Sunday, May 27, 2012

Bible Commentary - Leviticus 17

In this chapter, the people are commanded to bring their sacrifices to the tabernacle and reminded (again) to not eat blood of any animal.

This chapter contains two separate laws.  The first is a prohibition against sacrificing animals anywhere but before the tabernacle, and the second is a re-statement of the prohibition against eating blood (first mentioned in Gen 9:4).

First, we are told that all oxen, lambs and goats must be brought to the doorway of the tent of meeting before it is slaughtered.  This is a rather general prohibition and seems to include both "religious" and "secular" slaughter, i.e. killing the animal for its meat.  There are a couple of key points here.

The first is that while oxen, lambs and goats are not the entirety of clean animals, they are the central backbone of the Israelite pastoral economy.  So, by this rule it would be okay to slaughter like... locusts or something (trying to think of a clean animal that isn't a bull, lamb or goat) wherever you please.  However, as should be obvious, the Israelites did not expend a lot of effort herding locusts.  They really did spend most of their time and energy shepherding cows and goats and lambs, or else farming.  So in practice, this prohibition is nigh binding on all animal sacrifice.

The second point is that there is a presumption the Israelites were sacrificing these animals anyway.  Verse 5, which explains the purpose of this command, states that otherwise the Israelites would be sacrificing these animals in the open fields, and verse 7 makes it clear that while in the open fields, they were sacrificing to other gods, the "goat demons" as the NASB puts it (Hebrew "sa'iyr", probably not related but very similar to the Greek "satyr").

This is one of the big reasons why we should minimize the distinction between "religious" and "secular" slaughter (my third point), because in practical terms, there isn't much of a "secular slaughter" concept in the text here or later in the bible.  In the vast majority of cases, all animals are killed in a sacrifice, and every feast (wherein many animals are killed) is inherently religious.  We have already seen three annual feasts commanded in the covenant, the feast of Passover, Harvest (also known as the first fruits, Weeks, or Pentecost) and Ingathering (Ex 23).  These festivals combine their religious function with a large feast, typically involving many animal sacrifices.

Because this chapter is primarily concerned with animals sacrificed for food, it only mentions the "sacrifices of peace offerings" (v. 5), which is the one offering where the meat is given to the offerer to consume.

Fourth, probably the most important issue here is preventing the Israelites from offering sacrifices to "sa'iyr", the goat demons.  This is probably part of the broader "God is trying to build a new nation" theme that I emphasized in both Exodus and Leviticus.  The natural complement of the Israelites' ignorance of the LORD is their contemporaneous devotion to idolatry (as in Ex 32) and other gods.  This chapter, then, is a sort of extension to the first commandment, to have no other gods besides the LORD.

Fifth, the priest is in control of the sacrifice to ensure that all of the biblical regulations are followed: namely, pouring out the blood and burning the fat.  These are important biblical regulations, with the fat (as the best part of an animal) always given to God, and the blood (as the life of the animal) always poured out, either on the ground or at the base of the bronze altar.  The sacrifices must be overseen by a priest who is professionally trained in the administration of sacrifices that follow these rules (i.e. Kosher).

Sixth, the punishment for not following this law is harsh, generally being "cut off from among the people", which means at least exile, possibly death.  This is appropriate when you consider that the people were otherwise offering sacrifices to goat demons, so the main thrust of this law is to prohibit feasts dedicated to idols or any god besides the LORD.

Seventh, a major (side-) effect of this law is the centralization of Israelite society around the tabernacle.  While there are many laws and rules that mandate the Israelites to occasionally return to the tabernacle, this is probably the most constrictive because meat from these three types of animals would have constituted a substantial portion of the Israelite diet.  When I have been reading through the Pentateuch, I have been asking myself, "would it have been reasonable to follow this law if I were living 50 miles away from the tabernacle?"  In many cases the answer is yes, but I think here it is getting much harder.  From this, we can read two things.  First, the Israelites were probably not geographically dispersed when this law was written.  It simply would have been impractical to follow.  Second, this law makes it challenging to live further away, inhibiting any future dispersal.  Of course, one could simply disobey the law, but only under the threat of severe punishment.  As a corollary, this law also substantially empowers the priests, who are now the sole authorized gateway to slaughtering and eating the primary species of herd animals.

Since the tabernacle is the center of worship for the LORD, I think the effect of forcing the Israelites to live (relatively) closer to the tabernacle is an intended side-effect.  This in turn would have a side-effect of keeping the people metaphorically "closer to the LORD" and more likely to stay true to their nation's founding faith.  In practice, we will later see that the tribes which settle closer to the tabernacle tend to be the ones that stay truest to the covenant.  This will be discussed more in Joshua through Kings.

One last point I would like to make before moving on is that according to Lev 3, the latest you can eat meat from a peace offering is the second day after it is slaughtered.  By the third day what is left must be burned with fire.  Since every offering at the tabernacle must be made as a peace offering, the Israelites are implicitly prohibited from ever storing meat long-term, i.e. dried; unless I'm misreading this somehow, I believe that's what is implied.

