Several years ago, I was taking our children to school when I saw a policeman pull a mother over right beside the school. Even though I had seen what she had done, I couldn’t figure out what she had done wrong. I was, however, about to find out, for the officer obliged my curiosity for pulling me over right behind her. I learned I was charged with the same offense—making an illegal U-turn. I was distressed because I could not figure out how my left hand turn could be considered an illegal U-turn. To satisfy my sense of fair play, I sat at that same spot the next day, only to discover that many of the drivers did exactly the same thing the lady and I had done, and obviously not in any way knowing that they were breaking the law.
That was enough. I was going to fight this injustice in court. To my advantage, before my court hearing a “No Left Turn” sign was placed along with the “No U-turn” sign (wrongly placed in the intersection). When my time came in court I protested that the offense was wrongly defined and that the sign was misplaced. The judge listened to my objections and then asked if there were any others in court with the same charge against them. I learned that I was not alone in my indignation. At least ten other people raised their hands. The judge threw all of their tickets out of court. I had won. No, we had won.
My case was not monumental, but it was important. First, it demonstrated that we are very likely to disobey laws which we don’t understand, and which appear not to relate to us and our situation. The others and myself who made this “left hand turn” did not think of it as a U-turn, and thus did not think we were breaking the law. Second, the decision which the judge rendered had a much wider application than just my case, for his ruling found everyone else who was charged with the same offense not guilty as well. One court decision can have very broad ramifications.
The lessons which I learned in my brief encounter with the law can also be learned from the Law of Moses, as it is clarified in the 24th chapter of the Book of Leviticus. Here, we find the case of a man who had blasphemed, using the name of the God of Israel. The Israelites were not quite sure how God’s law against blasphemy applied to this man, and so they asked for a ruling, which God gave through Moses. In clarifying the law as it applied to this man’s offense, Israel was taught how the law applied to them personally. In addition, God’s people were taught some important principles which applied to a much wider range of offenses.
I will not tell you (again) that this chapter is so critical that it is the key to understanding the entire New Testament. But I will tell you that the chapter is both important and relevant to New Testament saints. It is so because the principles which underlie this chapter are those which apply to New Testament Christians.
The structure of our chapter is almost immediately apparent. There are three distinct sections:
I have chosen a title for this message which summarizes these three sections. The title is The Lamp, the Loaves, and the Loudmouth.
If the structure of this chapter is clear, the logic of it is not. The scholars struggle to explain what relationship these three sections of chapter 24 have to each other, and also how chapter 24 fits into the larger section of chapters 23-25.
“It is unclear to me what considerations could have induced the compiler to insert this material between the regulations for the annual feast (cf. 23) and those for the sabbatical year and Year of Jubilee (ch. 25).”132 “Commentators have been unable to discern any obvious connection between the material in this chapter and what precedes and follows it.”133
Our goal will be to find the common denominator, the textual glue which binds these three paragraphs together. I assure you, there is one, and I feel that our study of the text will make this clear. The principle is one which has a number of applications to contemporary Christianity, so bear with me as we work our way up to exposing the central thrust of our text.
Our approach in this lesson will be to look at each of the three segments of chapter 24 individually. I am going to deal first with the lamp (vv. 1-4) and then the loaves (vv. 5-9). Since these two sections are related, I will pause at the end of verse 9 to make some preliminary observations. Then I will press on to verses 10-23, which deal with the blasphemer. After making some observations about this portion of the text, I will seek to show the connection between all three segments of the chapter. We will then trace the common principle of our passage through the New Testament, and then seek to explore its implications and applications to our own lives.
The golden lampstand has already appeared in the Pentateuch several times (Exod. 25:31-40; 27:20-21; 37:17-24; 40:25-26), and it will occur again (cf. Num. 8:1-4; 1 Sam. 3:3). It was placed in the holy place to provide light in the darkness of the tabernacle. Even in the daytime, the many layered covering of the tent would keep out light, so that the light of this lamp was required. The emphasis of these verses in Leviticus 24 is that the light must be kept burning at all times. Something like the flame burning at President Kennedy’s graveside, the flames in this lamp must never go out. The key term in verses 1-4 is “continually,” found three times (vv. 2, 3, 4).
