Lessons from Leviticus: Part 2, Sobriety and Worship

As mentioned in the last post, much of the logic of Leviticus was to create clear contrasts between Israel's monotheism and the pagan practices of Israel's Canaanite neighbors. Yesterday we noted how the profound silence of Tabernacle rites and rituals created an acoustic contrast. Today we look at the sobriety of Israel's worship.

There are only two narrative sections in the book of Leviticus. The most famous of these is the first one found in Leviticus 10 concerning the deaths of Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu. 

Why were Nadab and Abihu killed? You'll recall that a fire from God comes forth to kill Nadab and Abihu when they bring a "strange fire" into the sanctum of the Tabernacle.  We'll turn to the issue of profaning and desecrating sacred spaces in the next post, but was that the only thing going on in this story?

We get a hint that something more was going on later in the episode as God gives Aaron and Moses instructions about how to prevent incidents like this from taking place in the future:

Then the Lord said to Aaron, “You and your sons are not to drink wine or other fermented drink whenever you go into the tent of meeting, or you will die. This is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, so that you can distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean, and so you can teach the Israelites all the decrees the Lord has given them through Moses.”
It seems that Nadab and Abihu made their mistake because they were drunk. Thus the "lasting ordinance": priests "are not to drink wine or other fermented drink" so that they could "distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean."

In short, not only were Israel's priests to be silent during their rituals, they were also to be sober. This was another a contrast with Canaanite paganism, where religious celebrations and rituals were reveries, frenzies, and orgies fueled by intoxication. The default in the ancient world was to use chemicals in religious practices to create altered states of consciousness. Not so among the Israelites. They were silent and sober. 

You can see this contrast at work in Exodus 32, the story of the Golden Calf. Recall how the Israelites, impatient with Moses' delayed return from Mt. Sinai, ask Aaron to fashion for them a golden calf to worship. Aaron does so, and the Israelites begin to worship the calf in a drunken revelry. The contrast with Leviticus is clear: idolatry and pagan worship is associated with drunken religious frenzies.

A similar contrast can be seen in 1 Kings 18, Elijah's contest with the prophets of Baal. Although alcohol isn't mentioned in that episode, we see a clear contrast between Elijah's quiet calmness and the wild frenzy of the pagan priests. 

The sobriety of Israel's worship reinforces the point from yesterday's post. God cannot be manipulated, nor does an encounter with God require some big human production or demonstration. This, I think, has some relevance for the working (if unstated) assumption in many evangelical spaces that worship demands a big, exciting, frenzied show. The assumption that if the adrenaline isn't flowing worship is "dead" and the Spirit absent. Christian worship is looking pretty pagan these days.

But the deeper insight, for me at least, is the simple lesson from Leviticus that God encounters me just as I am, in my ordinary, quotidian existence. I don't need to enter into some exotic ecstatic state, perhaps chemically induced or facilitated, to meet with God. 

Normal everyday consciousness and life is right where God meets me. No show, production, emotional high, ecstatic state, or chemicals needed. 

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