If we were to build the Great Pyramid of Giza today one study suggests it would cost roughly 5 billion dollars. They believe it took nearly 20 years to build and required 4,000 workers to complete it. Estimates today would be that it would take about half the amount of workers and be on a similar scale to the construction of the Hoover Dam or the new World Trade Center in New York City.
Much closer to home here California is currently conceiving of a 20 billion dollar “wonder” of the Delta Bypass Tunnels that would cost over 25 billion dollars to move divert water from entering the Delta and better quality water to Southern California.
If you compare, however, ancient wonders to modern wonders you might ask about the purpose of these grand monuments. Societies don’t sacrifice and expend huge resources to wonder building unless there is a desired outcome commensurate to the scope of the sacrifice and the size of the project. While we may value the Great Pyramid of Giza as an amazing landmark of antiquity and while it has economic value as a tourist attraction these were not the values that motivated its builder. What motivated the builder of the Great Pyramid and how would we evaluate his motivation today?
To get a sense of this we might ask ourselves under what situation would we today, with vastly more resources than the ancient world had attempt to construct or replicate
- The great pyramids and temples of ancient Egypt
- The great cathedrals of medieval europe
- The great temples of ancient Rome and Greece?
- The great pyramids of Aztecs?
- The great religious statues of Greek, Hindu gods and Buddhas
The closest we come to this is Las Vegas but we quickly see the motivational difference. “Wonders” are built to attract tourists in hopes that they will eat, sleep and gamble thus paying for the thing spectacle.
We fight and sacrifice over modern wonders based on their perceived utility to the values and goals we perceive. Look at our modern wonders:
- Dams and water projects for agriculture and cities
- Science projects like space ships or super-colliders
- Business or office buildings for brand recognition and competitive awe
- Theater houses or museums for cultural development
- Military weapons systems to ward off threats and win wars
While we might prize and enjoy the ancient wonders and we feel ourselves fortunate to possess the few that have survived human history we would not as a society justify expending billions upon them as we do the modern wonders I listed above. Wonders are built for outcomes we believe in and can justify to ourselves and our fellow citizens through the common set of values we embrace.
If you want to get a sense of how a society defines “life”, take a look at its wonders.
Meaning OF Life vs. Meaning IN Life
In frequent discussions with atheist friends on Facebook we regularly arrive at an impasse. I usually assert that their worldview is lacking in the capacity to give their lives meaning. They protest that they experience meaning just as I do. I protest that they can’t.
Dallas Willard in the introduction to his most famous book The Divine Conspiracy helps articulate the difference by talking about Tolstoy.
Leo Tolstoy’s A Confession is possibly the most important document of the last two centuries for understanding our current plight. The dogmas of modern unbelief had captured his elite circle of Russian intellectuals, artists, and members of the social upper crust, and the implications of it slowly destroyed the basis of his life. On those dogmas only two things are real: particles and progress. “Why do I live?” he asked. And the answer he got was, “In infinite space, in infinite time, infinitely small particles change their forms in infinite complexity, and when you have understood the laws of those mutations of form you will understand why you live on the earth”.
“You are an accidentally united little lump of something,” the story continues. “That little lump ferments. The little lump calls that fermenting its ‘life.’ The lump will disintegrate and there will be an end of the fermenting and of all the questions”.
But the “lump” dreams of progress: “The faith of the majority of educated people of our day,” Tolstoy observes, “was expressed by the word ‘progress.’ It then appeared to me that this word meant something. I did not as yet understand that, being tormented (like every vital man) by the question how it is best for me to live, in my answer, ‘Live in conformity with progress,’ I was like a man in a boat who when carried along by wind and waves should reply to what for him is the chief and only question, ‘Whither to steer,’ by saying, ‘We are being carried somewhere’”.
Willard, Dallas (2009-02-06). The Divine Conspiracy (p. 8). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Ancient wonder builders assumed people weren’t simply particles. Cultures sacrificed huge resources for the work of spirit. It took priority over moving water in terms of securing food, meaning, this world and who they saw themselves as really being. Their wonders expressed what was most important to them. Meaning OF life and meaning IN life were one.
So when I talk to my atheist friends about “the meaning of life” I approached them mostly as an ancient to a modern. I see now that I really didn’t understand them, probably as much as an ancient wouldn’t understand our moderns.
