"As a Bride You Loved Me..."

The book of Numbers depicts the time of the Israelites in the desert.  As we've already noted, the desert period is a time that reflects the “honeymoon period” between God and His bride.  I think that image alone speaks to us about our “deserts.”

The very nature of the desert forces us to rely solely and completely on God.  There is no lying to yourself that you somehow have provided for your own needs by your own power.  There is no water, no food, no shade, no distraction.  There is no hope, except for whatever you truly believe about who God is and the story He's telling in the world.

I want to share in the next couple posts about my own time in the desert.  I got to spend about six days in the wilderness of the Negev, Zin, and Paran deserts.  The mental images that I acquired in the desert are seared (pun intended) into my memory.  The unbearable heat, the stifling air, the rugged terrain taught me more about who God is and who I am than any other exercise I have done.  It will certainly not be my goal to make light of the deserts we go through.  They are hard and brutally tough.

But I remember the day that our teacher looked at us after one week and said, “Tomorrow, we leave the desert.”

And I remember tearing up.

I didn't want to leave the desert.  I had seen God in a new way.  I had experienced His closeness.  His voice thundered in my soul with so much more intensity when I sat in my uncomfortable uneasiness.  I felt as if I was sitting in His lap and now I was being asked to get up because it was time to go.  And I think in that moment I got a taste of what God experiences in the desert with us.

In the prophet Jeremiah, God had said:
“I remember the devotion of your youth,
    how as a bride you loved me
and followed me through the wilderness,
    through a land not sown.”

In that week I learned that I would rather weep and struggle in the lap of my God than I would walk triumphantly without Him.  I would rather stumble in confusion and be embraced by the groom than I would walk with confidence in a land He had not given me.

And I can imagine that God probably likes that about deserts.

Of course, God has not created us for deserts.

And He has not called us to sit in His lap forever.

God is putting the world back together and when He finds partners, He often shapes them in the desert.  But the reason He's shaping our lives is so that we can go “bless all nations.”  The reason He's teaching us to be fed by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God is because we'll need to be able to trust in His shalom as we walk into a world of chaos.

The desert is never the destination.  But it sure shapes us for the mission.

And before we move on to the plot of the story, we may want to consider the lessons that are taught in the desert.  Before we march around Jericho, we may need some time in the sun, plodding on in thirst.  Before we acquire houses we did not build and vineyards we did not plant, we may need to be taught where every good gift comes from.

And so, before the promised land, I invite you to follow me out to the desert…


A Kingdom of What?

And now, a post about the book of Leviticus.

And, yes, I'm only going to write one post about the book of Leviticus.  In all seriousness, the book of Leviticus is one of my favorite books.  I find everything about the book fascinating — the message, the medium, the historical context, the packaging, the literature.  I feel as if there are two ways to talk about Leviticus (and I realize I am wrong, there must be many ways to talk about it): the “10,000-foot view” and the “word-by-word” view.  This, of course, helps me decide how I'm going to write about Leviticus, since the scope of this blog is to write about the overarching narrative of the Text.

One of things I love about the 10,000-foot view is its ability to help us understand the big picture of Leviticus, something that nobody seems to talk much about.  And if we have been correct about what God is up to in the world — if we are right about God trying to put the world back together — we should see that displayed in the Levitical law.

Well, back in Exodus, we had heard a statement made by God:

"Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation."  (Exodus 19:5–6)

Now we had chatted about the “treasured possession” portion of that verse.  But we had left out the missional piece of that statement.  It wasn't just that God was looking for a bride, but He wanted that bride for a purpose.  He had a mission.  We've been seeing this mission throughout, from Noah, to Abram, and the Red Sea.

God wanted His people to be priests, which raises some questions for this wandering nation of nomads in the desert.  What is a priest?  What does a priest do?  And how are we going to be a “kingdom” of priests?

Well, luckily, God gave the people the book of Leviticus.  The role of the book of Leviticus is to describe the Levitical priesthood.  Here is the way that I outline the book of Leviticus for my students:

ATONEMENT (Chapters 1–7)
THE PRIESTHOOD (Chapters 8–10; 21–22)
HOW TO LIVE AS “PRIESTS” (Chapters 11–20)
HOW TO PARTY (Chapters 23–24)

ATONEMENT.  Before we even discuss any other component of kingdoms and priesthoods, before we hand out any laws, God wants to communicate clearly to His people that He is for them and there is peace in their relationship.  The book of Hebrews will tell us that this system was set up for the “cleansing of their conscience” (Hebrews 9).  In a world filled with uncertainty about where a person stood with the gods, this God — speaking in the sacrificial language of culture — gave His people a clean and succinct prescription for atonement.  This would have been an incredible message of grace (a great resource for this discussion would be watching “The Gods Aren't Angry” by Rob Bell).