Virtually the entire nation played a role in this task of keeping the golden lamp burning. (Thus, I have used the heading, “Give Me Oil in My Lamp,” probably the only biblical support for the popular camp chorus.) The Israelites were to provide a constant supply of beaten olive oil, which was to be brought to Moses (v. 2). Aaron was given the task of keeping the lamp(s)134 burning, especially during the night hours (“from evening till morning,” v. 3). This was to be done perpetually, and thus this task would be inherited by the sons of Aaron (vv. 3-4).
The reason for the continual, careful, tending of this lamp can be found by thinking of the role which this lamp played inside the tabernacle. It supplied virtually all the light within the tabernacle. Without this light, Aaron and the priests could not see sufficiently to carry out their tasks. Worse yet, they might make some mistake in the darkness (for example, stumble into the holy of holies!) which could prove fatal. Such a small thing as this lamp was vital to the tremendously important sacrificial process, some of which took place inside the tabernacle.
In the royal palace in London (so I am told) there is a ceremony known as the “changing of the guard.” This ceremony is one which attracts a great deal of attention, especially among the tourists. In ancient Israel, there was a weekly ceremony of the “changing of the loaves.” It took place once a week on the Sabbath. Twelve large loaves135 (each loaf took about 6 1/2 pounds of flour) were baked, and on the Sabbath these were exchanged, replacing the old loaves with the new, which were arranged136 on the golden table.137 This “week old” bread was part of the “holy food” eaten by the priests. While the term “continually” occurs only once (v. 8), it is clear that this exchange of loaves is to happen regularly, consistently, and without any interruption. It, like the tending of the lamp, is a matter of meticulous care.
There are at least two reasons why the continual changing of the loaves was important. First, these loaves were a part of the sacrificial offerings. Only a part of the loaves was offered, and this portion, which would be offered up by fire, would be accompanied by frankincense (v. 7). To fail to provide these loaves would hinder the sacrificial process, which was symbolic of an “everlasting covenant” (v. 8). Thus, these loaves were vitally important because of what they symbolized. Secondly, these loaves (or, more accurately, what remained of them) were a part of the food which sustained and nourished the priests (v. 9). To fail to provide for the priesthood would be to hinder the priestly process. Thus, the loaves were always to be on hand.
These first two paragraphs have several things in common. Both deal with matters pertaining to the tabernacle and the priestly ministry related to it. Both the lampstand and the table are made of gold. Both were placed in the holy place inside the tabernacle. Both were matters of regular maintenance, one was daily (the lamp), the other weekly (the loaves). In both cases, the entire congregation are involved in one way or another. The people had to provide both oil for the lamp and flour for the loaves.
The importance of maintaining the light in the lamp and the loaves on the table underscores a very important principle, one which is found in both the Old and the New Testaments: SPIRITUAL MINISTRY REQUIRES PHYSICAL SUPPORT.
I may as well begin by confessing that we have a management area (overseen by one of our elders) which is labeled “physical support.” Thus, the precise terminology which I have employed here may differ somewhat from that which you can relate to. Regardless of the terminology, spiritual ministry and physical ministry are very much inter-twined. Some people look down on ministry which is “merely physical,” thinking that this is a kind of “second class service.” Our text shows such thinking to be false. You cannot separate physical ministry and spiritual ministry. In the Old and New Testaments spiritual ministry involved physical ministry. After all, our Lord’s spiritual ministry involved not only teaching, but healing the sick, raising the dead, and feeding the hungry.
The “spiritual” ministry of sacrifice which took place outside and inside the tabernacle required many “physical” facilities. There was the brazen altar, where the sacrifices were offered up in fire. There was the tabernacle, along with the golden table and lampstand. There was the ark and the veil. Apart from the construction and maintenance of these physical facilities, God could not have dwelt in the midst of His people, and the sins of the people could not have been atoned for by the sacrifices which were offered. The maintenance of the lamp and the loaves was so vital that it necessitated the involvement of both Moses, Aaron, and his sons.
