Continued from the prior post…
So when Moses came down from the mountain with the 12 bananas, 10 Commandments! yes, right, he was so angry with the Israelites’ misbehavior that he threw the tablets down and shattered them. Then he lays into Aaron: “What did this people do to you that you have brought a great sin upon them?” And Aaron said, “Let not the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are set on evil.” That is: it ain’t my fault! And of course the people are running wild, out of control. Remind me please, how many sons did Israel have? 12? Yes. And from each son came a tribe; there were 12 tribes. One of Israel’s sons was named Levi; his tribe, his descendants, were called Levites. Not Levi’s, which are pants. Aaron was a Levite, not a pair of jeans. Well, “Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, “Who is on the LORD’s side? Come to me.” And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together to him. And he said to them, “Thus says the LORD God of Israel, ‘Put every man his sword on his side, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.'” And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses; and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men.” Man, that’s harsh! But in those days just because God didn’t require people to sacrifice their firstborns didn’t mean he was a pushover. So the only tribe that was on God’s side of this idol-worship were…Levites! Yes. “And Moses said, “Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the LORD, each one at the cost of his son and of his brother, that he may bestow a blessing upon you this day.”
Class, remind me please, who was going to sacrifice Isaac? Abraham. Yes, and who killed the ram instead? Well, wasn’t it still Abraham? That’s right…just checking. Who sacrificed Abel’s lamb? Abel? Yes. And who killed all those lambs at the first Passover? Moses? Wow, Moses ran around all night killing lambs? Oh…it was the fathers or the grandfathers. Yes, an elder or a firstborn son. So being a priest wasn’t a special job. If I fix a toilet at home, I’m not called a plumber, it’s just something I do as the eldest man in the house. But if I make a mess and water sprays all over the place, my wife will say: “You made such a mess I don’t feel good about you fixing leaks anymore…I…want….a….? Plumber! Yes, who I have to pay!
And it was like that for the Israelites after they made such a mess by worshiping an idol. God said, “All you Calf-worshipers can’t be trusted to make a proper sacrifice anymore. From now on y’all have to pay the Levite men to do your sacrificing for you.” That’s why the book of Leviticus is full of blood’n’guts: the Levite elders offered sacrifices for a living. That’s the blessing they received from God. While all the other 11 tribes had to work all the time, the Levites had it much easier.
It’s too bad they messed up, because Moses had sacrificed some bulls to honor God’s covenant with the Israelites just a month or so before they decided to worship the Calf. Exodus says, “And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he splashed against the altar.” What a mess! “Then he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” Like the rest of us, the Israelites were ready to be obedient as long as they were in a good mood.
“And Moses took the blood and sprinkled it upon the people…” [I walk around the class, and sling blood on all the kids while I talk] I suppose he used a hyssop brush like on Passover. So you Israelites are in the desert, and it’s dry, and Moses is going to sprinkle you from a bowl full of hot bull blood…why do you want to be sprinkled with that hot sticky stuff? No guesses? Why did the doorposts in Egypt need blood sprinkled on them? So the firstborns wouldn’t be killed. Yes, the blood marked the houses where a substitute had been sacrificed. So, Moses sprinkles the people to show…that the bulls were substitutes for the people? Yes. And the blood marks the people as part of the covenant, which is not like a contract, but like…a marriage! Yes. Trick question: if someone overslept that day, and didn’t get sprinkled, would they be included in the covenant? No! Right. They had to get the blood on their bodies.
While Moses sprinkles, he says, “Behold the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.” Does this sound like anything in Mass? The priest says that about the wine! Yes, good, he almost says this. The priest actually says what Jesus said at the Last Supper. He quotes Jesus. And who do you think Jesus was quoting when he talked about the blood of a covenant? Moses? Yes genius, and we’ll learn more about this later on.