THE PRIESTHOOD.  I am then introduced to the priest.  The roles of the priest are seen throughout the book of Leviticus (also Numbers and even Deuteronomy), but they can be boiled down into four roles: First, they put God on display.  The priest dresses differently, pursues a different economy, and has limits on his sexuality; the priest looks different.  This is key, because our God is different.  The word for being different, or “set apart,” in the Hebrew is kodosh.  When you look at the priest, you are reminded of the oddity of God's love.  Second, they help people navigate their atonement.  The priest helps facilitate the sacrificial system spoken of above.  It is his job to help walk you through the process that reminds you of your right relationship before God.  Third, the priest intercedes on behalf of the people.  The priesthood stands in the gap between God and the people.  They speak to the people on behalf of God, but they also speak to God on behalf of the people.  It is the priest's role to plead the case of the people and ask for God's mercy, guidance, and discernment.  Finally, the priest distributes resources to the oppressed.  There is always extra and there is always a need.  Those in need would come to the temple and the priests would take some of the extra and distribute it to those in need, as an act of justice.

HOW TO LIVE AS “PRIESTS.”  We enter in the section of Leviticus that drives many a reader crazy.  All of these arbitrary rules!  But in fact, when we recognize that the “arbitrary rules” are bracketed by discussions of priesthood, the reader might realize that this set of rules is how God is setting His people apart.  They are to put God on display, just like the priests; they will eat differently, dress differently, pursue a different economy, and even farm their fields in a way that differs from the nations around them.  They are to help others navigate their atonement, by putting God's grace-filled system on public display for the nations around them.  They are to intercede on behalf of others, working within a system that is based on justice and equality.  And they will distribute resources to the oppressed through numerous opportunities to feast, tithe, and bring their first fruits to the LORD.

To put it quite simply, God ordains the party, because if we do not party on a regular basis, then we forget that the story is good.  If we do not feast, there is a danger that we forget God's grace and get lost in the rules.  The party is essential.

  God demands that people pursue justice in His economy.  He puts limits on debt and the methods used to seek repayment.  He puts systems in place that give even creation itself the opportunity to rest and breathe — a reminder that the world does not spin because of its production.  And He issues an incredible challenge called the Year of Jubilee.  Every fifty years, the people would cancel all debts, restore all property — essentially, reset the clocks — and start afresh.  God was seeking to avoid a world where the gap between the rich and poor would widen and widen and widen.

In a sense, when we read the book of Leviticus, we are being invited to see the world through the lens of God's mission.  To be a kingdom of priests (a call that is echoed in 1 Peter), we need to be a people who are willing to tell a different story — willing to put God on display.  We are to be people who help others find the place where their deficiencies and mistakes are atoned for.  We stand in the gap and intercede on behalf of people everywhere, trying to find any way possible to invite people to a table to hold a little piece of bread and a little cup of juice.  And we would be people who lead the way in distributing resources and pursuing justice who restore the world to God's Genesis 1 intention.

God is looking for partners — whether a b'hor, a bride, or a priest — who will help Him tell a different story in the world.


Falling on Joyful Faces

Before we move on from the Tabernacle, I want to take one more post to make two more observations.  It is interesting to take a look at the situations that surround the completion of the Tabernacle.

When the Israelites complete the Tabernacle in the desert, we are told about Moses' inspection and the cloud/glory of God that comes to rest on the Tabernacle.  In the book of Leviticus, we are given a few more details:

Moses and Aaron then went into the tent of meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. Fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat portions on the altar. And when all the people saw it, they shouted for joy and fell facedown.  (Leviticus 9:23–24)

I think we read over this without giving it much thought.  But if we read it again, I think something stands out.  For me, whenever I read about people falling facedown, I think of them being overwhelmed and terrified — shaking in the presence of the LORD.  But this instance is accompanied by an interesting description.  They shouted for joy.
Now that's a different picture for falling facedown.  As I seek to understand what that might be about, I look towards the other stories of completing God's dwelling place.  The Tabernacle will eventually become the temple in Jerusalem.  In 2 Chronicles 7, I am told about the day that Solomon dedicated and opened the temple.  Here is a part of the record:
When Solomon finished praying, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple. The priests could not enter the temple of the Lord because the glory of the Lord filled it. When all the Israelites saw the fire coming down and the glory of the Lord above the temple, they knelt on the pavement with their faces to the ground, and they worshiped and gave thanks to the Lord, saying,

“He is good;
     his love endures forever.”

