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Vayikra/Leviticus 10:19 And all these [things] have met with me - and if I had eaten the sin offering today, would this have been good in the eyes of the L-rd?
There are three verbs in this week's text. The first - , the Qal 3fp prefix form of the root , with a vav-conversive construction to make it past tense, here "and they met" - starts the text. is a synonymous verb: it has two completely distinct meanings, to call and to meet; it is also used for reading out loud. Here it has a colloquial or relaxed sense, so that the three word phrase means "Then all this stuff happened". Aharon is speaking to Moshe, responding to his enquiry about why the flesh of the sin offerings had not been eaten by Aharon and his sons; the "stuff" that has happened is that Aharon's sons have died after offering "strange fire" (Vayikra 10:1) beforeHaShem on the family's first official day on duty after being inaugurated as high priest and priests respectively. The Rashbam puts these words in Aharon's mouth: "'This very day my sons and I brought the offerings by which we were consecrated to the service of G-d, and in the middle of this great occasion, look what happened! How could I sit down and eat the standard offering on such a day when our celebration has been tarnished?' It would be like 'the bride so shameless that she betrayed her husband right under the wedding canopy' (b. Shabbat 88b)."1
The second verb - , the Qal 1cs affix form of the root , to eat or consume - also has a vav at the start of the word, but the word's pointing and accenting suggest that it is a simple vav meaning 'and' rather then a vav-reversive.Rashi firmly says: "pluperfect, 'had', not 'if I were to' future." Avigdor Bonchek explains that the placement of the accent mark under the letter tells Rashi that the verb is past tense; if it were future, then the accent would have been on the last syllable2. Targum Onkelos re-arranges the word order, so that the vav is on another word, leaving "had eaten" clearly in the past tense. We take it here as "If I had eaten." The last verb, , is also not without comment. Is the at front an indicator part of the verb for, say, Hif'il stem? Is it a definite article, 'the'? Or is it an interrogative hay>, asking a question? The pointing is wrong for the first or last and the middle option doesn't happen with prefix form verbs. The commentators agree, however, that in context, it must be a question, "would it be good?".
The issue is about the eating of the priests' portion of the sin offering: "The priest who offers it as a sin offering shall eat of it; it shall be eaten in the sacred precinct, in the enclosure of the Tent of Meeting" (Vayikra 6:19, JPS). It is this part of the ritual that anthropologists tell us represents the sacrifice's acceptance by the god; when the non-burned portion of the sacrifice is eaten by the god's representative, the offerer believes that the god has accepted the sacrifice and granted forgiveness. Gunther Plaut has these words for Aharon: "Clearly I am not in favour with G-d at present. For me to eat purgation offering, implying that my intercession had won forgiveness for the people, would be unsuitable."Ibn Ezra more formally states: "I am in the stage of mourning between death and burial, when it is improper to eat a sin offering." But it is the Sforno who provides the text: "If a priest who is a mourner eats an offering with knowledge and intent, it cannot atone as it says with regard to tithes: "I have not eaten of it while in mourning" (D'varim 26:14, JPS). How much more so with a sin offering." Like any other Israelite, a priest becomes ritually unclean after contact with death; the priests are forbidden any such contact except for the very closest family members: "his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, and his brother; also for a virgin sister" (Vayikra 21:2-3, JPS). The High Priest may not show any signs of mourning; he may not "bare his head or rend his vestments" (v. 10, JPS) or "go in where there is any dead body; he shall not defile himself even for his father or mother" (v. 11, JPS). A ritually unclean priest cannot officiate because of his impurity; any rituals that he does perform are invalid, for himself and for the person for whom he is acting.
Now, in this particular case, the sacrifices themselves were all made before Aharon's sons were killed; the bloods had been splashed on the altar, the fat portions sent up in smoke. Atonement had correctly been made for the people. The death of Aharon's two eldest sons happened after the sacrifices, so the sacrifices remained; it is just the last part - that of their consumption by the priests in a holy place - that would be inappropriate for a priest who is now mourning.
