Tuesday, April 30, 2013

What are you worth? Leviticus 27

We come to the end of Leviticus. It’s taken a long time, both because there are some dragging parts and because I’ve been a bit slack in writing about it. However, here we are. Leviticus ends with this verse:

These are the commandments which the Lord (Yahweh) commanded Moses for the sons of Israel at Mount Sinai. (NASB with clarification added)

That’s the summary of the whole book: God’s commands. This last chapter can be a bit troubling, though, as we look at how it applies. Take a look at the easy part first, though:

The closing verses, 30-33, are the easiest to grab hold of: when it came time to set apart the tithe of the land, there was to be no picking and choosing of what was tithed. For example, when going through the herd to tithe, every tenth sheep was to be given as holy to Yahweh. This is the one case in the Law of the Old Testament where bad, diseased, or good animals are all acceptable: the giving of tithes. Likewise, you get the idea that the grains and fruits offered in the tithe were simply to be one-tenth, perhaps decided as every tenth basket.

Most of us are completely okay with this: we don’t have to guarantee the good of the gift, and might manage to have the prize sheep ninth in line instead of tenth. Then we could keep it! If you want the symbolism on that, I would lean towards suggesting that there are times that we give out of obedience and trust God to make good with what we give, be it good or bad.

It is truly the front end of the chapter that causes some of us to have some difficulties in understanding. Throughout the opening 8 verses, the Law establishes valuations for people. And if this does not offend our modern sensibilities enough, men are valued more than women, middle aged more than senior adults, and so forth.

If we are not careful, we will take the wrong message here and either become oppressors of people or feel trodden-down when no one has actually tread upon us. This is not about the value of an individual to society. Let’s go over that again: while a quick read through this seems to say the opposite, this is not about the value of an individual to society.

You have to put this into its context: pre-monarchal Israel, starting while still in the Wilderness before taking the Promised Land. There are thirteen tribes of people working and living together with, ideally, God alone as their King. Through the course of the Exodus, God selects one tribe, the Levites, to serve as His priests. (Exodus 32)

This differentiated the Israelites from many of the other nations around them: for an Israelite, one was either born eligible to be a priest or one was not. That did not stop, however, the people from doing things such as making vows about giving their life over to God in certain circumstances.

You know the type of promise: “God, if you just get me out of the this one…..I’ll serve you forever.” Maybe you have made that promise, maybe you have not…but people did and do.

What happens, then, when a person is unable to fulfill that obligation? What can a man give in place of his life?

Leviticus 27 gives us that answer: if that man is between 20 and 60, he can give fifty shekels. The various other amounts are applied to women, other age groups, and especially children—which would fall under the heading of “what the parents have to pay for vowing” since a 3-month old tends not to make vows.

These are the payments to allow you to cover for that vow you made without falsifying your words. Whether the vow was made in a heated moment or an excited one, whether it was that the Levites would not let you help or you realized that you just could not do it, then this payment allowed you to walk away with your honor intact.

Now, as to the differences in valuation? Well, most of the resources I have on hand indicate that in the non-monetary economy of the time, most typical workers would have done well to put back a shekel a month. The usual situation was a strong level of subsistence farming, but that was life. It was an agrarian society and people did not keep much cash laying about. By nature of the economy, though, a man would have had more access to monetary equivalents than a woman would have.

So the expectation is higher. If you read this as “men were worth more” you miss the point: the point is “God’s grace provided in an unequal society.”

Which is, overall, a good thing.

When we make promises and vows, we ought to keep them. If we cannot, we fall on God’s grace, but we need to see there is a cost. And that cost should keep us mindful not to make rash vows again.

Today’s Nerd Note: Leviticus 27:29 gives us an interesting situation. It speaks to people under the ban or devoted to destruction and states that there is no redemption for them.

What causes that? Well, obviously the people of Jericho and many of the cities of Canaan were in that situation: no amount of payoff was to be taken to spare their lives. An Israelite would find himself in that situation by deliberate covenant defiance. Oh, and oathbreaking would have gotten him there as well.

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