Light from the Sidra

Tzav ('Command')

Torah: Leviticus 6:1(8)-8:36.Haftarah: Malachi 3:4-24(4:6)

Keep the fire burning

I can identify with this week’s parasha. During my years as a theological student at a small college in Surrey, England I sometimes had to get up at 5.00am to remove the ashes from a large stove in the kitchen and make sure the fire was burning so the students could have breakfast. In those days I wasn’t very good at getting up at the crack of dawn and one Sunday morning, more than an hour late, I sprinted to the college kitchen panic-ridden, bleary-eyed and dishevelled to find an irate Miss White, the cook, doing my chores for me. That morning Miss White supplied me with a never-to-be-forgotten lesson on the importance of ensuring the ashes were cleared from the oven –on time every morning!

The fire on the altar in the tabernacle court-yard had to be constantly alight. There was not an hour of any day when a sacrifice to God was not burning on the altar, even at night. The Hebrew word for ‘offering’, corban comes from a word meaning ‘to be close’, and the sacrifices on the altar kept the people or – when they sinned – brought the people close to God.

The fact that the fire had to be kept burning continually indicates a 24/7 need for atonement. That being so, there was obviously something lacking in the ancient sacrificial system. None of the offerings could remove sin and guilt completely and finally.

In chapter 8, Aaron and his sons – the most holy men in the nation – had to offer a burnt offering and a sin offering for themselves. Even the altar on which atonement was made had to be splashed with blood to make atonement for it. If the priests and the means of atonement required atonement, there was surely something lacking there also.

In the Haftarah, Yahweh promises Israel that he, the one they were seeking through their sacrifices, would come suddenly to His temple and purify the sons of Levi, purging them like gold and silver so they could present offerings in righteousness.

This is a remarkable text. At the time of Malachi, even though the people had returned from exile and abandoned their former idolatry, all was not well. The message of Malachi was a rebuke to the carelessness and formality of the religion of Israel. The temple rituals had become empty and meaningless, and God’s call to both people and priests was, ‘Turn back to me and I will turn back to you’ (Malachi 3:7, Tanakh – The Holy Scriptures: The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text, Jewish Publication Society, 1985)

God’s promise to come to his temple and purify the priests poses a couple of perplexing questions. Malachi lived about 500 years before the temple was destroyed by the Romans and, since there has been no temple for the best part of 2,000 years, when did Yahweh come to his temple and purify the sons of Levi? The second question is this: Since there has been no temple and no priesthood for two millennia, if God didn't fulfil his promise while the temple was standing, how can he fulfil it now?

Indeed, if the sons of Levi had been a pure during the period of the second temple period, why would the temple have been destroyed? We know from the ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus that the priesthood in the days of the second temple was corrupt and that the high priests were in cahoots with the Roman occupiers.

I don’t normally quote the New Testament in these meditations but I think the solution to the problem is to be found in its pages. Five days before his crucifixion, at Pesach in 33CE, Jesus of Nazareth arrived in Jerusalem accompanied by a host of Galilean pilgrims who announced him as the Son of David. He immediately entered the temple, declaring it to be his house: ‘And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, ‘It is written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer,” but you make it a den of robbers’ (Gospel of Matthew 21:12f).

To justify clearing the religious swindlers out of the temple Jesus quoted Isaiah 56:7, in which God says, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples’. Jesus saw himself as the God of Israel purifying his temple,  having as much right to throw out the merchants as a home-owner has to throw unwanted guests out of his house.

Jesus purified the temple but what of the priests themselves, the sons of Levi? In an early account of the ‘Jesus movement’, ‘the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith’ (Acts of the Apostles 6:7).

To be ‘obedient to the faith’ of the Messiah is to be purified by an offering infinite in its power to cleanse from sin and defilement; an offering that does not require a perpetual fire to be kept burning on an earthly altar. To believe in the Messiah is to become of a member of the New Covenant promised though Jeremiah the prophet:

See, a time is coming—declares the LORD—when I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel, and the House of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers, when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, a covenant which they broke, so that I rejected them—declares the LORD. But such is the covenant I will make with the House of Israel after these days—declares the LORD—I will put My Teaching into their inmost being and inscribe it on their hearts. Then I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No longer will they need to teach one another and say to one another, ‘Heed the LORD’; for all of them, from the least of them to the greatest of them shall heed me—declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquities, and remember their sins no more (Jeremiah 31:31-34, Tanakh – The Holy Scriptures).


What greater purification could there be than to have the Torah inscribed on one’s heart, to gladly heed the word of God and to have one’s sins forgiven, never to be remembered. Messiah initiated a new and better covenant and with it a new pure priesthood that includes not only the sons of Levi but also all who are in the new covenant.

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