Exclusively published to the Touchstone website each week, these Daily Reflections are brief commentaries on the lectionary readings contained in the St. James Daily Devotional Guide. The reflections are penned by Patrick Henry Reardon, editor of the Daily Devotional Guide and a senior editor of Touchstone. Father Reardon provides here a very brief directional clue for one of the texts each day. Long-time readers of the Daily Devotional Guide will find these reflections an additional help to their reading of Holy Scripture which they can print and keep with their Guide.
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Sunday, June 26
Leviticus 23: This lengthy chapter is concerned with the sanctification of time, and more specifically with the ordering of the calendar year through the observance of its festivals. Quickly mentioning the Sabbath, which provides the structure for the sanctification of each week (verse 3), the Sacred Text treats of the double feast of Passover and the Unleavened Bread in the spring (verses 4-8), Pentecost in early summer (verses 16-21), and three autumnal feasts, Rosh Hashanah (New Year's Day-verses 23-25), Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement-verses 26-32), and Sukkoth (Tabernacles-verses 34-43).
Throughout this chapter and in connection with each of these feasts, we find the word “Sabbath” repeatedly. Except in verse 3, however, where the weekly day of rest is intended, the word as used in this chapter is meant metaphorically for “day of rest,” without reference to a particular day of the week.
It is common nowadays to treat Passover and Unleavened Bread as two feasts originally unconnected, the first commemorating an historical event and the second celebrating the harvest of the winter grain. According to this line of argument these originally separate festivals were later joined to one another by reason of their chronological proximity. The present writer does not see much solid evidence for his hypothesis, considered apart from the presupposition that favors it. There is no compelling reason to believe that Israel ever celebrated a spring harvest festival unrelated to the Passover. A similar observation is warranted respecting the relationship of the wheat harvest to the feast of Pentecost in verses 15-21.
In verse 22 we recognize a repetition of the humane principle laid down already in 19:9-10.
With respect to Rosh Hashanah (verses 23-25), two comments seems in order. First, the sacrifices for this feast are prescribed in Numbers 29:2-5.
Second, the name itself, New Year's Day, is not found here. Indeed, it is not found in the Bible at all, nor in any literature from the whole biblical period. “New Year's Day (literally, “the Head of the Year”) apparently became attached to this feast only in the A.D second century, where we find it in the Mishnah. Moreover, in fact, the very numbering of the months in the Book of Leviticus shows that the year at that ancient time began in the spring, not the autumn.
If it was not originally New Year's Day, then, just what was the autumnal feast treated here in verses 23-25? Some historians have conjectured that it was originally a feast of the Lord's enthronement, and some have suggested that feast as the original setting for the several enthronement hymns in the Book of Psalms. All such suggestions, however, are very conjectural and, to the present writer at least, unconvincing.
In verses 26-32 we come again to Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, the liturgical details of which filled chapter 16. This was a day of fasting, observed nine days after the festival later called Rosh Hashanah. In this section we note that the day begins in the evening (verse 32), exactly as in Genesis 1 and in Jewish and Christian calendars unto the present day.
The feast called Sukkoth (Tabernacles), with its very distinctive observance of living in tents or “booths” for a week (verses 33-43), was also held in the same month as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Like Passover and Pentecost, it views elements from an agricultural calendar through the lens of a specific theme from Israel's flight from Egypt (verse 43). Each day of this festival had its own particular observances (Numbers 29:12-38).
The traditional calendars of the Christian Church manifest considerable reliance on the feasts treated in the chapter. It is clear from the New Testament itself that Christians continued to observe some of those Old Testament holy days and transformed them with new meaning. This is most obvious for Passover, which became the Holy Week and Pascha of Christians, and Pentecost, the day on which the Holy Spirit descended on the Church assembled in the upper room. Even the autumnal feasts of Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, and Sukkoth can be found in vestigial forms, such as the September Ember Days that were common in the West until very recently, and more especially in the continued custom of the Eastern Church to begin the liturgical year on September 1.
