Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Wisdom of Ecclesiastes In Context - Part 1

This is a section from my commentary on Ecclesiates A Table in the Mist. What? You haven't read it yet? Shame on you.

Israel's Upbringing: Stage 1, Priesthood

Before we go all the way back to Adam and Eve and the beginning of the story – a move we must make eventually if we are to appreciate wisdom's role in mankind's progress toward maturity – let us begin with something fairly straightforward and easy to see. Think about the narrative of Israel's history. There are at least three fairly obvious stages in Israel's development. Think of these as stages in God's process of educating or training his people. This is one of the ways Paul encourages us to meditate on the story of God's interaction with his people Israel in the old world (Galatians 4:1-7). They were being trained or educated as God's new humanity. The three stages can be outlined as follows:
Priests → Kings → Prophets
This ordered sequence is important. As a nation covenanted to Yahweh, Israel begins her corporate life as priests. What we call the mosaic covenant, which Yahweh graciously inaugurates with Israel at Mt. Sinai, is largely concerned with regulating his people's priestly role in the world at large. A "priest" is a household servant of Yahweh. Israel is granted the privilege of drawing near to God and therefore of serving in his house (the tabernacle). I hardly need to amass proof texts to demonstrate that the Mosaic covenant and the revelation associated with that covenant largely concerns priestly and "sacrificial" regulations.

At this stage in the story of Israel she is charged with guarding and maintaining the Lord's special "house." She is granted this charge to serve the nations. What we call the Tabernacle is Yahweh's special "tent of meeting," the appointed place to which he invites his people to draw near and commune with him. This meeting place is a place of food and feasting, which is why so much of the content of the Mosaic regulations have to do with clean and unclean foods, animals that are appropriate for Yahweh's food, and the appointed times and places for such festival banquets.

As the Lord's priests his people serve as inspectors and servants at his communion table (what we call the "altar'). The special priests (Levites and the sons of Aaron) inspect, prepare, and distribute the Lord's food. I wish that our translations would make this clearer. Every animal that is brought near (the Hebrew verb is qrb, "to draw near") becomes "food" (lechem, "bread") for God. Speaking to the Aaronic priests in Leviticus 21:6, Yahweh says,
They shall be holy to their God and not profane the name of their God. For they bring near (qrb) Yahweh's fire-cooked food ('isheh), the bread (lechem) of their God.
Much more could be said about these priestly duties, of course, but this is enough to get the general thrust of Israel's priestly duties. What we must pay careful attention to now is that priestly regulations are very detailed and do not require a great deal of discernment to administer. The law (torah) is quite meticulous. To be faithful priests Israel simply had to follow the law very carefully. If an animal is brought near for the Lord's table, the priests simply had to remember God's explicit instruction and discern whether an animal was clean and unclean, blemished or unblemished, and so on.

So much of what we call "the law" or "the torah" is like this. Do this, do that, don't do this, and don't do that. Israel begins her corporate life with relatively simple, straightforward rules to follow. The same is true for the laws that regulate her social and governmental existence. Of course, it is true that for us modern readers this legal system often seems hopelessly complex. But that's only because we are so far removed from the life of Israel and the old world of animal sacrifices. As others have pointed out, however, for an Israelite to acquire expertise in these matters was not much different than the way a car mechanic today learns the "rules" that govern the replacement and repair of auto parts. Most of us would be lost until we spent the necessary hours memorizing the manuals necessary for this kind of work. And the laws governing animal sacrifice are a lot simpler than those that apply to modern car maintenance and repair.

My point is this: Israel begins her life in Yahweh's house learning the rules explicitly laid out by him for her priestly duties. She is like a child who is governed by specific "dos and don'ts" unmistakably expressed by her parents. She begins in God's house serving at his Table. All of this is not to deny that there are "deeper" dimensions to the Mosaic law. There certainly are. We will get to that in a moment. But for now simply notice that Israel's early relation to God is very childlike. She was called to obey even if she didn't fully understand. She will need to mature as she obeys God's law in order to appropriate the "wisdom" embodied in the Law.

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