Sunday, June 24, 2007

Leviticus 1-7: Sacrifice, Sacrifice, Sacrifice

There's no break in the action as we transition from Exodus to Leviticus. We're still at the base of Mt. Sinai, and God is still quite literally laying down The Law with Moses, as they sit together in the Tent of Meeting.

The subject of the first seven chapters is sacrifice -- not the metaphorical kind of sacrifice that you and I are familiar with, but literal sacrifice, where critters or grain is burned at an alter to produce "an aroma pleasing to God." And really, it's hard to think of an element of religious practice that is less comfortable to a modern American. No matter how much cash you are dropping in the collection plate at your church, mosque, or synagogue, it doesn't have the same visceral drama to it as cutting your goat's kidneys out and throwing them onto the sacred flames. Or so I would assume.

The Bible is often treated as though it were an instruction manual or handbook for living, and here in Leviticus, it really is. These chapters tell you exactly how to sacrifice cattle, flock animals, birds, and grain. Different occasions for sacrifice are laid out -- the burnt offering, the fellowship offering, the sin offering, the guilt offering -- and we are given fairly precise specs for which parts of the beast go where, and when, and how. Separate instructions are given for where to drip the blood, how to burn the fat, what to do with certain organs, and so on. There are also specific rules about the participation of people who have been in contact with ritually impure things -- basically, they can't be part of a sacrifice, and if they break this law they are to be exiled. Other specific laws govern what portions of the animal and grain sacrifices are given over to support the priests.

The problem, of course, is that these are instructions that virtually no one -- not even the most rabid of the extreme religious conservatives -- would have any intention of following. Anyone who followed scripture on this point would be considered the most bizarre kind of barbarian, and would likely be locked up unless he or she lived in a very isolated rural area. So that's interesting.

From the historical perspective, it's also kind of interesting the volume of sacrifice that God is demanding here. In nomadic pastoralism, do herd and flock populations balloon out of control if left unchecked? I don't know if this is true, but unless there was a reliable natural excess of animals, it seems like the proscribed sacrifices being demanded by God would reduce the people to starvation in a hurry.

Interestingly, though, there is a sliding scale for certain sacrifices. The preferred sin offering is a lamb, but if you can't afford that you can sacrifice a dove or a pigeon, or, if you can't even afford that, you can sacrifice a modest quantity of grain.

Final note: I think it's interesting that I can't find any decent art, illustrations, or cartoons on the topic of Biblical animal sacrifice. Even the fearless Brick Testament conspicuously skips over Leviticus 1 - 7. It's almost like it's part of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition that nobody wants to think about, or something.

Next Time: Michael Reads the Bible will be taking a break on Sunday, July 1. I'll be back on July 8 with more rules! and more regulations! as we continue our way through Leviticus.


chuckdaddy2000 said...

Sacrificing grain really shouldn't count. Come on...

Rebel said...

I'm not sure if you're reading the bible as an academic or a spiritual pursuit (or both?), but I wanted to comment on the reason people don't sacrifice anymore.

Christians stopped sacrificing animals because Jesus was seen as the ultimate sacrifice, so there was no longer a need for a sin sacrifice, guilt sacrifice etc. You'll get to it eventually but there's a verse in the new testament where Jesus says he has come as the fulfillment of the laws.

I actually asked a Jewish friend why they don't sacrifice anymore and he said that Jews stopped sacrificing animals when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed (I'm bad at history so I can't remember when this was, I think it's been destroyed a few times actually). So there's a reason why even really devout/zealous Christians & Jews don't offer literal sacrifices anymore.

michael5000 said...

@Chuck: I don't make the rules, I just read 'em.

@Rebel: I'm not really sure if I'm reading the Bible as an academic or spiritual pursuit, either. On any given Sunday.....

Actually, if you go waaaaay back to the first post, there's a statement of purpose and four central questions and all, but mostly I just look for what's interesting every week.

My stock gag to anyone who (reasonably enough) answers questions raised by early portions of the Bible with references to later parts of the Bible is Hey! Don't give away the ENDING!!! Which is awfully flip, forgive me. But there is a definite sequential nature to this project, and by gum I'm sticking to it.

(But yeah, you are right that Jews stopped sacrificing after the destruction of the Second Temple. I'm looking forward to seeing what the scriptural underpinnings are for that very key point of Christian practice, too... but I've still got a couple of years of Old Testament to go first!)

@Chuck&Rebel -- Thanks to both of you for completeing the Michael5000 blogs commenting trifecta this week!

Rebel said...

Ooops sorry - didn't mean to spoil the ending there - I won't tell you what happens in Matthew, you wouldn't believe me if I did.

There's a lot of very interesting stuff in the Bible and it's fascinating to look at current religions and try to figure out how they got from one book to what's going on now.