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The Nazirite Vow

NaziriteI ever realized that women could become Nazirites until this reading of Numbers. All this time, I had assumed that this vow was made only by men. And clearly, the rules for the Nazirite have the feel of being for men what with the growing of hair and abstinence from drink. Nonetheless, women could do take such a vow as well.

The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man or woman wants to make a special vow, a vow of dedication to the Lord as a Nazirite, they must abstain from . . .’” [Numbers 6:1-3a, NIV]

In a nutshell, the Nazirite abstained abstained from alcohol, fermented drinks of any kind, grapes, or raisins; refrain from cutting one’s hair; and finally, avoid defilement by a dead body (or place that a dead body has been).

When I looked up additional information about the Nazirite vow, I was surprised to find that it evolved over time into three types of vows, depending on their length. In general, such a vow was made for a minimum of 30 days and for the common person, my guess is that this was the norm. However, there was a permanent vow (in which the Nazirite would cut his/her hair once a year for convenience) and there was a “Samson” Nazirite who was permanent, but did not have to abide by the dead body rule.

I believe, over time, these permanent Nazirites became known as monks. But isn’t it interesting that the Christian monks (and nuns) in later centuries were known for shorn hair and not long hair at all. Another reason why the Nazirite tradition ended was the loss of the Temple where the many sacrifices had to be made at the end of the vow. No temple : no end.

It’s a fascinating topic really and even includes some references to Jesus entering into a type of Nazirite vow at the Last Supper. But, of course, that is speculation as are many ideas about this tradition.

In any event, this ritual had to do with setting apart and holiness (see Holy Objects & Holiness post). The person perceived a need to separate himself or herself from the norm, even to the point of stepping away from family obligations (as might be the case in the event of a relative passing away). These vows were quite serious and if one was broken, the person had to “start over” again.

Jesus made some references to vows or promises in Matthew 5:37 in which he told the people to allow their “yes” to be yes and their “no” to be no. I believe he was alluding to people who made promises they did not mean or were unwilling to keep.

wedding ringsBut I would add, if we do make a vow, then we should treat them with more respect. Marriage vows have become the most abused of all. It is not enough to say, “well, I meant it at the time,” for that changes nothing except to imply that one did not know one’s own mind at the time or the implication of the promise. I would recommend people stop using the marriage vow at all if the intent is not binding. Or, perhaps like the Nazirites, the couple, if the vow is broken, starts over again.

Of all the many things that women were excluded from in Old Testament times, this is not one of them. Both men and women can experience holiness and set themselves apart for God. And secondly, their vows are still binding.

 

Holy Objects and Holiness

holy objects TabernacleBack in the day, they had some seriously sacred and holy objects. Everything in the Tabernacle (tent of meeting) was holy and could only be handled, touched, or carried by certain people and in a certain way. Any deviation could mean death. Does anything in our contemporary world compare?

They [Kohathites clan] are the ones who shall deal with the most sacred objects associated with the congregation tent. . . . When Aaron and his sons are done covering all the holy objects and furnishings, then and only then (so that they don’t touch the sacred things and die), the Kohathites can approach. They are the ones who shall transport these items of the congregation tent. [Numbers 4:4, 15]

There are religions around the world that do have sacred objects and although none have the death penalty, they do carry severe holy eucharistpenalties. In Western culture, mostly it’s the high church denominations such as Catholicism and Orthodox who revere things, be it the Eucharist (sacramental bread), icons, relics, or specific objects that have been blessed or designated for holy use. In Muslim culture, it’s my understanding that the Quran (book itself) should never touch the floor or have anything laid on top of it and believers should not touch its pages without formal ablutions.

