The Sacrificial System

Insofar as God is holy and fallen humanity is sinful, God could not dwell in the midst of Israel without doing something about their sinful disposition as well as their sinful thoughts and actions. And since holiness is more than moral purity Israel’s ritual impurities (see below) must also be atoned for. The English word “atonement,” is derived from at-one-ment (with God). Under the Mosaic Covenant this was accomplished through the Sacrificial System.

Atonement for sin: the rituals

The system had five main offerings. All except one involved offering up sacrificial animals. The Burnt Offering, in which the whole animal (except the hide) was burnt up (Leviticus 1), atoned for “the general sinful disposition of the presenter” (Hartley 1992: 19). This offering was made twice daily on behalf of the whole nation so that God could dwell in their midst (Exodus 29:38-46), but an individual could also offer it on a voluntary basis.

The Grain Offering (Leviticus 2), as the name implies, is the only non-animal offering. Like the Burnt Offering it was also offered twice daily on behalf of the nation, and for an individual it could be offered on a voluntary basis as a gift to God “in recognition of his lordship and his total claim on the presenter” (Hartley 1992: 29). The other voluntary offering is the Peace Offering (Leviticus 3). Only the fat of the animal was burnt up, the meat being shared between the officiating priest and the presenter’s family, who together with invited guests had fellowship over the meal in the presence of God. The occasion could be “to praise God for good fortune or success, in fulfillment of a vow, or as a spontaneous expression of love for God” (Hartley 1992: 41).

The Sin Offering (Leviticus 4:1-5:13) and the Guilt Offering (Leviticus 5:14-6:7) atoned for specific sins committed. They were thus not voluntary. What distinguishes the two is that in the cases where restitution was also involved, the Guilt Offering was needed. The Sin Offering not only atoned for sins committed (moral defilement) but also for major ritual defilement (minor ritual impurities required no sacrifice). Animal sacrifices were costly. To enable even the poorest to offer the Sin Offering, they could offer flour in place of a sacrificial animal (Leviticus 5:11-13).

In God’s presence, a person with moral or ritual impurity would be consumed by His holiness, referred to as His “wrath.” We have seen what happened to Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1-3). The reason sacrificial animals could atone for impurity so that fallen humanity could be at-one with God was that the blood of the animal symbolized life (Leviticus 17:11). The life (blood) of the animal was offered up as a ransom in exchange for the life of the worshipper, with the effect that the defilement, whether moral or ritual, was cleansed (Sklar 2008: 28-30), and God’s wrath appeased (Kiuchi 2007: 46-47). In this sense the sacrificial animals died on behalf of sinful humans.

Inasmuch as both moral and ritual impurity polluted and defiled not only the worshipper but also the Tabernacle (Leviticus 15:31; 20:3), God’s sanctuary must also be purified. For when impurities pollute the Tabernacle they “make it unfit for the presence of God” (Wenham 1979: 228). In fact, as stated explicitly is Leviticus 15:31, it was the defilement of God’s sanctuary that caused death. So the Sin Offering not only cleansed the offerer but also the Tabernacle (Sklar 2007).

Then once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16), the high priest had to first make atonement for himself (and his household) and then for the nation as a whole. He had to enter the Holy of Holies to sprinkle sacrificial blood on the top of the Ark of the Covenant to cleanse the Tabernacle. He then laid his hands on a live goat and confessed over it all the sins of the nation, thus symbolically transferring them to the “scapegoat,” which was sent away into the wilderness.

By thus atoning for the sins of the nation as a whole, transgressions that were not specifically atoned for because the individuals concerned did not offer their respective sacrifices would also be taken care of. This collective cleansing of the nation was needed so that God could continue to dwell in their midst. But the individuals who did not offer their sacrifices would not have received forgiveness. This parallels the Christian teaching that though Christ died for the sins of the whole world, only individuals who accept Him experience forgiveness.

Atonement for sin: the basis

It must be clarified that the sacrifices had no intrinsic efficacy (cf. Gane 2005: 9). They accomplished their purposes only because God accepted them. Amos 5:21-24 spells out that God would not accept the three voluntary offerings unless they “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” In other words, “outward acts of piety are rejected … if they are not accompanied by covenant behavior (justice and righteousness)” (Olyan 1991: 144). This implies a life of faith in God as well as habitual confession and repentance of sins committed.

This explains why in Psalms 51, when David was confessing his sins to God, he said God did not delight in Burnt Offerings (yet). What God desired (then) was a broken and contrite spirit. David’s repentance was explicit. Under the Mosaic Covenant such a spirit was embodied in the Sin Offering and the Guilt Offering. Since these offerings were offered specifically for sins committed, the very act of offering them involved a confession of the sins concerned. They were thus concrete expressions of repentance. In the case of the Guilt Offering, repentance was even more concrete in the form of restitution. Of course it is still possible to offer them insincerely (without the contrite spirit); but their high costs would deter most people from doing so.

