, from the beginning of his ministry to his passion and eventually his resurrection, is the story of Israel, it parallels the judgement that is about to descend upon Israel in the coming war, and the coming destruction of Jerusalem.