I am reading the book of Leviticus along with a few friends so we have a topic of conversation to guide our weekly Zoom-meeting discussions. We’re taking it slow, but the questions come quickly. Among us, we have five Master’s degrees in topics ranging from Linguistics to Law to Chemistry, two doctorate degrees, and one doctoral candidate. We started by reading the first five chapters.
In the first few chapters of Leviticus, it is hard not to feel a little queasy in response to all the detailed butchering of animals. Intimate descriptions that give insight into the most efficient way to drain blood from a bird, or peel back the internal organs for viewing. I have yet to meet a biblical scholar with a background in surgery or butchery, but I would love to hear their thoughts on the subject matter here! Certainly, the details about sacrificing animals are best interpreted by someone accustomed to slicing into and identifying parts of the body.
Unfortunately, the intricate details of the sacrifice come across to the average reader as gruesome or horrific. It is easy to see why this particular book of the Hebrew Bible is often avoided and talked about as “replaced” by New Testament ideals, as Christians who have no wish to bring a prized sheep to church for slaughtering to make amends unto God. But, a better correlation to make here is one that a former Pastor and friend brought to attention in a sermon I heard many years ago. That is, in today’s world, we do slaughter animals in mass as part of the industrialized farming movement, and many of us eat meat from animals that are slaughtered in mass. By comparison, the priests in Leviticus are recognizing the intricacy of the created being that they slaughter, in a setting that is spiritual, and giving thanks for life spilt, not only for the forgiveness of sins, but also for food. It is nourishment for the soul and the body, and it is all done in public view.
Leviticus is known for its rigorous lists of all things rules in the Bible. It is a Type-A person’s dream book, filled with lists upon lists of where the lines are and how to stay inside of them. The most important things are up front. In the opening chapters, Leviticus describes how to get clean, pure before God and before community. The sacrifices are not just for show, or an act of general worship. Each one is dedicated to a purpose, a response to felt guilt by a person in the community. It is sometimes tempting to come to a religious text and look for all the rules, but in Leviticus, the most important thing, the first thing, is how to get right. Only after you understand how to get right can you find out all the things that set you wrong.
In our discussion, we noted how there are only sacrifices for unintentional sins. The focus of reason for sacrifice was centered around the guilt felt by the wrongdoer. Presumably, there is no sacrifice to atone for intentional sin?
One of the things we learned about the sacrifices in Leviticus, is that these kinds of sacrifices are common in other ancient Near Eastern texts. This means that making these particular sacrifices was a common practice and commonly understood among those who lived in the Levant. Archeological data suggests that similar restrictions and specific sacrifices were also made to the Canaanite god Baʾal.
This was a little frustrating, since a few of us admitted to growing up in a Christian context that described the Israelites of the Hebrew Bible as extremely unique. We had understood that these sacrifices and their special instructions were distinctively Israelite, that God had called the Israelites to something special, something exclusive. Reconciling this archaeological evidence suggests that the Israelites were among an unspecified number of people from the broader group of Canaanites. The specifics of their journey to try and follow God was not so singular.
In the end, we found a bit of comfort in the fact that today’s world seems just as complex. It is difficult and sometimes messy to try and understand what God wants, and who God chooses. The world we live in is complex, even among “likeminded Christians.”