Leviticus has a lot to say about how God is to be worshipped. At first glance, (and especially if you attempt to read through Leviticus in big chunks) it can seem like an overwhelmingly meticulous instruction manual for How To Be A Levitical Priest with no detail left unexplained. However, I happened upon something which resonated whilst thinking about where to start with this month’s #Digidisciple post, and that was to do with bread – a symbol with which Christians have always been familiar.
Leviticus Chapter 24, sits in between instructions for seasonal festivals (including the Passover) in Chapter 23, and details of Sabbatical and Jubilee years in Chapter 25. It it, there are a brief few verses concerning bread:
‘Take the finest flour and bake twelve loaves of bread, using one fifth of an ephah for each loaf. Arrange them in two piles, six in each pile, on the table of pure gold before the Lord. By each pile put some pure incense as a memorial portion to represent the bread and to be a food offering presented to the Lord. This bread is to be set out before the Lord regularly, Sabbath after Sabbath, on behalf of the Israelites, as a lasting covenant. It belongs to Aaron and his sons, who are to eat it in the sanctuary area, because it is a most holy part of their perpetual share of the food offerings presented to the Lord.’
This Bread of Arrangement (or rows of bread) is mentioned elsewhere in the Old Testament (in Chronicles and Nehemiah for instance) and is obviously intended as a perpetual, unvarying ritual in contrast to the seasonal Festivals which have just been presented in the previous chapter, and the Sabbatical and Jubilee years which are about to come in chapter 25. So this is obviously something which lies at the heart of worship at all times, underlying the other seasonal and occasional sacrifices and rites. So what’s the bigger picture here? Let’s follow a trail of breadcrumbs…
Bel and the Dragon
The breadcrumb trail I’m following comes from the direction of Babylon, and the apocryphal story of Bel and the Dragon, which formed Chapter 14 of the extended Book of Daniel. Now, my Bible ends at Chapter 12, chances are that yours does too, but bear with me. This is possibly a satirical tale, it seems to me, lampooning the way in which pagan gods were worshipped, and like a lot of satire, it gives us a very human insight into a bigger picture.
Daniel explains to King Cyrus of Babylon why he does not worship the idol Bel. The king claims that, since Bel eats the food offered to him daily, he must be real, so why won’t Daniel accept this? Daniel replies “Because I do not revere idols made with hands, but only the living God who made heaven and earth and has dominion over all flesh.” When Bel’s priests are challenged to prove that Bel does indeed eat, they allow the king to place food in the temple and seal the door. In the meantime Daniel has ashes spread over the floor. The next day Daniel and the king find the food gone but the floor is covered with footprints in the ashes. Following the footprints Cyrus and Daniel discover the secret doors which the priests had used to sneak in and eat the food themselves. An angry Cyrus orders the execution of the priests and their families, while Daniel is allowed to destroy both the idol and its temple.
In Egypt and Babylon, the idea of feeding a deity was common, and often quite lavish. In the Sumerian city of Erech, for instance, 243 loaves were baked every day to keep up with demand from the various gods’ temples. Thirty of these loaves each day were fed to their god Aru in a series of four rituals, as if following a human pattern of mealtimes. In Leviticus, with the Bread of the Presence, the symbolism of priests feeding a God is turned on its head: we see God’s people (the 12 tribes of Israel) represented as 12 breadcakes, presented and offered to God and then eaten by the priests. There is no sleight of hand: the bread is for the priests to eat. Having offered the bread to the Lord, Aaron and the priests are to have it as “part of their perpetual share of the food offerings presented to the Lord.” It is God who supplies the needs of His people, not the other way round. St Paul refers to this in his Mars Hill sermon in Acts 17, presenting The Unknown God as the one who “being Lord of both Heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by human hands, nor is he ministered to by human hands, as though he had need of anything”.
The breadcrumb trail
It is Lent. Our breadcrumb trail leads onwards to Easter. The Passover, introduced to us in Leviticus 23, just before the passage I’ve been looking at, comes along and we find ourselves in an upper room with Jesus and his friends. The Unknown God, who is not ministered to by human hands, instead washes His disciples’ feet, and reveals himself as the bread of life itself.