I am getting beyond the introduction and into the commentary part of Jacob Milgrom’s Leviticus. In the commentary on the first seven chapters, he goes over in more detail the same sacrifices I have already written about as the sacrificial symbol system of Israel.
Today I want to bring up a couple of important themes that he hits.
First, he is fond of contrasting the practices in Leviticus with what we know of the practices of other nations. Now Leviticus does not say “do it this way to show how we differ from the nations.” Yet Milgrom thinks that is the point of some of the modes of sacrifice and priesthood in Israel.
For instance, we know that in Mesopotamia sacrifice was thought of as the care and feeding of the gods. Leviticus, in contrast, completely avoids any thought that the sacrifices fed God. The sacrifices were consumed by the priests and the people. The sacrifice was never left at the altar for God. The sacrificial meals were out in the open so that it was obvious that people ate the portions of the sacrifices that were not burned.
Another contrast comes out when Milgrom affirms the idea that I have run across before in Yehezkel Kaufmann and Israel Knohl that the inner sanctuary was a “sanctuary of silence.” In other religions, sacrifices often went along with magical incantations, songs and chants. But even verbal prayers at the altar never get mentioned as part of Israelite ritual.
In regard to the priesthood, Israel’s was distinctive in that it was hereditary. This seems elitist in that people not born into a priestly family could not become priests. They were excluded. Think how offensive that is to our modern egalitarian and inclusive way of thinking. But we can see how corrupting the system in Egypt was, where priests got their appointments as part of a political patronage system. Army officers, public officials, and members of the pharaoh’s family often got rewarded by appointment to a priesthood position that came with an estate and income. By dedicating a particular family to the priesthood, Israel tried–with mixed success–to insulate the priesthood from this kind of corruption and influence selling.
Now I turn to a detail that Milgrom covers more fully in the commentary. Many of us automatically translate Yom Kippur as Day of Atonement. But Milgrom says that Kippur means purgation or purification. He amplifies on his idea that what was purified was the sanctuary, not the people. He sees in Leviticus 4, 5 and 16 three levels of purification. First there is purification of the outer altar (Leviticus 4:30) for individual sins. Then there is purification of the incense altar and front of the temple curtain 4:16 and 18) for community sins. Finally, once a year on Yom Kippur, the high priest must purify the entire temple including the inner sanctuary or holy place inside the temple curtain (Leviticus 16:11ff.) This is to cleanse the sanctuary from deliberate and unrepented sin. These sins get confessed by the priest and placed upon a goat (scapegoat) and sent into the wilderness (16:20 ff.)
For individual and community sins, the sacrificial animals are supposed to be offered by the sinners. For the deliberate and unrepented sins, the offenders do not bring the offering. The unrepentant are banned from the sanctuary. So the sacrifice is not for them, it is for the purification of the sanctuary.
This whole procedure and system was, according to Milgrom, the priestly answer to the problem of why the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. The prophets and sages tried to answer this question. But the priestly writings say nothing specific about it. But might it be that the priests through ritual are saying that sin does not necessarily cause the sinner to suffer? The harm sin does actually falls upon the sanctuary as a kind of accumulating pollution. It must be swiftly purged by sacrifice.
Like their neighbors the Israelites believed that the pollution of the sanctuary would lead to the downfall of the nation. But, unlike their neighbors, Israel learned from their priests that it was not occult forces that polluted the temple; it was the people’s sin.