An ancient might say “well I see you are devoting vast amounts of money to moving and managing water, but can you cause the rain to fall to fill up your reservoirs and feed your great diversion canals? ”
Moderns would say “no, we can’t do that. Maybe we will be able to do it someday through our science, but for now we are just going to try to control what we can to secure ourselves as best we can. Building something to MAKE the rain fall is superstition and a project for the foolish.”
I was able to see this distinction clearly in a book by Jonathan Haidt who quite audaciously promises to answer the question of “the meaning of life” in his last chapter in his book The Happiness Hypthesis.
There appear to be two specific sub-questions to which people want answers, and for which they find answers enlightening. The first can be called the question of the purpose of life: “What is the purpose for which human beings were placed on Earth? Why are we here?”
The second sub-question is the question of purpose within life: “How ought I to live? What should I do to have a good, happy, fulfilling, and meaningful life?” When people ask the Holy Question, one of the things they are hoping for is a set of principles or goals that can guide their actions and give their choices meaning or value.
Haidt, Jonathan (2006-12-26). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (p. 218). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
He goes on to say that ancients held the two questions together. Once you answer the question of the meaning OF life, then you can proceed to answer the question of meaning IN life.
Haidt is a modern atheist, however, so he beliefs you can’t answer the first question so the best you can do is separate them and answer the second. This is what my atheist friends were telling me but I didn’t understand. They say “I have can have lots of meaning WITHIN life without being able to answer the question of the meaning OF life.”
Atheists are in a sense saying “I don’t believe in the project of making it rain, like the ancients, so I will do my best to manage the water I get. I won’t build temples or cathedrals or pyramids of do sacrifices to the gods to make it rain. I’m rather going to invest our resources in large water projects to manage the water I can get my hands on.”
This of course leave us mostly fighting with each other over resources, because there are no greater threat to us than other people that we can control, so we similarly build our weapons system wonders to make sure we can manage them as well.
Making it Rain
When the Spanish first met the Aztecs they were horrified by what they encountered. The Aztecs were a deeply spiritual and religious people.
Now when I say that with our contemporary American filters you might imagine that Aztecs were a quiet, contemplative society who were vegetarians and wouldn’t hurt insects. The opposite was of course the case.
They were the dominant regional power who had subjugated the surrounding people groups and made them their slaves. The Spanish conquestadores of course used this fact to ally themselves with the slaves and enemies of the Aztecs to overthrow them, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that the Aztecs were a deeply religious and spiritual people, just like we can say that in all likelihood the leaders of ISIS are also deeply spiritual and religious. It all depends what the religion is.
Sacrifice was a common theme in Mesoamerican cultures. In the Aztec “Legend of the Five Suns”, all the gods sacrificed themselves so that mankind could live. Some years after the Spanish conquest of Mexico, a body of Franciscans confronted the remaining Aztec priesthood and demanded, under threat of death, that they desist from this traditional practice. The Aztec priests defended themselves as follows:
“ Life is because of the gods; with their sacrifice they gave us life…. They produce our sustenance… which nourishes life. ”
What the Aztec priests were referring to was a central Mesoamerican belief: that a great, on-going sacrifice sustains the Universe. Everything is tonacayotl: the “spiritual flesh-hood” on earth. Everything —earth, crops, moon, stars and people— springs from the severed or buried bodies, fingers, blood or the heads of the sacrificed gods. Humanity itself is macehualli, “those deserved and brought back to life through penance”. A strong sense of indebtedness was connected with this worldview. Indeed, nextlahualli (debt-payment) was a commonly used metaphor for human sacrifice, and, as Bernardino de Sahagún reported, it was said that the victim was someone who “gave his service”.
Human sacrifice was in this sense the highest level of an entire panoply of offerings through which the Aztecs sought to repay their debt to the gods. Both Sahagún and Toribio de Benavente (also called “Motolinía”) observed that the Aztecs gladly parted with everything: burying, smashing, sinking, slaying vast quantities of quail, rabbits, dogs, feathers, flowers, insects, beans, grains, paper, rubber and treasures as sacrifices. Even the “stage” for human sacrifice, the massive temple-pyramids, was an offering mound: crammed with treasures, grains, soil and human and animal sacrifices that were buried as gifts to the deities. Adorned with the land’s finest art, treasure and victims, these temples had become buried offerings under new structures every half a century. Wikipedia
Although the specific forms of the Aztec practices were their own, you can of course see similar contours in religions all around the world.