Spiritual ministry requires physical support. Spiritual ministry is not divorced from the physical realm, but is, in some ways, dependent upon it. If this building is not properly heated or cooled, our ministry is greatly hindered. Several years ago, we had a problem with our gas line, and thus we had no heat, in the coldest part of the winter. We learned that it is very difficult to worship while your teeth are chattering. If there is no electricity, the PA system fails, and there is too little light to see very well. If the roof leaks and the floor is wet, someone could easily slip and fall.
Our church has a bulletin which must be put together and printed every week. We have tape recordings which are made weekly as well, and passed out to those Sunday School teachers who are not able to sit in on the teaching service. We have a wonderful library, containing both books and video tapes. Worship today, while it may differ from Israel’s worship, still requires certain physical facilities, and these, I believe should be meticulously maintained, with the recognition that spiritual ministry requires physical facilities, and suffers when these facilities are not properly maintained.
When we come to the third, and by far largest, section of chapter 24, we find a very different situation. It is this difference which causes many to question the continuity of the segments which make up this chapter. The first two paragraphs had to do with the tabernacle, and the maintenance of two physical elements pertaining to priestly ministry and Israel’s worship. Here, we are dealing with an individual who blasphemes, using the name of God, which ultimately results in action being taken “outside the camp,” with the execution of a blasphemer.
A young man, whose father was an Egyptian and whose mother was an Israelite, became involved in a disagreement which led to blows. We are not told who started the fight, nor who won. Sometime during the exchange of blows the young half-Israelite uttered the name of God as a curse138 against his foe. There is an obvious note of disdain for this half-breed boy. His father’s name is not given, nor is his lineage given. The mother’s name is given, however, along with the information about her lineage. Since Israel was to remain racially pure, and not to intermarry with the heathen, the product of this mixed marriage is not presented in a favorable light.
There is no question about the fact that blasphemy was already forbidden. The prohibitions which the Israelites have already been given are:
“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain” (Exod. 20:7).
“And he who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death” (Exod. 21:17).
“You shall not curse God, nor curse a ruler of your people” (Exod. 22:28).
It appears as though this was the first violation of the law prohibiting blasphemy. Thus, there would be some questions about this case which would not be raised later. The first is this: what is the penalty for blasphemy, and how is it to be carried out? Although blasphemy was prohibited by the law, it was not clear who (it seems as though God had indicated He would punish the one who blasphemed in Exod. 20:7) would carry out the sentence, what the punishment would be, and how it would be carried out (there were several ways to execute a person, none of which have yet been specified). Secondly, since the guilty party was not a full-blooded Israelite, did the law apply to him in the same way it did to an Israelite? Blasphemy was not surprising from the lips of a heathen, and the Israelites may have been more inclined to view this young man as a heathen than as an Israelite (could this have contributed to the fight?).
The exceptional nature of this crime required a word of clarification, as it did in these other cases:
The situation in each of these cases is not all that different from what happens in law enforcement today. When a law is passed, a judicial ruling is required to clarify the interpretation and application of that law. When Congress passes a law, the courts, by means of specific decisions, spell out the interpretation and application of that law. Whether or not we agree with the Supreme Court’s decision in the infamous case of Roe versus Wade this decision rendered many state laws prohibiting abortions unconstitutional and invalid, thus legalizing the millions of abortions which have resulted since that decision. Judicial decisions clarify the meaning and application of the law. The decision from God given here clarified the law pertaining to blasphemy.
God gave a specific answer to these questions, and then followed up with some principles of punishment which apply much more generally. The specific answer was that this young man must be stoned to death. All of the witnesses—those who overheard the blasphemy—were to lay their hands on the head of the one who was to be put to death.139 In this act I understand the witnesses to be identifying themselves in a special way with his death (cf. Deut. 13:9; 17:7). After all, it was their action and their testimony which led to the execution. The stoning of this blasphemer was to be carried out by every Israelite. How easy it would be in our time to hire a few gravel trucks to come and bury the sinner in several hundred yards of rock. Every Israelite had to take up a stone and cast it at the guilty party, or at least on the rock pile under which he was buried. If there were 2 million Israelites, then I would imagine that there were 2 million stones on that first stone heap. Thus, every Israelite identified with God and His law in the execution of the blasphemer.
