Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Sacrifice Acceptable to God (Leviticus 1-10)


One of the frustrating things about reading the Bible as a 21st-century American is that the Bible was not written to 21st-century Americans. It doesn’t address our modern scientific concerns with mythology. It doesn’t appease our delicate sensibilities with its brutality. And it doesn’t explain to us what on earth all these sacrifices are for.

I admit, I really am baffled by the concept of animal sacrifice. Something that was natural and obvious to ancient man goes completely over my head. Why is the very heart of worship centered around killing and eating animals? What is the motivation behind it? What did people see it accomplishing for themselves and for their gods?

You would think Leviticus would help explain these things, but it assumes you already know the why, and goes straight into the how. And this it does quite well. Kill the animal at the entrance of the tent; throw the blood against the sides of the alter; cut up the carcass; burn the head, fat, entrails, and legs on the alter for the Lord; bon appetit! If you didn’t catch all that, don’t worry: the instructions will be repeated sixteen times.

As far as I can tell, there are three reasons for sacrificing to a god:
  1. appeasing the god’s anger against you by offering him a substitute
  2. giving the god a present
  3. inviting the god to dinner
I was taught to see the Old Testament sacrificial system as centered mostly on the first item, but upon careful reading I actually see very little of this. Noah’s sacrifice is in the context of food, not placating God. Abraham indeed offers a lamb instead of Isaac, but the focus is on God’s provision to Abraham and not God’s requirement of some sort of sacrifice. Nowhere is it implied that the Passover lamb actually focuses God’s wrath against the lamb and not the firstborn – rather it is a sign of the covenant the people have with a god already desperately intent on saving them.

So I don’t think sacrifices, at least in the Bible so far, were meant to appease God’s wrath. The very fact that you were in a position to offer a sacrifice meant you were on pretty good terms with him.

The Levitical section on sacrifice ends with an anecdote where Aaron’s sons offer strange fire and get struck dead by the Lord for ignoring his explicit instructions on how he is to be worshiped. This is terribly harsh, and the following scenes where Aaron has to hold back his tears to keep doing priestly work is heart wrenching. But the point is made – the stuff you are doing is serious and important. You may not worship God in any way you feel like – you can’t tailor him to your preferences.

In trying to urge a grieving (and far-from-hungry) Aaron to eat the sacrifice, Moses outlines the heart of their vocation as priests:
[the sin offering] is a thing most holy and has been given to you that you may bear the iniquity of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the Lord.
It is in the act of eating the offering, while in the presence of God, that they make atonement for the people and bear their guilt. The people outside are also feasting on roasted meat from their peace offerings, and the smell of sizzling fat from the Lord’s portion is rising to the heavens. The Lord is communing with them, receiving their gifts, and forgiving their sins.

All this is made possible by the death of scores of animals. God has provided lamb after lamb, whose lifeblood coats the alter as it did the doorposts at Passover. It is only through their death that life, health, forgiveness, and celebration are brought to the people. Israel lives because other living creatures, created by God’s hands, die.

Though we may consider such rituals barbaric, are we really any less dependent today?

Comments:
It is in the act of eating the offering, while in the presence of God, that they make atonement for the people and bear their guilt. The people outside are also feasting on roasted meat from their peace offerings, and the smell of sizzling fat from the Lord’s portion is rising to the heavens. The Lord is communing with them, receiving their gifts, and forgiving their sins.

All this is made possible by the death of scores of animals. God has provided lamb after lamb, whose lifeblood coats the alter as it did the doorposts at Passover. It is only through their death that life, health, forgiveness, and celebration are brought to the people. Israel lives because other living creatures, created by God’s hands, die.

Though we may consider such rituals barbaric, are we really any less dependent today?


WFO, we're not less dependent at all, but our dependence has been transformed by the Sacrifice of Christ--I think the entire Epistle to the Hebrews is an extended argument for the shift in our devotion necessary because of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus.

I think, and I'm not thinking very well after not being able to sleep well after our party last night, that there is something still profound about the re-presentation (anamnesis) of the Sacrifice of the Lord every Sunday, indeed every day. We have not done away with the deep need to eat the sacrificial Lamb.
 

Animals were such an intrinsic part of life in the Ancient Near East. A man's wealth was largely determined by two things: how many animals he possessed and how many slaves he owned.

So to sacrifice animals to God could be construed as a real loss.

Just my two cents.
 

The point that anonymous makes about the animals being valuable had always been made to me in order to demonstrate the value of the sacrifice: God demands that we surrender the most valuable thing we have. It seemed that the value of the sacrifice was proportional to the amount of pain it caused to give it.

There's something very intriguing to me about the fact that they were eating these sacrifices. I never realized that. God was not actually asking them to throw their most valuable possession into a pit.

I like the notion WFO suggested of "inviting the god to dinner." Perhaps God was not demanding them to give up their most valuable possession; he was insisting on being intricately involved in their use of it. It was not that they gave up a goat as a holy item and would later eat their profane goat at home; it was that the act of eating was being made holy (it became a sacrament). Perhaps I can see the Law actually being exciting in that context; it's not the thing that destroys the thing you value most, but rather the thing that sanctifies it.
 

Actually, as far as I can tell, the sin offerings and burnt offerings get eaten by the priests (except in rare cases where the entire thing is burned up), while the peace and wave offerings are eaten by the people.

No, I don't understand the subtle differences between all these. ;-)
 

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