The theme of sacrifice and its temple cult

Another central concept running through the course of the full Bible is sacrifice.

A reader today is no doubt baffled and likely repulsed by the various types of ritual sacrifices detailed in the Bible. As a priestly caste, the tribe of Levi is set aside to perform the intricate rituals, among them the burnt offering, peace offering, sin offering, guilt offering, food and drink offerings, and the mysterious red heifer offering (of Numbers 19). Pointedly, we should see these as times of festival and feasting. The strict observances, especially the handling of sacrificed flesh and blood, become central to Jewish faith up to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. By extension, Christian theologians reinterpret sacrifice to underpin much of our understanding of the Crucifixion and Resurrection and celebration of Communion.

As one friend, a Jew who is an expert interpreter on the Hindu Vedantic scriptures, remarks, sacrifice can be seen as an attempt to win divine favor. “I do you a favor, now you owe me one,” is how it puts it, remarking how universally we find the practice across ancient cultures.

Our straight-through reading of the Bible has already traversed page after page of instructions in Exodus and Leviticus concerning the dedicated site and extensive rituals for sacrifice, and there will be many more details ahead, but a closer look finds crucial gaps in the explanation. Just where does sacrifice enter the picture, for one? Is it something the Holy One demands from the people, or is it something the people and/or their leaders see as essential in maintaining the relationship?

The first mention is with Cain and Abel, without elaboration, in Genesis 4. The requirement to offer a sacrifice seems to be taken for granted, along with the existence of sin. In other words, we’re already immersed in religious teachings we’ve heard nothing about. (It’s like the introduction of the Serpent in Genesis 3:1, “more shrewd than all the living-things of the field that YHWH, God, had made,” which feels like we should have known all about that archetypal snake from earlier tales.) One possibility for these introductions would be the wives, coming from other gardens, who also bring new practices and explanations to the brothers.

This would fit archeological evidence that animal — and human — sacrifice was practiced widely across prehistoric cultures. Quite simply, there were expectations of how a god — any god — would demand to be treated, and this one known as YHWH was already stretching the definitions.

Everett Fox delineates three factors at work here, fitting a well-known mold in its contemporary environment.”

“First, the system of animal and grain sacrifices, or cult, was as important in ancient Israel as it was elsewhere in antiquity, as the chief means of expressing religious feeling.” As he then adds, “Indeed, the Bible traces this back to the beginning of human history, to Cain and Abel.” This would link religious instinct to questions of life itself, including fertility, nourishment, and health.

Second, to answer the question of whether God was present with them, the Israelites create a “residence” for him, a place for him to dwell (“tabernacle”) among them, “to convey the assurance that the people are led by God himself. This further supports the biblical image of the divine king, who dwells among his subjects and ‘goes before’ them.” In a much more mundane dimension, this makes me think of the feeders we place around the house to invite birds to make themselves known to our awareness.

And third, according to Fox, “the Israelites shared with their neighbors the idea that a victorious God, following his triumph, would be honored by his enthronement in a human-built structure.” Thus, at the time, there was no expectation that this divinity would be omnipresent, but rather would appear according to its own pleasure, the way God walked in the cool of the afternoon with Adam.

When Fox notes, “The purpose of all sanctuaries is to build a bridge to the divine, to link up with the forces that transcend human beings,” I both nod in accord and then wonder just where we’re so prompted today.

What makes the Hebrew Tabernacle unique is the fact that it’s portable, rather than fixed in place, and that there’s no visual representation of the Holy One itself. More crucially, as Fox contends, is that the observance of Sabbath — “an institution with no known equivalent in the ancient world” — means that “sacred time takes precedence over sacred space.”

He has much more to say on the issues, should you be interested.

Balak’s offering (Numbers 23, 6-7). Wood engraving, published in 1886.

Try to think of places where such intricate instructions assume importance today. Not religion, alas. Perhaps for advanced medical procedures such as surgery or professional sports such as football, with their well-worn books of regulations. I can look to classical music or opera, where a single phrase of a score can demand hours of rehearsal in the quest of some sublime transcendence. As we say, God is in the details.

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Leviticus as a blueprint for Utopia

My straight-through reading anticipated that Leviticus, with all of its endless regulations, would be some tough sledding. Still, I was determined to march its length rather than get stuck in my own mental Sinai. What I experienced instead was a continuation of the sensation of artistic creation that had earlier opened in the emerging ritual in Exodus.

Now the focus shifts to the collective people itself and its everyday life. As translator Everett Fox perceives, “The result is an almost utopian scheme. It is a world in which everything and everyone are to take their place under the perfect worship of a perfect God, banishing or avoiding death, defect, and disorder. … Leviticus is largely concerned with the potential disruption of this utopia.”

In some ways, this resembles fantasy or science fiction that attempts to create a new society free from previous restraints. Just how far can we go?

In other ways, though, this asks us today just what is required to set one community apart morally or ethically from others? More specifically, to prevent one’s family from being enslaved to others? Implicit, too, is some understanding of the basis of freedom or liberty itself.

This is a cosmic challenge, one putting the earlier Eden in microscopic context. “Leviticus concentrates on threats to Israel’s life with God.” (If there were only one tree to worry about!)

My straight-through reading stimulated thoughts on trying to maintain a community that rejects the common assumptions of the social orders surrounding it. How long can an individual or family hold out on its own? My Quaker, Dunker (German Baptist Brethren), and Mennonite ancestors all faced similar decisions in creating their versions of a Peaceable Kingdom. Just look to the Amish for a continuation today.

Still, as a book of discipline to follow, I find Leviticus too cruel and demanding. As for the stoning of slackers? Just take me out now, get it over with sooner than later.

