Light from the Sidra

Sh'mini ('Eighth')

Torah: Haftarah: Lev.9:1-11:47. 2 Samuel 6:1-19

Holy fire!

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Buckingham Palace in London but you always know when the Queen is in residence because a flag flies over the palace when she is there. But if you want to meet Her Majesty, you’ll need to be invited (actually, you receive a royal command to go) otherwise the best you can do is stand with the crowd outside the gates in the hope of catching a glimpse of the monarch when she passes a window. And if you ever do have the honour of being called to the Palace, before you go you will be briefed on the protocol you will need to observe: where to stand, how to stand, how to address the sovereign.

Something similar pertained with regard to Israel’s relation to her God. At the centre of the camp of Israel was the tabernacle, the dwelling place of Yahweh, Israel’s King. When he was in residence, the pillar of cloud overshadowed the tent. No one could see God of course but they knew he was there. Aaron alone was permitted to enter the holy of holies, the throne room of Israel’s God, and when he did he had to follow certain rules down to the minutest detail.

Aaron was the holiest man in the world but he was still a man; and a sinful man at that. It was Aaron who made a golden calf for the people while Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the Torah. So before Aaron and his sons could commence their ministry of mediation between Israel and God, they had to undergo seven days of preparation, during which they never left the tabernacle entrance. In chapter 8. they had to bathe, put on their priestly garments and make a number of sacrificial offerings to God. On the eighth day, signifying a new beginning, another elaborate purification ceremony took place, in which four of the sacrifices listed in the first five chapters were offered for themselves and the people.

Before offering sacrifices for the sins of the people, Aaron had to first atone for his own transgressions. For his sin offering, he was instructed to present a calf, a fact which must have pricked his conscience because it was his golden calf that led Israel into idolatry and brought divine judgement on the camp. Now, the leader of Israel’s recent idol worship was being prepared to act as the nation’s chief mediator with God.

The offerings atoned for both his inadvertent shortcomings and his deliberate transgressions and in order to assure him and the people that the offerings had been accepted, supernatural fire consumed the sacrifices. However, no sooner did Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu offer incense before Yahweh than they were consumed by the fire of God because they offered ‘alien fire’.

Commentators disagree about what is meant by offering ‘alien fire,’ but whatever the precise meaning of the phrase, the consecrated sons of Aaron attempted to worship God in a way he had not prescribed; and they paid with their lives.

The lesson should be clear: God is holy and we cannot approach him in any way other than the way he has revealed. If there’s one thing God isn’t, it’s safe. Approach him in his way and you are safe; approach him any other way and you do so at your peril.

We see the same principle in the Haftarah. David should have had the priests carry the ark of the covenant. Instead, it is conveyed on a shaky wagon and Uzzah pays the ultimate price when he reaches out to steady it. Yahweh is holy.

That being so, how can the holy God be approached since that is no longer a tabernacle/temple or priesthood or sacrificial system?

It will not do to say that everyone must find their own way to approach God; that was what killed Nadab and Abihu. It will not do to say God no longer requires atonement sacrifices; God is as holy as he ever was and mankind is still sinful. It will not do to say we no longer need a mediator between ourselves and God; such a view grossly underestimates the holiness of God. If the most holy man in Israel needed to offer sacrificial blood for his own sins and for the sins of the people, how can we possibly entertain the delusion that God will accept us on a different basis?

If God can be approached without the need for a priest and sacrifice, why did he initiate what appears to many to be a very crude and primitive way of approach to him?

If atonement can be obtained by other means that the one revealed in the Torah, then most of the Torah has been irrelevant for the last nineteen centuries.

Some say the sacrifices have been suspended until another temple is built. But if the Jewish people have been able to get by perfectly well without them for almost two thousand years, what will be the point in having a third temple complete with a new priesthood?

A common Jewish charge against followers of Jesus is that they don’t follow Torah. In fact, however, the opposite is true. Followers of Jesus believe the principles of the Torah are eternal and don’t rationalise away the absence of the temple, the priesthood and the sacrifices. Just as the tabernacle was replaced by something better – the temple – so the temple has been replaced by something better. The priesthood has been replaced by a sinless, eternal high priest who offered one supreme sacrifice that atoned for sins for ever. The temporal has been replaced by eternal; the earthly has been replaced by the heavenly; the symbols have been replaced by the reality.

In the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, the Torah found its terminus so that by believing in him the Torah is established.

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