The Son of Peaceful…and Egypt

Don't rush into marriage. Take your time. Seek God. Get good council.

The son of a woman of Israel and a man of Egypt went out among the sons of Israel. And this son of the woman of Israel and a man of Israel struggled together in the camp. And the son of the woman of Israel blasphemed the name of YHWH, and cursed. And they brought him to Moses. His mother’s name was Shelomith (“Peaceful”), the daughter of Dibri (“My Word”), of the tribe of Dan. …And YHWH spoke to Moses saying, “Bring forth the despiser outside the camp. And let all that heard lay their hands on his head. Let all the congregation stone him.” (Leviticus 24:10-14)

Torah doesn’t record names merely for the sake of entertainment. This man was the son of a woman who was known as Peaceful, the daughter of a man who was probably known for his integrity (My Word), but she made the mistake of marrying an Egyptian man, metaphorically a man of the world and not a man of God. The precise bent of the Egyptian’s character isn’t as important as the fact that he did not fear God, and so never taught his son to fear God either. No doubt Shelomith was a good influence on her son, but her husband had a powerful influence as well, and her son grew into a violent, blasphemous man.

Most of us have known a family like this one, in which one or the other parent was a believer, while the other was a drunk or a criminal or simply a man who didn’t care. It rarely turns out well.

Of course, “bad” doesn’t always mean violent and blasphemous. Sometimes it just means unkind, but isn’t that bad enough?

Having one bad parent–or even two!–doesn’t automatically make for bad offspring. I’m sure most of us know of cases in which the child of an abusive parent matured into a loving and kind adult. But we’d be kidding ourselves if we thought bad parenting doesn’t have bad effects.

Having good parents and a healthy home life as a child is a lot like eating a healthy diet. It doesn’t guarantee that you’ll never get sick, but, all else being equal, you’ll be better off eating right than not.

Be careful whom you choose as a mate. For the vast majority of people, there’s no single person we’re meant to be with. It’s more a matter of the kind of person than the specific person. Don’t rely on chemistry or feelings, and definitely don’t rely on your own judgment. Take some time. Seek God. Get good council.

Remember that it isn’t just your own happiness and personal fulfillment at stake, but potentially the very souls of your children.

The Security of a Lean-To

Sukkot is that one week of the year when every Jewish neighborhood turns into a shanty town. The word “sukkot” is usually translated “booths” or “tabernacles”, but more literally means lean-tos, as in a temporary shelter assembled quickly from whatever materials happen to be close at hand.

You shall keep it as a feast to the Lord for seven days in the year. It shall be a statute forever in your generations. You shall celebrate it in the seventh month. You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All who are native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 23:41-43)

Traditionally, a sukkah (the singular form of sukkot) is a three-sided shelter made of tree branches with an open-lattice roof, but these days, you can see them built out of everything from PVC pipes and plastic to 2x4s and plywood. Some of us less conventional types put up a tent or borrow a portable bicycle sukkah for a few minutes.

Yes, that’s exactly what it sounds like: a small sukkah mounted on the back of a bicycle for feast keepers on the go.

There are two holiday seasons on God’s calendar: spring and fall, with one that’s set more-or-less in the middle. The spring feasts, collectively known as Passover are in the Hebrew month of Nisan, roughly corresponding to March/April. The fall feasts, including Yom Teruah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot, are in the Hebrew month of Tishri, exactly six months later. Shavuot (aka Pentecost) is about 7 weeks after the start of Passover in the Hebrew month of Sivan.

One of the really interesting things about God’s feast days is that they primarily memorialize a series of divine actions that occurred within just a few months of each other. For example, Passover is about the final plague that God sent against Egypt and how He freed the Hebrews from slavery. Shavuot is the anniversary of God giving of the Law on Mount Sinai. Yom Teruah memorializes God’s voice as it was heard from Sinai, among other things.*

Sukkot breaks this pattern in that it’s not about something God did, but about something the people did.

But is it really?

Sukkot celebrates the love and protection of God in every circumstance.Starting from the very first night of the Exodus when the Hebrews built sukkot at a placed named Sukkot (Exodus 12:37), they slept undisturbed in a wilderness that was barren, but not uninhabited. They didn’t have guards except to keep unauthorized people from hurting themselves in the Tabernacle. They didn’t assign watches at night. They walked through the lands of Midianites, Amalekites, and and other semi-nomadic peoples who proved that they were more than willing to do the Hebrews harm despite the dramatic defeat of Egypt, yet they slept safely in the flimsiest of structures with nobody to watch over them except for that towering pillar of fire and smoke.