I can’t imagine what went through the minds of Aztecs after their conquest by the Spanish in terms of the existential threat they must have experienced. Is it any wonder that groups who were conquered by the Spanish and upon whom Spanish Roman Catholicism was enforced found ways to continue to practice their own religions under the guise of Roman Catholicism. We see this story repeated around the world as well.
Connecting the Levels
So often when we read the book of Leviticus in the West we are simply confused unless we’ve got some knowledge of history and anthropology in terms of how ancient peoples lived their lives. We can see in the book of Leviticus and in the lives of the Aztecs in fact a fully developed worldview system that integrates the existence of the world and the meaning of life applied in a way that not only informs the rider but also trains the elephant (see last week’s blog).
If you want to see how this works in living color you might visit a tradition Hindu village today.
Here is one of the most profound ideas to come from the ongoing synthesis: People gain a sense of meaning when their lives cohere across the three levels of their existence.37 The best way I can illustrate this idea is to take you back to Bhubaneswar, India. I have already explained the logic of purity and pollution, so you understand why Hindus bathe before making an offering to God, and why they are careful about what they touch on the way to the temple. You understand why contact with a dog, a menstruating woman, or a person of low caste can render a person of high caste temporarily impure and unfit to make an offering. But you understand all this only at the psychological level and, even then, only as a set of propositions grasped by the rider and stored away as explicit knowledge. You do not feel polluted after touching the arm of a woman you know to be menstruating; you do not even know what it would feel like to feel polluted in that way.
Suppose, however, that you grow up as a Brahmin in Bhubaneswar. Every day of your life you have to respect the invisible lines separating pure from profane spaces, and you have to keep track of people’s fluctuating levels of purity before you can touch them or take anything from their hands. You bathe several times a day—short baths or brief immersions in sacred water—always before making a religious offering. And your offerings are not just words: You actually give some food to God (the priest touches your offering to the image, icon, or object in the inner sanctum), which is returned to you so that you may eat what God left over. Eating someone’s leftovers shows a willingness to take in that person’s saliva, which demonstrates both intimacy and subordination in Bhubaneswar. Eating God’s leftovers is an act of intimacy, and subordination, too. After twenty years of these practices, your understanding of Hindu rituals is visceral. Your explicit understanding is supported by a hundred physical feelings: shivering during the morning bath at sunrise; the pleasure of washing off dust and putting on clean clothes after a bath on a hot afternoon; the feeling of bare feet on cool stone floors as you approach the inner sanctum; the smell of incense; the sound of mumbled prayers in Sanskrit, the bland (pure) taste of rice that has been returned to you from God. In all these ways, your understanding at the psychological level has spread down to your physical embodiment, and when the conceptual and visceral levels connect, the rituals feel right to you.
Haidt, Jonathan (2006-12-26). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (pp. 227-228). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.
Now it would be fair to ask if Leviticus isn’t simply more of the same. Isn’t what we find in Leviticus simply a way of
- Connecting the two levels of the meaning of life
- Believing that the foundations of the universe are fundamentally relational and spiritual rather than physical
- Integrating life and practice in a way that all of this coheres together.
Hebrews Trying To Make it Rain
We approach this book within our own sphere of religious competition against other faiths and worldviews. One common way to approach it is to argue “well our way is the only way that works” or “the only right way”.
This would be heard that following the book of Leviticus rather than the Aztec way or the Hindu way would achieve results rather than the failed projects and failed outcomes of the other religions.
If you read the Torah certainly you can see both how the Ancient Hebrews interpreted the law and the promises of God as a key to “making it rain”. I can easily understand that by much of what’s written. When you come down to the story of Elijah, the drought and the priests of Baal the contest can’t be any plainer. Yhwh can make it rain, Baal is a bust!
There are two things I want to to remember in his, however.
- Just like we note that the Aztec and ISIS are deeply spiritual and religious people we should always remember that the content of the religion is just as important if not more than the fact that they are religious. The shape of Aztec and ISIS religion and spirituality MAKES them violent and exploitative over their enemies.
- We read this book as Christians, through the long history of Israel and through the life and death of Jesus, and that will deeply impact the story as well.