The second law of this chapter is a renewed prohibition against eating animal blood.  Eating blood has been outlawed many times in the OT already, starting all the way back in Genesis 9 when Noah is first authorized to eat meat at all.  At that time, the main motivation for not eating blood is the sacredness of the life that blood embodies.  "You shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood."  In this instance we are told something different, that the prohibition is connected with atonement: "I have given [blood] to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood... that makes atonement."

This statement is also connected with the lifeforce, as in v. 11: "the life of all flesh is in the blood".  In a certain sense, we could say that it's not the offering of blood that atones for sin, it is the offering of life that atones for sin upon the altar and before the ark of the covenant.  The sacrilege here is to eat the life of another animal, because as Genesis explains, "Surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man’s brother I will require the life of man."  To consume flesh is allowed, but to consume life is not, because all life comes from God, and to God every life is to return.  God takes an accounting of life and demands an account, a return of all life back to himself.

Lastly, we are given a provision that one may eat an animal that was found torn by beasts (without bringing it to the tabernacle for sacrifice), but because one would have no opportunity to completely drain the blood, one became ritually impure until evening.  I'm a bit surprised by this allowance, but I wouldn't say it's contradictory.  Also, this seems contradictory to Ex 22:31, so I don't know why there is a ceremonial provision now.

And with that, we will move on to everyone's favorite topic, laws prohibiting immoral sexual relations!

Bible Commentary - Leviticus 16

In this chapter, the LORD establishes the annual day of atonement (Yom Kippur).

In verses 1-28 we are told the process for the day of atonement, and then in verses 29-34 we are told when these sacrifices should be made.  Even though it's phrased a bit strangely, the "permanent statute" of v. 29 is simply a reference to what we were just told, the offerings of atonement for the people.

Yom Kippur is one of the most important ceremonies in the covenant, perhaps second only to the Passover.  Both the Passover and Yom Kippur have similar purposes: the Passover is a remembrance of the people's deliverance from Egypt and the plague of death, while Yom Kippur is a more general atonement for sin.  Both of them share the sense of "covering" with the Passover blood applied to one's doorposts, while the atonement blood is applied to the "kapporeth", the atonement piece on top of the ark of the covenant.

Probably the big difference is that the day of atonement is a collective confession and repentance of sin (for instance, v. 21 involves "confessing... all the iniquities of the sons of Israel and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins"), but the Passover is a bit more like a celebration of deliverance.  Both of them are related to sacrifice and atonement, but they seem to me like two sides of the same coin: the Kippur side is confession of sin and the Passover side is celebration at the resulting deliverance and protection from God's judgment.  They are positioned roughly 6 months apart on the Hebrew calendar, so that also possibly suggests an alternation between one and the other.

There are five different sacrifices listed for the day of atonement.  This chapter is a bit confusing on the point, because v. 6 and v. 11 are describing the same sacrifice.  The ram of the burnt offering in v. 3 is a different animal from the ram in v. 5.  Basically, the priest brings a bull and a ram (v. 3) and then collects an entirely different ram and two goats in v. 5.

My understanding is that the high priest is to offer the bull first (like in v. 6), then cast lots over the two goats, and from there everything happens linearly after v. 12.  This is a pretty convoluted description, and from the text it's not entirely clear that this is correct, but since there's only one bull being offered, it's the most logical construction.  It is also supported by the Mishnah, an ancient Hebrew commentary on the Torah.

With that in mind, the five sacrifices are (in order): the bull of the sin offering, the goat of the sin offering, the so-called "scapegoat" (more on this later), and lastly the priest's burnt offering and the people's burnt offering (both rams, v. 24).  The priest first atones for himself that he may atone for the people through the sin offerings, and the process concludes with the whole burnt offering of two rams (not to be eaten).

Of all of the many sacrifices we have read, I believe this is the first where some of the blood is taken behind the veil and offered upon the "kapporeth", literally the "atonement piece" (more discussion in Ex 25), and hence the name: its sole ritual purpose is atonement.  We are told in the context of the death of Aaron's sons that "Aaron shall not enter at any time into the holy place inside the veil", i.e. that there are rules which must be followed, sacrifices which must be made, and he shall only enter for specific purposes.  The death of Nadab and Abihu was a death of negligence or carelessness with respect to the divine ordinances, and as we have seen Leviticus is a book which intends to establish many such ordinances to govern the behavior and offerings of the priests.  This chapter establishes the laws for entrance to the holy of holies behind the veil.  We see first, there are many sacrifices (this should not surprise us any longer) and second, Aaron must fill the most holy place with a cloud of incense, that this cloud might "cover the mercy seat" to conceal the LORD's presence as the LORD dwells over the atonement piece on the ark, "otherwise he will die".  I'm sure the threat of death is taken a bit more seriously now than before.

One other thing I thought of is that since only the high priest is allowed behind the veil, would that mean the blood on the ark of the covenant would never have been cleaned off?  If so, it would just continue to accrete over the years, becoming a thicker and thicker layer, as it is sprinkled on every year.  Eventually, the atonement piece and the ark of the covenant would have been completely coated in dried blood, and that layer would just keep growing thicker.  It's a grisly thought, and yet virtually nobody would have ever been there to see it, since only one person in his entire generation would be authorized to go beyond the veil.