But the idea of holiness in our midst, whether in objects or places, has been lost, in large degree, by the vast numbers of believers who have embraced a friendlier God whose grace extends to jeans, casual environments, electronic texts, and handy communion elements. I am not condemning the practice per se; after all, I attend such a church myself. It’s modern and relevant and loud; it appeals to a broad range of people and is designed to be accessible to both believers and non-believers alike.

cross and rosaryIn Christianity, the cross, the instrument of torture used by the Romans to execute criminals has become so ubiquitous that both believers and non-believers can be seen wearing t-shirts, earrings, and tattoos with the cross prominently displayed. Go figure.

What is holy in my own life? I find myself hungering sometimes for the holy or sacred experience. In new cities, I love finding older church buildings and sitting in the quiet spaciousness of the place. I love to listen to sacred music alone or practice the praying of the hours. There is a respect for the time and the place that feels different, that engages me spiritually in a way that other things do not. Don’t get me wrong, I love contemporary worship with its upbeat sound, waving hands, and corporate experience. But it does not speak of holiness. It’s praise and adoration of a type, but I would never assign the word holiness to it.

There are times in nature when I have felt a holy presence, but it cannot be re-created at home. And I have had remarkable revelations while reading my Bible and yet, I know I treat the book itself somewhat cavalierly (besides, I must have about twenty different versions all over my house). If I can’t find one, there’s always a back up. It’s not holy or sacred in that other way at all.

Of course, one cbasilicaan ask if holiness or sacred objects are needful in today’s culture? Perhaps not. But I wonder, are we missing something?

My husband’s conversion story includes a moment when he heard the voice of God ask what he would do if Christ appeared to him in the flesh? And Mike’s internal response would be that he would bow down and worship him. For him, a holy moment, no doubt. But we have so few of those moments today. Bowing down as a symbolic gesture of surrender or subservience is foreign to most of us. In the face of foreign “royalty,” Americans tend to bristle a little at the idea of bowing to them. Even the idea of a “king of kings” is honestly unfamiliar. These are merely words, not actual feelings of reverence or awe.

As I think about Lent, I want to search out the holy in my heart as well as my environment. It will be the focal point, I think, to my 40 day journey.

Counting

3 Million people to see/hear Pope Francis

3 Million people to see/hear Pope Francis

This is the first census of the Israelites and based on the line, “who were able to serve in Israel’s army,” this was a census to determine their military strength. The Levites, however, since they would be responsible for the Tabernacle, were not counted; they would not participate in war. And of course, no women were counted and no children or teens under twenty.

. . . and they called the whole community together on the first day of the second month. The people registered their ancestry by their clans and families, and the men twenty years old or more were listed by name, one by one . . . All the Israelites twenty years old or more who were able to serve in Israel’s army were counted according to their families. The total number was 603,550. The ancestral tribe of the Levites, however, was not counted along with the others. [Numbers 1:18, 45-47, NIV]

So how many people were really out there in the desert? Most scholars say upwards to 3 million. That’s a lot of people in one place. That would less people than in Los Angeles proper but more people than Chicago. That would be more than Lisbon, Spain but less than Warsaw, Poland. That’s more people that live on Jamaica but less than live on Puerto Rico.

It’s a big number.

But let’s go back to the men. They listed each one by name on what? I don’t really know. Papyrus maybe, animal skins? But let’s imagine that they had 8 1/2 by 11 inch pieces of paper. That’s 4,020 sheets of paper, assuming 150 names per sheet. That’s 8 reams of paper (almost a case). I’m just saying, if they really “wrote down” all the names, 600,000 is a lot of names and a lot of ink and a lot of surfaces to write them.

The business of “census” was huge. The time to do it was huge as well. In ancient times, let’s assume it took 30 secopapyrusnds to write one person’s name (ink, dip, dip, dip), that would be about 208 days if they worked non-stop, 416 days if they worked 12 hour days which is also unlikely, but if they only worked 6 hours a day, it would have taken more than two years just to write down everyone’s name at 30 seconds per name if only one person was doing the work. Okay, that’s unlikely, so let’s assume that 12 people were doing the writing (one per clan), then maybe only half a year or so.

In any case, that’s a long time.