Here, however, is the question for us: is our service or obedience to G-d every varied by our status, or does G-d always expect us to be obedient, no matter our current state of grace (or lack thereof), or the status of other parties? The second part of the question is perhaps the easier to answer. There numerous instances in the gospels where Yeshua performs miracles for, eats food with, talks to or in some way interacts with and blesses people whose ritual purity or sin-habits were at best doubtful; the texts usually leave us in no doubt that the recipients of Yeshua's grace were in sin or impure. Take Zacchaeus, for example. The crowds knew exactly what he had been up to when Yeshua made the surprising decision to eat lunch at Zacchaeus' house: "When they saw it, they all grumbled, 'He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner'" (Luke 19:7, ESV). Or the woman who anointed Yeshua's feet. Yeshua's meal-time host knew who she was: "When the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he said to himself, 'If this man were a prophet, He would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner'" (Luke 7:39, ESV). The Roman Centurion, the ten lepers, the woman caught in adultery and others. The religious or ritual state of someone in need never stood in Yeshua's way. He reached out to them, touched them, healed them, accepted them - and then applied correction if necessary.
The first part of the question remains: is our service or obedience to G-d every varied by our status, or does G-d always expect us to be obedient, no matter our current state of grace? Of course we all know that the answer is 'no'; G-d always expects us to do the right thing, whether we think we are pure or not, no matter whether we think ourselves to be on speaking terms with Him at any particular moment. Obedience is not negotiable or conditioned upon our state. Being "in sin" or "out of fellowship" is no excuse; in fact, more sin simply makes things more difficult to fix. Mark relates Yeshua saying, "when you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive your offenses" (Mark 11:25, CJB), which seems to stack the other way: we have to extend forgiveness, remembering that withholding forgiveness is sin, before we can be forgiven by G-d. Obedience is actually part of the fix for our own broken state before G-d. Matthew's gospel records Yeshua teaching the people, "If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift" (Matthew 5:23-24, ESV). This seems the inverse order to Yeshua's summary of the Law - "Love G-d; love your neighbour" (Luke 10:27) - we cannot approach G-d until we have approached and settled with our neighbour.
Let's take a closer look at the two examples above. In the case of Zacchaeus, Luke reports: "Zakkai stood there and said to the Lord, 'Here, Lord, I am giving half of all I own to the poor; and if I have cheated anyone, I will pay him back four times as much.' Yeshua said to him, 'Today salvation has come to this house, inasmuch as this man too is a son of Avraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and save what was lost'" (Luke 19:8-10, CJB). Yeshua's announcement of salvation actually comes after Zacchaeus' pledge to restore his ill-gotten gains; Zacchaeus' move was made while in that bad state. And the woman? Yeshua says to Simon, his host, "Do you see this woman? I came into your house - you didn't give Me water for My feet, but this woman has washed My feet with her tears and dried them with her hair! You didn't give Me a kiss; but from the time I arrived, this woman has not stopped kissing My feet! You didn't put oil on My head, but this woman poured perfume on My feet! Because of this, I tell you that her sins - which are many! - have been forgiven, because she loved much" (7:44-47, ESV). Her change of state, being forgiven, came after her ministry, after she did the right thing to express her contrition and repentance - while she was still technically in her state of sin.
No matter what happens to us or the state of our relationship with G-d, we must always be prepared to help others, to pray for them, to correct any wrongs, even that is uncomfortable for us. Obedience must come before our perceived status before G-d.
1. - A Talmudic comment taken to assume to the sin of the Golden Calf.
2. - Avigdor Bonchek, What's Bothering Rashi - Vayikra, Feldheim (2000), page 82
Further Study: D'varim 26:14-15; Matthew 6:14-15; Colossians 3:12-15
Application: Are you waiting for a change in state before you are obedient, or are you prepared to act now and leave the status change to follow through in due course? Get right with G-d today and do as He says; for this is good in His eyes.
© Jonathan Allen, 2015
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