This is also the only ritual with a "scapegoat", literally "goat of removal" or possibly "the goat that departs", i.e. is sent away, or possibly "the goat of Azazel".  The term "scapegoat" is a King James word that is a contraction of "escape goat", which conveys the same meaning as "goat of removal".  The NASB again follows the KJV tradition and uses the term "scapegoat" from v. 8 and following.  Unlike the other KJV terms I have highlighted (mercy seat, tabernacle), "scapegoat" actually conveys a pretty good sense of the Hebrew meaning to a modern reader.  Scapegoat has diffused into modern English to mean a victim or sacrifice on whom blame is unfairly piled, and that's more or less what's happening here in Lev 16 as well.

An alternative translation is "goat of Azazel", considering the word "azazel" to be a proper noun rather than a word for "removal" or "departure".  Some people consider Azazel to be a folkloric demonic figure, but I'm not going to discuss this in depth, so consider it another exercise for the reader to investigate as you wish.

The scapegoat in this chapter is first infused with all of the sins of the people by the laying of hands (v. 21) and is then sent away, for the purpose of bearing the sins of the Israelites out of the camp and away into the wilderness to die.  The animal is not slain as part of the ritual, but tradition tells us that the Israelites wished to prevent the goat from wandering back into civilized areas and would therefore "send the goat away" over the edge of a cliff, ensuring its demise at the hands of gravity after being sufficiently pushed over the edge.  The goat would have been ceremonially unclean, and this ritual goes to great lengths to ensure that its sole handler is sanitized by ritual washing before he returns to the camp, to prevent the impurity of the goat from leaking back in.

There have been many times I said that laying hands on the head of an animal sacrifice was a form of substitutionary atonement, and while I tried to justify it then, this chapter is really my prime basis for that assessment.  Before (e.g. in the consecration of the priests, Lev 8:22, but many other places too), we were told that someone, the priest or the elders, laid their hands on the head of the animal, but we were not told why or what this meant.  I argued it was transference of sins for two reasons: touching the animal is a type of association or identification and that we see a general pattern that sin or impurity can be transferred by physical contact.  In this chapter, however, we are directly told that the sins and transgressions of the people are "laid on the head of the goat" (v. 21).  Therefore I believe this is true for the earlier (and less specific) references as well.

In every earlier case, after transferring one's sins to an animal, the animal was killed as a sacrifice.  In this chapter, the sins are transferred to a goat that is let live and driven from the camp, which is a bit surprising.  Perhaps the idea is that since this animal bears the sins of the entire people from the whole year, they want to drive it away, as far as possible, so that these sins might not "pollute" the camp in a sense.  I don't really know, but that's my theory.

Overall, I'd say the sacrifices in this chapter are generally pretty similar to what we have seen before, if a bit more somber and important.  The few key differences are the scapegoat which is sent out into the wilderness, bearing the sins of the people, and the blood of the sin offerings which is taken into the holy of holies and sprinkled before the ark of the covenant.  Other than that, the rest of the process is relatively ordinary and the burnt offerings and sin offerings are processed like they were described in Lev 1-5.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Bible Commentary - Leviticus 15

In this chapter, the LORD establishes ceremonial laws governing bodily emissions.

As with the prior chapters, the focus of this chapter seems to be on the prevention of communicable diseases.  There is a strong (and reasonable) implication that bodily discharges could be related to, and transmit, disease, so having such a discharge is enough to render a person unclean.  Because having a bodily discharge does not positively identify a disease, the degree of isolation is much less than what we saw in chapter 13 for those "inflicted" with a skin disease.  The required sacrifices are also smaller.  Overall, it is a lower threshold to be declared unclean by bodily emission, but also an easier and cheaper process to attain ceremonial purity afterwards.

In some respects, I think this chapter provides some context for Lev 12 when I discussed the impurity following childbirth.  At last we can see that this law applies equally to men and women, with the caveat that women are more likely to have bodily emissions because of the menstrual cycle.

Many parts of this chapter imply that those unclean, whether man or woman, remain in the camp.  They would probably be expected to avoid unnecessary touching of others, because touching someone without washing renders them unclean for the day (v. 11).  Clearly this is a less stringent treatment than what infectious persons are put through, which we learned was temporary exile from the camp.

Keil and Delitzsch point out we can connect v. 18 with the abstention from sex in Ex 19.  Even though it is in context of disease prevention, the people are expected to be ceremonially pure when the LORD approaches them, such as during the founding of the covenant.  This highlights the duality between the public health motivations and the religious implications.  So many of these provisions are intended to contain any diseases by isolating people who might spread them, and yet that isolation extends to excluding such people from the tabernacle and religious ceremonies.