Speaking of wandering in the desert, remember that wanderers are…nomads, yes,who live in…tents, yes, and so the Israelites made a very deluxe tent for God to live in among his people, the Meeting Tent, which in many ways is like our church. Well, to get things off to a clean start with the Tent, there was a purification event. Tell me, what tribe didn’t worship the Golden Calf? C’mon…L-E-V- Levites! Yes, descendants of Isaac’s son Levi. And because they behaved, God put them in charge of sacrifices and all the business of the Meeting Tent. And there was one high priest, Moses’ brother Aaron. So we have the high priest, the Levites, and the people, who are all sinners. To have a clean start, do they need to take a big bath together? Huh? Do their bodies need cleaning? No, their souls. Yes, cleaned from…sin. Yes, good. Here’s how that was done: the LORD said to Moses, “Take the Levites from among the people of Israel, and cleanse them: sprinkle the water of expiation upon them, and let them…wash their clothes and cleanse themselves.” Anybody know what expiation means? No? That’s OK, 6th graders don’t know everything. It means to make up for something, to atone. So their clothes are clean…souls clean too? No. Right. But they’re just getting started. “you shall present the Levites before the tent of meeting, and assemble the whole congregation of the people of Israel. When you present the Levites before the LORD, the people of Israel shall lay their hands upon the Levites…” So all the Israelites lay hands on the Levites…why? To bless them? Good guess, but no. Priests can bless the people, fathers bless sons, but not the other way around. Here’s the next bit: “Then the Levites shall lay their hands upon the heads of the bulls; and you shall offer the one for a sin offering…to make atonement for the Levites.” [Numbers 9] Why are the bulls killed…to atone for…sin! Yes. So the people were trying to get rid of their…sins! Yes! How’d they move their sins away from themselves? Umm, they laid hands on the Levites? Yes, and how’d the Levites move their sins and the people’s sins off of themselves? They laid hands on the bulls! Yes, geniuses! Then they killed the sin-full bulls and thus atoned for all those sins.
Remind me about the comedian on TV: is the TV funny? No, the man is funny! Right, the TV is a medium, it transmits invisible stuff so we can laugh at the comedian in the studio. And when Moses hit the rock, the medium was…the stick! Yes, and when Isaac blessed Jacob? His hands! Yes, they transmitted the blessing. And when everyone atoned for their sins at the Meeting Tent, the medium to move the sins to the bulls was…their hands! Yes. And if the people didn’t want to touch other people’s heads, could they have removed their sins? No! And if the Levites didn’t want to touch a smelly bull could they have removed their sins? No! Right. All that physical stuff matters, because we have a soul and…a body! Yes. God works through his creation.
From then on, Israelites had to come to the Levites to atone for their sins. They’d tell a Levite their sins, he’d give them a penance, tell them what to offer, say a calf, or a bird, or a lamb. He’d kill it and offer it. There was a different atonement for each type of sin, or seriousness of sin. It could get pretty complicated. There’s a book in the Bible that deals with all the details of sin, sacrifice, and atonement called Leviticus. It’s named after the Levite priests, it’s a kind of instruction manual. Here’s an example, it’s long and gross: “He shall bring the bull to the door of the tent of meeting before the LORD, and lay his hand on the head of the bull, and kill the bull before the LORD. And the anointed priest shall take some of the blood of the bull and bring it to the tent of meeting; and the priest shall dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle part of the blood seven times before the LORD in front of the veil of the sanctuary. And the priest shall put some of the blood on the horns of the altar of fragrant incense before the LORD which is in the tent of meeting, and the rest of the blood of the bull he shall pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering which is at the door of the tent of meeting. And all the fat of the bull of the sin offering he shall take from it, the fat that covers the entrails and all the fat that is on the entrails, and the two kidneys with the fat that is on them at the loins, and the appendage of the liver which he shall take away with the kidneys …and the priest shall burn them upon the altar of burnt offering. But the skin of the bull and all its flesh, with its head, its legs, its entrails, and its dung, the whole bull he shall carry forth outside the camp to a clean place, where the ashes are poured out, and shall burn it on a fire of wood; where the ashes are poured out it shall be burned.” How ’bout that, girls? Ewww! That’s right.
And this is what Leviticus says, over and over, sacrifice after sacrifice: “the priest shall make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven.” Trick question: if I was a good Israelite, and the priests made atonement for all my sins, and they were forgiven, when I died would I go to Heaven? Yes…No! Well, which is it? No! Why? Cause Jesus hadn’t died for our sins yet. Yes. The problem was that God was perfect and sinless, while even the high priests were sinners like the rest of us. So even though sinful people and sinful priests, including the high priest, did their best to make up for their sins, they couldn’t do a perfect job of it. To do that you’d need a high priest who had no sin.
Thank goodness though, people who faithfully followed God’s laws as best they could didn’t go to Hell. They went to a place called Sheol, neither pleasant nor painful. Greeks had a word for that abode of the dead, anyone know it? Hades? Yes, good. Yes, what? Is that like Purgatory? Good question daughter, it’s like Purgatory in that it’s not Heaven or Hell, and a temporary place; but being in Sheol is different from being in Purgatory. In fact, Jesus visited Sheol, we’ll learn about that later this year.