In addition to the specific revelation concerning the fate of the blasphemer, God laid down two general principles of punishment, which were evident in this case, but which also were to govern punishment in a much broader class of offenses:140
(1) The punishment shall be equal to the crime. Punishment should always be meted out in proportion to the seriousness of the crime. This, incidentally, is one of the primary senses of the word justice. The standard, “an eye for an eye,” expresses this principle. In the ancient Near East, such was not always the case.
Throughout the ancient Orient the death penalty was imposed for a wider variety of crimes than currently in western society. This applies to the OT as much as the Mesopotamian systems, but whereas the laws of Hammurabi regard property offenses and similar crimes as capital, the OT does not. In its eyes, sins against the family and religion are the most serious, and hence often attract the death penalty, whereas economic matters are treated more lightly.141
Inequity in the punishment of offenders can be found later in the history of mankind, as well as in our own day:
“In the 1800s England had one hundred sixty crimes punishable by hanging, including ones as trivial as stealing a loaf of bread.”142 “I thought of this when I was reading in the Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn of the lengthy prison sentences that Soviet children received for stealing when they were hungry.”143
(2) Punishment shall be equally administered, regardless of the race, social, or economic status of the person. A part of the problem with this specific instance of blasphemy was the fact that the offense was committed by a man who was only part Israelite. The question which needed to be answered was this: “Does the law apply differently to a native Israelite than to an alien?” The answer is clearly stated: “No!” In verses 15, 16, and 22 it is clearly stated that whether the guilty party was an alien or an Israelite, the penalty was the same.
The principle of equality in punishment was consistently taught in the Old Testament.144 In Deuteronomy 17:2 and 7 the principle of equality in punishment was applied to men and women. It is most clearly taught in the Book of Numbers:
‘All who are native shall do these things in this manner, in presenting an offering by fire, as a soothing aroma to the LORD. And if an alien sojourns with you, or one who may be among you throughout your generations, and he wishes to make an offering by fire, as a soothing aroma to the LORD, just as you do, so he shall do. As for the assembly, there shall be one statute for you and for the alien who sojourns with you, a perpetual statute throughout your generations; as you are, so shall the alien be before the LORD. There is to be one law and one ordinance for you and for the alien who sojourns with you’ (Numbers 15:13-16; cf. also Deut. 29:10-13; 31:11-12).
The reason for Israel’s hesitation and for their question pertaining to equality in punishment was rooted in the fact that some of the surrounding nations did apply penalties in accordance with racial and social distinctions.
The unjust administration of “justice” is just as much a problem today as it was in ancient Israel:
Just as the poor and minorities are over-represented among victims, so our prisons are disproportionately filled with them. One author wrote about this inequity in a book with a title which summarizes the problem: The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison.145
And while there have been important reforms in sentencing procedures, evidence remains that the death penalty still is applied in a racially discriminatory way. A recent study found that the death sentence is most often imposed when a black person kills a white person. Whites who kill whites are sentenced to death one-third less often, and only a small fraction of people (black or white) who kill blacks are given the death sentence.146
It is my opinion that our government would do a much better job of dealing with crime if it were to take these two simple principles of justice more seriously, to the point of implementing them practically and consistently.
There is no government on the face of the earth which does “justice” to these two principles. Interestingly enough, however, the New Testament applies these Old Testament principles to the practice of church discipline. Just as the witnessing parties in Israel were to initiate and carry through the process of justice (even to laying their hands on the head of the victim and then casting the first stone), so the person who sees a brother “overtaken in a fault” is to take the initiative, even to the point of carrying through with the process (cf. Matt. 18:15-20; Gal. 6:1-2). If the guilty party refuses to repent, then the entire church is to “put the offender out,” in a way not unlike the Israelites took the offender “outside the camp” (cf. Matt. 18:17; 1 Cor. 5). As I understand the Scriptures, if the New Testament rebel refuses to repent, the death penalty may be executed by God, perhaps using Satan as an instrument of punishment (cf. 1 Cor. 5:5; 11:30; 1 Tim. 1:20; James 5:14-16).