In the wilderness, Israel was completely under the protection of God Almighty and nobody but Israel could compromise that security.  The didn’t have to build fortifications or post guards because God kept watch of the camp of Israel. This is what Sukkot is really all about: the divine providence of God.

God said to live in sukkot for seven days every year not just because the Hebrews lived in sukkot in the wilderness, but because they lived and ate and slept in ultimate security in fragile structures with no locks or barred doors in a country peopled by hostile nations.

God said to live in sukkot for seven days every year so that we would never forget the central message of the Bible:

“I love you. Trust me.”

 

* All of the feasts look both backward and forward. They memorialize things that happened in the past and prophecy things that will happen in the future, especially where events center on the Messiah. That aspect of the feasts will have to wait for another post!

You Are the Tabernacle of God

Last week we celebrated Sukkot with our small community in Brenham, Texas. If you aren’t familiar with Sukkot, you might know it better by the name Feast of Tabernacles. (See Lev 23:34-43.) “Sukkot” is Hebrew for “tabernacles”. “Sukkah” is the singular form.

The themes of Sukkot appear over and over in the writings of the prophets. I suspect there might be more end-times prophecy surrounding Sukkot than any other single, biblical holy day.

  • The repentance, restoration, and reunification of the tribes of Israel (Isa 27, Jer 23:7-8, Zec 12:10-13:2, etc.)
  • The calling out of those from among the nations who have been grafted into Israel (Isa 27, Isa 54:1-3, etc.)
  • The destruction of the nations who attacked God’s people (Isa 27, Isa 54:4-17, Zec 12:1-9, etc.)
  • The establishment of the Messianic Era with God Himself tabernacling among His people (Isa 4:2-6, Zec 14:5-9, Eze 37:27, etc.)
  • The celebration of the feast by all nations (Zec 14:16-19)

All holidays come with their traditions. You’re probably familiar with the Thanksgiving turkey, but have you heard about the Sukkot gumbo? It’s actually a pretty recent innovation, but it’s one of my favorites. My wife is an outstanding cook and every year she puts together a giant pot of this amazing stuff–made with chicken and all beef sausage, of course. No shellfish or pork in our gumbo!

Another tradition–one more widespread and well established–is the building of a sukkah from tree branches, palm fronds, and other natural materials. A sukkah is a temporary dwelling place with three walls and a roof that is good enough to provide shade, but loose enough to be able to see the sky through it. This tradition goes back to at least the time of Nehemiah (Neh 8:13-18) and possibly all the way back to the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness.

Here’s the original command from Torah:

“On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the produce of the land, you shall celebrate the feast of the LORD seven days. On the first day shall be a solemn rest, and on the eighth day shall be a solemn rest. And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days. You shall celebrate it as a feast to the LORD for seven days in the year. It is a statute forever throughout your generations; you shall celebrate it in the seventh month. You shall dwell in booths [sukkot] for seven days. All native Israelites shall dwell in booths [sukkot], that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths [sukkot] when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”
(Lev 23:39-43)

Technically, Torah only says to celebrate with the fruit and branches and also to live in sukkot for seven days, but Nehemiah interpreted this to mean they were to build their sukkot from the branches, and this is still how it’s done today.

A Sukkot etrog and lulav.
A Sukkot etrog and lulav.

By the first century AD, a completely different idea had taken root, that the fruit must be an etrog (also known as a citron) and the branches of three specific kinds of trees must be bound together in a “lulav” and waved a certain way. While it’s not strictly biblical, there’s nothing wrong with this practice, and the rabbis draw an interesting and valuable lesson from it. Each of the four species (etrog, palm, myrtle, and willow) represent a different kind of person, and all of them are bound together at Sukkot because it takes all kinds of individuals to make a whole nation.

It’s a little like our gumbo in that way. You put all of these different ingredients together in a pot, turn up the heat, and they make a single, magical dish that draws the whole community together. (And I do mean magical. You should try it sometime!)

You’ve probably read this passage before, but read it again now with the image of a divine Tabernacle made from the natural and wild branches of God’s people:

Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely separate me from his people”; and let not the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.” For thus says the LORD: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. “And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant–these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
(Isa 56:3-7)

Maybe you’re a palm tree or maybe you’re a willow of the brook. Whatever your race or personality type or skill set, God has called you out to be a part of His people, to be one of the branches used to build the Tabernacle of Messiah.

