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Fire in the Bones [Biblical, Heterodox Christianity]: Old Testament

I recently began another excursion through the Bible, with an eye toward a deeper look at the soteriological topics that piqued my interest beginning in Winter ’01 (I think), and upon reaching Leviticus I spent a good deal of effort trying to work the various sacrifices into a single, cohesive structure; a goal I had sought off-and-on for quite some time. This was very important to me because it was my hope that a genuine, self-consistent understanding of these sacrifices would shed light on Christ’s work. Too often the reverse occurs, someone has a certain view on Christ’s work and goes back to find some isolated bits that match it when taken out of context.

I was unable to get the various sacrifices and their meanings to fit together. The fact that the ritual conducted after someone was found to be healed of skin disease included a “sin” and “guilt” sacrifice was particularly hard to fit into frameworks that otherwise looked to make some sense. This ritual may be quite important to fully understand because it is the only one that abstractly matches the key “Day of Atonement” ritual. (Two birds, one dies, the other flies free.)

I decided to break off reading and investigate what others had written on the topic. Two books I found particularly helpful were Milgrom’s commentary on Leviticus (Continental Commentary Series) and Purification Offerings in the Priestly Literature: Its meaning and function by Kiuchi. Interestingly, Milgrom also could not make any sense of the bird rite and chalked it up to a Pagan holdover that the priests felt compelled to keep. That’s “higher criticism” for you.

Anyways, I certainly did not go into this study seeking information about animal cruelty, but the books made some key observations that had flown under my radar. I’m relaying them here in case they have also alluded y’all. A. The sacrificial system was intimately woven into a larger cultic law (more on this in “C” below), and should be considered in context.Abstractly, the set of large land animals the tribes of Jacob could eat was determined by two questions: Does it chew the cud? Is it’s hoof split? However, for all practical purposes, the requirements meant that the tribes could only ranch 3 types of animals. Everything but goat, sheet, and ox was more or less off limits. (There were a very restricted set of wild animals, like the gazelle, that were also allowed.) Thus, the food laws (and the general value of these animals) greatly limited ranching. Also, the relative value of these animals meant that the typical person ate almost no ranched quadrupeds, eating red meat only a few times a year. [They did have domesticated birds and fish.]

B. It must be recognized that the “sacrifices” of these animals do not match what we might think of sacrifice. In fact, “sacrifice” is perhaps not even the best word to capture what is going on here. It focuses on the notion of “loss” or “payment.” Contrary to what many might make of these texts, that is not where the value of these animals lay. The focus of these sacrifices (to the extent that we can speak in general terms) was in the cleansing power of the blood.  The connotation of “sacrifice” might lead us to believe that the animals were simply destroyed or wasted without any practical value being gained (much as some might consider recreational hunting today). However, this is not the case. For the vast majority of sacrifices, only the fat was burned up. The rest of the meat was eaten, either by the priests or the person who brought the sacrifice.

[I reiterate here a point I have made before: outside the Day of Atonement (and perhaps the bird-rite) scape-goat, there is no transfer of sin going on in these sacrifices. If the animals received the sin of those who brought them, they would have defiled the temple and altar on which they were sacrificed. The scape-goat, of course, was not brought into the temple, nor killed as part of the rite. Jewish theologians note a key difference in the “laying of hands” ceremony done by the priest for the scape-goat offering as compared to others. One theory claims that the two-hand version done on the scape-goat represents transfer of sin/guilt/iniquity but that the one-hand version done in other sacrifices (including those that have nothing to do with sin) are a marking of sorts, so that the good done by the animal, or the favor it found in God’s eyes, was credited to the one who marked it by the laying of a hand. So Ibn Ezra.]

C. The idea in point B actually works in reverse as well. Not only were (most) sacrifices eaten, but all of these ranched animals had to be “sacrificed” before they could be legally eaten! This is a key and amazing point that is easy to miss. It might be better to term these sacrifices as “consecrations,” because they represented the only way any of the animals could be eaten. If an Israelite killed a sheep for food, but did not bring the sheep to the temple to be “sacrificed,” then he was liable for murder. [See Leviticus 17:3 ff].

This redoubled the effect mentioned in A. It reduced the actual amount of ranching and killing that occurred by adding to the expense involved in raising animals for food. In some sense you could consider the temple sacrifice as a type of tax on eating meat, because anytime someone slaughtered an animal for food, they had to give some of it to the priests.

D. Finally, once again in the vein of thinking of these rites as not being “sacrifices” in the typical use of the term, one should consider the Israelite mind when contemplating the meaning of these rites. As mentioned above, much of the point of the sacrifices lie in the cleansing effect of the blood on the sanctuary (and, perhaps, on the people who brought the sacrifice). The life of the animal was “in the blood” and by bringing the animal to the tabernacle, sacrificing it, and spilling its blood on the altar, the owner and priest were bringing the animal into communion with God. Recall that the Israelites did not have our understanding of the afterlife. At this point in time, there were two competing frameworks for thinking about the “soul.” In the older of these frameworks, which may have been predominant at the time, there was no such thing as an individualized “soul.” Living men were animated by the “breath of life” received from God (c.f., Adam becoming a living being when God breathed into him). Upon death, that life went back to join God.

For animals, the “life was in the blood,” which is why the Israelites were not allowed to eat any blood, and the “sacrifice” rite can be viewed as returning the essence of the animal being killed to join in communion with God when its blood was dashed upon the altar to cleanse it. Thus, attempting to put these things into a modern context, one could conceive of the cultic law as essentially demanding that every rancher perform an individual funeral of sorts for every animal they killed.