Leviticus 4-7

Good morning! Today’s reading from Leviticus (chapters 4-7) continues instructions about various kinds of sacrifices for the priests and people to offer before God. Its instructions give us a window into the worldview and experience of ancient Israel.

Chapters 4 and 5 begin with a section about making sacrifices for unintentional transgressions. Note that intention matters when sin is committed, but sacrifice must be made for even unintended sin. “I didn’t mean to” doesn’t remove the need for atonement. This is the nature of a system whereby guilt and uncleanness occur even when there is no moral wrongdoing. Thus, purifying oneself is a matter of duty and diligence, and doesn’t require personal repentance (as “making amends” does in our current way of thinking). In the Levitical understanding, one does the prescribed ritual regardless of the state of one’s soul, much like one washes hands after using the restroom. There’s not necessarily a moral justification for it—the action is just something you do to regain cleanliness, regardless of how you’re feeling.  Sacrifices and offerings are the ritual route by which one becomes clean again.

Chapter 5 also leads me to think about the costs involved with these sacrificial animals—bulls, oxen, goats and sheep. Leviticus gives varying options for those of different class levels, but it still seems to favors anyone who is able to afford the sacrificial animals. This—taken to an extreme centuries later—is part of what Jesus got so angry about that he overturned the money-changing tables near the Jerusalem temple.

Restitution made to those humans that a person sins against includes replacing what’s been lost, and adding another twenty percent, according to Leviticus 6. Consider that other forms of restitution demanded in ancient times might have included wholesale enslavement of the guilty party. This instruction provides a measured means for making amends, so that the punishment is not grossly above and beyond the crime. This chapter also includes instructions to the priests for how they are to behave with sin, guilt and grain offerings. Note that once something is offered, it becomes holy and must be treated as such.

Chapter 7 clarifies what of a sacrifice belongs to the priest who does the duty, and what is shared evenly among all the priestly class. This seems to balance an incentive for priests to show up and do their duty, while also providing for those of the “sons of Aaron” who cannot serve as fully for reasons of age or infirmity. Leviticus 7:18 is the first time we get the word translated “abomination”, which will come into heavy rotation later. Other English versions of the Bible better convey the ritual (rather than moral) significance of this Hebrew word: “impure”, “contaminated”, “tainted”, and “spoiled” are some alternative translations. We also see emphasized the separation between clean/unclean people and clean/unclean meat—clear boundaries like this (punishable by exile) are central to Levitical holiness. Prohibition against consuming blood hearkens all the way back to the covenant with Noah in Genesis 9:4-6, and preserves lifeblood as that which belongs to God alone. Reservation of the right thigh of sacrifices of well-being for Aaron and his sons reveals a continuing preference for right-sidedness, and the perceived power of the thigh (close to the loins of life), that continue from the time of Genesis.

Let me close with an invitation. Can anyone find a helpful chart that describes the similarities and differences among these various offerings? I’m having a hard time keeping them straight, but haven’t been able yet to find a useful visual summary. I appreciate anything you might be able to find, and happy reading!

Read Leviticus 4-7.

Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. Tomorrow’s reading is Leviticus 8-9. Thanks for reading!

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