Fallen human beings, including those who claim to believe in God, are prone to place their faith in rituals rather than in God. Whether they are aware of it or not, they are assuming that the rituals are intrinsically efficacious. This assumption is consistent with the polytheistic belief-system but not with that of the Bible. Bible scholars who read the text without first presupposing Genesis 1:1 often make the kind of error pointed out by Roy Gane (2005: 9): “E. Gerstenberger [1996: 56-60] is wrong when he asserts regarding Israelite animal sacrifices: ‘As is the case among other peoples, blood is considered to be a magical substance efficacious in and of itself’.”

An interpreter of a Biblical text who, at least temporarily, cares to honor the Bible’s own theistic premise spelled out in Genesis 1:1 would be careful enough to recognize that a ritual prescribed in the Bible is not of the same kind as that of “other peoples.” Under polytheism, rituals have intrinsic efficacy because they “were founded on the premise that there was a material force that was superior than the gods, a force that was impersonal and could be manipulated by impersonal [magical] means” (Hartley 1992: lix, drawing on Kaufmann 1972: 23-24). The belief-system expressed through Biblical faith excludes and opposes this premise. We shall take a closer look at this when we consider the book of Deuteronomy.

In fact since flour could substitute for a sacrificial animal for the Sin Offering it shows that the shedding of animal blood, though it did accomplish atonement, was only a symbolic act. So the blood of bulls and goats (in and of themselves) did not and could not take away sins (Hebrews 10:4). According to the New Testament, God accepted the animal sacrifices when offered in faith and repentance because of the (future) sacrificial death of Christ, the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:30). The animal sacrifices then served as “credit-cards” that God accepted then, in view of the future “payment” to be made by Christ (Romans 3:25).

The redemption accomplished through the blood of Christ was effective specifically for “transgressions committed under the first covenant” (Hebrews 9:15). This implies that it was effective even for transgressions in Old Testament times. As F. F. Bruce (1990: 220) put it, “this retrospective validity of the death of Christ is stated in more general terms, which cover both Gentiles as well as Jews, in Rom. 3:25 (‘whom God set forth as an atonement … to show his righteousness because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins’).”

Atonement for sin: the means

Since what really mattered was faith and repentance and the (then) future atonement through Christ, why then the need to sacrifice animals at all, which was a costly thing to do? Interestingly the whole point was that the offering must cost something to the offerer (1 Chronicles 21:24). This helped the offerer express faith, and to do it through a bodily act. For it takes faith to give up something costly with no apparent benefit, unless one believes that what God said is true. And an offering made specifically for sins committed expressed repentance through a bodily act.

Why does a bodily act matter? Underlining this aspect of ritual is the Biblical teaching that the human body and soul form one functional unity. Faith and repentance must thus be expressed through the mind as well as the body. The tendency to dichotomize mind and body is another unfortunate characteristic of modernity (cf. Gorman 1997: 19). Even in the New Testament, which teaches that Christ has already made atonement for sins once and for all, thus rendering the animal sacrifices obsolete, faith and repentance are still expressed through rituals in the form of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

By involving the body, rituals recreate the experience of the truths they embody. This is spelled out in the case of the Passover, which was to commemorate the Exodus. Part of the commemoration was the eating of unleavened bread on that day and for seven more days (the Feast of the Unleavened Bread). The specific reason for this ritual is that when they left Egypt they left in haste and hence had to eat unleavened bread because they had no time to bake bread the usual way (Deuteronomy 16:3). So the ritual required them to use not only the mind but also the body to remember the event. They would thus remember not only the fact, but also the feeling (leaving in haste), of the Exodus. Hence it recreates experience, not just recall memory.

And recreating experience is important. The Passover was also intended to pass on the knowledge of their redemption from Egypt to the younger generation (Exodus 13:8), but this cannot be accomplished without the younger generation participating in the ritual. In Biblical understanding, knowledge is not what we call “information,” which is detached from experience. One has not acquired knowledge of something until one has experienced it in some way. This cannot happen without both the mind and the body being involved. Thus the claim made by theologian Theodore Jennings (1982: 112) that “ritual action is a way of gaining knowledge,” and not just “serves to transmit knowledge,” is not controversial.