Monday, June 27
Leviticus 24: The material in this chapter is varied, including both rubrics (verses 1-9) and even a narrative with a legislative and penal purpose (verses 10-23). Moreover, the material in this section interrupts what would seem to be a logical transition from the annual calendar in chapter 23 and the multi-annual calendar in chapter 25. For this reason some have suggested that this chapter was inserted at a later stage in the Bible's textual history.
Although reasonable as a conjecture, this suggestion does not explain why such an insertion was made at precisely this improbable place in the text. That is to say, why should we presume that an unexpected lack of logical sequence in the text comes from a later hand? Why presume that all unexpected components in the text were added later? If someone is to blame for a perceived failure to respect the sequence, why must this alleged person be later than the original writer?
It may be the case that the reflections on time in chapter 23 prompted attention to the lighting of the vigil lamps, which served to measure time, in this chapter (verses 2-4). If this is the case, the present text need not have come from a different hand.
From a consideration of the vigil lamps the author proceeds to another point of regular observance, the Bread of the Presence (lehem happanim), which was set out continually, like the vigil lamps, “before the Face of the Lord” (verses 5-9). This bread, distributed in twelve loaves to represent Israel's twelve tribes, symbolized the unity of God's Holy People. The bread was set out every Sabbath, the older loaves being eaten by the priestly family. We further note that this bread pertained to the “everlasting covenant.”
The Christian reader of this text may reflect that for many centuries it has been customary in Christian parish churches to preserve on the altar both a burning lamp and the Eucharist Bread of the Presence.
Suddenly in verses 10-16 these rubrics are interrupted by a narrative that introduces another point of the moral law, namely blasphemy. This seemingly disparate element is actually related to the theme of the Lord's holiness in a particularly striking way. This is the sole narrative in the Holiness Code.
Since the offender in this story was partly a foreigner, the Sacred Text goes on to stipulate that Israel's law of retribution pertains also to foreigners who live in their midst (verses 17-22). This connection is demonstrated in the fact that the narrative itself is not completed until after these stipulations (verse 23).
Tuesday, June 28
Leviticus 25: According to a prescribed hierarchy of time, both the land and the ownership of the land were to be given a regular season of rest and restoration, these periods of rest in analogy to the weekly day of rest provided for the people and animals that worked the land. Thus, every field was to be given a rest during every seventh year, a period called the “sabbatical year,” or “year of Sabbath” (verses 2-7). In addition, every year following seven-times-seven years (that is, 49 years) was the period when every field must be returned to the ownership of the family to whose inheritance it originally belonged. This fiftieth year of restoration was called the Jubilee (verses 8-55). Both of these customs served to remind Israel that they land belonged to God, and they themselves were only given the use of it (verse 23).
In the custom of the sabbatical year the Israelites were to learn that the land must not be fully exploited. That is to say, the land had an existence of its own. It did not exist solely for human exploitation (verses 4-5). Israelite history indicates that these provisions were sometimes ignored (26:34-35; Jeremiah 34:4), as were nearly all the provisions of the Mosaic Law. In times of religious renewal, nonetheless, the rule of the sabbatical year was taken seriously and restored (cf. Nehemiah 10:31; 1 Maccabees 6:49,53).
As for the difficulty and potential danger incurred by letting the land lie fallow for a year, God's people were to trust in His provision for those who obey Him (verses 18-22).
The Fiftieth Year, the year of the restoration of property, was called the Jubilee, a name derived from the ram's horn (yobel) that was blown to mark it (verse 9). It is worth observing that this year began on the Feast of the Atonement, a fact suggesting how the first day of the year, Rosh Hashanah, eventually became identified with the autumnal feast that we examined in 23:23-25.
The Jubilee was the occasion on which all alienated farm land and village homes, whether held in surety or in payment of a debt, was to be returned to the family that originally inherited it. Ideally, thus, no family could lose its proper inheritance for more than half a century. This humane and democratic provision guaranteed a certain measure of political and social equality. In an era when all wealth was based on the holding of real estate, no family could become too poor, nor any family too rich, if all real estate had to revert to its original owner within fifty years. The land would necessarily be divided according to a rough equality, and hence wealth would be divided in the same way. This was the reason that respect for inherited family property would mean so much to the Bible's social prophets, such as Elijah (1 Kings 21:1-19) and Micah (Mica 2:2).
