The Big Picture Our rituals show our beliefs, they must also change the way we live
There is a sense in which the Old Testament was ancient Israel’s art gallery. Archaeologists tend not to find Israelite artworks when digging around Palestine. One explanation for this absence of art is that the Israelites possibly viewed an interest in the fine arts (e.g. sculpture, painting, carving etc) as a breach of the second commandment (Ex. 20:3). If this is correct it may explain why there are many examples of literary art in the Old Testament: the human desire to engage in such an activity had to find its outlet somewhere.
The literary art forms of the Old Testament are as diverse as what one finds in a modern art gallery. When my wife and I visit such a gallery we’re drawn to different kinds of art. I enjoy works of realism whereas my wife prefers abstract art, which requires you to stand there and ask what the artist is trying to do.
At first glance Leviticus 23-25 may seem like a realist’s painting of Israel’s life. It is a panoramic photograph that spans across Israel’s holidays and festivals. To the left of this picture Leviticus 23 presents us with those holidays that fall within the calendar year. These include the Sabbath, the Passover, the Feast of First fruits, the Feast of Weeks, the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement and the Feast of Tabernacles. This panoramic photo seems to extend over the years of Israel’s life when one looks at Leviticus 25. Here the artist’s attention turns to two holidays that occur every so many years, namely the Sabbath and Jubilee years.
But when the reader’s eyes are drawn to the middle of this picture, Leviticus 24, it soon becomes apparent that we’re dealing with an abstract painting. For some reason the author has plonked in two texts that seem unrelated to the calendar context. First, Leviticus 24:1-9 present us with some instructions on the regular arrangement of 12 loaves of bread under the tabernacle light. Second, Leviticus 24:10-23 are a narrative concerning the execution of a man who blasphemes God’s name. Why has the author, the artist, interrupted an otherwise realistic picture of Israel’s holidays (Leviticus 23 & 25) with these two anomalous texts (Leviticus 24)? It seems that he is inviting us to interpret these chapters as a work of abstract art. In other words, we need to stand back and ask what he is trying to convey by inserting these two texts between the calendar chapters of Leviticus 23 & 25.
When we lived in England it was too expensive to pay an art critic to interpret a painting or sculpture. The thing to do was to stand at a respectable distance from someone who was accompanied by an art critic and listen to what that person had to say. In what follows I would like to walk you through this abstract picture called Leviticus 23-25 and see if I can show you what God has to say about holiness in the life of His people.
The first thing that I would suggest is that the artist has provided Leviticus 24:19 as a lens for interpreting the meaning of Israel’s holidays in Leviticus 23 and 25. The emphasis of these verses falls on the need for the priests to regularly keep the tabernacle light burning and to regularly arrange 12 loaves of bread under this light “before the Lord”.
First, we need to consider some of the symbolism that is possibly overlooked by a modern reader. If an American walked into a Sidney Nolan gallery she might be surprised that Nolan painted black boxes over people’s heads. Was he scared of painting faces? It is only when she is informed of the Kelly gang history that the symbolism is understood. Modern readers tend to face the same confusion with the symbolism of Leviticus 24:1-9.
You may have guessed that the 12 loaves of bread symbolise the 12 tribes of Israel. But how are we to understand the need for the priests to regularly light the tabernacle candelabra? On the one hand “light” represents God’s presence in the Old Testament (Ps. 89:15). So it seems fitting that the priest is to regularly position this symbol of Israel (i.e. 12 loaves) under what is symbolic of God’s presence.
On the other hand, the light on view is symbolic of God’s calendar. The word used for “light” is the same word used to describe the “lights” that God makes “to mark seasons and days and years” in Genesis 1:14. In the ancient world calendars were often governed by seven such lights, namely the sun, moon and the five planets which were visible to the naked eye. By not using the Hebrew terms for “sun” and “moon” but the word for the tabernacle “light” (of which there were seven on this candelabra! Ex. 25:33) it seems that the author has forged a relationship between the light of God’s presence and the lights which govern Israel’s calendar. This possibly discloses the symbolic meaning of this ritual. The priest’s regular arrangement of the 12 loaves under the tabernacle light was supposed to inform the Israelites about the meaning of their calendar they were to regularly stop their work and recognise God’s ruling presence. When they read the ritual they were to understand the meaning of their holidays.