Overall, this chapter first establishes rules for bodily discharges in general, and then provides two exceptions for semen and menstrual emissions.  Each of these cases has slightly altered rules, but in general this section is similar to what we have seen before.  There are periods of uncleanness, various ritual washings, and at the end (for some cases) a minor sacrifice of two birds.  The sacrifices are not always required, because e.g. v. 18 shows that a simple washing is sufficient, but in most cases there is a sacrifice.  The sacrifice does not have an economic scaling factor because even the rich are allowed to pay the cheapest sacrifice.  Probably the most frequent case that a sacrifice would be required is in response to a woman's menstrual cycle, and since that occurs relatively often, the sacrifice is small to compensate.

I'm not going to discuss this chapter in depth because while there are many details, it's all fairly consistent and not very important to the larger biblical story.  All we really need to learn from this chapter is that ritual impurity can be transmitted from person to person, just like the diseases that this law is trying to contain, and in response those people who are ritually impure must be temporarily isolated from the larger society.  They are also temporarily separated from the religious ceremonies of the Tabernacle because that is how they must respect the LORD's holiness.

Bible Commentary - Leviticus 14

In this long chapter we are told how to ritually cleanse someone restored from a skin disease and the identification and treatment of house mold.

This chapter starts off where the last one left off, by telling us how to ritually cleanse someone after they are restored from an infectious skin disease (traditionally translated "leprosy").  This ritual is conceptually similar to the cleansing sacrifices related to childbirth (Lev 12:6-8), but more extensive.  There is first this ritual regarding two birds and some wood and string and hyssop (a small, flowering plant).  This is a peculiar bundle of things.  From the string, we would suppose that these things were meant to be tied together, and yet the text does not make this clear.  I've read a few commentaries and it seems that there is no consensus whether the bird would have been tied together with the wood and hyssop.

Probably more important is that the offerer is sprinkled with blood seven times.  At first glance, this reminds me of Ex 24 and the blood sealing the covenant, yet I don't believe that is the allusion made here simply because the offerer is not entering a covenant (also, the particular details vary considerably between here and Ex 24).  More likely, I think we should compare this with the blood of the Passover and sacrificial atonement.

The remaining bird is let go, and most commentaries say this is symbolic of the offerer who is now "let free" to go back to the camp of the people.

After eight days (and some more ritual purification through washing), the offerer must give yet more sacrifices to finish the process.  Strangely, these sacrifices resemble the consecration of the priesthood (Lev 8) more than anything else, because the offerer is supposed to have his right ear, thumb and big toe dipped in both blood and oil, just like the priests.  Are we supposed to draw a connection between the two rituals?  I'd say probably not, but perhaps it shows that the consecration of the priests also involved their atonement (which I think is true).  I think the significance of the ear, thumb and toe is that it metaphorically ranges "from head to toe", which is an expression denoting the complete body.  I.e. the priest only anoints three parts of the offerers body, but it symbolizes anointing his whole body and therefore his whole life.

The offerer is to give a guilt offering, then a sin offering and then a burnt offering, along with a grain offering and olive oil.  This is a different set of offerings than the consecration of the priesthood, and it's in a different order too.  This is one of the few rituals that involves a guilt offering, possibly because the infected person would generally have been ceremonially unclean for a long period of time (given the possibly long duration of such ailments).  Also, the consecration of the priesthood involved a fellowship offering, whereas this ritual does not.  So the ritual in this chapter seems more focused on atonement with the guilt offering, sin offering and burnt offering, while the consecration of the priesthood is more focused on bringing the priests into an agreement with God by first atoning for them and then "eating a meal with God" to secure their covenantal position.  This chapter also includes a "reduced price" offering to account for economic hardship because it is an involuntary offering (i.e. if you get an infectious skin disease, you must make these offerings to be declared ritually pure and re-enter the community).

Next, we are told how the priest is to diagnose and treat mold growing on houses.  Notably, the people will not have houses while wandering in the desert, so v. 34 tells us this regulation only applies when the people settle in Canaan.  In general, the process for dealing with moldy houses is very similar to the treatment of moldy garments.  It is inspected, quarantined, re-inspected, one attempt at a repair (removing the infected portion), and if the infection returns, it is destroyed.  Just as with infectious people, this is meant to prevent the mold from spreading to neighboring houses and therefore protect the community from malignant, infectious agents.

Unlike a moldy garment, there is a sacrifice to purify the house from its uncleanness and the sacrifice is virtually identical to the first offering earlier in this chapter.  Presumably the symbolic intent of the sacrifice is also the same.

One thing I found amusing about this section is v. 36 where the priest is to command "that they empty the house before the priest goes in to look at the mark".  The idea is that when the priest identifies a "mark", everything inside the house becomes unclean by association.  However, if your possessions are removed before the mark is identified, then they are still clean.  This appears to be a hardship compromise, so that the owner of the house doesn't have to lose both their house and all their possessions (though contrary to other hardship provisions, this one is not conditional: the rich get it just as much as the poor).

Anyway, I just thought it was interesting that the possessions could be removed and remain clean because it seems that the priest declaring the house unclean is the operative factor.  And it's not like they are trying to deceive the priest by removing everything before telling him: the priest is to command the owner to do this.  It's a minor note, but I was amused.

And with that, we are now done with the section on communicable diseases.

