Studies in Leviticus: Safeguarding the Sacred (Chapter 24)

LeviticusWhat do a lamp, some loaves, and a loudmouth have to do with one another? That’s the structural question that has troubled commentators and preachers for some time as they’ve wrestled with the logical arrangement of Leviticus chapter 24. There is, however, a common feature of three sections of this text. The emphasis on ritual observance was intended to protect the sanctity of the sacred among the people of God.

The text is easily broken down into three sections, focusing on the (1) lampstand, (2) the showbread, and (3) the blasphemer. A survey of each will reveal the emphasis on consistent ritual observance of the commands of the Lord. Holiness is deeply related to ritual in the book of Leviticus. We tend to think of ritual as a negative thing, a meaningless duty which looses significance because of its repetition. As we have seen, however, the Scriptures argued for the consistency of the religious rituals as a way for maintaining a holy consciousness among the people. Routine observance of God’s commands was to help prevent their relapse into idolatry and apathy. It was intended to promote godliness as a way of life, not merely a casual observance. Such is the case here in Leviticus 24 too, which falls under the larger section of Leviticus’ instructions on ritual observance (chapters 23-25).

In each category there is an element of consistency in ritual practice. Consider the lampstand. Readers are told that the lamp must burn “continually” (v. 2, 3, and 4), and that he people of Israel are to participate in this ritual by donating regularly oil for the lamp. The showbread too is to be set out “regularly” (v. 8), and is to be a “perpetual” offering (v. 9). The final category, that of the “blasphemer,” focuses on this same principle of consistency. In this case, however, the focus is on consistent and perpetual application of justice. The text explores what to do about someone who blasphemes. What do you do with someone who uses God’s name as a curse. The people were not sure and so they waited on the Lord to reveal His will, which He did. But in revealing His will the Lord does not merely say what they are to do with this one man, but rather what they are to do with all men who commit the same offenses. God establishes here a broad and sweeping application of justice. This rule is for “anyone who curses” (v. 15),  “anyone who blasphemes” (v. 16), “whether foreigner or native-born” (v. 16). There are no exceptions, not favoritism, no prejudice allowed in matters of justice. Punishments, according to God, are to be equally administered and equal to the crime (v. 17-20).

We see again, however, that this same principle of ritual observance – consistency, is maintained. Justice, like the lampstand and the showbread, are to be a part of the routines and rhythms of Israel’s life. They are to consistently consider them and live with them. They are not occasional events, but daily habits and patterns. In this manner they safeguard what is holy. The lampstand is intended to remind them about their access to God, it’s continual burning is a reminder that they are always in His presence. The showbread was intended to symbolize the “everlasting covenant” (v. 8) between God and His people. It was part of the sacrificial offering of the people. It’s consistency was a reminder of the enduring relationship between God and Israel. Justice too was to be a perpetual testimony to the people of God. In the textual example it was about reminding them of the holiness of the Lord. As God’s name is intertwined with His character, abusing it meant defaming Him. Justice, then, was a way of stressing the unique holiness of Yahweh.

In all of this Israel is striving to fulfill what God has called them to: to be set apart. They are to be a people uniquely devoted to God, marked by their holiness and obedience to Him. The ritual observances were about safeguarding what was sacred. They kept before Israel the call placed upon them, and the one who had given that call. They were God’s people, and that mean they were to be different. And so are we.

While we do not have holy objects and holy days anymore, we do still have a holy God and are to be marked by holy lives. For us blasphemy is not simply about taking the Lord’s name in vain, it is about our whole pattern of living. We can and do blaspheme by our inconsistent living, by our lack of holiness, our indulgence in sin, our rebellion against the Spirit. We are certainly instructed not to use God’s name in a dishonorable way, but we are also told to live in a manner worthy of the name of Christ (Phil. 1:27; Eph. 4:1). What rituals have you built into your life to help you in this pursuit? What rhythms of worship do you participate in that safeguard the sacred in your life? These are important questions to ask as we seek to demonstrate our own status as followers of Christ.

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