Now so far all the purification and sacrificing involves spilling and sprinkling and slathering…blood! Yes, blood, because God’s people believed life was in blood, which makes a certain amount of sense. They had so much respect for the life in blood that they wouldn’t consume blood: wouldn’t drink it or even eat meat unless all the blood had drained out of the animal first. But this next bit of Leviticus adds something to that sacrificial blood.
Who knows what a leper is, not a leopard…c’mon, what’s leprosy? A bad disease? Yes, an awful disease: parts of your body die and fall off, like your fingers, ears, lips, nose. Eventually you die, but in the meantime you are ugly and people are afraid of touching you. Leviticus says, “The leper who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease…he shall dwell alone…outside the camp.” Poor people.
In Biblical times, lots of skin diseases were called leprosy, not just the worst type that we now call Hansen’s Disease, where body parts fall off. Some infections might go away, might heal, but anyone whose skin ailment got better had to go to a priest to be declared clean, the way you’d need a doctor’s note to return to school. There was a ritual for that. Leviticus says, “…take…two living clean birds and cedarwood and scarlet stuff and hyssop; ….kill one of the birds in an earthen vessel over running water. He shall take the living bird with the cedarwood and the scarlet stuff and the hyssop, and dip them and the living bird in the blood of the bird that was killed over the running water; and he shall sprinkle it seven times upon him who is to be cleansed of leprosy; then he shall pronounce him clean, and shall let the living bird go into the open field.” Y’all know about blood being sprinkled with a hyssop brush, but in this case the blood is being mixed with what? Water? Yes, the blood is sprinkled for…making up for sin…A-T-O- Atonement! Yes, and the water is for…cleaning? Yes, we’d say cleansing in this case. So water and blood together atone and cleanse. After this sprinkling the healed person offers lambs and some oil. The priest sacrifices the lambs and put some of the blood on the person. Then he pours a handful of the oil on the person’s head, and declares the person is clean. Even the house of a leper had to be cleansed: “for the cleansing of the house he shall…take the cedarwood and the hyssop and the scarlet stuff, along with the living bird, and dip them in the blood of the bird that was killed and in the running water, and sprinkle the house seven times.” Blood and water go together.
For centuries, the Levites sprinkled blood or water on people and things: marking them with the sacrificial blood, or by washing them clean with water. If you want to make something physically clean will sprinkling do a good job? No, that won’t do anything. So why just sprinkle then? Why not really wash? Well, it would take too long, and people have their clothes on. That’s right, and sprinkling’s not about getting physically clean anyway, what’s the point? Spiritual cleaning? Yes, and because we’re made of a…body’n’soul! yes, if we want our souls made clean, we…sprinkle water on our bodies? Yes, genius! But in Moses’ day the sprinkling was symbolic. It showed that the people wished to be clean from sin… the water didn’t do anything. But Jesus changes that in the New Testament.
And tell me the business about the Israelites starving the desert? God gave them bread! Yes, what’s that bread called? Manna! Yes, Manna. For 40 years they ate it, what did it do for them? Well, it kept them from starving? Yes. For how long? Umm…40 years? Yes, and after that did they all get old and die? Yes. So that food miracle, the manna, worked for a while. Even Jesus talked about manna, as we’ll discuss later on. And let’s see…what is a human made of? A body’n’soul! Yes, and what part did the miracle bread help? The body part? Yes. Unfortunately it didn’t do a thing for…the soul part? Right. But this is typical of food miracles in the Old Testament: they help bodies, but not…souls. Yes. Jesus is going to change this, too.
Now, has anyone ever seen any sprinkling happen in church? I have! Tell us about it. Umm, the priest walks around with a bucket and a silver thing and slings holy water on everybody! Yes. That thing is called an aspergillum, it’s the Latin word for little-sprinkler-thing. Has anyone ever seen a priest use a bundle of sticks, instead of the silver aspergillum, to sprinkle the congregation? I saw that at another church! Yes, good. It’s very interesting. The bundle of sticks looks like a little broom or brush, and it slings more Holy Water than the silver sprinkler, too. I like the sticks because that’s like hyssop brushes the Levites used to sprinkle blood and water all the time. Look at this picture in last week’s newspaper, this is the priest at the Greek Orthodox church blessing a new building…what’s he using? A brush like Moses had! Yes.
From now on in the Bible, we’ll see the ritual use of water showing up in important ways. Sometimes by itself, sometimes together with blood. And we’ll see people anointed with oil as well; watch for that.