The same reaction!  They fall on their faces in joy and give thanks.  The place where God will demonstrate His unending love for His followers is celebrated with this exclamation that the LORD is good and that His love endures forever.  Which kind of reminds me of a people who are remembering to trust the story.

But on that same day that Ray wagged his finger in my face, he pointed out this reaction of the people whenever the glory of the LORD came down and the sacrifice on the altar was consumed.  He showed me how people shouted with joy and fell on their faces in worship.  He then reminded me that on the day of Pentecost, the fire came out of the temple one last time.  This time, the fire didn't consume the sacrifice, but separated and settled on the foreheads of all those worshipping.  Ray told me that Paul had been quite adamant that each one of us, as individuals and as a body, were the temple of God.

“So when people come into your presence, what should their reaction be?” he said.

They would fall on their faces before God and shout for joy: “The LORD is good!  His love endures forever!”

A powerful image.  But I wanted to know why people would think that when they encounter the temple of God.

And after quite a bit of study over these long and extensive instructions, I have noticed that the story of building the Tabernacle (Exodus 24–40) is chiastic. The treasure hunt is roughly constructed like this:

1.  The glory of the LORD (24:15–18)
     2.  The Tabernacle and priestly garments described.  (25–30)
          3.  Bezalel & Oholiab  (31:1–11)
               4.  Sabbath  (31:12–18)
               5.  Sabbath  (35:1–3)
          6.  Bezalel & Oholiab  (35:30–35)
     7.  The Tabernacle and priestly garments described.  (36–39)
8.  The glory of the LORD (40:34–38)

And what do you suppose lies at the center of this chiasm?

The Lord replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”   (33:14)

People fall on their faces in joy because the temple of God is always a reminder of God's good Genesis 1 story.  The temple is an invitation to trust the story.

But you and I are temples.

We are living, breathing, walking invitations to trust the story.

And when people encounter us, they should be overwhelmed by the goodness of God, saying, “the LORD is good!  His love endures forever!”


Creating a Space

The Jews have been examining the record of the building of the Tabernacle for quite some time.  They have noticed some incredible undercurrents taking place in the Text.  What I'm about to show you takes an awful lot of time scouring the Text to find and notice; it is certainly not something that you would notice on a cursory reading.

I am going to ask you to do a little bit of work (and if I didn't think it was worth it, I wouldn't ask you to do it).  I would like you to grab a Bible or open up a tab for an online version so that you can see the Text for yourself.  I will even put hyperlinks in the blog text below so all you have to do is click on the verse.  When you've done this, I'd like you to look up the following list of verses:

Exodus 25:1
Exodus 30:11
Exodus 30:17
Exodus 30:22
Exodus 30:34
Exodus 31:1
Exodus 31:12

Now, I know you think I've either made a mistake or lost my mind.  Why in the world would I want you to look up those verses?

Go back up to that list and count how many of those references there are.

There are seven.

The Tabernacle is created with seven “the LORD saids.”  Can you think of anything else that was created with seven “and God saids”?

Creation.  The construction of the Tabernacle is narrated as a retelling of the story of Genesis 1.  Did you know that one of the things that the Jews call Torah is the Tree of Life?  Where did they keep the Torah?  In the Ark of the Covenant.  Which sits inside the Holy of Holies, behind the curtain.  Which has two cherubim on it.  Guess where we first encountered cherubim in the Text…  Genesis 3, when God sets up cherubim with a flaming sword — to guard the tree of life.

Don't believe me?  Just check the verse that follows the last and seventh “the LORD said” in the list above.  “Tell the Israelites to observe my Sabbaths.”

This is a retelling of creation.

I was standing in the desert just outside of Egypt in 2008 when my teacher, Ray VanderLaan, pointed a finger in my face and shouted, “The first time, God created the space and said, ‘You fill it.’  But that didn't work very well.  So this time God said, ‘You create the space, AND I'LL FILL IT!’ ”

Which leads me to my reflection: I believe the construction of the Tabernacle models an unspoken promise that God has made to His people.  If you will create a space in your life for God, He will fill it.  The question is, will you create a space?