Bible Commentary - Leviticus 13

In this chapter, the LORD shares with Moses the process for identification and treatment of skin diseases and mold in garments.

This chapter is an interesting change of pace from what we have been reading.  While early Leviticus is devoted to the laws governing ceremonial offerings, we are now reading a set of rules for how to identify skin diseases.  This is rather unexpected, to me at least.  It seems strange that this would be in the book of priestcraft, but as we can see, the priests are responsible for identifying skin diseases.  Once again, this shows that the role of the priest is steadily expanding beyond simply maintaining the tabernacle and offering sacrifices.  Expanding might not be the right word, since all of these books were probably written contemporaneously, but it's hard to deny that they are steadily accruing more responsibilities as move away from their simple appointment back in Ex 28.

Anyway, it's now clear that the priests are also supposed to be doctors.  This seems fitting to me, given the variegated nature of the Mosaic law, which itself traverses many realms of life.

This chapter further supports what I call the "desert living" hypothesis, which is that many of the ceremonial laws of Leviticus are designed to teach the new nation of Israel how to survive through their desert wanderings while heading to the promised land.  It is easy to explain this chapter as the LORD establishing laws of hygiene, since it so obviously relates to communicable diseases.  From this, we can infer that chapter 12 (motherhood laws) and possibly even chapter 11 (food laws) were also predominantly interested in preventing disease or otherwise assisting the Israelites as they become a newly independent nation.

Throughout this chapter, the Hebrew word used to describe the skin diseases and mold is Hebrew "tsaraath", literally "mark" or "stroke"; figuratively, "blow" or "infliction".  The traditional translation of "tsaraath" is leprosy, based on the Septuagint, and that's how the KJV translated it.  The NASB inherited the KJV translation in this instance, even though a more thorough investigation shows that tsaraath is not specifically describing leprosy as we understand it today. Other bible translations call it a "leprous disease" (Amp, ESV), a "serious skin disease" (Message), a "defiling skin disease" (NIV), etc.  To my surprise, there is an entire wikipedia page devoted to this term, which contains a tremendous amount of information about what it means and how it is treated by various authorities.

In this chapter, "tsaraath" is broadly used to mean an "infliction" upon both people's bodies and clothing (and later, homes).  From our perspective, this blurs the distinction between infectious skin diseases and mold, but from the author's perspective, these are all "infectious surface diseases", so bundling them makes sense from that point of view.

I'm not going to discuss the processes of how skin diseases are to be identified and quarantined, because it's relatively straightforward and should be easy for most people to understand.  In broad terms, we can see that the priest generally isolates his patient for seven days, observing for any change or growth in the "mark", which would indicate that it is an active infection and not a scar or whatever.  If the person is infected, then they are unclean and are sent out of the camp.  This seems like a fairly rational approach to communicable diseases, and doesn't seem to have any religious content other than the role of the priest-as-doctor.  There are a few details that I would like to highlight however.

The first is in verses 12 and 13, which is that if the skin disease spreads over a man's whole body so that he is entirely covered, then he is clean.  This is pretty hard to explain, since one would think being entirely infected would make the patient extremely infectious.  Some commentaries suggest that the white stuff covering a person is not the infectious part, but rather that the most infectious part of the illness is the "raw flesh".  I don't know enough about the disease to comment (indeed, the disease being described here is unclear).

The "spiritual" explanations for this verse generally note that being totally covered in white stuff is a metaphor for fullness of sin, or awareness of total depravity.  Being aware of the fullness of sin in one's life, the patient is supposed to repent, and thus is declared clean.  I'm a bit skeptical of this logic myself.  Though I think it's fair to compare this skin disease as a metaphor for sin, going from there to "he is clean" seems like a big stretch, since the text simply says that the person is clean without having to take any particular action.  It is simply by being fully covered in "leprosy", with the examination of the priest, that he becomes clean.

The next detail I would like to highlight is how a person is isolated if they are unclean, in v. 45-46.  I would like to first point out that we are only told this is the process for "the leper who has the infection", and so this doesn't necessarily apply to other types of impurity (such as the post-birth bleeding of Lev 12).  Still, we can see the difficulty of having an infectious skin disease: the person is forced to live outside the camp, shouting a warning to all those who come near that he is ritually impure, both because he is clinically infectious and because ritual impurity is transmissible as well, as I have previously emphasized.  Being ejected from the community must have been difficult, but it was also temporary: upon being healed of the condition, the person could return to the camp.  This is not meant as a punishment; the emphasis is clearly on protecting the integrity of the community.

The diagnosis of moldy garments is similar to the diagnosis of skin diseases with a series of examinations and quarantines.  Unlike for people, the final result of "leprous" garments is destruction because a moldy garment is probably cheaper to destroy than to cure (if a cure is even possible).  I don't expect my readers to have a hard time understanding this section.

Next chapter, we will learn what are the rituals for "cleansing" a cured person.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Bible Commentary - Leviticus 12

In this (rather short) chapter we are told the laws ceremonial cleanliness related to childbirth.

