Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Idiot's Guide to Animal Sacrifices: Leviticus 1-7

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

I don't particularly want to read Leviticus, or Numbers afterwards, because I recall them being very dull books. The dreary, tedious Levitican regulations are a marked contrast from Genesis and most of Exodus. To compensate for boredom I shall simply have to saturate these essays with more sarcasm. I know I should be worried, because my Men's Bible has a paragraph at the beginning of Leviticus which, instead of the usual inspirational "improve your walk with God nonsense," tentatively cautions that "as you read this book, some of it may seem dull and boring. But think about how holy God is, how he wants you to serve him in every part of your life and in all you do." Alas, the observation and the imperative don't seem to connect logically.

Leviticus begins lethargically, with God lecturing Moses on every detail of sacrificial procedure and ritual. If you want to know how to sacrifice bulls, sheep, goats, pigeons, or grain, here's how to do it - right down to the treatment of individual organs, in some cases. The priests get a cut of the proceeds in exchange for the sacrificial services they provide: for a grain offering, for example, the priest shall select a "memorial portion" which is burned by fire, and take the remainder to the priests for food. No yeast is permitted in such a grain offering, a recurring theme in the Bible. Strangely, thrown into the provisions on ch. 6, God forbids the eating of fat or blood. Whoops.

Since Jews dropped the sacrifices 2000 years ago and Christians never had them, you might think there's little to be had in these chapters. I'm inclined to agree, unless of course you ever find yourself in the midst of a strange sect of orthodox Jewish reconstructionists, in which case this preparation will diminish your shock as you watch the high priest "wring off the head" of a pigeon and then "tear it open by the wings."

However, the sacrificial system does continue to enforce the supremacy of the priesthood which was heralded in Exodus. All sacrifices, and by extension all means by which people may receive absolution from God for their sins and thus avoid ending up like the 3000 slaughtered at Mt. Sinai, are conducted by the priests. All males in priestly families are entitled to partake of food from eligible sacrifices. Priestly food is holy food; if somene who is unclean dares to eat it, they must be "cut off from his people." God specifies that the priests must receive this "portion of th eofferings... as their regular share for the generations to come." Sacrifice sounds like it may become a profitable service industry - on the other hand, one has to wonder what the rank-and-file of the Levites thought of being conscripted into a primitive Bronze Age meat-packing industry, which is essentially the best analogy we can draw for the gruesome business of washing, preparing, and separating meat and organs from sacrificed animals.

Arrangements for sin offerings represent the new social hierarchy God is apparently constructing. The most serious "unintentional" sin is that of an anointed priest. This is followed by a sin of "the whole Israelite community," of a leader, and finally of "a member of the community." The required punishment reflects the position of the sinner: priests' and communal sins require the killing of a bull, leaders may sacrifice male goats, and individuals may sacrifice female goats. This concept of a sin by "the whole community" is an interesting one and quite out of place in our typically individualistic understanding of sin today. I can think of a number of sins of "the whole community" we ought to consider making some confession of or atonement for.

Despite my misgivings about the new hierarchy, it's also worth noting that God makes specific provisions for economic inequality - something he didn't bother with in the census "tax" in Exodus, but which does seem to concern him in Leviticus. Individuals who have no goats may bring sheep; if they cannot afford either, they should bring two birds (one gets burned, one gets drained of blood by the priest). If they can't afford birds, they may bring some flour. Either way, the priest still earns his commission.

Chapter 7 closes dramatically with the concluding statement that "these are the regulations for the burnt offering, the grain offering, the sin offering, the guilt offering, the ordination offering and the fellowship offering." As you can see, there's a sacrifice to be made on pretty much every occasion. I doubt I'll be able to remember the types of offerings, let alone the details. Perhaps it's unfair to blame the author for being dull; after all, we've had 3000 years to improve the theory and practice of manual-writing, and have very little to show for it. At least there's no idiotic warning labels like "do not perform this sacrifice underwater" or "do not run with burning sticks."