My cousin and I were talking as we walked up a long flight of steps up a hill in Busan. He remarked that many experts tend to be concerned about how rapidly-developing nations like South Korea and China would wind up destroying the planet if they all lived by an American standard. “But,” my cousin said, “that’s not going to happen, because other countries aren’t going to be that stupid.” East Asian countries don’t invest in big houses or something as absurd as a clothes dryer. America, he said, has been both blessed and cursed with an overabundance of space and resources. “Is there a word that means both blessed and cursed?” he wondered.
“Privileged,” I replied.
I was thinking about that as I read and re-read this chapter, where God reviews the role of Levite priests. It goes back and forth between the good things and the bad things about being a priest. It’s a tremendous burden, with a great deal of responsibility, and if anything goes wrong, you die. What’s more, the Levites do not receive an allotment of land the way every other tribe does. Not having land was the worst thing that could happen to you in pre-modern times. Even today, not owning your house, having to lease, puts you at the whims of your landlord.
In exchange for taking on that burden, the Levites receive tithes – ten percent of income from the Israelites. They get to eat the leftovers of all the sacrificed food, which includes all firstborn animals and the first portion of crops. They receive a “ransom” for the firstborn of every human male. They get, in other words, a lot of wealth and good food, and are comfortably taken care of.
So being a priest is a blessing and a curse – a privilege. God specifically says that this inheritance for the Levites is “a gift” (v 7), or “a service of gift” in Hebrew. They have no land in Israel but instead God is their “share and your possession among the Israelites.” (v 20)
This strikes me as another reason for having kept in the unpleasant account of Korah, or of Aaron’s two sons back in Leviticus, one that maybe makes even more sense than my “shut up the critics” theory from last chapter. These passages were more likely to be read by priests than by laity, after all. If so, then these stories are to impress upon priests the importance of their task: “You cannot shirk your duties, you cannot betray your post. If you do, if the rites are neglected, if anybody and anyone tries to approach God, it will result in death and chaos and the end of our people.”
This emphasis that your responsibility is a gift from God, a bestowed service, a privilege, all means that the power that comes with it is not to be abused. Which is always the danger of giving anyone privilege – that they will abuse it rather than use it in the service of others.
The Japanese: fuso “father, forefather,” zaiseki “responsibility, liability for a crime,” saishishoku “priesthood” (v 1), midjikana “close to, familiar,” tasukete “helper, helpmeet” (v 2), tsutome “service, duty, responsibility,” zenpan “the whole of” (v 3), sagyou “work, operations,” juushi suru “to engage in” (v 4), taremaku “hanging curtain,” kotokara “matter, thing,” shikei ni jo suru “to be liable to the death penalty” (v 7), gokujou “finest quality” (v 12), tazusaeru “to have, to carry” (v 13), shigyou “inheritance,” wariate “allotment, quota” (v 20), houshuu “reward, pay” (v 21), shiboritate “freshly-squeezed” (v 27), dakkoku suru “to thresh,” shuukakubutsu “crops, the harvest” (v 30).
One of the downsides of taking four months off from this is that I forgot a great deal of the words I’m starting to think of as “Biblical Japanese.” I know a lot of those are ones I’ve read before, but they don’t get used much in the more modern Japanese works I tend to read.