Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Priests Win a Religious Monopoly! And Also, Don't Drink Blood: Leviticus 17

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

Most people think Leviticus 17 is about not eating or drinking blood, and I can understand that. As usual, God is lecturing Moses on appropriate and inappropriate methods of sacrificing animals, when it occurs to him that people have eaten blood, which completely sidetracks him. He begins ranting on the subject, banning the eating of blood no less than four times in four verses. The rationale for the law is interesting: according to God, "the life of a creature is in the blood." Now I guess I know where the Jehvah's Witnesses get their ideas about blood transfusions from. I'm not sure how a literalist would harmonize this claim with modern biological science, but it explains some things. Blood is life; blood is holy. This is why specific measures are taken with respect to the blood of sacrifices.

The logical conclusion from this goes well beyond the treatment of human blood, though, because God is talking about animals, not humans. Don't eat the blood, because this would be consuming the life of the animal; consume only its flesh. If we re-interpreted the principle in light of our contemporary understanding of life and the body, these verses would appear to be leading us towards vegetarianism. There's a long history of Christian vegetarianism, well before the Millerite and Mormon religions that emerged in America in the 19th century started recommending it - among Catholics, Orthodox, Quakers, and more recent charismatics, to name a few off the top of my head - but I'm not sure if any of them use this interpretation of Leviticus 17.

When I started reading this section, I thought I was going to say that the blood regulations were a quaint and primitive reflection of Israelite tribal culture, but I can see a logic behind them. I have no real reason to claim this was how the ancient Jews understood it, but I find it intriguing nonetheless. If I were still an evangelical, now would be the time I would write that the Holy Spirit spoke to my heart as I wrote these words and gave me an inspired interpretation of the text. Perhaps he/she/it did, but I'm not going to take the Lord's name in vain by blindly attributing to him everything that I do.

Anyhow, I'm getting off track, just like God did. Before he lost the plot, God was talking about sacrifices. It turns out that some of the Israelites were sacrificing to God wherever they were - in the camp, in the fields where they kept their animals, and so on. Originally, God describes such unauthorized and inappropriate sacrifices as "bloodshed" - a crime for which Israelites must be "cut off," but later on in the lecture, he starts claiming that it's actually idolatry, beacuse some of the sacrifices being made are apparently to "goat idols," or "goat demons," depending on the translation. Awesomely, the KJV - as it always does in such cases - translates such idolatry as "going a-whoring." Sometimes I hate the KJV, but sometimes I love it, and this is one of the latter times.

There are two possible interpretations of the first half of Leviticus 17, and neither of them are entirely pleasant. The first, which strikes me as the pessimistic and conservative explanation, is that once again, the Israelites are an unbelievably faithless people. It hasn't been all that long since the debacle at Mt. Sinai, when a large number of Israelites had to be killed as punishment for making a golden calf while they were bored. Now, already, they've decided to make new gods, this time modeled after goats? What the fuck is wrong with these people? Paganism isn't just a religion, it's a crippling addiction. It's almost tempting to believe that humans are so irredeemably wicked that they just can't do right no matter how impressive miracles they're shown, but I'm not buying it. It doesn't make sense that a people who can look up to the front of the camp and see the clouds and fire of God hovering over their porta-temple is going to wander out into the fields and sacrifice to various idols. I suppose this position does become plausible if a considerable number of the Israelites never did accept God's authority to begin with, but then that raises the question of why they keep following him around.

The other explanation fits with my general thesis for Exodus, which is that God is using his authority - or, I suppose it must be admittd, the idea of his authority is being used - to establish a new social order in which priests hold most or all of the religious and political trump cards. Worship of God must be mediated by the priests; therefore, it must take place at the specific location (the porta-temple) where the priests are permitted to meet with God. You cannot worship him on your own.

This becomes even more significant when you consider that at least some of the sacrifices "in the open fields" were burnt offerings (see, for example, v. 17:8). But when they bring these same sacrifices to the porta-temple, God says, they must be offered as peace and fellowship offerings. For such offerings, God specified several chapters earlier, the sacrificing priest earns a commission in food taken from the sacrifice. Hence God has now banned sacrifices for which priests wouldn't be paid. This appears to be a pre-emptive amendment to John 14:6 -- i.e. "I am the way, the truth, and the life; and no man comes to the father except through the priest!"

When I first read all the instructions for the sacrifices and offerings, I thought this information would be useless to me. I was quite wrong - it's turned out to be quite handy.