What would have happened if the Israelites would have never created the Tabernacle?  The fascinating thing is that we run around like chickens with our heads cut off, filling our lives with busyness, and then we are just flabbergasted that God doesn't interrupt our days with His undeniable presence.

If we won't create a space, why would we expect God to fill it?

But if you do create the space, God will fill it.

He may not fill it the way you want or expect, but if you will create a space in your life — a discipline, an hour of listening, a sabbath rest, a location of retreat — I believe that God will fill it.

“By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” (Genesis 2:2–3)

“And so Moses finished the work.”  (Exodus 40:33)

“The Israelites had done all the work just as the the LORD had commanded Moses.  Moses inspected the work and saw that they had done it just as the LORD had commanded.  So Moses blessed them.”  (Exodus 39:42–43)


The God of Wasteful Love

Of course, their time at Sinai isn't all wedding bells and romance.

The wedding imagery seems to be tracking along nicely — the groom has come to sweep the bride away, the bride has consecrated herself and set herself apart for this moment, the shofar has sounded — when everything takes a turn for the worst.

We've spoken of the Ten “Commandments” (which really aren't commandments in the Text; they are called “the ten words”) as God's ketubah — His marriage covenant between Himself and His bride.  This covenant would be presented as one of the main components of the marriage ceremony.  And if Sinai is a marriage ceremony, it doesn't take long for a reader to realize what the sin of the golden calf is.

As the groom reaches back to grasp the ketubah and present His new bride with a piece of His heart, He turns and finds her committing adultery at the wedding altar — during the ceremony!

This is why Moses takes the tablets and smashes them to pieces on the ground.  It's not just an anger outburst.  Moses is realizing that the very essence of this beautiful relationship is being violated.  The wedding ceremony is being destroyed in an act of the worst kind of metaphorical sexual immorality.

They aren't worthy of this marriage.

They don't deserve God's love.

And Moses throws the ketubah to the ground in disgust.  His next actions speak volumes into this tragedy:

When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain. And he took the calf the people had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it.  
(Exodus 32:19–20)

Why does Moses do this?  Because that's what you do to a bride who has just committed adultery.

Compare that passage to this one from the book of Numbers, chapter 5:

“The priest shall bring her and have her stand before the Lord.  Then he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water. ... He shall make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and this water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering will enter her. The priest is to take from her hands the grain offering for jealousy, wave it before the Lord and bring it to the altar. The priest is then to take a handful of the grain offering as a memorial offering and burn it on the altar; after that, he is to have the woman drink the water. If she has made herself impure and been unfaithful to her husband, this will be the result: When she is made to drink the water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering, it will enter her, her abdomen will swell and her womb will miscarry, and she will become a curse. If, however, the woman has not made herself impure, but is clean, she will be cleared of guilt and will be able to have children. This, then, is the law of jealousy when a woman goes astray and makes herself impure while married to her husband.”

And after the people drink the water made with the dust of the golden calf, a plague comes among them and many perish.

It's a picture of the bride — guilty of adultery.  They've ruined this incredibly beautiful picture of God and His people.

But after Moses convinces God to stay His hand (which seems to be begging for a blog post to be written on that idea alone), the story picks up right where it left off.  God has Moses chisel out new tablets and come to the top of the mountain where He writes a fresh, new ketubah.

Wait a minute…  WHAT!

God just picks up where He left off?  Are you kidding me?  Did we already forget about the picture?

This is craziness.  This God, this Groom, has just showed up to His wonderfully planned wedding with His beautiful bride.  He has had His hopes and dreams and romance dashed to pieces as she commits adultery at the wedding ceremony.  And He just dusts Himself off, settles down the wedding guests and says, “Now, where were we?”

You've got to be kidding.

But that's the kind of God we have been reading about.  The God who will remember His covenant, the God who will walk through the bloodbath on our behalf, the God who will take the blow that we deserve.

Bride, meet your new Groom.

The Jews have often noted that as you read through the book of Exodus, the entire rest of the book will be devoted to the menial details of building the Tabernacle.  Every inch, every detail, and every piece is recorded.  It is painstakingly boring to read.  Not only this, but after God lays out the instructions — detail by detail — the story goes on to record that Moses builds the Tabernacle to every specification.  But it doesn't simply say that he does it; it records every detail — piece by piece.