If our text teaches us anything, it teaches us the peril of profanity. Blasphemy is taken most seriously in the Bible. If the punishment is to be equal to the crime, then blasphemy is a most serious offense. There are two questions which we must ask ourselves. The first is this: What is blasphemy? In brief, we can say, blasphemy is, by word or deed, the defamation of God’s character and glory.
The second question follows: How is it that men can blaspheme God? The Bible informs us that there are a number of ways in which we can blaspheme. Among these are:
Blasphemy is defaming God’s name, and God’s character and reputation are reflected by His name(s). God’s restoration of Israel (Ezek. 36:20-32), as well as His salvation of the Gentiles (Eph. 1, cf. vv. 6, 12, 14) is for the praise of His glory, for the honoring of His name. Thus, to defame God’s name is to rebel against His character and His purposes.
Those who blaspheme the name of God today minimize the seriousness of their words by sheepish excuses or apologies like, “Excuse my French.” Perhaps the most awesome reality for those who blaspheme is this statement by the apostle Paul, who himself was once a blasphemer (1 Tim. 1:13):
Therefore God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:9-11).
Those who take the name of the Lord in vain, who blaspheme His name, will someday have to kneel before Him and, as it were, eat their words, acknowledging His lordship, His holiness, His majesty. What an awful thing for one to do who has not received Him as Savior and Lord. For those who have trusted in Him, the name of God is the object of our praise, which will be our eternal occupation in heaven (cf. Rev. 4 and 5).
In the introduction to this message I said that I would attempt to identify the “common denominator” of this chapter, that truth or principle which underlies its unity and central thrust. It is time for us to determine what this principle is.
We must begin by looking at the book as a whole and specifically at the larger segment of which chapter 24 is a part. The larger segment is chapters 23-25, which deal with religious rituals of various kinds. One can easily see that the book as a whole is dealing with religious rituals, in which the levitical priests play a key role. Thus, chapter 24 must have something to do with religious ritual.
In verses 1-4 of chapter 24 the central thrust is summarized by the word “continually” (vv. 2, 3, 4). The flame of the lamp(s) must be kept burning continually. In verses 5-9, it is the bread which must be continually kept on the golden table, freshly baked and changed every week. This, too, was to be continually (v. 8) done. We can say that the first 9 verses were concerned with the ritual of maintaining the lamp and the loaves. They were both to be tended regularly, ritually, without interruption.
Justice, too, was to become a matter of ritual, which is the underlying point of verses 10-33. I mean by this that the decision which God gave, along with the governing principles, was given to the Israelites so that justice would be carried out consistently, the same way each time, without variation, without deviation, without cessation.
In all three sections of chapter 24 the element of continuity, of rigorous ritual is present. I would like to suggest that in the Old Testament, righteousness was to be viewed (not entirely, but importantly) in terms of rituals. The sacrifices were religious rituals, to be carried out at specified times, and in very precisely defined ways. Deviation from these rituals has already (chapter 10) resulted in the death of Nadab and Abihu. Defilement was ritually pronounced and ritually cleansed. Now, the lamp and the loaves are to be ritually replenished. Justice is to be so uniformly administered that it is, in a sense, a ritual.
Admittedly, ritual can become meaningless activity, activity carried on apart from a right heart or mind: “The Lord said, ‘Because this people draw near with their words And honor Me with their lip service, But they remove their hearts far from Me, And their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote’” (Isa. 29:13).
Nevertheless, there are righteous rituals and unrighteous rituals. By “ritual” I mean that kind of activity which is habitual, which is consistent, which has a certain predictability. For example, Daniel had a daily ritual of prayer, so that even his enemies know when he would be at prayer in his room (cf. Dan. 6:5-11). The Book of Proverbs is based upon the fact that people’s actions can be predicted on the basis of their character. The wise will act in a certain way, while the sluggard will act in another (predictable) way. Our character results in certain habits or rituals and these rituals reveal our character. Thus, the “way” of an individual is, to some degree, his ritual behavior.