Just this reason alone would have made it unreasonable to count the girls, I guess. But we all know about that part, that women were property and so, they would get counted until they decided to count the sheep and the goats. And then, it would be a one potato, two potato kind of thing, not by name. Hate that, but it was the way of their world.

Why do we count? In the U.S., we count for political and social reasons, not unlike David who got into all kinds of trouble for calling an unauthorized census [2 Samuel 24]. It’s as though the numbers are the proof. How many people came to the program? How many people came to church? How many people got saved? How many people are a particular race or size or whatever. How many dollars were accumulated? We are obsessed with counting. And in the end, it’s just arithmetic. There are so many reasons, so many exclusions, so many circumstances. What do the numbers mean? They are a photograph of a moment and nothing more.

I think we need to find other ways of measuring success, other ways of measuring life.

cemeteryAnd interestingly enough, while we are preoccupied in the numbers when it comes to collecting or promoting or showing off, we seem to slide over the numbers of tragedy: 230,000 in the 2004 Japanese tsunami; 159,000 in the 2010 Haiti earthquake; over 3 million in the Chinese floods of 1931; 60 – 80 million in World War II, 16 – 30 million in World War I; up to 4 million in the Vietnam Wars and 1.2 million in the Korean War (and these are just in the 20th century). These are numbers we toss out like so much salt on a winter road.

What are you counting today?

A Year of Jubilee

jubilee2Just try to figure out how that actually worked back in Old Testament times. If you think scholarship over the New Testament issues is hot and contested, check out the controversies over this Levitical proclamation in chapters 26 and 27. At first, it seems relatively clear cut, but apparently, a closer examination reveals a number of issues.

Count off seven sabbath years—seven times seven years—so that the seven sabbath years amount to a period of forty-nine years. Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land. Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields. In this Year of Jubilee everyone is to return to their own property. [Leviticus 26:8-13, NIV]

Entire articles are written on whether the Year of Jubilee is indeed the 50th year in addition to the 49th year which would make it a Sabbath Year times two (really? two years with no planting?). Others argue over the start date, when is year one? And then still others question the intricacies of all of these transfers of property and slaves in the same year throughout the land. Havoc.

Honestly, I’m not that interested in the intricacies of implementing this law. But I do find the concept fascinating. In essence, ownership of land or slaves had an original possessor (in this case, based on the tribes and families who entered the promised land upon leaving Egypt). And as a result, anything and everything after that, was a lease, a rental, a borrowing contract. Nothing outside of the original grant was permanent.

native americansThis idea reminds me of some of the historical documents that reveal a basic misunderstanding between the Native Americans and the white interlopers from Europe. While the pilgrims and pioneers thought they were buying the lands, the Native Americans always considered these agreements to be temporary and somewhat silly. How could they sell to the whites what they did not own. The land belonged to nature, to God, to Spirit.

How different things would be if we understood today that our lands as well as our wealth and buildings, out cities and our systems are merely leased for a season. God can take them all back in a moment. Nature can easily supersede our so-called ownership and if left fallow, even for a short time, man-made things are engulfed and buried, if necessary, to start anew.

I don’t know when year one is in God’s eyes either. But there is some evidence that our lives and our world do run in cycles. I seriously doubt I could figure out that cycle, but in the spirit of Jubilee, I could proclaim it. I could choose a year of Jubilee, a year of letting go, a year of freedom, a year of rest, a year of renewal. What would I do in a year like that? A true sabbatical.

ResetI don’t really honor the cycle of seven days, resting on the seventh (as in Sunday). Every day is full of activity and obligations, shoulds and musts. Nor have I considered the seven year cycle, re-evaluating my world each seventh year. It’s not required anymore, I know that, but there might be something in this idea of rest and renewal, stopping and starting, taking a deep breath and releasing the past.

In October of 2014, I will reach the 9th set of sabbatical years. I would like to mark the following year as a Jubilee. I’m not sure what that will be exactly, but I’m putting it out there now. To ponder, to think, to imagine, to plan, to reset.

