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Vayikra/Leviticus 9:2 Take for yourself a calf, a son of the herd, for a sin-offering and a ram for a burnt-offering - without blemish ...
These words, that Moshe brings to his brother Aharon atHaShem's instruction, remind us of other words that HaShem spoke to Avraham. The first occasion is when Avraham hears HaShem's call in Haran: - "Go, for yourself" (B'resheet 12:1) - sounds very similar to - "Take for yourself". The idea that the action is being performed not so much for HaShem, but for the person's own benefit, is strong. Avraham needed to get away from the things that were holding him back and step out on the journey with G-d. Aharon too, needs to step out from being simply Moshe's older brother and into the ministry that he alone can do: being the first and archetypical High Priest of Israel.
The second occasion comes ten chapters later, when Avraham hears HaShem telling him to sacrifice his son Yitz'chak: - "Take, please" (22:2) - has the same imperative verb and sense as - "Take for yourself". Avraham needed a little coaxing and gentle if firm instruction to embark upon the challenge at Mt. Moriah. So too, Aharon needs to be spoken to by Moshe, his brother, rather than directly by G-d, so that he can hear and obey at a rational level because it is the right thing to do, rather than simply being frightened or compelled into irrational obedience without thought or decision on his part.
The classic commentators are concerned about the calf that Aharon is to bring as a sin-offering. "Why,"Nechama Leibowitz asks, "does Aharon need a sin offering since he has already been forgiven?" Rashi explains that the calf is "to inform [Aharon] that the Holy One, Blessed is He, grants atonement for him through this calf for the matter of the [Golden] Calf that he made." Ibn Ezra echoes this, suggesting that "the calf was a ransom for Aharon". Leibowitz goes on to ask, "how can the accuser (i.e. the emblem of the sin) become the advocate of forgiveness?" If the Golden Calf was an idol and therefore sin, how can this symbol of it be the means or token by which forgiveness is now sought. Abravanel connects Aharon with the words of the prophet: "You have chastised me, and I am chastised like a calf that has not been broken. Receive me back, let me return, for You, O L-RD, are my G-d" (Jeremiah 31:18, JPS); Aharon is to liken himself to an untrained calf and plead with G-d to allow him to return. Abravanel also makes the connection with the Akeidah - The Binding of Yitz'chak - by suggesting that G-d will see the ram offered in place of Yitz'chak rather than the more recent (and inglorious) Golden Calf.
Rabbi Samson RaphaelHirsch sees a dual role for the calf and the ram. "In standing before G-d with a calf for a sin-offering and a ram for a sin offering, Aharon undertakes and promises:- that, in the work of his office, although there is room and necessity for constant improvement and progress, he will always keep himself on the heights of his calling, never letting its gravity slip his memory and in the dignity and honour which the office confers upon him, to always step in the van of the community, setting the example, and leading it upwards, ever upwards towards the height of Jewish perfection." Hirsch takes the two symbols - calf and ram - as tokens of the two commitments - undertake and promise - that Aharon will make in assuming the office of High Priest.
Secondly, Hirsch shows the value of the ram as a sign of overcoming past mistakes: this "shows itself in the fact that, that which the heathen idolises and to which he sacrifices himself and his possessions, that is what the Jew masters and sacrifices to his G-d." By presenting a calf as a sin-offering, Aharon shows that he has overcome the sin of idolatry and is able to sacrifice it to G-d.
All this points to the need for us to seriously engage with the process of repentance and forgiveness that we have in Messiah Yeshua. As believers we are often criticised by both the Jewish world and others who say that Christian forgiveness is far too easy: "All you have to do is say 'Sorry' and that's it: you're forgiven!" While untrue, there must be something in many people's attitude that makes the world think that way. It can't be just one or two believers who have got it wrong; there must be a substantial proportion of the church who teach and behave in that way to give such an overpowering witness to the rest of the world. Perhaps it comes from the pre-reformation Catholic church - confess your sins to the priest, say a few "Hail Mary"s, attend mass, make a generous offering to the church coffers and you can carry on as you were. Ritual without any heart or life change was thought to be enough. Of course, this falls in the same camp as the behaviour of the people of Judah in the closing days of the monarchy: "this people draw near with their words and honor Me with their lip service, But they remove their hearts far from Me, and their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote" (Isaiah 29:13, NASB), as cited by Yeshua in Matthew 15:8. Yet there is a prevalent strain of cheap grace - we're all forgiven now, just confess it and move on - that persists into the present in many Christian circles.
The Torah is very specific that sacrifice is required for provide atonement for sin: "For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement" (Vayikra 17:11, NASB). Nothing in either the Hebrew or Greek scriptures takes away that basic rule. It underlines that sin has a cost, that sin causes relationship breakdown and that it can only be remedied by a significant sacrifice. The prophets go on to talk about how that cost is to be met: "But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; But the L-RD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him" (Isaiah 53:5-6, NASB). This happened just once in history, when Yeshua - the anointed one, Messiah, the Son of G-d, gave His life on the cross, "because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself" (Hebrews 7:27, NASB). While a sacrifice is still required for each and every sin that we commit, for each act of disobedience or breaking of G-d's commands, for every careless or hurtful word, we do not - indeed, we cannot - bring it. Instead we ask G-d to apply the sacrifice of Yeshua again to us, to re-wash us in His blood that we may be free from sin and restored in G-d's presence: "the blood of Yeshua His Son cleanses us from all sin" (1 John 1:7, NASB).
Even this process is not without cost; it is not and never was free. We must be aware that our sin caused Yeshua to suffer (that once, back around the year 30 CE) on the cross, "to give His life a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28, NASB). We must repent of our sin, we must confess it - that is: name it, speak it out, admit our wrong, turn away from it, resolve never to do it again - and we must humble ourselves before G-d to ask for His forgiveness. In His grace, He has promised to hear us: "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9, NASB), and we may depend on His grace, but we must not take it for granted. Our repentance and remorse must be genuine; our abhorrence of our sin must be real; our contrition must be more than simply regret at having made a bad decision or been caught out. We must come to the cross, shedding no crocodile tears of repentance, but firmly resolved to identify fully with Yeshua's death and resurrection and to claim the power of His blood - "which speaks better than the blood of Abel" (Hebrews 12:24, NASB) - to obtain forgiveness and mercy.
The enemy would tie us in knots of self-mortifying paralysis, encouraging us to see ourselves as nothing more than miserable sinners, unable to ever be good enough to earn G-d's favour. This is a lie from the pit: G-d's grace and favour are freely available to us in Yeshua; we only have to ask. On the other hand, we cannot blindly assume that a quick mumbled prayer learned in childhood, uttered between one sin and the next, is the serious engagement and repentance that G-d demands: "'Come now, and let us reason together,' says the L-RD, 'Though your sins are as scarlet, they will be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they will be like wool. If you consent and obey, you will eat the best of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.' Truly, the mouth of the L-RD has spoken" (Isaiah 1:18-20, NASB). Like Aharon, there is business to do and each of us has to do it for him or herself.
Further Study: Isaiah 43:26; Hebrews 11:4
Application: Have you brought your sacrifice? Do you know peace and reconciliation with G-d through Yeshua? Now you know that it can be done, you have a responsibility to do it!
© Jonathan Allen, 2011
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