The Jubilee rule pertained only to inherited pasture, farmland, woods, and village homes, not to property in walled cities (verses 29-30). Special provision was made for the Levites, who did not inherit land separately, as did the other tribes (verses 32-34).
Besides the land, the law of the Jubilee pertained to the freedom of those whom poverty had forced into slavery (verses 35-43). The people, like the land, belonged to the Lord (verse 55).
Wednesday, June 29
Leviticus 26: Here at the end of the Code of Holiness come the blessings promised to those who observe these statutes (verses 3-13) and the curses of those who don't (verses 14-39). The repetition of the hypothetical “if” ('im), found eight times in this chapter, shows hat the decision is still in doubt.
The blessings and curses are preceded by an introductory admonition about idolatry and the Sabbath (verses 1-2).
The promised blessings have to do with agriculture, the tilling of the Land of Promise (verses 3-5), peace (verse 6), victory in battle (verses 7-8), offspring and prosperity (verses 9-10), and the continued presence of God in fidelity to His covenant (verses 11-13). These blessings are conditioned on a double “if” (verse 3). This section begins with Israel “walking” in the Lord's commandments and finishes by the Lord “walking” in the midst of Israel (verses 3,12).
On the other hand, if Israel walks contrary to God, God will walk contrary to Israel (verses 21,23,27,28). The curses, which occupy a list much longer and more detailed, are arranged in an ever more emphatic progression, from sickness, sorrow, and hunger (verse 16), to foreign occupation (verse 17), famine (verse 20), and then all of these plagues together (verses 23-26). Israel will be punished sevenfold for its offenses (verses 18,21,24,28).
The curses begin with Israel not hearkening to God (verses 14,18,21,27) and end with God not hearkening to Israel. Instead of the abundant harvest of the Promised Land, the people will be reduced to such penury that they will resort to cannibalism (verse 29; cf; Deuteronomy 28:53; 2 Kings 6:28-30; Jeremiah 19:9; Ezekiel 5:10).
After this, Israel will be carried away into exile from the Land itself (verse 33). Taking an image from the previous chapter, the Lord threatens to place the whole Promised Land into an indefinite Sabbath (verses 34-35). Instead of eating in the Promised Land, Israel will be consumed in a foreign land (verse 38).
If, finally, Israel repents, the Lord will remember His covenant (verses 40-42), and Israel will be restored (verse 44; Ezekiel 16:53-63).
Thursday, June 30
Leviticus 27: This appendix to the Code of Holiness treats of substitutions and redemptions for offerings vowed to the Lord. Such offerings might include a person's labor for the service of the sanctuary, to be redeemed for a price commensurate with the age and condition of the person (verses 1-8).
Such offerings also included animals, certainly, greater value attaching to those animals appropriate for sacrifice (verses 9-13). Indeed, these latter could not be redeemed at all.
Property of all kinds could be vowed, particularly real estate. As in the case of an unclean animal, such property could be redeemed at the increase of a double tithe (one-fifth) of its value (verses 14-16,19). Since such an offering of property involved an alienation of it, the actual worth of the offering was affected by the date of the next jubilee year (verses 17,18,21,23,24).
Firstborn animals, belonging to the Lord as a matter of course, could not be redeemed if they were animals fit for sacrifice. In the case of other animals, redemption was based on the same double-tithe we saw in the case of property (verse 27).
Finally, all goods wee to be tithed for the sake of the worship, the support of its ministers (verses 31-33; Numbers 18:21,24), and the care of the poor (Deuteronomy 26:12).
Friday, July 1
Numbers 1: The Greek name for this book, Arithmoi (obviously the root of “arithmetic”), means “Numbers,” which has remained the common name also in English. This name indicates much of the book's contents, for it includes a census of the Israelites. It is also an appropriate name in another sense-namely, the book deals with the mathematics governing calendars, the parceling of the Promised Land, the quantities associated with sacrifice, and even the division of the war spoils. In short, this is a work inspired by the ideals and principles of mathematics, for which reason the reader will feel that he has entered a fairly and proportionately ordered world. (He also may bear in mind that “proportion” was a major concern of Leviticus 27, the chapter immediately preceding this one.)