All of those pointless details are recorded TWICE.

But the Tabernacle is the honeymoon suite.

It's as if God is wanting to go over every little detail of their new life together.  Imagine a newlywed couple going over the blueprints for their new home they are building.  Have you ever listened to the wife talk about every detail of their new home?  They love it!  They can tell you exactly what kind of faucet they are putting in the bathroom and how it goes with the light fixtures.  They will talk at great length about the curtains and the neat ideas they have in the hallway.

And it's as if God says, “I can't wait to start our new life together.  Let's go over all of those details of our new home again.”

Right after she has spit in His face with another god.

God is reckless in His love; He loves with complete abandon.

To borrow a phrase I heard the other day, God loves wastefully.

This is the God you worship.


Under the Chuppah

Keeping in mind the content of our last post, one cannot help but notice all of the blatant wedding imagery used to speak of the Israelites' time at Sinai.  As God calls them to the mountain, He invites them into a covenant relationship:

‘Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’  (Exodus 19:5–6)

Did you notice the phrase “my treasured possession”?  That is wedding language: it is what the groom says to his bride as they approach the ceremony.  In fact, five verses later, God tells Moses to go and “consecrate” the people — the very thing that a bride does in order to ready herself for the festivities.

And so we look at the Text and we realize that this image sets a powerful stage for the story of God.

We talked about how the groom would show up and invite the potential bride to leave her father's household and come to a new land, to be a part of his father's household.  “Abram, leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to a land that I will show you.”  (Genesis 12)

He then leaves the betrothed bride to go and prepare a place for her.  “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country … and they will come out with great possessions.”  (Genesis 15)

He then comes back as we've seen above and announces His plans to take her as His treasured possession and the bride goes to consecrate herself.  The ceremony begins: “On the morning of the third day there was … a very loud trumpet blast.”  (Exodus 19)

They gather under a chuppah “… a thick cloud over the mountain …”  (Exodus 19)

They receive a copy of the ketubah“And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant — the Ten Commandments.”  (Exodus 34; given in Exodus 20)

The marriage is consummated.  “Have them make a sanctuary for me.”  (Exodus 25)

And the wedding gifts are exchanged — these would be all the laws of the covenant.  The Jews have, for ages, spoken of the mitzvoth as their “wedding gifts.”  Then the new couple usher in their honeymoon period — wandering in the desert — as the bride gets to intimately know her new Husband.

This imagery will run wild throughout the rest of the Old Testament.

“I remember the devotion of your youth,
    how as a bride you loved me
    and followed me through the desert
    through a land not sown.”
         (Jeremiah 2:2)

The entire book of Hosea.
    …or Song of Songs.

Or Ezekiel 16 and 23.

You will also notice this imagery running rampant in the teaching of Jesus.  He tells story after story about wedding banquets.  He tells stories about ten virgins, some of whom are prepared and ready for the arrival of the groom.  Stories about wedding clothes.  His words about Himself echo through the pages:

“My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” 
(John 14:2–3)

“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
(Mark 13:32)

“This is the cup of a new covenant that I make with you today. I will not drink of it again until I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom.” 
(1 Corinthians 11 & Mark 14)

God is marrying His bride.

Hear the Ten Commandments as His ketubah.
1.  I am your husband.
2.  Have no other lovers — not even pictures of other lovers.
3.  Treat me with respect and do not sully My name.
4.  Keep a date night set aside for Me, your Husband.
5.  Trust that my provision for you is enough.
6.  Do not hurt yourself.
7.  Protect your sexuality.
8.  Don't take what is not yours.
9.  Tell the truth about yourself.
10.  Be satisfied with the life you/we have.

God is our Lover.  He wants to have a deep, meaningful, intimate relationship with us.  He has told us that obedience is His love language.

Every day, a Jew will recite a passage from the second chapter of Hosea.  It's God's betrothal to His people:

“I will betroth you to Myself forever.  I will betroth you to myself in righteousness and in justice and in love and in compassion.  I will betroth you to Myself in faithfulness.  And then you shall YADA the LORD.”

And every Jew responds by renewing their vows each day:

“Hear, O Israel.
        The LORD is our God; the LORD alone.
    Love the LORD your God
        with all your heart
        and with all your soul
        and with all your might.”