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Parasha Shemini (Eighth): The Shekhinah and New Beginnings

Shemini (Eighth)
Leviticus 9:1–11:47; 2 Samuel 6:1–7:17; Mark 9:1–13

A 13-year-old Jewish boy wearing tefillin (phylacteries) and a tallit (prayer shawl) reads from the Torah at the Western (Wailing) Wall. (Israel Ministry of Tourism photo by Yonatan Sindel, Flash 90)

A 13-year-old Jewish boy wearing tefillin (phylacteries) and a tallit (prayer shawl) reads from the Torah at the Western (Wailing) Wall.  (Israel Ministry of Tourism photo by Yonatan Sindel, Flash 90)

This week’s Parasha study is called Shemini (Shmini or Sh’mini), which means eighth.  The name arises from the opening verse:

“On the eighth [shemini] day Moses summoned Aaron and his sons and the elders of Israel.”  (Leviticus 9:1)

In the last regular Torah reading, Parasha Tzav, God instructed Moses to command Aaron and his sons in how to prepare for their duties and rights as kohanim (priests).

For seven days, Aaron and his sons stayed at the Tent of Meeting as part of their ordination process.  On the eighth day, Moses called for them to begin presenting the offerings (קָרְבֳּנוֹת, korbanot) to the Lord.

These offerings were given as a kind of “welcoming ceremony” to greet the arrival of God’s Shekinah (Glory or Divine Presence):

“Then Moses said, ‘This is what the LORD has commanded you to do, so that the glory of the LORD may appear to you.’”  (Leviticus 9:6)

It took a full seven days of preparation before they could begin this new and holy function as the priests serving Adonai in the Mishkan (Tabernacle), where the Glory of the Lord came to reside.

"Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the Tabernacle." (Exodus 40:34) (Image from page 10 of the 1874 Jewish Tabernacle and Priesthood)

“Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the Tabernacle.”  (Exodus 40:34)  (Image from page 10 of the 1874 Jewish Tabernacle and Priesthood)

New Beginnings Start with “Eight”

While the number seven represents completion (such as God’s creation of the universe), the number eight often represents new beginnings:

  • The eighth (shemini) day is a type of anniversary of the Creation.
  • On the seventh day, God rested and blessed it, declaring it as a set-apart, holy day of rest.  On the eighth day, however, work resumed once more—only this time, human beings began stewardship of God’s creation by tending and caring for the Garden of Eden.
  • Eight souls were saved during the Mabul HaGadol (Great Flood).
  • The eighth day is considered a day of covenant (brit), for it is on this day that every Jewish male infant is to be brought into covenant with the Almighty God through the rite of circumcision (called Brit Milah in Hebrew).
  • David was the eighth son of Jesse and Israel’s first great king from whose lineage HaMashiach (the Messiah) would come.
  • On the eighth day (first day of the week), Yeshua (Jesus) rose from the grave and became the bikkurim (firstfruits) of all those who will be resurrected on the last day.

Other occurrences of eight include the following:

  • There were eight spices of incense, the Cohen HaGadol (High Priest) had eight articles of clothing.
  • Often the week-long festivals of Passover and Sukkot are given an additional eighth day of celebration, such as Acharon shel Pesach (Final Day of Passover) and Shemini Atzeret (Eighth Day of Assembly) on Sukkot (Tabernacles).
A child sits at her father's feet as he prays at the Western (Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem. (Israel Tourism photo by VuTheara Kham)

A child sits at her father’s feet as he prays at the Western (Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem.  (Israel Tourism photo by VuTheara Kham)

The Beginning of the Year

Coming into active service in the Mishkan on the eighth day was not the only indication of new beginnings in this Parasha.

The consecration of Aaron and his sons, as well as the desert Tabernacle, took place exactly one year after the Exodus from Egypt, in Nisan—the first month.

Nisan is the beginning of spring, when the rainy season comes to an end, the fruit trees begin to blossom, and the fields are carpeted in wildflowers.

The Hebrew word for spring is aviv.  This word can be divided into two parts: av, which means father; and iv, which has a numerical representation of 12.  Thus, aviv (spring) is seen as the father of the twelve months of the year.

Passover, which occurs in this first month of Nisan, is the symbolic “father” of the twelve tribes of Israel as a new nation.  (Joe Bobker, Torah with a Twist of Humor, p. 231)

Therefore, the entire Hebrew calendar has a spiritual connection to the formation of the twelve Hebrew tribes, and the service of the priests represents a new beginning for all of Israel.

Lederman Synagogue in Bnei Brak, Israel

Lederman Synagogue in Bnei Brak, Israel

The Beginning of Wisdom

On the eighth day, the preparations for God’s glorious entry into the Mishkan (Tabernacle) were over, and Aaron and his sons began their priestly ministry.  (Leviticus 9:1)

But something went terribly wrong!

Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s two eldest sons perished in the blink of an eye—devoured by the consuming fire of God’s wrath.  Why?  The Torah says they offered “strange fire,” which God had not commanded.

“Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered strange fire [zarah] before the LORD, contrary to His command.  So fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD.”  (Leviticus 10:1–2)

The Hebrew word zarah (זָרָה) carries the connotation of being foreign or another kind.

