When I last posted about Jacob Milgrom’s Leviticus, I mentioned two priestly symbolic systems that lie behind the biblical book of Leviticus. That post dealt with the purity system. The other symbolic system was the sacrificial system.
Sacrifices, including blood sacrifices, characterized many primitive religions. Most people today, I think, see this as an outgrowth of superstition and fear. Perhaps angry or malevolent gods would relent or show favor if offered a sufficiently costly and bloody sacrifice.
Certainly the Israelites lived in a world where such ideas of propitiation held sway. Yet the rational for sacrifices in Leviticus breaks some new ground.
Milgrom examines the reasons for the sacrifices Leviticus commands. We noted that purity ideas included the idea that both human and animal blood was sacred and belonged ultimately to God. Meat preparation in Hebrew dietary laws required you to drain all blood from the animal. This blood represented the life that belonged to God. So the draining of blood from a butchered animal was itself a kind of sacrifice. You were symbolically returning the life to God who gave it.
Sometimes a sacrifice is just an expression of gratitude and loyalty. Leviticus 1-2 discusses burnt offerings. These could be, according to your wealth, cows, sheep or goats, poultry, or grain. The provision for grain or cereal offerings meant that blood was not necessary. You made the best sacrifice you could from your farm as an expression of your devotion to God.
Leviticus 3 begins a discussion of what many translations call a “peace offering.” Milgrom calls it a “well-being offering.” Milgrom seems to think that this offering originally, in the P materials, was not much different from the burnt offering of chapters 1 and 2. But the H material in chapter 17 gave it a new meaning. There we find a polemic against those who used to offer sacrifices to goat demons (v. 7). The well-being sacrifice now applies to all slaughtered meat. In v. 11 God says “for the life of every living thing is in the blood. So I myself have assigned it to you on the altar to make atonement for your lives, for the blood makes atonement by means of the life” (NET Bible.)
In priestly theology, God had permitted the eating of a few kinds of meat as a concession. But blood guilt still attached to the killing of animals (vs. 3-4). So the killing of meat animals remained an act of violence that you could not do and remain innocent. So in the priestly system of symbols and ritual the sprinkling of blood on the altar sharpened the seriousness of violating the prohibition on killing. When you kill and eat meat, you have to ransom yourself.
This reminds me a little of what I know about the plains Indians of America. They hunted and ate meat, but built into their world view an unsentimental respect and gratitude for animal life.
Purification offerings are discussed in Leviticus 4:1-5:13. The reason for these is that you have broken a commandment, whether voluntarily or not.
To explain this, Milgrom uses the example of Oscar Wild’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. In the novel, Dorian’s sins show in the degradation of his portrait. So in the priestly thinking, your sins do not disfigure your own face so much as the sins of the community disfigure the face of the sanctuary. The sins of priests and other leaders especially scar the sanctuary. And, if the sanctuary looses its sacral quality, the nation itself may fall. When the leaders sin, the silent majority of the people also are at fault. So there is collective guilt.
If Israel was like other nations, they would think the pollution of the temple came from the presence of demons. The rite required would have been exorcism. But in Israel it was the people’s own sin that polluted the temple. So you brought a flawless animal to the priests who did not perform an exorcism, but made atonement for your sin.
Leviticus 5:14ff. describe a reparations offering, often called a sin offering. I might call this an apology offering. Milgrom stresses that the worshiper must feel remorse for bringing disrespect or harm to God or another person. The priest makes the offering as atonement and the promise in chapter 4 vs. 20 and 26 is that the sin is then forgiven. But it seems the law also requires some attempt at restitution (5:15-16).
I find two things to take away from all this. First, the sacrificial system was not elitist. The idea was that no matter how poor you were, you could still make an offering. You could offer a dove or a little grain if you did not have a bull or a goat. Second, the priestly system undid the common notion that demons caused uncleanness and harm in the land. No. It was the people’s own lapses.
Pretty much every Christian is taught that the sacrifice of Christ makes all the priestly sacrifices unnecessary now. Yet Christians have found their own substitutes in the confessional booth and in 12 step programs, to name a couple. Sometimes people feel the need to make atonement. For myself, some of this relates to my understanding of Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the cycle of the church year with its seasons of repentance.. My ritual system is different than the priests but has some things in common with theirs.
What I think we often miss is that the sin offering or reparations offering was only a small part of this. Sometimes an offering was freewill and just expressed joy and thanksgiving. Sometimes and offering accompanied a sacred vow. Sometimes an offering was not for your own sins, but for those of the whole community.
Jesus died for my sins. But did Jesus’ death also relate to some of the other rationals for sacrifices? How would broadening the understanding of sacrifice contribute to Christian spirituality?