While the Lord rebuked the scribes and Pharisees for their ritualism (cf. Matt. 23), it is apparent that He Himself had certain characteristic patterns of behavior: “And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read” (Luke 4:16). Going to the synagogue on the Sabbath was a ritual with Jesus, as was teaching (Mark 10:1), and prayer (Luke 22:39). Paul had his rituals, too (Acts 17:2).
Godly rituals are merely habits of righteous conduct, a pattern of piety. It is amazing to me that Christians could question the value of righteous rituals. We adamantly resist the theory of evolution because it maintains that all of creation is the product of time and chance, insisting that what we see is the result of a divine plan and of the creative process of God. Why, then, do we think that godliness will somehow evolve, by chance, rather than by design and by a process and a routine?
It is my contention that much of what is involved in our sanctification has to do with putting off the rituals, the habit patterns of the flesh, and putting on the rituals of righteousness. Almost every evil entails a ritual. As I learned from my diet program (I call it my “fat class”), there is a ritual to overeating. There is also a ritual to alcoholism, to drug abuse, and to violence (e.g. child and wife beatings).
Just as there are rituals involved in sin, so there are rituals involved in righteousness. Thus, we must seek to develop habits, consistent patterns of godly conduct which become a way of life. Righteous is not something which should happen but once in a while, a kind of “freak of our spiritual nature,” but rather should be striven for as a regular course of life. While this will not be an unbroken pattern, it should be one which reflects some degree of regularity.
I have observed those who are skilled at what they do and every such person has some kind of ritual associated with his skill. The finish carpenter has a certain way of doing his work which is consistent. The surgeon, likewise, follows certain procedures meticulously. Every skilled worker I know of employs rituals in the way he or she does their work. Why should we who name the name of Christ think that God’s work needs to be done thoughtlessly, spontaneously, and with no consistency?
The rituals which we should strive to develop should surely be in the area of Bible study, prayer, giving, and ministry. The exceptions to our rituals should be few and far between. This, I believe, is the evidence of the work of God’s Spirit, who produces discipline in our lives rather than disorder.
Gordon MacDonald, in his excellent book, Ordering Your Private World, has much to say about personal discipline, but this one story will serve to illustrate his point, and that of our text:
I carry with me the memory of a time when my missiology professor at Seminary, Dr. Raymond Buker, approached me at the end of a special convocation where I had read a paper on some moral issue that was burning in the hearts of the student generation of that day. I had cut two of his classes that day to prepare the paper, and it had not gone unnoticed.
“Gordon,” he said, “the paper you read tonight was a good one, but it wasn’t a great one. Would you like to know why?”
I wasn’t sure I really wanted to know because I anticipated a bit of humiliation coming my way, but I swallowed hard and told Dr. Buker that I would like to hear his analysis.
“The paper wasn’t a great one,” he said as he thumped his finger on my chest, “because you sacrificed the routine to write it.”
In pain I learned one of the most important lessons I ever needed to learn. Because my time as a Christian leader is generally my own to use as I please, it would be very easy to avoid routine, unspectacular duties, and give myself only to the exciting things that come along. But most of life is lived in the routine, and Buker was right: the man or woman who learns to make peace with routine responsibilities and obligations will make the greatest contributions in the long run.147
May God give you and me the grace to develop righteous rituals in our lives, to develop and maintain routines which become habits of holiness, so that we may more faithfully serve Him.
132 A. Noordtzij, Leviticus, trans. by Raymond Togtman (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), p. 242.
133 Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), p. 308.
134 The change in the text from “lamp” (v. 2) and “lamps” (v. 4) can be explained by the fact that the one lampstand had 7 lamps. It was a lamp made up of seven lamps: “As the relief on the triumphal arch of Emperor Titus in Rome indicates, the lampstand with its seven arms gave the impression of a stylized almond tree with seven branches, and it has now become a symbol of Judaism.” Noordtzij, p. 242.