The basic principle of this chapter is that giving birth to a male or female child causes the mother to be unclean for a certain amount of time, double for a daughter compared to a son.  The text references the time of purification for menstrual bleeding, which is something that we will find later in Leviticus, so the reference here is correct but a bit premature.

After purification is complete, the mother must make an offering as described, which like the burnt offering of Lev 1, allows for a bit of economic scaling in case of poverty, and even specifically tells us that it is for economic reasons (v. 8, "if she cannot bring forth a lamb"), while before it was inferred.  Like before, we see a coupling of different offerings, in this case a sin offering and a burnt offering.

So this law is relatively straightforward in content, but it leaves us with troubling questions about its purpose or rationale, especially with the doubled period of impurity from bearing a daughter.  Of course, it's important to remember that ceremonial impurity is not sin or "wrong", so I don't think it's correct to think of this as some sort of punishment for bearing a child.

But still, we know this is a time period and a society that systematically devalued women, so it's natural to think that the longer period of impurity for a daughter it's because women are somehow considered "less clean", and therefore require more purification.  Furthermore, why is there a period of impurity after childbirth at all?  To many, this reeks of subjugation.

I've skimmed around looking at some major commentaries, and it seems that the answers fall into two general buckets.  Broadly speaking, what this prohibition relates to is the bleeding of fluid, which is increased following childbirth.  For the first couple days (likely coinciding with the 7 days of v. 2) a post-birth mother excretes lochia rubra, and then for a couple weeks after that, lochia alba.  See wikipedia for basic info.  As before, the two general explanations for why this results in impurity are the "desert living" hypothesis and the "spiritual" interpretation.

The desert living hypothesis would claim that vaginal bleeding, as with any other type, risks the possibility of spreading infections to others, whether parasites, bacteria, etc.  Secluding people who are actively bleeding would possibly be viewed as a preventative measure.  This theory is supported by the correspondence between the duration of lochia and the days of impurity after giving birth to a son.  Blood-born illnesses are a reality today, but were possibly even more prevalent in ancient Israel.

The spiritual interpretation is that mankind is sinful at birth, and therefore the period of impurity is intended as a reminder of that sinfulness, having brought a new sinner into the world.  I'm not particularly fond of this theory because it clashes with the broad optimism towards children that we see in the rest of the OT, but I've seen enough references to it that I think it's worth mentioning.

I would like to remind my readers that the OT in general views children very, very positively.  We saw the tremendous strains that Sarah's barrenness put on her relationship with Abraham, and were told that after Isaac was weaned, Abraham hosted a great feast to celebrate.  God used Isaac as a symbol of the covenant and his promises to Abraham.  Rachel begged for Jacob to help her bear children, and when that failed, submitted her maidservant to bear children on her behalf.  The biggest threat of the Egyptians to the Israelites was killing their male children, and God's judgment of Egypt was slaying their firstborn sons.  It is difficult to believe that the Israelites are now expected to view childbirth as this effluence of sin that must be set apart from the people.  I think it is extremely likely that bearing children would (continue to) be a triumphal moment for both the mother and father, just as it was for their ancestors.

It's harder to explain why the period is doubled for female births.  For the desert living hypothesis, I offer the following quote from Keil and Delitzsch Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament:
The prolongation of the period, in connection with the birth of a girl, was also founded upon the notion, which was very common in antiquity, that the bleeding and watery discharge continued longer after the birth of a girl than after that of a boy (Hippocr. Opp. ed. Khn. i. p. 393; Aristot. h. an. 6, 22; 7, 3, cf. Burdach, Physiologie iii. p. 34). But the extension of the period to 40 and 80 days can only be accounted for from the significance of the numbers, which we meet with repeatedly, more especially the number forty.
The 40 and 80 are, of course, the sum of 7 + 33 and 14 + 66 respectively.

For the spiritual interpretation, the answer usually given is that circumcision results in the shedding of some blood, so that "makes up for" some of the mother's bleeding.  I.e. the mother and son together shed a certain amount of blood, and that's "good enough".  John Wesley, for instance, writes about the 66 days of purification for a daughter:
Threescore and six days - The time in both particulars is double to the former [for males], not so much from natural causes, as to put an honour upon the sacrament of circumcision, which being administered to the males, did put an end to that pollution sooner than otherwise had been.
Some commentators note that blood is often associated with guilt or sin, so expunging blood could somehow be viewed as a type of purification.  I partially agree with this.  We have certainly seen the shedding of blood associated with atonement for sin, yet before I said that childbirth is not sinful, it only results in ceremonial impurity.  And this is one of the big weaknesses with the spiritual interpretation, that it is (whether intentionally or not) conflating ceremonial impurity with some sort of implied moral sin in childbirth, and after all the work I went through to show the difference between ceremonial law and moral law, I'd rather not have to go through that again.

In conclusion, I cannot prove that this is not an example of gender inequality in the bible because we simply aren't told the reason for this set of rules.  However, I believe the desert living hypothesis is reasonable and I leave the final judgment of this chapter to my readers.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Bible Commentary - Leviticus 11

In this chapter, we are told what animals may be eaten.