Holidays don’t mean much more than a chance to holiday in Australia. The Queen’s birthday, Labour Day, Boxing day — when was the last time you took the meaning of these days seriously? But Anzac Day still carries meaning for Australians. Watch the ritual and you understand the meaning of Anzac Day: Australia prized its freedom so much that it was prepared to pay a great cost.
Read the ritual of Leviticus 24:1-9 and you may understand the meaning of Israel’s holidays in Leviticus 23 and 25. These were not merely occasions to knock off work but were given to the Israelites as times during which they could reflect on God’s right to rule them. All of these occasions were more or less supposed to remind Israel of her salvation from slavery in Egypt and God’s provision for them as her saviour.
But if this is the reason for the placement of Leviticus 24:1-9 between these chapters concerning Israel’s ritual calendar what are we to do with the narrative concerning the blasphemer’s execution in Leviticus 24:10-23? Why did the artist include it here? As the art critic, let me suggest that we have moved out of the world of ritual in these verses! These verses record how a half-Israelite went out into the camp, fought an Israelite man and subsequently cursed God’s name. After this God tells those who heard his blasphemy to take him outside the camp and stone him to death.
I would suggest that this text is placed here to disclose God’s expectation that the Israelites’ ritual life must change the way they live everyday life. It seems that God uses the occasion on which this man blasphemes to teach his people that he expects their ritual observance of the calendars in Leviticus 23 and 25 to be reflected in holy living on every other day of the year. Presumably this half-Israelite man would observe a ritual calendar day but had the audacity to turn and curse God on the very next day! And so God has the man removed from the camp and put to death: God expects the Israelites to conform their lives to the meaning of the rituals they enact. And as this narrative demonstrates, this expectation extends even to those who are not fully Israelite.
Now as Christians we no longer observe Israel’s calendar. It was intended to remind Israel of her exodus from Egyptian slavery. We celebrate a far greater exodus from the slavery of sin (Rom. 6:6). Yet it seems that Leviticus 23:25 still has something important to say about the place of ritual in the life of the believer. It discloses God’s expectation that the rituals associated with our faith should translate into everyday life.
The anthropologist Victor Turner marked a paradigm shift in anthropological studies when he said something like “show me a person’s rituals and I will show you his beliefs”. This is true of our church meetings. Recently a friend attended the church of which I am a part. Our church is quite contemporary and afterwards he suggested that it was a strange meeting because it lacked any ritual forms of worship. What he meant was that when he arrived people were already singing, then there was a sermon and before he knew it there was a piece of cake in his hand and he was eating morning tea.
My response to his claim was to say that what he described about my church was its ritual. Moreover, this ritual reflected what we thought about worship: at the church I go to we view worship as encompassing what we do all week. The absence of a formal introduction and conclusion reflects that particular belief.
But there are many other rituals that Christians enact. We commonly set aside time for meeting together once a week, we listen to someone preach from the Bible, we baptize God’s people, we partake in the Lord’s supper, we confess sins and sing songs of praise, we say thank you to God before eating our meals, many of us take part in Bible studies throughout the week. All of these rituals serve to remind us of Christ’s Lordship over our lives which He won in his death and resurrection.
The enduring significance that Leviticus 23-25 has for Christians is that God expects all of these ritual forms of worship to make a difference in the way we live. He expects that our daily lives will conform to the ritual we perform concerning His Lordship. “You sing songs that say I love You? Well love Me with your life at work.” “You thank Me for the provision of food before every meal? Well trust Me to provide in the future.” “You assent to My will spoken in sermons? Well conform your lives to it.” The ritual must translate into everyday life.
But how can we ensure that the rituals we enact change the way we live? Should we scramble for an accountability partner? Perhaps carry a memory verse? Then it occurred to me that at some point the ritual must simply hit the road. There comes a time when we must simply repent from our slothfulness at observing the Lordship of Christ that we affirm in ritual and conform our lives to his Lordship!
However, something has changed for Christian readers of Leviticus 23-25. God’s expectation that His people live in a way that is consistent with their ritual behaviour was accompanied by a report of a blasphemer’s execution. Moreover, this narrative includes severe laws which require “an eye for an eye”, “life for life” and “fracture for fracture”. But such a threat no longer hangs over the Christian.
The writer to the Hebrews tells us that the Lord Jesus was taken outside the camp for us so that we could be made holy (Heb. 13:12). Since He has taken upon Himself our own sin we are now freed from the death penalty. This is not an excuse for sin. Rather, Paul tells us that we also died with Christ, liberating us from slavery to sin, and that we have been raised with Christ to live holy lives (Rom. 6).