Honey, Yeast and Salt
Leviticus 2:11–13 (NIV)
11 “ ‘Every grain offering you bring to the Lord must be made without yeast, for you are not to burn any yeast or honey in a food offering presented to the Lord. 12 You may bring them to the Lord as an offering of the firstfruits, but they are not to be offered on the altar as a pleasing aroma. 13 Season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings.
Now when we read this our first emotional response is probably something along the lines of “another incoherent, arbitrary rule that makes no sense in the real world.”
The elephant inside of us that offered the rider this judgment is of course the elephant that builds dams and diversion tunnels.
We should recall, however, that the elephant has many of its own intuitive responses to disgust or respect or holiness that it can’t justify on merely chemical or physical grounds.
Rather than simply intuitively reject something because it doesn’t immediately seem to make sense to our own elephant’s filters perhaps we should see how this works within the symbolic meaning world of the Hebrews.
Apparently the reason for excluding yeast from the altar was that leavening involves a kind of decay through fermentation, which was associated with mortality/impurity and thus had to be separated from intimate contact with God’s sphere of holiness and life. Along the same lines, honey (most likely of fruit; cf. 2 Chron. 31:5) was banned from the altar because of its susceptibility to fermentation (cf. Num. 6:3–4).
Non-Israelite peoples, whose deities were not dissociated from death in the same way, frequently offered honey to their gods. Thus in Assyria and Anatolia, honey (along with other liquids, such as oil and wine) could be poured into a ritual hole in the ground as a libation for an underworld deity. The final ritual of the fifth day of the Babylonian New Year Festival of Spring was a burnt offering to celestial gods that included honey, along with ghee and oil.
In antiquity, parties who shared salt (here the Lord and the Israelites) were united by mutual obligations. Thus, a letter from Neo-Babylonia refers to a tribe’s covenantal allies as those who “tasted the salt of the Jakin tribe.” Similarly, the Greeks salted their covenant meals, and in Ezra 4:14 those who tasted the salt of the Persian king’s palace were bound to loyalty to him (Ezra 4:14).
Since human allies establishing a covenant would commonly share a meal featuring salted meat, it made sense for salt with Israelite sacrifices to serve as a reminder of the covenant between God and Israel. Because salt was employed as a preservative, its use in a covenant context also emphasized the expectation that the covenant would last for a long time, a meaning attached to salt in Babylonian, Persian, Arabic, and Greek covenant contexts. Because salt inhibits the leavening action of yeast, which represented rebellion, salt could additionally stand for that which prevented rebellion. A different reason for the appropriateness of salt in connection with covenant is found in its association with agricultural infertility: “In a Hittite treaty, the testator pronounces a curse: if the treaty is broken may he and his family and his lands, like salt that has no seed, likewise have no progeny.”
Walton, J. H. (2009). Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Old Testament): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (Vol. 1, p. 292). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
What we see in this one small example are the general contours of what YHWH is saying about himself and what it means to life his life with him, to be holy like him.
Leviticus is in fact deeply tied to Genesis and the creation story in Genesis 1. God creates the world by controlling chaos through separation. Israel is to mirror this world creating order all the way down to the minutia of its life. Yhwh talks to the elephant by training it in tiny ways to shape its emotional world through generations.
Now we might read this and say “well let’s get to it. Sacrifice with salt, no yeast and now honey. Got it. Is this how I can make my life work? Is this how I can make it rain and not just try to control and preserve the rain that falls?”
The facile relationship between ritual compliance and world world success is deep within is and it permeates our modern religion. We may no longer have our rules about honey, yeast or salt but you can find many rules about all sorts of things in religion today. Modern skeptics like Haidt will say with respect to this “you still can’t make it rain. Pray to God all you want, build your churches, bring your sacrifices, work your obedience and I’ll still vote for bond propositions to build dams and diversion tunnels thank you.”
You can’t read Leviticus without understanding the book of Kings and Chronicles and the project of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time.
“Why has our obedience NOT succeeding in making it rain and triumphing over our enemies? Because our obedience has failed to be strict enough or communal enough! So let’s find ways to coerce each other into compliance and THEN God will make it rain!” This isn’t far from Al Qaeda or ISIS.
So again, is the difference that Leviticus “works” and Aztec and Hindu systems don’t? As Christians we have to read Jesus’ take on this through his life and death. I would assert that in a strange way the modern skepticism both follow’s Jesus life in the line of this but then can’t fully follow him through his death.