What was Aaron’s response to such a terrible family tragedy?  Silence.  (Leviticus 10:3)

Nadab and Abihu Destroyed (Phillip Medhurst Bible Pictures)

Nadab and Abihu Destroyed (Phillip Medhurst Bible Pictures)

There is a well-known saying that “silence is golden” and Aaron’s response to this tragedy is an example of this.  At a time of great grief, Aaron remained silent rather than speak out in angry accusation against God.

When we go through painful trials in life or when tragedy strikes unexpectedly—whether illness, accident or even death—one of the best initial strategies may be to keep our mouths closed until we have control over what we will say.

Solomon, in all of his wisdom, penned the verse: “Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is considered prudent.”  (Proverbs 17:28)

We see this truth with Job’s friends.

After witnessing his terrible situation, they just sat beside him in silence.  It is probably the best thing that they did because when they finally opened their mouths to speak, foolish accusations poured forth.

Job Rebuked by His Friends, by William Blake

Job Rebuked by His Friends, by William Blake

Although it is not clear the exact nature of Nadab and Abihu’s sin, God’s command soon after their death may suggest that they went into the Tent of Meeting in an inebriated state.  

Just a few verses later, God tells 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.”  (Leviticus 10:8–9)

Although the Bible permits the drinking of wine and alcohol in moderation, it has no place among those in position of spiritual leadership while they are actively serving the Lord.  Alcohol can dull one’s senses and prevent a person from distinguishing between right and wrong, clean and unclean—one of the specified functions of the priesthood.

Just as we cannot “drink and drive,” it can be equally dangerous in a spiritual sense to “drink and serve the Lord.”

In any event, it is evident that these sons of Aaron were careless in the face of God’s holiness.  We also see carelessness in the corresponding Haftarah (prophetic portion) when David and his procession of men handled the Ark of the Covenant in a hasty manner.

God had commanded it to be carried with poles on the shoulders of the priests; instead, they put the Ark on a new cart pulled by oxen.

When the oxen stumbled, one of the men, Uzzah, put his hand out to steady the Ark; the Lord struck him for his error, and he died instantly!

“And when they came to the threshing-floor of Nacon, Uzzah put forth his hand to the ark of God, and took hold of it; for the oxen stumbled.  And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there for his error; and there he died by the ark of God.”  (2 Samuel 6:6–7)

Torah scroll in Budapest (photo by ParisSharing)

Torah scroll in Budapest. (Photo by ParisSharing)

The Fear of the Lord

Some think that God’s wrath for disregarding His holiness is limited to the Old Testament God of “law and justice.”  They think that under the Brit Chadashah (New Testament), we are “under grace” and, therefore, immune to God’s judgment.

However, the account of Ananias and Sapphira reveals that this is a fallacy.

This New Covenant couple brought an offering to the apostles in Jerusalem, and lied to the Holy Spirit about how much money they received for the sale of their property.

“Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property.  With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.”  (Acts 5:1)

For lying to God, both Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead.  (Acts 5:4–11)

Although God is merciful, patient, compassionate, and slow to anger, we must not take these qualities for granted, nor test the Lord our God by treating His holiness carelessly.

God is equally just and holy.  For this reason He is called a “Consuming Fire” throughout the Old and New Testaments.

May we all walk in a healthy fear of the Lord, which will keep us on the narrow road that leads to life.

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  (Proverbs 9:10)

Jewish men pray at the Western Wall (photo by Israel Tourism)

Jewish men pray at the Western Wall.  (Photo by Israel Tourism)

Food Fit for a Holy People

Parasha Shemini includes God’s laws regarding which foods are permissible and which are forbidden.

Although these dietary laws are treated casually by many Christians and entirely disregarded by others, thinking that they are “only for the Jews,” these are God’s commandments and not the rules of men.

It all goes back to the Garden of Eden when the serpent convinced Eve (Chavah) that God didn’t really mean what He said about what we are not allowed to eat.

God specifies in His Word which foods are fit for “holy people” and which are not.  Part of our diligence is to be “holy as God is holy.”

“I am the LORD, who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy.”  (Leviticus 11:45)

Friends gather to enjoy a kosher feast. (Photo by Sam Felder)

Friends gather to enjoy a kosher feast.  (Photo by Sam Felder)

Therefore, if we wish to experience God’s close and abiding Presence in our service as priests of the Living God, we would all be wise to familiarize ourselves with holiness, including God’s regulations regarding food as described in Leviticus 11.

A holy people are able to distinguish between what is clean and unclean—between what is pleasing to God and what is not.

“You must distinguish between the unclean and the clean, between living creatures that may be eaten and those that may not be eaten.”  (Leviticus 11:47)

Although we may not understand why some foods are allowed and some are not, it is easy to understand that if God cares for us, He cares about what we eat.

Eating is a reflection of what we do, the way we live, our priorities and our beliefs.  Though we are saved through grace, God most certainly still cares about the outward expressions of our inner life, which is reflected both by what we do and say.

“Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.”  (2 Corinthians 7:1)

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