Sunday, July 08, 2007

Leviticus 8-11: Mind the Fine Print

Continuing from the very detailed descriptions of sacrifice procedures in Leviticus 1 - 7, Leviticus 8 and 9 describe the ritual sacrifice attendant upon Aaron and his sons being ordinated as priests of the Hebrews. The description is both graphic and rather tedious. Sample text:

22 He then presented the other ram, the ram for the ordination, and Aaron and his sons laid their hands on its head. 23 Moses slaughtered the ram and took some of its blood and put it on the lobe of Aaron's right ear, on the thumb of his right hand and on the big toe of his right foot. 24 Moses also brought Aaron's sons forward and put some of the blood on the lobes of their right ears, on the thumbs of their right hands and on the big toes of their right feet. Then he sprinkled blood against the altar on all sides. 25 He took the fat, the fat tail, all the fat around the inner parts, the covering of the liver, both kidneys and their fat and the right thigh. 26 Then from the basket of bread made without yeast, which was before the LORD, he took a cake of bread, and one made with oil, and a wafer; he put these on the fat portions and on the right thigh. 27 He put all these in the hands of Aaron and his sons and waved them before the LORD as a wave offering. 28 Then Moses took them from their hands and burned them on the altar on top of the burnt offering as an ordination offering, a pleasing aroma, an offering made to the LORD by fire.

It goes on like this for a long time. The point, I think, is less to capture the pomp and pageantry of the moment than to emphasize the importance of doing everything exactly per instructions.

This emphasis on exact protocols is hammered home in Leviticus 10 when two of Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, start burning some incence during the ceremony. There's nothing that suggests that this was anything else but some well-intended freestyle praise. Yet, fire leaps from the presence of God and kills them both.

Moses tells Aaron, essentially, that this is the kind of thing that's going to happen if the rules aren't followed, and that there will be yet more trouble if he or his other sons react at all. As other relatives carry the smoking bodies off for burial, Moses gives Aaron grief about another infraction of the complex sacrifice rules:
16 When Moses inquired about the goat of the sin offering and found that it had been burned up, he was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron's remaining sons, and asked, 17 "Why didn't you eat the sin offering in the sanctuary area? It is most holy; it was given to you to take away the guilt of the community by making atonement for them before the LORD.
It's worth mentioning, too, that these rules are brand new -- this is the first time anyone has ever performed the ordination sacrifices. The take-home message: when God gives instructions, follow the rules to the letter, immediately, or else!

Mmmm... Split-hoof ruminent.....

In Leviticus 11, we have the first chapter of what looks like it will be a great many laying down additional laws and moral codes. This particular chapter is concerned with food prohibitions. If it is representative we are going to see less emphasis in Leviticus on laws that mandate solutions to everyday social problems -- what to do when somebody steals somebody else's goat, say -- and more emphasis on rules of behavior that are, on their face, somewhat arbitrary.

Now, I have often heard that many of the Old Testament prohibitions are public health measures in disguise, and that the prohibition against certain foods were the Hebrews' way of avoiding potentially diseased or contaminated meats.

Well, maybe. But this point is not addressed in the text. God doesn't say "don't eat bats, because they carry disease." He just says not to eat bats (11:19). He doesn't say that, although flying insects are forbidden, locusts, katydids, crickets, and grasshoppers are OK because they have a great protein content and, not being scavengers, are less likely to carry disease. He just says of these you may eat. (11:22)

I won't rehearse all of the restrictions, as they are very numerous. The pig is of course a leading offender, joined by camels, rabbits, and shellfish. Unlikely to be problematic for my readers are specific prohibitions against eating ravens, horned owls, geckos, skinks, and snakes.

With much of the rest of Leviticus looking to be similarly legal in tone, the sheer volume of law accumulating in the Bible is really starting to add up. And the law is not always straightforward, either; there are lots of puzzling exceptions and loopholes scattered throughout, a typical example being:
37 If a carcass falls on any seeds that are to be planted, they remain clean. 38 But if water has been put on the seed and a carcass falls on it, it is unclean for you.
Given the increasing complexity of the law, and the apparent neccessity of getting it exactly right, it is no surprise that a professional priesthood is necessary. Aaron and his sons have been ordained just in time.

Next Week: All sorts of uncleanliness, but no sex yet. That's not until the week after. You'll just have to be patient.


chuckdaddy2000 said...

I think Leviticus would make a great name for a heavy metal band.

(This is my intellectual addition to Michael Reads The Bible)

michael5000 said...

Yes. These guys would agree with you. As would these guys.