The Brilliance of Jesus’ Failure
The coherent, complete, sacrificial narrative suggests that a life fully aligned with the rules of the gods that span from what we may or may not touch and taste all the way to the foundations of the earth get disrupted by the life of Jesus.
Contemporaries of Jesus, both Jewish and pagan easily could explain his death, he lost.
- He failed to comply with the rules that Yhwh established interpreted by the teachers of the law in the context of the culture war with Hellenism and the Romans
- He failed to act wisely in the military political context of that struggle by failing to do even the most obvious and minimal compliance with Pilate.
Jesus died because he lost on both counts.
- From a spiritual point of view his death shows that he failed God and the true system
- From a human point of view his death shows that he failed to work the political system
In the resurrection, however, Jesus upends both narratives. In the resurrection Jesus begins a new narrative, one of sacrifices fulfilled and stories birthing new larger stories. What was perceived by others as the failure of Jesus becomes the failure of those paths to bring life. Rain comes by grace, not the mechanics of a ritual system and the promise of life is a sufficient to the temporary losses we suffer on the way. Jesus’ death is the answer to the puzzle of the Jewish exile and Jesus’ death is the answer to the puzzle of our own deaths.
Jesus Fulfills Yeast and Honey and We Become the Salt
Paul picks up this theme in one of his sermons recorded in the book of Acts.
Acts 13:32–37 (NIV)
32 “We tell you the good news: What God promised our ancestors 33 he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus. As it is written in the second Psalm: “ ‘You are my son; today I have become your father.’ 34 God raised him from the dead so that he will never be subject to decay. As God has said, “ ‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings promised to David.’ 35 So it is also stated elsewhere: “ ‘You will not let your holy one see decay.’ 36 “Now when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep; he was buried with his ancestors and his body decayed. 37 But the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay.
Misery: Well Then How Does Jesus Work?
When we approach with the question of how to work him we fall back into trying to turn him into a system.
All along the message of the Old Testament was “you can’t make it rain”.
Now we stand with the moderns in building water systems. Building water systems is part of the gardening mandate from the garden.
With the moderns we might still appreciate the beauty and vastness of ancient wonders but reject them as means by which we control the gods use the gods to assure for ourselves the world according to our tastes and desires. Wonders and systems used to work the gods are the fruit of the rebellion of Adam and Eve.
We are radical recipients. We don’t bring the rain. We can’t bring the rain. The rain and all that we need for life is a gift from God given out of his generosity and for our need. We cannot secure any of it and any system that imagines it can doesn’t know God.
Deliverance: What Jesus Did
Jesus now helps us make sense of these rules of yeast, honey and salt. Even Leviticus was the beginning of pointing to a world without “decay” in the way it works in us.
The Old and New Testaments are like the geometry of old gun sights. A straight line is created by two points. The Old Testament provides the first point of reference and the New the second. Leviticus helps us understand Jesus but we can’t see where Leviticus intends to point without Jesus.
Jesus comes and lives the heart of the old system and to all observers it utterly fails him. In the resurrection Jesus reorients the us towards the world the system pointed to in symbols. The world without decay. The world without rebellion. The world where covenants are kept and stories are perfected. Jesus accomplishes this with his death and resurrection.
Gratitude: New Honey, Yeast and Salt
Here is where we begin to see the meaning OF life comes together with the meaning IN life.
The meaning OF life is glory. It was for glory that the world is made. The world is in a sense a great wonder of the glory of God. That glory and that wonder are pure gift, given to us, not from us, not initiated by us, we ourselves are part of that glory, part of that wonder, and part of that making.
Wonder making then takes shape through the gift.
- We make glory making wonders in gratitude to God for his gifts.
- We make glory making wonders God given capacity (image of God) reflecting and managing the gifts of God. We should make wonders IN life. These wonders reflect the direction of Leviticus and Jesus in pointing towards life and its generative wonder making capacity.
- We make glory making wonders in community and communion with God and our neighbors.
While we make wonders in the age of decay they never last, but are fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus. We find meaning IN life even with the age of decay by alignment with the meaning OF life which is God’s glory rather than the hungry, grasping glory of self.
So What Will Be the Shape of Your Wonder Making in the Light of the Resurrection?