The time frame of this book is the period of the forty years that the Israelites spent wandering in the desert. It begins at Mount Sinai and ends in the land of Moab, covering all the time between Egypt and the Promised Land. Numbers is traditionally ascribed to Moses, one man who was eyewitness to events narrated here.
The history recorded in this book is more than a plain chronicle, however. It is history told with a view o illustrating the theological significance of the events, a significance derived from God's providential governance of Israel during the period under consideration.
It was the Lord's presence with Israel that made this nation a holy people, so the book is first concerned with the people, even down to listing the people. This first chapter gives a rough census of all the Israelite tribes except Levi, the priestly tribe.
Like the bible's various prophetic books, Numbers begins with a precise chronological reference that contains no fewer than three ordinal numbers (verse 1). The second verse, in turn, requires a counting “according to the numbers” (bemispar). Verse 3 then specifies the ages by the computation of the years. In short, this is a book about quantity.
There follows the first census in Numbers. The second, a census reflecting a later time, is found in Numbers 26. The present census is clearly made for military purposes, since it concentrates on males eligible for warfare.
Commentators have invariably remarked on the extraordinary numbers indicated in this text, mentioning that, if these numbers of warriors are taken at face value, then Israel certainly had the largest army in the ancient world and could easily have defeated the combined forces of both Egypt and Babylon. Indeed, Alexander the Great conquered much of the world with an army barely a fraction of the size of the army indicated here in Numbers 1.
To gain a more realistic assessment of the situation, however, it is useful to bear in mind that the Hebrew word for “thousand,” 'eleph, is actually a subdivision of a tribe, the numerical count of which varied a great deal but seldom came to a full thousand. In the context of this chapter 'eleph indicates a military unit, comparable to our “battalion,” “regiment” or “brigade.” The numerical force of any of these units may vary a great deal, and this is also true of the Hebrew 'eleph. if this military context is borne in mind the very high numbers of troops in this chapter are rendered much more plausible than at first seems to be the case.
Saturday, July 2
Numbers 2: As the Israelite tribes journeyed through the wilderness, they really marched. Which is to say, they walked in martial ranks, both of these words derived from the name Mars, the Roman god of war. We speak of that era as a period of “wandering” in the desert, but this wandering was marked by an internal structure of great cohesion and purpose. The wandering Israelites were-as God's people must ever be-a company of warriors.
Consequently, the organization of Israel in the desert was arranged along martial lines, an arrangement that should not surprise us, in light of the military interest of the census in the preceding chapter. As in any military expedition, it was imperative to know just where the various forces were stationed and where it was feasible, if need be, to deploy them. We find this imperative at play in the present chapter.
Indeed, it seems to have been the major determining factor of Israel's physical organization. Whereas the previous chapter had recorded the troop strength of each tribe, the present chapter strategically distributes that strength. In fact, the strategic position of each large unit was made visible by its corresponding ensign, each of which served as a symbol of every soldier's position and direction on the field (verses 2,3,10,17,18,25,31,34). In addition, each tribe was answerable to a single commander, identified in every instance (verses 3,5,7,10,12,14,18,20,22,25,27,29). No good military leader would be satisfied with less organization.
If the overall arrangement of Israel served a military purpose, this arrangement did not exclude theological considerations. Among the tribes, such a consideration is arguably clearest in the case of Judah, destined to be the royal tribe (Genesis 49:8-12), from which, in due course, the Messiah would come. Judah, accordingly, is placed to the east (verse 3), the direction of the rising sun, blessed with its attendant symbolisms.
Similarly, the Tabernacle of God's presence, Israel's theological hearth, was placed in the center (verse 2), and around it all the bribes were gathered in assort of square, for its protection (Compare Ezekiel 48:30-35). The Levites, naturally, were positioned nearest to the Tabernacle, the care of the latter being their chief charge (verse 17).
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