Before commenting on the details, I would like to point out that this chapter divides the animals into ~5 groups: land animals, fish, birds, winged insects and swarming things.  This is highly consistent with the subdivision of life that we found in Genesis 1, suggesting that it is a canonical classification to the ancient Israelites.  I made a big deal out of this before, so it's encouraging to find more evidence that suggests that these ~5 groups are how the Israelites thought about other types of life.

Second, note that the precise identification of the animals in this chapter is generally quite sketchy.  A lot of the words here describing animals are infrequently used, highly allusive, or simply imprecise in meaning.  Some, especially the more common animals, are well defined, but these lists typically include both common and rare animals.  For instance, the Hebrew word "yanshuph" in v. 17 is used to possibly describe a "great owl", yet according to Strong, the root word is "apparently from" malak, which means angel.  Various translations differ in their treatment of this animal, partially because it's hard to figure out what bird is intended and partially because the ancient Hebrews did not have the same kind of taxonomy we do today.  It's possible many distinct species (by today's metric) are grouped together into a single Hebrew term.

There are many such lists of animals or insects in the OT, and they are all generally hard to identify with precision, which isn't a big problem for us because it doesn't really matter, and for the ancient Israelites they would have known what these words meant, so it wouldn't have been a problem for them either.  I just mention it because various bible translations typically have a lot of variance in their translations of these proper nouns, and now you know why.

Having said all that, the laws in this chapter seem generally pretty arbitrary.  For land mammals and fish there are specific rules that govern what can be eaten, and for birds there is just a list of unclean birds (with the presumption that everything else is clean).  And so on, I won't repeat the laws here.  I've heard a couple different explanations for why these particular animals are prohibited (not from reputable sources, just from various realms of the internet).  First, I have heard that it's because the prohibited animals would have caused problems if they were consumed while in the desert, because they rot fast or carry diseases or whatever.  Second, I have heard it's because of certain double entendres in the prohibition against eating mammals, that the cloven hoof denotes the principle of separation from the world, while chewing the cud references meditation.  Obviously this doesn't explain the other prohibited animals.

Neither of these explanations are particularly convincing to me without harder evidence, and to be fair, I've never really studied the matter.  I think the general concept of "rules for desert living" is pretty reasonable, considering some of the other laws really do concern camp maintenance and disease prevention, yet they are constructed as ceremonial laws.  I think the core principle at work here is the principle of separation, which is broadly affirmed in verses 44-47.  This is all part of establishing the holiness of the Israelites and the distinction between cleanness and uncleanness.  A big part of that holiness is building rules for the Israelites to follow that make them different than the other nations of the region, of which the food laws are one part.

That's my opinion, though it doesn't really explain the choice of banned animals, because achieving a general separation could be done with any particular list.  For a more specific explanation, I would either look at the "desert living" hypothesis, or simply leave this as an exercise for the reader.

We can further see that these are ceremonial laws because of the keyword "unclean" which is repeated many times in verses 24-28.  However, it is fairly mild because if you touch any of them or their dead bodies you are only unclean until evening.  No sacrifice is required.  There is no restitution stated for eating them, presumably because it was expected nobody would do it.  Verse 40 describes what happens if you eat a dead animal "which you have for food", i.e. clean.  Even then, if the animal dies without being properly slaughtered, it makes you unclean to eat it.

I thought it was interesting how verses 32-38 show that the intrinsic uncleanness of the dead animals can be passed on to jars, pots, etc of the people.  This is a parallel to how the holiness of the sin offering is transferred to the pots and pans in which it is cooked (Lev 6).  We can see that any ceremonial status, both positive and negative, can be transferred to anything that touches that holy or unclean object/thing/animal.  This is yet another reason for the principle of separation: since uncleanness is so easily transferred, the people must be vigilant to stay far away from such things if they are to approach the LORD.

Lastly, when it says that "you shall be holy, for I am holy", this is reminiscent of Genesis 1, when man was created in the image of God.  God is seeking to train the Israelites to follow his paths and live in holiness, that they can approach him and not be destroyed by his holiness.  We should not forget the example of Nadab and Abihu who were destroyed by the fire from the LORD's presence when they did not honor the LORD and follow his laws.

Bible Commentary - Leviticus 10

In this chapter, Nadab and Abihu die after performing an unsanctioned ritual.

This chapter is basically a counterpoint to the last chapter.  I described the previous chapter as a public vindication and endorsement of the priesthood, as we saw them offer sacrifices and the LORD came down and consumed (i.e. accepted) the offerings.  Since the priesthood was very new, it was important that the people would see they had a divine mandate and not a human one.

However, that mandate came with a set of very strict rules governing the behavior of the priests and the form of their offering.  We frequently saw the expression, "so that you do not die" in the text describing how the priests are to behave (for example, see Ex 28:35, Ex 28:43, Ex 30:20, Lev 8:35, and in this chapter, verses 7-9).  This chapter teaches us that this was not an idle threat: if the priests do not obey the law, they can and possibly will die, as Nadab and Abihu die here.