135 Whereas the golden table for the bread of the Presence is described in Exodus 25:23-30 (see also Exod. 37:10-16), the present passage deals with the bread itself. The Hebrew expression for this bread literally means “bread of the face” (viz. of the Lord). The Chronicler refers to this as “layer-bread” (ma` reket, NIV, “bread set out on the table,” 1 Chron. 9:32; 23:29; Neh. 10:33 [MT 10:34], Numbers 4:7 designates it tamid bread” (cf. KJV; RSV; NIV; “bread that is continually there”), and in 1 Samuel 21:6 it is called “consecrated bread.” Noordtzij, p. 243.
136 “The bread was placed on a fairly small low table covered in gold plate (see Exod. 25:23-30//37:10-16). Along with the bread, various small dishes had to be placed on the table. Josephus says the loaves of bread were piled up (Antiquities 3:6:6). Despite the usual English translation, this seems the only way that twelve huge loaves could have been arranged on a table of this size (3’ x 1’6” = 90 x 45 cm).” Wenham, p. 310.
138 Noordtzij comments, “Actually, the word blaspheme does not accurately represent the meaning of the Hebrew text. The author here uses two verbs, the first (naqab), which the NIV translates as ‘blaspheme,’ literally meaning ‘to pierce,’ with the intent of debilitating a person. The second term, rendered as ‘curse (cf. KJV, RV; NIV has ‘with a curse’), actually means to declare someone to be ‘contentless’ or without significance, and thus to deny that he has any power. In this connection, it is necessary to remember that, for the ancient Near Eastern mind, there existed a close connection between a nation (and each of its members) and its god. The strength of a nation derived from its god, and the attempt to weaken the god by the pronouncement of specific magical formulas resulted in the simultaneous weakening of the people (cf. Balaam’s oracles concerning Israel). The transgressor spoken of in these verses attempts to take such action against his adversary. He ‘pierces’ the Lord’s name and declares Him to be without content or significance, thereby intended to render the Israelite man powerless. It should be noted here that to the ancient Near Eastern mind (this same idea also appears elsewhere), the spoken word, and to an even greater degree the magical formula, were effective in and of themselves provided they were uttered in the correct manner. The guilty person here therefore did not pronounce a curse in our sense of the word, but rather attacked the Lord’s holy nature and declared this to be without content or significance.” Noordtzij, p. 245.
He further comments: “As a final observation, it may be noted that this pericope provoked a peculiar reaction on the part of the Jews. On the one hand, this incident induced them to forbid the utterance of the name of the Lord (Yahweh) and to declare it taboo, and they thus replaced it with ‘Lord’ or ‘God’ when Scripture was read in the synagogue (see discussion on 1:1).
“On the other hand, they interpreted verses 15-16 to mean (Sanhedrin 56) that although it was in general forbidden to pronounce one of the Lord’s names (e.g., ‘Lord’ or ‘God’) in a curse, the death penalty was to be enacted only when a person used the name ‘Yahweh’ in this manner. The rabbis punished the maledictory utterance of such descriptive names with scourging or banishment, but similar use of the name ‘Yahweh’ was subject to the death sentence. For Judaism, ‘Yahweh’ was nothing less than the Name (hassem, or in its Aramaic form, sema’), and because of this, the original reading in verse 11, sem yhwh (“the name of the LORD”), was altered to hassem (‘the Name’) in transcription, while in verse 16b the proper name yhwh was merely dropped after sem. It would seem proper to me to restore the original text in both instances.” Noordtzij, p. 247.
