I’ve been reading two books recently that have me really wondering what to do with the Old Testament: RC Sproul’s The Holiness of God and Richard Beck’s Unclean. Sproul’s book uses some of the most troubling Old Testament depictions of God to define God’s holiness since holiness has to do with God’s otherness and incomprehensibility. Beck talks about the way that the ethics of mercy and sacrifice pull in opposite directions. The God depicted by the prophets seems to care mostly about mercy, while the God depicted by the priests in the Torah seems to care mostly about sacrifice. It may be a taboo question, but is the Old Testament really a debate between the priests and the prophets?
Because of my flirtation with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, I have gained a tremendous appreciation for the priestly side of religion. Growing up Baptist, I was indoctrinated with ideas like “the church is not the building; it’s the people” and “Christianity is about a relationship not a set of rituals.” I’ve since fallen in love with the basilica where I go every Monday. The sanctity that allows me to encounter the living God when I’m there is partly a consequence of the reverence for order that has been established. If the priest ad-libbed through the communion liturgy each week even if he did it flawlessly, the power of the space would be compromised.
Just to be clear, I’m not trying to say that the priests somehow “create” God or that the sacramental power depend on their performance of the ritual. It’s simply to say that order has value for the sake of establishing a sacred place. When Leviticus 10:10 says, “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the clean and the unclean,” that makes sense to me. It’s not arbitrary to set aside certain space or speech as holy and sacred. Every time a cell phone rings in church, we are reminded that church is a place where some semblance of reverence is supposed to be maintained. It is by separating the holy from the common that we are able to experience the presence of God in the ordinary. Having designated sacred space and time in our lives to focus on God is what makes us able to hear God speak when we’re stuck in traffic.
What disturbs me is what happens a few verses earlier in Leviticus 10 when Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu get killed by God for firing up their incense before God said go. Or when a man named Uzzah gets struck down by God for touching the Ark of the Covenant in 2 Samuel 6 to keep it from falling. It is very hard to reconcile the God who strikes people dead for touching holy things inappropriately with the God of 1 John 4 who is love. And no, it doesn’t work to just pervert the word “love” as some might by claiming that it’s a kind of “holy love” to strike a guy dead for breaking a taboo out of a genuine if misguided desire to protect God’s dignity by trying to keep the Ark from crashing. The Bible tells us what love is in 1 Corinthians 13 (which I suspect is some Christians’ least favorite chapter in the Bible).
I find it disgusting when commentators and preachers today offer glib “Monday morning quarterback” moral explanations thousands of years later for why Nadab, Abihu, and Uzzah deserves what they got, saying duh, I would have killed them too if I were God. Any of us would have done what Uzzah did. My sons are no more respectful of the sanctity of our worship space than Nadab and Abihu were in their eagerness to do what their daddy was doing. My boys run around like hooligans in God’s house after worship is over. And I don’t chew them out for it because Jesus said let the children come to me and I don’t think God is a sadistic curmudgeon who will sic a plague on us because there’s laughter and jumping going on in his house (as long as nobody climbs on the pews). Now it’s true that if my sons did the same thing in the basilica, I would sic a plague on them myself (although if I were a Catholic youth pastor who somehow strangely had keys to the basilica, organizing a midnight laser tag game inside would be an extraordinary temptation).
It seems to me that mercy and sacrifice represent the holiness of the prophets and the priests respectively. I don’t completely agree with Richard Beck’s assessment of the mutual exclusivity of mercy and sacrifice in Unclean. Certainly he’s right that seeking “purity” in policing your community’s borders is incompatible with the kind of striving to sympathize with the other required by mercy. A community whose self-definition is based on ritual purity requires an impure Gentile other with whom to contrast itself, and thus it cannot try to “understand the Gentile perspective.” They are simply “unclean” because God said so, and there’s no deconstructing that or else the community’s identity collapse. Still, if we’re going to be merciful cross-bearers in the world who tear down walls to show love and solidarity to all the outsiders, then we really do need to be priests of our own souls. I have seen over and over again in my life that when I’m living in a way that fills my heart with anxiety and shame, I take it out on other people. I need to be grounded in a holiness that is between me and God in order to be holy in how I treat others. Our bodies truly are a temple of the Lord. As Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).
Still I can’t hypnotize myself into “seeing” the same God who fried Nadab, Abihu, and Uzzah when I pray. The God who talks to me has convicting things to say sometimes, but he’s not the ball of uncompromising wrath to whom the fundamentalists seem to talk when they pray. I don’t know if the priests who wrote Leviticus were simply wrong about God or if God did things then that He would never do now. The Holy Spirit had a purpose in keeping Leviticus in the book that for Christians is our story about Jesus. What I do not believe is that Jesus somehow has a good cop / bad cop relationship with the God of Leviticus, which is the theological bifurcation of dispensationalist evangelicalism. Jesus says quite plainly, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Nothing about God that is relevant for us to know is not part of His self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Every troubling question raised by the Old Testament receives its clarification in Jesus.
And Jesus hangs out with unclean people all the time. He heals people on the Sabbath in the middle of a worship service. He says “I desire mercy not sacrifice” twice in Matthew 9:13 and 12:7. So from Jesus’ perspective, the prophets win the debate with the priests. And yet it’s also true that Jesus’ priestly sacrifice is what empowers us to be merciful and that part of our mercy involves our own sacrificial self-emptying. So the debate continues unresolved. I guess that’s how God likes it.