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.
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.