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Vayikra/Leviticus 22:9 And they shall keep my charge and they shall not carry sin on account of it and die in it because they have profaned it, because I am the L-rd who consecrates them.
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This verse comes in the middle of a technical discussion thatHaShem is having with Moshe about who may eat the portion of the sin and other offerings that are brought by the people at the Tabernacle. A priest and any dependent member of his family may eat them providing that they are ritually clean; no-one who is not a priest may eat them. Although a priest may be prevented from officiating in any of the sacrificial process because of a physical defect, he is still allowed to eat his share of the holy and most holy offerings (Vayikra 21:22). The Torah makes the priests responsible for ensuring that the offerings are not eaten or profaned by anyone who is not allowed to eat them (22:15-16).
Baruch Schwartz reports that "Death is depicted as the automatic and inevitable consequence of desecrating the sacred."1 Based on a list drawn up by the Talmudic Sages - "an unclean priest who ate undefiled terumah, a zar or an unclean priest who performed the Temple service, or one who performed it on the day of his ritual bath, or lacking the proper priestly garments, or lacking the sacrificial atonement, one who did not wash his hands and feet, or drank wine, or a priest with over-grown locks" (b. Sanhedrin 83a) -Rashi says that this verse teaches us that "it is death by the hands of heaven." The Sforno uses G-d's voice to explain, "Since Israel sanctified these holy things I also sanctified them, therefore, it is fitting that those Kohanim who profane them be punished." In other words, since it is the priests themselves that carry out the ritual making the offerings holy, and those rituals have been given by the Torah as HaShem's way of making things holy, if the priests then treat the holy things inappropriately and so defile or profane them, knowing that they belong to HaShem and that they are forbidden to mistreat them, then they should be punished. Rabbi Hirsch points out how contrary to the life and calling of a priest it would be to do such a thing: "That which is given to him, as priest, because he is a priest, is something entrusted to him by G-d, towards which he has not only rights, but obligations. Whereas the non-priest may look on his bread as the achievement of his own industry, blessed by G-d, ever little piece of offering/bread is entrusted to the priest as a reminder of his duty, a warning of the whole of the profession with which G-d has entrusted him."
Universally, the Jewish commentators limit the application to the specific instructions regarding the eating of terumah. Baruch Levine is typical when he writes, "the 'charge' consisted of following the instructions given on this occasion ... lest [the priests] bear the punishment of that offense, on that account, and die for it." Without disagreeing, the Christian commentators, however, open up the possibility of a wider debate. John Hartley says that, "The priests are exhorted to keep G-d's charge given in the law. If they do not keep the law, they bring sin upon themselves and are liable to suffer death. The consequence is potentially so severe because they profane that which is holy."2 Gordon Wenham's words are briefer, but more general: "The holy and the unclean must be kept apart."3 Walter Kaiser provides the most expansive comment: "God's character and person and the sanctuary itself will be profaned when the holy things attached either to G-d's name or to the sanctuary are defiled."4
In a general sense then, we can hear Rav Sha'ul's terse statement that "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23, NASB) and the echoes of his comments to the Jewish community in Rome when he tells them that the combination of their words proclaiming G-d's laws and their actions ignoring or compromising on G-d's laws is causing G-d's name to be profaned. Ezekiel spoke of it happening in the days of the Babylonian exile - "Therefore I am concerned for My holy name, which the House of Israel have caused to be profaned among the nations to which they have come" (Ezekiel 36:21, NJPS) - and Sha'ul rebukes the people of his day: "You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor G-d? For 'the name of G-d is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,' just as it is written" (Romans 2:23-24, NASB).