Meaning of ritual purity

With this understanding of the role of ritual in Biblical faith, we are now ready to appreciate what the ritual purity prescribed in Leviticus 11-15 was all about. Leviticus 11 prescribes which animals were ritually “clean” and thus could be eaten, and which were ritually “unclean” and could not be eaten. There have been many theories as to why certain animals were unclean. The most sensible theory is the one based on the understanding of anthropologist Mary Douglas (1984: 52) that “the Holy” is about “wholeness and completeness.” Associating holiness with wholeness and completeness makes sense as it readily explains ritual impurity described in Leviticus.

First of all, physically defective animals could not be offered as sacrifices and physically defective priests could not perform the rite (Leviticus 21-22). To appreciate why physical wholeness or completeness mattered we can look at God’s complaint in Malachi (1:6-8) that the people were offering to Him lame and blind animals. God challenged them to present these animals to their Governor and see whether he would be pleased. The same can be said if they used a lame or blind courier to deliver the gift. So if what is not whole or complete is not appropriate for the Governor, who because of his status is in a sense “set-apart,” can it be appropriate for the holy God? It would profane the holiness of God. Obviously what is appropriate for the Governor may not be appropriate for God, whose “set-apartness” is absolute. Hence priests could not come into contact with death (which is unwholesome) except when it involved family members; for the high priest there was no exception.

Extending this sentiment to other items that would be considered inappropriate in light of God’s holiness, we can see why skin diseases rendered one ritually unclean and contaminations like mildew rendered one’s house unclean (Leviticus 13-14). Genital discharges, whether natural or unnatural, were also considered unwholesome (Leviticus 15). It is obvious why this was the case with unnatural discharges (genital diseases). Natural discharges (menstruation and sex) were considered unwholesome since they involved the loss of either blood or semen, which are both associated with life. For this reason childbirth also rendered a woman temporarily unclean (Leviticus 12). Hence in this way the idea of holiness was expressed through the body.

Applying the idea that holiness is symbolized by wholeness and completeness to the food laws, unclean animals are those that lack what was considered complete for its class, such as water creatures without scales and fins (eel and prawn) or land animals that are without split hoofs (horse) or do not chew the curd (pig). Birds of prey (eagle) would be unclean because they feed on carcasses, which are unwholesome. These were thus inappropriate for God’s holy people. These distinctions also “discouraged table fellowship with the Canaanites, whose diet would ordinarily include the pig and other items condemned as unclean [and] were thus a practical means of maintaining Israel as a holy people” (Sprinkle 2006: 117). Through this process they could feel that they were indeed set-apart from other peoples (Leviticus 20:25-26).

Since all this mattered only because God dwelled within the Holy Land through the Tabernacle, we can infer that “the purity system is central to creating a sense of sacred space for ancient Israel” (Sprinkle 2006: 120). The three-part division of the Tabernacle and the five-part division of the earth created a physical environment that embodied the idea that God is holy. But the sense that the Holy Land was indeed sacred space would be weak unless God’s people experienced it through the use of their body as well. So the ritual system as a whole was crucial to shaping the way-of-thinking of God’s people concerning who God is and who they were.

In other words, “ritual is … one of many ways in which human beings construe and construct their world” (Jennings 1982: 112). In the case of Israel, the world construed and constructed through the ritual system was a ritualized physical environment and way-of-life that embodied the idea that God is holy. In such a world people can feel that God is not only real but also holy. When one feels that God is indeed real and holy, it helps him to preserve his moral purity, and to repent whenever he fails.

And since even impurity incurred anywhere within the Holy Land could pollute the Tabernacle, it also created the sense that God was indeed present (“will walk among you”) wherever they were (Leviticus 26:12). This awareness would all the more make an impact on their moral and social way-of-life. Hence observance of the Ten Commandments, or lack of it, depended partly on how well the ritual system was upheld.

Jacob Milgrom (1991: 736) highlighted this connection when he commented on the ethical foundations of the dietary laws: “In the biblical view the Decalogue [Ten Commandments] would fail were it not rooted in a regularly observed ritual, central to the home and table, and impinging on both senses and intellect, thus conditioning the reflexes into patterns of ethical behavior” (cf. Wright 1990: 197). From what we have just seen, this observation can be extended beyond rituals affecting the home and table to the entire ritualized environment and way-of-life of the nation in the Promised Land.

How is all this relevant to us today? We do not live in such a physical environment or adopt such a way-of-life. It is precisely because the physical environment of modern towns and cities, as well as the modern way-of-life, incarnate the idea that there is no God that all this is relevant. It is in fact urgently relevant if we want to stop our way-of-thinking from being molded by modernity and to start renewing our way-of-thinking to one that is consistent with Genesis 1:1.