What would you do in a year of Jubilee?

Sin Happens

freedomInteresting. In today’s world, how often does a person use as their defense, “I didn’t know” or “Nobody told me.” And as a result, they believe this lack of knowledge absolves them of the crime. You’d think we’d get over it. After all, the “I didn’t see the stop sign” defense does not work in court, nor does “I didn’t know the speed limit” prevent an officer from giving us a ticket. And yet, we still say it and claim it and believe it.

 If anyone commits a sin by violating the directives I have given you—even if he was unaware of it—once he realizes it, he bears the guilt and must still accept the consequences. [Leviticus 5:17, The Voice]

The law works differently than grace. The law is immutable and enduring. The law has not gone away because of grace, it still exists; it is only our relationship to the breaking of law that has changed through Christ. For this reason, “. . . all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” [Romans 3:23] Sin still exists. Intentional or unintentional, blatant or secret, repeated or isolated, sin happens. Mistakes happen.

mercy on meInitially, I wasn’t fond of the centuries old Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” because I didn’t see myself as a sinner. I saw myself as foolish perhaps or selfish, but honestly, it wasn’t like I had killed anyone. (Why killing seems to be norm for being a sinner, I don’t know, but most people who say this phrase, use that act as the litmus test.)

During Jesus’s ministry, he called his disciples to the highest plateau of faith by telling us to walk the paradox line: love enemies, go the second mile, enter through the narrow gate, turn the other cheek, and so forth. And then, he tops these off with the ultimate impossibility: “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect!” [Matthew 5:48] What? Absurd. That’s inaccessible. No one can do that. No one can be even close to the perfection of God. And I can just imagine Jesus smiling: “Yep. That’s the point.” And apparently, anything less than perfect is sin.

Sin is part of life. But how do we respond to it? Do we yield to sin and its backlash (as they say, “Karma is a bitch”) or do we call on the power of the Cross of Christ to stand between? It is the point.

sacrificePeter writes, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” [I Peter 4:8] But Christ’s love covers ALL sins. We are encouraged to model our behaviors after Christ and practice love so that we can learn to be more generous of heart to one another. But there is only One who covers them all, from small to large.

Own up to the sin. But even better, own up to the sacrifice of blood that protects us all from the kismet of life’s choices.

Give Passionately!

givingCan you imagine it? The call had gone out to all the Israelites to contribute freely to the building of the Tabernacle, an extensive list of what was needed from gold to silver to bronze and precious jewels and fabrics. And over time, they collected more than enough. The people had to be restrained from giving more. What minister or leader wouldn’t mind being in that situation?

Then Moses gave an order and they sent this word throughout the camp: “No man or woman is to make anything else as an offering for the sanctuary.” And so the people were restrained from bringing more, because what they already had was more than enough to do all the work. [Exodus 36:6-7, NIV]

But that would be rare indeed. Instead, the issue of giving seems to be the bane of every organization, whether religious or secular. There never seems to be enough money to go around. Is it the lack of money really or is the projects we are hoping to fund? Are there more good ideas than there are resources?

Back in those days, there was only one primary task before them: the building of the Tabernacle and setting up the tools and arena for worshiping the God; that same God who saved them in the desert, who brought them out of Egypt, who showed them miracle after miracle. And in their midst, the evidence of God was still quite present: the cloud during the day and the fire at night.

What do we have? We have many, many good causes raising the call for donations. Many churches are also looking to build their buildings or their programs, to expand their reach, to broadcast their message. Humanitarians are looking to ease the burdens of hunger and poverty, inequalities and tragic losses. Those affected, either directly or indirectly, are raising consciousness about various diseases that need more research or children dying unnecessarily. Others are fighting causes to protect the unprotected, the weak or the disadvantaged. And still others are fighting for funds to raise brighter, stronger, smarter, and more valiant children, the next generation to whom a troubled world is being inherited. And still others are simply looking to brighten our world with beauty, art, and music, but lack the means to be effective.

