This is a very strange chapter, in the way it’s divided. The first part is about the oil and bread to be laid out before the Lord in the sanctuary. The middle part is about a blasphemer who was stoned to death. And the last part is the famous "eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" passage. At first, I was going to try to find something inspiring to say about oil and bread (I like them as appetizers at Italian restaurants), but then I decided that would be a big, fat cop-out.
All right. Let’s deal with one of these awful stories that makes everyone (including many Christians!) want to throw out the Old Testament altogether. Or, at least it makes them want to say that the men who wrote the Old Testament were "making it up" as they went along and simply projected their misunderstandings about God onto their picture of reality.
For the sake of this blog, however, let’s pretend that the record is accurate and that God, in fact, told Moses to stone this boy. (And if you haven’t already, you should actually read the story in its context.) How could a loving God command that someone be stoned to death?! And how can we reconcile a God who would do that with the picture of a loving, caring Creator we see in Jesus?
Well, let’s say you have a twelve-year-old child who is bent on smoking cigarettes. One day, you catch him smoking behind the garage, and you go nuts. You try to tell him about the dangers of smoking — the cancer, the stained teeth and hands, the disgusting smell. But mostly, the cancer. These things will kill you, you say.
But what does he care? He’s a twelve-year-old child who has no sense of reality and can’t imagine that anything is ever going to happen to him. Old people may die of lung cancer, true, but he can’t be bothered to think fifty years down the road. As a smart parent, you know that when he can be bothered to think about it fifty years down the road, it will be too late. His lungs will be all black and shriveled up. The damage will have already been done.
So, what do you do? You bring him face-to-face with some immediate consequences, that’s what. Who knows what that would be? But he’s your child, so you must know where the hot buttons are. And so you begin to make his life unpleasant in an effort to get him to stop what you know will be destructive to him.
It is my belief that this is precisely what’s going on in Leviticus 24, except it’s happening on the spiritual landscape, a landscape that’s not so easy for us to discern. This is an ongoing problem for God — helping us (who are virtually blinded by sin) to sense and understand the spiritual, the intangible.
I think this is what He was also doing with the sanctuary system. I don’t believe for one second that God required a bloody sacrifice in order to be willing to forgive someone. But I do believe that it was important for the sinner to take firm hold of the reality of God’s forgiveness. In order to deal with the guilt and shame of sin and have the relationship restored, they needed to know they were forgiven. How was that accomplished? By giving the Israelites something tangible to do. By asking them to bring sacrifices to Him, God established a concrete method of delivering an intangible reality.
The boy in Leviticus 24 had cursed God. An investigation into the meaning of the Hebrew words reveals that this wasn’t some offhanded swearing. It was a deliberate "defaming" of God’s reputation. It was an intentional act — treating God with utter disdain, mocking Him (perhaps to others), and denigrating His character. The boy apparently went out into the camp and shared this contempt of God with other Israelites, and this was what landed him in custody.
I will admit that, given a surface reading, the punishment seems harsh. Stone him.
Let’s pause here for a moment and consider whether God was dealing with the physical landscape or the spiritual landscape. We automatically think physical because there was a very real, physical consequence to the boy’s actions. But was the immediate physical consequence God's primary concern? Was He trying to keep the Israelites from dying? If He was, I don’t think He did a very good job, because none of them are still alive today.
May I suggest that God was trying to keep the Israelites from death, but that He was trying to keep them from ultimate death? He was trying to keep them from the eternal death from which there is no return. Jesus proved many times while here that God is easily able to raise people from the dead. But there is a death He can’t raise us from, and that is the eternal death which comes when we persistently close off our heart to Him.
That was what He was trying to teach the Israelites: Don’t curse Me! When you curse Me, you curse yourselves! I am the One who holds all the blessings. I am the only One who has life, love, and liberty. If you aren’t willing to come to Me for life, where do you think you will find it?! If you curse Me, if you don’t take Me seriously, you do so at your own peril. And I don’t want you to die!
As Paul says in Romans 6:23, sin pays a very heavy wage — death. But God’s gift is eternal life. And this story (and, I’m sure, many others like it that we will encounter in the books to come) was God’s way of bringing the consequences up close and personal to the Israelites. He couldn’t wait until they had wandered so far down the road and out of His reach to prove that they would die if they held Him in contempt. He wanted to save them, not let them run headlong into destruction.
Ultimately, I believe that God does not run His government based on fear and force. Just like you prefer not to use threats in your relationship with your children. But if your children won’t listen to gently-spoken reason and you know their actions — if not curbed — are going to lead to permanent consequences, what would you do? And when God was faced with an unruly mob with no understanding of love and respect, where was He going to start? If He couldn’t get the people to "respect" Him long enough to listen, He might have lost the whole bunch.
Maybe you don’t like my explanation. If you don’t, I’d love for you to comment or send me a message and let me hear yours. At the end of the day, by demanding respect from the Israelites, God was trying to save them. He holds all the blessings. If we won’t come to Him, if we won’t take Him seriously, if we won’t listen to Him, there really is nothing He can do for us. If we curse Him, we curse ourselves.