First of all, by becoming aware that modernity has been molding our way-of-thinking with the result that the godless consumerist way-of-life feels normal, and then consciously rejecting it, we minimize its power over us. Our exposition on modern civilization was to help us do this. What is needed next is to allow texts in the Bible like Exodus 25-Leviticus 27 to remold our way-of-thinking. The process may take a while, but the sooner we begin to put the Biblical way-of-thinking into practice (through our body), the shorter the process would be (Romans 12:1-2).

We do this by immersing ourselves in the text as though we were living within the world it describes, and allowing it to evoke within us thoughts and emotions that are embodied within it. The exposition here seeks to sensitize us to experience the text in this way. It would be even more effective if we can also immerse ourselves in a community that already embodies the Genesis 1:1 way of thinking and living.

Necessity of ritual purity

The assumption behind the food laws in Leviticus 11 that what we eat (how we use our body) affects how we think (and thus how we live) is seen more clearly in Leviticus 17:10-16, which forbids the eating of blood and animals that died naturally (with blood still in the body). “For the life of the flesh is in its blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls” (Leviticus 17:11). If blood represents life and can atone for human souls, it must be considered sacred. Eating blood then expresses disrespect for life created by God. This wrong use of the body can thus inculcate disrespect for life (cf. Wenham 1979: 245), which leads to mistreatment not only of animals, but also of humans.

Today we may not associate blood with life the way ancient people did. Thus this law may not be as relevant to us. What then are some practices today that would inculcate disrespect for human life as made in God’s image? In our exposition of Genesis 9:6 we have already considered the indiscriminate rejection of the death sentence for murder (note that Genesis 9:4 also forbids eating “flesh with its life, that is, its blood”). Another example would be the acceptance of abortion on demand (cf. Exodus 21:22-25).

If how we use our body, even in matters relating to ritual purity, can affect how we think and live, what more when we misuse our body in outright violation of moral purity, and do not repent? Cultivation of respect for human life through ritual purity will be nullified if we are not committed to a life of moral purity. This explains why even though the book of Leviticus as a whole is concerned with the functioning of the Tabernacle and the ritual system, it has a section that directly addresses moral purity: Leviticus 18-20.

Leviticus 17-27, like its counterpart in Exodus (20:22-23:19), reiterates and elaborates on the Ten Commandments. The Exodus passage pays special attention to murder, theft and bearing false witness. The Leviticus passage balances it up by paying special attention to adultery (Leviticus 18:6-30; 20:10-21). All sex outside of marriage, especially between close relatives, is forbidden. As Genesis 2 teaches that a woman is one-flesh with her husband, a daughter- or sister-in-law is considered a close relative (cf. Wenham 1987: 71). Sex is such a powerful force that when abused, it can even destroy a kingdom, let alone a family. So it is not surprising that it is strictly regulated in the Bible.

Leviticus 19 summarizes the Ten Commandments. Firstly, all ten commandments are represented. Secondly, it spells out twice the ground principle behind all the commandments: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (verses 18 and 34; Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:13-14; cf. 1 John 4:20). And it demonstrates that there is no dichotomy between moral and ritual purity by interweaving sample rulings from the purity system into the list of moral instructions. In fact the basic verse stating why God’s people must be holy sets the stage for the whole chapter: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (verse 2). Hence holiness involves both moral and ritual purity.

Christians are also called to be holy because God is holy (1 Peter 1:15-16). Since the (ritual) purity system of the Old Testament is not directly relevant to Christians, how then do they maintain “ritual purity”? Ritual purity is needed when God dwells in the midst of His people. The New Testament teaches that God dwells within Christians through the Holy Spirit. They are even called the “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19; cf. 3:16-17; 2 Corinthians 6:16). So we look in the New Testament for non-moral obligations placed on Christians because God dwells within them. And they are found in those very passages where God’s people are described as His temple. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 6, Paul says Christians must “glorify God in your body” (verse 20). This makes sense; for just as God's glory was manifested in the Tabernacle (later the Temple) God's glory is to be manifested in the temple of the Holy Spirit. And this affects every aspect of life, whether moral or not. Paul makes it explicit that Christians must glorify God in their body even in the non-moral aspects of life when he says, “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

He explains what this involves: something may be lawful (not immoral) but it may not be profitable and may not edify, and may even cause addiction (1 Corinthians 6:12; 10:23). This teaching should guide Christians as to what is appropriate (“holy”) for the “temple” of the living God. Paul applied it to eating food offered to idols as an example of something that is not wrong in and of itself, but which can cause others to stumble with respect to their faith in God. This “unholy” act is thus worse than being not profitable and edifying. And when a Christian, called to love his neighbor as himself, still insists on doing it and stumbles others, he has become addicted to it. This obviously does not glorify God. So again we see the ethical implications of “ritual purity,” now in New Testament terms.