Can or should we fully generalise our text to say that disobeying G-d's instructions means death? And if so, then who is liable under such a rule? The priests thought they were immune, because that had been sanctified by God. But, as the case of Aharon's sons, Nadab and Abihu proved, they are liable for their actions and not only can but will be disciplined for their disobedience when it is a clear profaning of G-d's name, or prerogative. The people of Jerusalem in the days of the kings thought that they were immune because they were G-d's people, lived in G-d's city of Jerusalem and had the Temple, G-d's house, in their midst, but Jeremiah brought G-d's word clearly to them: "Thus said the L-RD of Hosts, the God of Israel: Mend your ways and your actions, and I will let you dwell in this place. Don't put your trust in illusions and say, 'The Temple of the L-RD, the Temple of the L-RD, the Temple of the L-RD'" (Jeremiah 7:3-4, NJPS). In spite of their words, their conduct was against G-d's laws and G-d is very clear: "No, if you really mend your ways and your actions; if you execute justice between one man and another; if you do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, and the widow; if you do not shed the blood of the innocent in this place; if you do not follow other gods, to your own hurt -- then only will I let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers for all time" (vv. 5-7, NJPS).
John the Baptist chastened the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to him for baptism and urged them to change their lives and their actions to align with G-d's requirements for His people: "Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father,' for I tell you, G-d is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham" (Matthew 3:8-9, ESV). The people were banking on the assumption that because they were Jews - children of Abraham - everything would be alright, no matter what. Then John confirmed the penalty for their non-compliance: "Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire" (v. 10, ESV). This was not a personal threat; it didn't need to be. Everyone knew that the Torah repeatedly uses the phrase "being cut off" as a punishment for sin and disobedience. Later in Yeshua's ministry, He finds Himself having the same conversation. The Pharisees are questioning His teaching, but Yeshua tells that knowing the truth - about who He is - will set them free. They respond by retorting, "We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved" (John 8:33, ESV); they rely on their physical descent as Jews. "Then why are you trying to kill Me?" Yeshua asks. "Abraham is our father" (v. 39, ESV), they reply. "No," Yeshua corrects them, "if you were Abraham's children, you would be doing the works Abraham did" (ibid., ESV). You cannot name Abraham as your father and then not do what he did; the deeds show the truth of the words.
Rav Sha'ul understood the value of position and status well enough. Writing to the Philippians, he told them, "If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless" (Philippians 3:4-6, ESV). Hear his words - an unquestionable Israelite, a Pharisee, righteous and blameless - Sha'ul knows just where this puts him, but goes on, "whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Messiah" (v. 7, ESV). This is hyperbolic language; it is not that he is discarding his identity and position, his credentials to the Jewish communities that he was reaching with the gospel. Here's the comparison: "I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Messiah Yeshua my Lord" (v. 8, ESV) - by comparison, even though I recognise the value of what I have, knowing Yeshua is so much more - 'surpassing' - that it is as if those good things were useless. Sha'ul will continue to take maximum advantage of everything that he has, while refusing to stand on them for his own righteousness, but relying instead on "that which comes through faith in Messiah, the righteousness from G-d that depends on faith" (v. 9, ESV).
What about us today? Do we blithely wander through life, disregarding the holy things of the kingdom and so make ourselves liable for death? Do we trust in our status - as a Jew or a Gentile, as a follower of Yeshua - to exonerate us from the consequences of behaviour that warrants G-d's punishment? Does our conduct - in particular, our disobedience - profane G-d's name today when people know that we are followers of Yeshua? Should we expect to be "cut off"? Of course, forgiveness is available for all who ask in a state of repentance, but what about repeat offenders who don't really seem to care or take any notice? In whom are you trusting and is that trust justified? Yeshua will never let us down!
1. - Baruch J. Schwartz, "Leviticus" in The Jewish Study Bible eds. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004), page 260.
2. - John E. Hartley, Leviticus, Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1992), page 355.
3. - Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, NICOT, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979), page 294.
4. - Walter C. Kaiser, "Leviticus" in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 630.
Further Study: Luke 14:26-33; Hebrews 11:24-27
Application: Status and position make everyone feel comfortable, but cut no ice in the kingdom of G-d. Are you depending on your status to carry you through, or have you truly repented and brought your life in line with G-d's instructions for your life?
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© Jonathan Allen, 2019
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