When I wrote about the Golden Calf story, I was confused about Aaron’s involvement. One of the explanations I found was that the Golden Calf may have begun as a positive story, perhaps mythologising the origins of one of King Jeroboam’s bull-shaped altars, just as many of the Genesis stories seem to attribute the founding of various altars and holy sites to the patriarchs.

Ceci n'est pas un bifteck.

Ceci n’est pas un bifteck.

Later, in the 7th century BCE, King Josiah tried to centralize worship in a split kingdom. We’ll cover this in more detail when we get to Deuteronomy, but, basically, King Josiah figured that a great way to maintain power was make sure that his subjects were dependent on a site under his control for their religious (and, potentially, dietary) needs. An important step in this process would, of course, have been to make the use of any other sacrificial site heretical.

We get to see a bit of this process when God says to Moses that “if any man of the house of Israel kills an ox or a lamb or a goat in the camp, or kills it outside the camp, and does not bring it to the door of the tent of meeting, to offer it as a gift to the Lord before the tabernacle of the Lord, bloodguilt shall be imputed to that man” (Lev. 17:4). In other words, animals can only be killed as part of a ritual sacrifice, and ritual sacrifices may only take place at a single designated location.

Isn’t that, like, really impractical?

But that only addresses the issue of location. What may also surprise readers is that even butchery for food is restricted. That’s not a huge problem if we assume a nomadic setting where the entire group is travelling together, but would become far more problematic in a settled populace. Imagine living in Capernaum and having to walk 120 miles to get to Jerusalem, sheep in tow, just to slaughter it, and then have to carry the carcass all the way back. Imagine having to do that every time time you wanted a lamb chop!

We’ll see this issue addressed when we get to Deuteronomy 12, but Leviticus 17 is uncompromising. As Collins points out: “Such a law would have been difficult to implement” (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p. 79).

No person among you shall eat blood

Leviticus 17 is the chapter Jehovah’s Witnesses point to when denying blood transfusion. In it, God says to Moses that: “If any man of the house of Israel or of the strangers that sojourn among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut him off from among his people” (Lev. 17:10).

The reason given for this is that “the life of the flesh is in the blood” (v. 11), and all life belongs to God, so all meat must be offered to him first.

I find it interesting that this prohibition applies not only to the “house of Israel,” but also to “the strangers that sojourn among them.” In other words, if you are travelling through Israel, you must either sacrifice to a god you don’t believe in, or forego that truck stop burger you’ve been craving.

I’m not a huge fan of religious rules that are applied to people of different religions. Just sayin’.

The Goat Idols

In the middle of all this blood, we get a really weird line: “So they shall no more slay their sacrifices for satyrs [other translations say “goats”], after whom they play the harlot. This shall be a statute for ever to them throughout their generations” (v.7).

In context, this is given as a reason for the centralization of worship. What’s really interesting about it is that we’ve literally just gotten through a chapter explaining how to “slay their sacrifices for satyrs.” On the day of atonement, a goat is to be released into the wilderness as an offering for Azazel.

According to Mike Heiser, it seems that sacrificing to some goat god was a folk practice, and that the sacrifice to Azazel was either a version of this that snuck in, or an attempt to provide an outlet for a practice that had been deemed illegitimate (though, as Heiser points out, it’s worth noting that the goat for Azazel is sent out into the wilderness to die, not slaughtered directly).

As for where this tradition may have come from, Heiser shares a few thoughts:

The Day of Atonement ritual was part of the solution to the practice of some Israelites to sacrifice to “goat demons.” We are not told why they did this, but the period of bondage in Egypt may have introduced them to deities identified with goat sacrifices, or they conceptually thought the demons of the wilderness needed to be kept at bay while on the way to the Promised Land. The latter has an Egyptian flavor to it, since Egyptians considered territory outside Egypt to be full of perils and chaotic forces. For Israelites, such sacrifices were ineffective and could descend to idolatry. Restrictions and prohibitions had to be made with respect to sacrifice. All sacrifices needed to occur at the tent of meeting (Lev. 17:1-7), and the Day of Atonement ritual was the only sanctioned “expulsion of sins” ritual.