The Tabernacle of Messiah is made up of branches from many different trees, both domestic and wild.

Created to Become Unequal

Leviticus 21:1 And the LORD said unto Moses, Speak unto the priests the sons of Aaron, and say unto them…

On some sense, I am sure that everyone is created equal, but I have yet to define what that sense might be. From birth we are all different. Some are stronger, some are hairier, some have different parts, and those differences confer varying responsibilities and powers.

God holds the physical descendants of Aaron to a higher standard than he holds the rest of us. For example, he deals with their sexual immorality much more harshly. The daughters of Aaron must remain virgins until married. If they don’t, the penalty isn’t just stoning. It’s burning.

Aaron’s sons are held to a higher standard than his daughters. Emor gives a short list of things that a priest may not do that other of God’s people may:

  • Touch the corpse of anyone who is not an immediate relative.
  • Shave his head or disfigure his beard.
  • Marry a woman who has sex outside of marriage or who has been divorced.
  • Drink alcohol while serving in the sanctuary.
The High Priest has an even higher standard than that. He may not
  • Touch the corpse of even immediate relatives.
  • Marry a widow or any non-virgin.
  • Leave the sanctuary while performing the duties of his office.
  • Bring anything unclean into the sanctuary.

Paul alluded to this same concept when he told Timothy and Titus his standards for Church leaders. He never intended those lists to be taken as absolute laws for all believers. (Or even for all church leaders, for that matter! They aren’t priests serving in the Temple, after all.) He was illustrating how good leaders must have a different code of behavior. There is no sin in preparing and burying a corpse nor in having a rebellious child, but God said that his priests shouldn’t do those things.

That God’s standards for some people might be different than his standards for others only surprises the inheritors of the so-called Enlightenment. Many good things have come from the philosophical and theological revolutions of the past, but some things have also been lost and corrupted.

Higher Standards for Higher Position

Character in leadership matters.
I mean to make myself a man, and if I succeed in that, I shall succeed in everything else. -James A. Garfield

God commanded the people of Israel to be holy, set apart from the world for a special purpose. He wanted them to live to a higher standard, to be a beacon to the whole world, pointing every other nation to the Creator. If the people of Israel were to be holier than other nations, how much more was the High Priest of Israel to be holier than other priests?

The Levitical High Priest has a number of restrictions on his behavior that other Israelites do not, things that would not be a sin if he were not High Priest. All of those restrictions are intended to protect his ability to serve the nation. The precise relationship between the restriction and his effectiveness as High Priest might not be obvious at first glance, some less so than others. For example, it’s not a sin for a man to marry a widow, not even a king. It’s not even a sin to marry a foreign woman so long as she worships the God of Israel. The High Priest, on the other hand, may only marry a virgin of the people of Israel. He may not marry a widow, divorcee, a woman of “loose morals,” nor any foreign woman no matter her faith or exemplary character.

People today see such rules as irrelevant or even backwards. What difference does it make if a national leader’s wife has a “history”? If you are serious about living by God’s rules, you can probably think of a number of reasons it might matter. There is an enormous gap between the people who see value in morally impeccable leadership and those who want their leaders to be just like them.

The problem here is cultural and, more importantly, it is spiritual. You and I can see why it matters that our pastors or Presidents be above reproach. Other people obviously cannot. They believe that if he makes the right promises, says the right words, and looks good on camera, then he must be qualified for the job. If his skin is like mine or if he’s liked by people like me, then he must understand me, represent me. Right?

Of course, not. Skin color and pretty words have no relationship to a man’s ability to lead, let alone his ability to keep from embarrassing his people in front of the entire world.

Character matters. Experience matters. An understanding and love of American ideals of liberty and faith in God matters. If a man wants to be the pastor of your church or the leader of your nation, his past needs to be a completely open book. His character and resume must be exemplary. His family must be respectful and respectable. If a man hides his past, he should be immediately rejected for any significant position of spiritual or political leadership. If his family is in shambles, his reputation in tatters, no further consideration need be given. He is not worthy of our trust as a people.

We are Americans, and we are Christians. Our leaders must be too. Without reservation.

We are commanded to be a holy people, lighting the way to God for all other peoples. If we hold ourselves to a higher standard—and we absolutely should—how much higher should be the standard of any man who would be our leader?