139 Noordtzij has a strange explanation of the meaning of the act of the witnesses who lay their hands on the head of the one who is to be stoned: “All who had heard the blasphemous utterance were first to place their hands on the head of the condemned man (v. 13), and in accordance with the instruction given in Deuteronomy 17:7, these witnesses were then to begin the stoning. The laying on of hands here is usually regarded as a pronouncement of guilt, but this view seems to me incorrect. Through their hearing of the curse, the witnesses had been infected by the potent magical words, and they had thus in a certain sense come to share the guilt. The imposition of hands then served to transfer their guilt to the blasphemer, just as the sinner transferred his guilt to the sacrificial animal by means of the s’mika(h) (see discussion of 1:4) and Aaron transferred the sins of the people to the goat for Azazel (16:21-22).” Noordtzij, p. 245.
140 “This incident of blasphemy provided an occasion to spell out some of the cardinal principles of biblical law in a short digression, vv. 16-22. These verses are carefully arranged in a concentric pattern called a palistrophe.
A resident alien and native Israelite (v. 16)
B take a man’s life (v. 17)
C take an animal’s life (v. 18)
D whatever he did, must be done to him (v. 19)
D’ whatever …, must be done to him (v. 20)
C’ kill an animal (v. 21a)
B’ kill a man (v. 21b)
A’ resident alien and Israelite (v. 22)
The symmetry and balance of this structure reinforces the points made explicitly in the text, namely, that in these cases the same penalty must be applied to both resident alien and native Israelite (vv. 16, 22) and that in all cases the punishment must match the offense: If a man injures his fellow citizen, whatever he did must be done to him (v. 19).” Wenham, pp. 311, 312.
141 Ibid., p. 311. Wenham further writes, “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth (v. 20)—this is one of three passages in the OT setting out the so-called lex talionis (cf. Exod. 21:23-25; Deut. 19:21), a fundamental principle of biblical and Near Eastern law, namely, that punishment must be proportionate to the offense. Retribution is a principal goal of the penal system in the Bible.
“It seems likely that this phrase eye for eye, etc. was just a formula. In most cases in Israel it was not applied literally. It meant that compensation appropriate to the loss incurred must be paid out. Thus if a slave lost an eye, he was given his freedom (Exod. 21:26). The man who killed an ox had to pay its owner enough for him to buy another (Lev. 24:18). Only in the case of premeditated murder was such compensation forbidden (Num. 35:16ff.). Then the principle of life for life must be literally enforced, because man is made in the image of God (Gen. 9:5-6).” Wenham, p. 312.
142 Daniel W. Van Ness, Crime and Its Victims (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1986), p. 91.
143 Ibid., p. 156. Van Ness goes on to spell out the negative impact the inequity between the crime and its punishment has upon the offender: “The extent to which prisoners feel that they themselves are victims is remarkable. They believe that the criminal justice system did not work for them the way it is supposed to, that the things they experience in prison are far worse than they deserve for breaking the law. And most of all, they are acutely aware that the punishment they are being given has nothing to do with the crime they committed. They know that being in prison does not address the harm caused their victims.
“Their prison experience is not forcing them to accept responsibility for what they have done. Instead, it is motivating them to fight the system that they believe is treating them unjustly. Chief Justice Warren Burger has described it this way: ‘So we see a paradox, even while we struggle toward correction, education and rehabilitation of the offender, our system encourages prisoners to continue warfare with society. The result is that whatever may have been the defendant’s hostility toward the police, the witnesses, the prosecutors, the judge and jurors, and the public defender who failed to win his case, those hostilities are kept alive. How much chance do you think there is of changing or rehabilitating a person who is encouraged to keep up years of constant warfare with society?’” Van Ness, p. 57.
144 Consider the following passages, which require that the law be applied to the Israelite and the alien in exactly the same way: Exod. 12:19-20, 49; 20:10; 22:21; 23:12; Lev. 16:29; 17:12, 15; 18:26; 19:33-34; 25:35; Num. 9:14; 15:14, 29, 30; 19:10; 22:10-12; 23:22; Deut. 1:16; 5:14; 16:11, 14; 26:11. In very few places is the treatment of the stranger or alien distinguished from that of the native Israelite (cf. Exod. 12:43, 48; Deut. 14:21, 29; 17:15; 23:20).
145 Van Ness, p. 43.
146 Ibid., p. 189.
147 Gordon MacDonald, Ordering Your Private World (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984), pp. 115-116.