As I mentioned in my last post, Leviticus 1-7 is pretty much all about how to kill things and splash their blood around in just such a way as to be pleasing unto the Lord. Rather than spending nearly 2 months on which parts of the goat should be burned at the altar versus outside camp, I figured that we might just rip the bandaid off at one go and get it over with.

The types of offerings

We’re about to cover a couple different types of offerings, and I think it will be easier to follow if we have a basic idea of what these are before we dive in:

  • Burnt offerings: These are given when you just want to praise God. Think of it like your spouse grocery shopping and deciding to pick up a little box of chocolates for you just because s/he saw them and thought of how much you like them.
  • Peace offering: According to my Study Bible, this was “a covenant meal in which the worshipper was sacramentally related to the Lord and to fellow-Israelites” (p.124). In other words, the peace offering is about renewing/strengthening community bonds.
  • Sin offerings: This is when you unwittingly do something that’s against the rules but doesn’t have a victim. These offerings must be combined with a confession. It’s important that the sin was unwitting. We’ll be getting more information on what’s do be done with people who knowingly sin later on.
  • Guilt offerings: This is when you unwittingly do something that causes harm either to God or to others. In this case, the offering must be combined with some form of restitution to the harmed party.

Human Sacrifice

In several of the instructions, the person bringing the animal for sacrifice is instructed to lay his hands on its head so that “it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him” (Leviticus 1:4). In other words, the animal becomes a stand-in for the person, so the person is symbolically sacrificing himself to God.

But what’s really interesting with this concept is when the person is not instructed to lay his hands on the animal. I have no idea why it would be important to lay hands when offering a burnt offering of cattle, but not when offering a burnt offering of goat, for example. If anyone has any theories, they would be most welcome.

Leviticus 1: Burnt offerings of meat

This chapter has instructions for how to properly kill, dismember, and burn the various bits and pieces of cattle, sheep, goats, or birds. What’s interesting here is that the cattle, sheep, and goats must all be male and without blemish. I can sort of understanding the “without blemish” portion since I could see it tied to ritual perfection and ensuring that people are giving their good animals rather than seeing sacrifice as a way to offload the sickly ones. But the rule that they have to be male? Well, I’m not sure I like the implications of that.

In a nice gesture, God includes the possibility of offering a bird (turtledoves or young pigeons) is presented for those who are too poor to be able to part with a larger animal.

I could summarize the instructions, but David Plotz does such a good job that I’d rather just quote him:

If, by some Connecticut Yankee-type time-travel miracle, you ever find yourself in the Sinai desert, standing outside the Tent of Meeting, here are some tips on sacrifice etiquette: First, offer an animal that’s without blemish. Don’t be alarmed when the priests fling the animal’s blood all over the altar. If it’s a bird (ideally a turtledove), the priest will “pinch off its head” and tear it open by the wings. If you’re bringing a grain offering, expect the priests to eat most of it themselves. That’s their “most holy portion.”

Leviticus 2: Burnt offerings of cereal

In this chapter, we are told that cereal can be offered either ground into a flour or baked into bread. In the case of a burnt offering of cereal, the priest only needs to burn an unspecified portion of the offering, and the remainder is kept to be eaten by the priests.

I find it interesting that vegetarian offerings are now considered okay after God’s reaction the last time. Obviously, these two passages are serving different theological functions, but I wonder if the poor schmucks who brought cereal offerings to the Temple got the same “this is a stupid gift” treatment from the priests that Cain got from God.

Offerings for Easter by the illustrator of Petrus Comestor's 'Bible Historiale', France, 1372

Offerings for Easter by the illustrator of Petrus Comestor’s ‘Bible Historiale’, France, 1372

When making a cereal offering, it absolutely must be seasoned with salt. This confused the author of A Skeptic’s Journey Through the Bible, who wrote: “We can tell from verse 11 and 13 that the priest writing this seems to have hated honey, but liked his food salted, because having the food salted would be done just purely for the flavor, which God has no use of.”

This is a rather facile conclusion. I think that when reading this text, we need to be very cautious about attributing the stories and rules to the preferences of “the author” – who may or may not have been a single person, and would certainly have been writing within the context of a broader tradition.

My Study Bible helpfully offers a much more satisfying explanation: The salt requirement “reflects the oriental practice of making a covenant by eating a meal seasoned with salt. Here salt symbolizes the covenant relation upon which the whole sacrificial system rests” (p.124).

The author of Skeptic’s Journey also mentioned the honey. In Leviticus 2:11, we’re told that “no cereal offering which you would bring to the Lord shall be made with leaven; for you shall burn no leaven nor any honey as an offering by fire to the Lord.” According to my Study Bible, both of these are associated with foods that ferment. We read in Exodus 12 that fermentation was closely associated with corruption, so it’s about keeping corruption away from holy spaces.

As a side note, I wonder if this connection between fermentation and corruption is in any way related to the Islamic and Christian prohibition against consuming alcohol.

Leviticus 3: The peace offerings

For the peace offering, we get largely the same instructions as we did for cattle, sheep, and goat burnt offerings.

Given that the purpose of the peace offering is intended to strengthen community bonds, I have to question the morality of simply burning the meat rather than, say, burning a “memorial portion” (a symbolic portion that represents the whole) as would be done with the burnt offerings of cereal (Lev. 2:2), and then giving the remainder, say, to the poor.