Fox sees Leviticus as a “book of separations,” defining lines of distinction between the sacred and profane in daily life. It’s not just a set of instructions for the priestly cult, as I’d assumed, even when it defines the Tabernacle in a way that “functions as a microcosmos, a visible and ritual representation of the creation itself.” Rather, its practices help define what sets the Israelites apart from the surrounding peoples and their conventions.

Moses leads the Israelites into the desert.

Leon Wieseltier (in Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible) finds Leviticus prompting a “ritual abolition of time,” a recognition of the “incompleteness of the present.” Here, “It is not the distance from the beginning that is measured in every prayer, but the distance from the end.”

Utopia, after all, is not open to change or even growth, an insight that leads to a paradox Wieseltier notes: “And what threatens man is not a deprivation of the divine, but a familiarity with the divine. Intimacy is a corruption of immediacy, in a world in which there is immediacy to be corrupted.” His ensuing train of thought leads to conclusions quite contrary to my practice of “open worship in the manner of Friends.” In Leviticus, he says, sacred things are instruments of containment, “produced for the sake of order, not for the sake of disorder; for social stability, not for individual release; for continuity, not for completion; for coherence, not for rapture,” and, quite pointedly, “for tradition, not for experience.”

For me, that points in turn to the reliance on Quaker tradition in my own circles, even while I emphasize the importance of individual experience of the Holy Presence, no matter how we name that. No wonder I find myself thinking of the historic Book of Discipline or today’s Faith and Practice as I read the pages of Leviticus, “written in the imperative” with “little relief from strictness”! One, I read with a light sense of humor, though; the other, with a dread of the “religious regime of fearful severity” it imposes.

Where, then, is the balance?

Regarding that concept of covenant? They’re always making a deal

The introductory books of the Bible present a number of central threads that will run through the ensuing chronology and evolving thinking. One is the concept of covenant between the Holy One and its people.

In fact, it appears about 280 times in the Hebrew Bible and another 33 or more times in the New Testament.

God makes a covenant with Abraham. It’s a start.

In Biblical usage, it represents an agreement that’s more binding than a legal contract, which can be broken, albeit with penalties. It’s more of a bonding or uniting of parties. Think of marriage rather than courtship.

As you might expect, this concept is rife with debate and nuance among scholars. It makes for a fascinating study of its own, should you be interested. For now, keep an eye out for its repeated appearances in our journey through the Bible text.

Despite vows of continuing forever and ever or from ages unto ages, however, this binding agreement — one more far demanding than a simple legal contract — keeps breaking down. Already, we’ve seen the covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, and Moses, some more formal than others, and there are many more ahead. One thing to look for is whether the covenant is essentially one-sided or more mutually binding.

Circumcision, for instance, is an act sealing the covenant. As Everett Fox observes, “In many societies circumcision has been connected directly to puberty and marriage, usually taking place (as it does here to Yishmael) at around the age of thirteen. Our passage’s moving back the rite to birth is a daring reinterpretation, at once defusing the act of exclusively sexual content while at the same time suggesting that the covenant, a lifelong commitment, is nevertheless passed down biologically through the generations. The males of the tribe are not simply made holy for marriage. They bear the mark upon their bodies as a sacred reminder of their mission.”

We have the phrase of “cutting a contract,” meaning to sign it into force, but circumcision certainly makes this graphic and irreversible.

Fox has much more to say about covenant, should you be interested.

These thoughts point, too, to other considerations.

What is our agreement with the Holy One today? Or even with the other members of our particular community of faith? What are our deepest commitments? How are we bound in these for a lifetime?

Like dreams, these stories have one foot in the past and one in the present.

So who wrote the Bible, anyway?

One impression given to many of us as kids — think of Sunday school lessons — is that God somehow wrote the whole Bible. End of argument.

Of course, a closer reading suggests something quite different, including the passages where the writer openly appears as such.

Even in Exodus and Deuteronomy, there’s a waffling between whether God wrote directly on the stone tablets or dictated the words to Moses, who then dutifully incised them into the rock.

We can keep asking, who’s writing this? Who else is observing this scene?

Relief carving from the central palace at Nimrud showing two Assyrian scribes circa 728 BCE, two centuries after King Solomon and his court.

In his reflections on Exodus, “From J to K, or the Uncanniness of the Yahwist,” literary critic Harold Bloom (Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible) shifts the focus by plunging into an ongoing argument about the authorship of not just the book at hand but the Five Books of Moses altogether. He assumes we’re already aware of the controversy, perhaps even that J stands for Jahwist, writing sometime around the last years of Solomon, whose reign ended in 922 BCE. (Later scholarship places J even later, perhaps after the captivity.) But, oh my, what a partisan! Any rivals are swept from consideration. “J’s originality is as intense as Shakespeare’s,” for he’s “a writer more pervasive in our consciousness than Freud,” and “this first, strongest, and still somehow most Jewish of all our writers” still rings, whose “only cultural rival would be an unlikely compound of Homer and Plato.” Moreover, “J is a writer who exalts man, and who has most peculiar relations with God. … Homer and Dante, Shakespeare and Milton hardly lacked audacity in representing what may be beyond representation, but J was bolder and shrewder than any other writer at inventing speeches and actions for God Himself. Only J convinces us that he knows precisely how and when Yahweh speaks; Isaiah compares poorly with J in this …”

Who knows what material J had to work from, presumably largely oral. “Creating Yahweh, J’s primary emotions do not include awe, fear, wonder, much surprise, or even love. J sounds rather matter-of-fact, but that is part of J’s unique mode of irony. By turns, J’s stance toward Yahweh is appreciative, wryly apprehensive, intensely interested, and above all attentive and alert. Toward Yahweh, J is perhaps a touch wary; J is always prepared to be surprised.”

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