Leviticus 3-6

October 28th, 2009

We noticed that the structure of the Book of Leviticus itself replicates the three-fold structure of plain/mountainside/mountain-top.  The first two chapters deal with whole-burnt offerings, and take place at the altar, which in the description given of the mountain in Exodus 19 and 24 sits precisely at the boundary between the plain and the mountainside.  In the description in Exodus, the people must remain on the plain, and not touch the mountain.  The seventy elders eat in the presence of God on the side of the mountain (Exodus 24:11), and Moses alone goes to the mountain top.  In Leviticus, the people do not go past the altar toward the Tent.  When the offering involves a portion for the priests to eat (as in the cereal burnt offering), the priests eat in the holy precincts (the mountainside).

Beginning in Chapter Four of Leviticus, we come to the regulations regarding sin offerings.  In these, the priest is to take some of the blood of the offered animals, and smear it on the horns of the altar of incense, just outside the holy of holies.  The incense provides the cloud which covered the mountain top when Moses went up.  The priest is also to sprinkle some of the blood toward the curtain which hides the holy chamber.  The rest gets poured on the altar outside the Tent, thereby re-establishing the connection between God and the people which had been broken by the sin, whatever it was.

As for inadvertent sins, what are we to make of that?  For us, sin and intention go hand in hand.  If I did something inadvertently, it’s not a sin.  Leviticus and all post Exilic religion had suppressed the use of divination.  There are no oracles to be consulted, lots to be thrown, mediums to consult.  So, when something goes wrong in community, how do you figure out what?  In most religions, there is some kind of rite for establishing blame.  Look at the liver of an animal to determine who broke contract, or cursed someone else.  Read the tea leaves, cast the sacred circle (or pentagram, or whatever).  Leviticus doesn’t allow this.  But, still, if something is wrong in the community, there must have been a sin.  Leviticus leaves the discover of that vague:  If a person should discover he or she sinned inadvertently . . .

Then, there is plenty of ritual described for re-establishing the broken connection, and almost all of it involves blood.  Blood provides the link that re-establishes the kinship between God and the people.  The bullock burned outside the camp expiates whatever residue of the sin remains.

The special cases interestingly involved the refusal to testify (since there is no other way to determine guilt), and the confusion of property and ownership, which functions like the confusion of lineage.  Blood cleans it up.

Leviticus 1-3

October 15th, 2009

Last Sunday, we noticed that the Tent of Meeting is at the center of the camp.  In Exodus, it is outside the camp.  Leviticus moves it to the center, so it can function like the Temple in Jerusalem, when it stood.  The Tent of Meeting also functions like Mount Sinai.  Moses goes into the tent when God speaks to him, and his face glows when he comes out, just like when he came down from the mountain.  When Moses went up the mountain, he built an altar and twelve pillars at the base of the mountain.  No animal and only select humans could come past those pillars.  The seventy and Moses ate in God’s presence on the mountainside.  Only Moses goes to the top of the mountain.

The tent of meeting replicates the mountain.  Animals come only as far as the altar.  The priests eat in the holy precincts, and only the high priest ever goes into the holy of holies.  So, every meal at the tent of meeting is a covenant renewal ceremony.  The blood of the animal (its life) is the only substance that can cross all the boundaries, and relate the humans who are not priests to God.  The blood establishes the priesthood, and therefore the relationship.  The altar of incense just outside the holy of holies provides the covering of smoke that covers Moses when he was on the mountain top.

We also noticed that the body of the animal also replicates the holy mountain.  The central organs (kidneys and the lobe of the liver, which would be at the top of the animal when it is supine and opened up) are holy to God, along with the membrane of fat that covers them (just like the curtain which covers the holy of holies).  Other parts belong always to the priesthood, and then some parts could be eaten by the people at large, marking off the same three-fold distinction.  Even grain offering function this way.  The middle of the heap with the incense goes to smoke, the priests eat the rest, unless it is part of the peace offering, and then the people get some.

Only male animals can go directly to God (=> male is holy).  Peace offerings can be female.  Cereal offerings can never include yeast (=> yeast is female:  Jesus compares the kingdom to a woman who hid yeast in the lump of dough).

All the distinctions important to this society are being drawn in sacrifice:

Mountaintop  –>  mountainside –> plain.

Moses             –>  seventy  –>  people.

Highpriest –> priesthood –> people.

The lineage of the priesthood makes up for the confusion of the lineage of the people.  This is Leviticus’ solution to the confusion of the ethnic identity of the people who returned from Babylon.  The blood of sacrifice establishes the lineage of the priesthood.  Unlike procreation, the blood of sacrifice is under male control.  But Leviticus’ solution stops short of Ezra’s solution of sending all the foreign women home.

More Leviticus

October 5th, 2009

Most of us had read the whole book of Leviticus, and we discussed our first impressions.  Someone pointed out almost immediately that the priests sure ate well, and also got a lot of money in fines for things.  An astute observation — a large part of the book concerns the constitution of the priesthood.  Also, lots of rules about who can marry whom.

The book was probably written after the return from exile, and is a fiction trying to re-establish the Temple cult in the absence of the Temple, or awaiting its rebuilding.  This timing would account for the almost obsessive concern about the rules of exogamy and endogamy.  Compare to Ezra 9 and 10.  Ezra’s solution to the intermarriage of the holy “seed” with foreign polluting women is to have the men divorce their wives.  Leviticus proposes no such radical solution, but proposes an alternate solution for maitaining the identity and purity of the nation:  sacrifice and a continuing priesthood.

The marriage rules also go hand in hand with the rules about land and Jubilee.  Every 49th year, any land sold reverts to the family of the orignal owner.  Any family sold into slavery is freed and returns to their own land.  It is important to keep lines of descent clear, not mixing patriliny and matriliny (hence all the rules about not uncovering the nakedness of kin, which confuses lines of descent).  If these rules are not followed, the land will vomit you out.  The land, where God is located, needs this purity of descent.  If descent is confused (impure) how do you purify it?  Sacrifice.  The blood of sacrifice is clean, while menstrual blood and the blood of child birth are unlcean (chaotic).  Sacrifice establishes lines of descent, especially for the priesthood (if the daughter of priest marries outside the priestly caste, she can no longer eat the sacred offerings), and all are related to the priesthood through the institution of  sacrifice.  The “sins” of the people, if you can call them that (inadvertent, etc.) render the altar (and hence the land, since the altar is an undressed stone on the ground) unclean.  The Day of Atonement purifies the altar, and by extension, the people.  The rite of purification involved blood sprinkled both on the mercy seat and on the people, rendering them all kin.

Paul, we observed, solved the problem of gathering different kin into one church, by substituting baptism for sacrifice (the blood of Jesus comes to mind), making all the baptized children of Abraham directly with no intermediating generations.

Next week, we start our sequential reading.  We begin with all the chapters on sacrifice at the beginning.


September 29th, 2009

The adult forum is starting up again for the fall of 2009.  We are reading the book of Leviticus.  Someone on Sunday said the first word that came to mind was “tedious.”  For this Sunday, the assignment is to read the entire book, cover to cover.  Tedium, indeed.  But, what the book actually sets out to accomplish is revolutionary, as we will discover.  As you read the book, have in mind the questions, “What does all this add up to?” and “What’s missing?”