I do understand the cultic issues around allowing non-sacred persons to consume consecrated foods, yadda yadda, but it seems like it could easily be made into a symbolically resonant gesture. For example, having the entire community partake in this single feast binding them together as a people with God. So even if we are constraining ourselves to Religion Logic, this would still make sense and would serve a secularly-noble purpose. So I find it conspicuous that the peace offering, in particular, is wholly burned.

Leviticus 4: The sin offering

The sin offering section breaks down the restitutions to be made by who commits the sin. The categories are: priest, ruler, an individual commoner, or the whole congregation. What’s interesting here is that only the individual commoner must offer a female animal, while the rest must offer up a male one.

The conception of a sin here is in interesting one, because the text specifies that it must be “unwitting.” From a secular perspective, I would take motive into account – for example, I’m not going to punish a 6 month old for ripping a page out of a book because a 6 month old doesn’t know any better. It’s not an “unwitting sin” because it’s not a sin at all.

But as Collins puts it, sin in the biblical context “is regarded as an objective fact – it must be atoned for even if it was not committed intentionally” (Hebrew Bible, p.76). You either sin or you don’t sin. The fact of it is external to the individual.

That’s not to say that there are no mitigating factors, since this chapter is proof that the opposite is true. This is the punishment for unwitting sin. The punishments for sin that is “witted” will come later, and are far more icky than animal sacrifice and confession (yes, confession is a required part of forgiveness – the sacrifice alone won’t do it).

Lastly, from a human sacrifice substitute perspective, I find it interesting to note that the remains of a sin offering must be burned outside of camp. The animal is seen to literally take on the sin of the individual, so the meat is both corrupted and corruptive. Keeping it near the people – or, even worse from a theological perspective, near the sacred space – would allow the corruption to remain inside the community.

These are the kinds of things I find interesting…

Leviticus 5: More sin offerings and some guilt offerings

One of the neat things about the sin offerings section is that there are provisions made for people who can’t afford to sacrifice livestock. “From each according to his ability…” and all that. Those who can afford it must offer a sheep. If not, a bird. Those who are too poor for either can give a cereal offering.

The sins listed are:

  • Not testifying when called as a witness (since this could lead to a miscarriage of justice, you would be sin to take on the “iniquity” of the accused).
  • Touching something unclean, such as a carcass of an unclean animal, so long as the thing was “hidden” to the toucher.
  • Touching “human uncleanliness” (Lev. 5:3). What this might be is unspecified, but I’m assuming poop falls into this category.
  • “If one utters with his lips a rash oath to do evil or to do good […] and it is hidden from him” (Lev. 5:4). Okay, two things: 1) Why is it a bad thing to swear to do good if one follows through?, and 2) How can something you say be “hidden” from you?

As I mentioned above, the sacrifice alone is not enough to be cleansed of sin. The sinner must first confess the sin. I find this interesting because it implies that the individual’s responsibility is not only to God, but also to the community. They owe it to the community to fess up, and then they owe it to God a more physical penance.

This chapter also gets us started on the guilt offerings, listing the following guilts:

  • “Breach of faith” (Lev. 5:14), or neglecting to pay religious dues (financial or sacrificial).
  • Breaking one of the many many religious rules we’ve already had a taste of in Exodus.

Leviticus 6: The guilt offering

Unlike sins which are “spiritual” crimes (meaning that they don’t have a victim), guilts are seen as crimes against another party. Of course, that definition isn’t quite as simple as we might think since God is considered a person who can be victimized, but it does get us started. The big difference between a sin offering and a guilt offering is that the guilt offering must also be combined with some kind of restitution to the injured party.

The crimes are:

  • Deceiving a neighbour in “a matter of deposit or security” (v.2)
  • Robbery
  • Oppressing a neighbour
  • Finding a lost thing and lying about it
  • Swearing falsely

In a pretty cool move, the first part of the punishment is: “he shall restore what he took by robbery, or what he got by oppression, or the deposit which was committed to him, or the lost thing which he found, or anything about which he has sword falsely; he shall restore it in full, and shall add a fifth to it, an give it to him to whom it belongs” (Lev. 6:4-5).

The rest of the chapter just gives more instructions for the priests and it’s hella boring. There is an interesting detail to note on gender, though. When talking about what the priests get to keep as their portion, Leviticus 6:18 says: “Every male among the children of Aaron may eat of it,” and Leviticus 6:29 says: “Every male among the priests may eat of it.” So what’s going on there? Were there women in the priesthood?

Leviticus 6:28 says: “And the earthen vessel in which it is boiled shall be broken; but if it is boiled in a bronze vessel, that shall be scoured , and rinsed in water.” The author of A Skeptic’s Journey asks: “Why would the earthenware pot need to be smashed at all?” Thankfully, my Study Bible helpfully provides an answer: “These verses reflect the ancient view of holiness as something transferable by contact. Holiness can be scoured off a bronze vessel; but an earthen vessel, because it is absorbent, must be destroyed” (p.128). 

Which makes total sense. It’s important that we keep people from stealing our holiness.

Leviticus 7: Minutia

Chapter 7 just blathers on about sacrifice, and when meat is clean to touch, when it’s unclean, who can eat what, blah blah. I think this post is quite long enough before getting into that boring level of detail.