All of these enterprises have value, some for many and some for only a few. Where do I put my energy? Where do I put my funds? To whom do I commit my dollars? My time? How do I choose? And what portion is appropriate? Is it just the sacred tithe of ten percent or more? What does my own family require or not?

I think sacrificial giving, which has become a real buzzword in the church, is a dangerous misnomer. It implies a painful aspect, giving beyond what one is comfortable giving. It implies that one’s own needs may not be met in the face of giving for the sake of another. The sacrifice is not in the giving itself but in the heart. It is giving out of commitment and belief that the gift will matter and will make a difference.

Giving may do better with intent and outcome. I mean, anyone can give a dollar to a homeless person on the street and feel some relief but the bigger picture has not been touched by the gift. If my heart is sincere about this person’s needs or situation, then the gift must go deeper and further. It simply must or it’s just a spray of pennies.

When the Israelites gave for the building of their Tabernacle, they knew that the one gold bracelets would be melted into the ton of gold that was used to cover the poles and the Ark and the table. They saw the gold every day and knew, one fraction was theirs. And it was theirs too. They gave out of a passion for the place in which God was present.

Passionate giving has power.

Urim and Thummim

urim_thummimIt’s a fascinating idea really, the Urim and Thummim. Apparently, the priests used special stones to cast for a decision or divination. Some scholars translate the words as “revelation” and “truth” but I’m not sure that helps understand how they were actually used. Another interpretation is that the words essentially mean “innocent” or “guilty.” And in this way, groups of people or ideas where honed down by castings, Urim or Thummim, divided and divided until only one remained.

Also put the Urim and the Thummim in the breastpiece, so they may be over Aaron’s heart whenever he enters the presence of the Lord. Thus Aaron will always bear the means of making decisions for the Israelites over his heart before the Lord. [Exodus 28:30]

flip-coin_5Ultimately, it sounds a lot like flipping a quarter. The result is random except for one difference, the people who threw the stones as well as the people who asked the questions, wholeheartedly believed that God alone drove the results.

Would that make our lives easier today? Like the picking of daisy petals, “he loves me, he loves me not,” could we abide by the final outcome? Or would we hedge it? Wouldn’t we really just look for confirmation and not decision?

In some cases, the coin toss works very well, when nothing too particular is at risk. I mean, whether Harry or Sally go first in a game or the Ravens kick-off instead of the Colts, these are not a deal-breakers.

But what if it was life or death? What if it was getting married or not? What if it was to move our of state or not move? In today’s culture, could anyone give those decisions completely to God in such a manner?

Bottom line: do I believe in luck or destiny? Does God need the Urim & Thummim to drive my life?

If I gamble or play the lottery, I must still believe in luck. Or do I?

lottery ticketThere’s a joke about a man who prayed every day for months that God would allow him to win the lottery but he never did. Finally, he complained to God, “Why haven’t I won?” and God answered, “You should have bought a ticket.” Does God need the efforts of human?

It’s a complicated question and one I cannot fully unwrap.

So, truthfully, I can’t really say I don’t believe in luck at all, I’m sure God supersedes luck, but perhaps God allows luck too. So, I occasionally buy a lottery ticket, wondering if God would like to bless me this week, you know, when the prize is really, really, really big. But, in my gut, do I believe God would pick me for an undeserved splash of wealth at that magnitude? These purchases are really “just in case.” I’m hinting. I’m directing God: “Hey God, this would be a great way to bless me, if You have a mind do it. What do you say?” (And secretly, I even promise to tithe on it. Oh brother, what a conniver.)

Silliness.

love the lord your godLet me step back still further. God has been pretty clear about the best life for Human and summarized it in two sentences: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, Love your neighbor as yourself.” [Luke 10:27] And every action we take, every decision we make, could be in answer to these directives.

Too many of my decisions are about me. Not God and not others. Lottery tickets included. Time to re-focus the heart.

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