The sin of Nadab and Abihu is not the idolatry of Ex 32; their sin is simply offering incense to the LORD in a way that is not prescribed by the laws given to them by Moses.  Being burned to death seems like an overly harsh response, so I would like to remind my reader of three things.  First, the priests were just publicly vindicated by the LORD.  Second, this is the very beginning of the priesthood.  And third, the rules given to Moses were meant to be followed exactly, just as the tabernacle was constructed precisely in accordance with the instructions given to Moses.  Exodus goes to great length to tell us about this correspondence.

As a result, we should understand that whatever the priests do now, at the beginning of their ministry, will set the precedence for the priesthood to come after them.  Since they were publicly vindicated, they are now in a position of notable authority, having the right to mediate sacrifices and atone for the people before the LORD.  Since these two sons of Aaron were stepping out of line with their duties so early, the LORD had to take some sort of action to show that the priests do not dictate how they and the people relate to God, but rather the LORD dictates to them how they should relate to him.  I think this issue largely comes down to power: is the LORD going to have power over the priests or are the priests going to have power over the LORD?  The answer is obvious in hindsight.  While the text doesn't say that they were intentionally challenging the LORD, I do feel that's one of the results of their actions.  By not doing what the LORD says, the LORD is forced to either punish them or accept that they will not follow his laws going forward.

With all of that in mind, one could maybe insist that the LORD could just rebuke them rather than kill them.  I think the proper response is that anything less than death would show a devaluation of the priesthood.  The priests genuinely do have a lot of power, even when following the law, and the LORD wishes to make clear that this power comes with a lot of responsibility too.  There are other areas where Moses rebuked the people for not following the law (for instance, with respect to the Sabbath), but after publicly approving the priests, he cannot now allow them to disobey him so quickly, acting as if they still had his approval even when doing things he had no commanded.

We see the pinnacle of this ferocious holiness when Moses commands Aaron and his remaining sons to not grieve their brothers "for the LORD's anointing oil is upon you."  While before we saw the priests exalted and honored by their position, we can now see that it has a burden: even with the death of two of his sons, Aaron must go forward with the consecration process.

When the LORD commands Aaron to not drink wine, there is a principle of separation even between the priests and the people, just as there is a principle that separates the people of Israel (who are supposed to be holy) from the rest of the nations.  Both of these principles are part of a grander rule, that to draw near to the LORD requires a separation from that which defiles.  The people are a holy people because the LORD dwellls amongst them, and the priests are even more holy because they minister to the LORD in the tabernacle.

On a minor note, this is the first time I remember the LORD speaking directly to Aaron.

We are finally told in verse 14 that the priests' daughters (and by extension, wives, sisters, etc) may also eat of the wave offerings.  They are further allowed to eat it in a "clean" place, which is more expansive than in the "holy" place that they can eat the grain offerings.

Lastly, Moses gets mad with Aaron's sons for not eating the sin offering (which we were told in chapter 6 that they could eat it, so long as its blood was not brought inside the sanctuary, in which case it had to be burned outside the camp).  Moses is concerned they aren't following the law again, whether by accident or by intention.  In this case, it's OK because they weren't commanded to eat the meat of the sin offering, it was their allowance.  If they chose to burn it (as here), that's OK.

This concludes the (short) story section of Leviticus.  The rest of the book is composed almost entirely of ceremonial laws.  I hope you enjoyed storytime while you got the chance.  :)

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Bible Commentary - Leviticus 9

In this chapter, Aaron makes some of his first official priestly offerings and the glory of the LORD appears to the people in response.

With the priesthood finally confirmed in accordance with the dictates of Exodus, this chapter is important because it establishes the credentials of the priests before the people.  Remember what I said about Exodus: the LORD and Moses are trying to build a national identity that is fundamentally predicated on their covenant with the LORD.  The priesthood is the group that officiates that covenant, so it is necessary for the people to see that God is fully supporting the priests and that the offerings and intercession of the priests can bring about a divine blessing.  We have seen the LORD meet with the Israelites before (e.g. Ex 19, Ex 40), but this is the first time that he is appearing to them in response to an offering in the style of Leviticus.

Just as in the last chapter, again note that there is a very particular order in which the sacrifices are made here.  First Aaron is commanded to make offerings "that you may make atonement for yourself and for the people", with emphasis on "yourself".  He first offers a sin offering and then a burnt offering to atone for sin.  This is abbreviated from the fuller 4 offerings made last chapter, but that's because he is only preparing himself to make even more sacrifices.

After the priest is properly atoned and ready, he is to make another set of sin, burnt, grain and peace (or fellowship) offerings.  After discussing these topics with someone else, I would like to clarify one point here.  Making a sin offering, or any set of offerings, is not how you become ritually clean.  Even the guilt offering isn't exactly about attaining ceremonial cleanliness, it is about a recognized personal guilt or sin from being unknowingly unclean for a long period of time.  After making a guilt offering, one would presumably still need to follow the ordained rituals to become ceremonially clean as well.

That said, there are some offerings which the Israelites are commanded to make after they become cleansed from a variety of conditions.  Again, I will discuss this more when we reach those chapters.

So the high priest Aaron is to make a set of four offerings, and he makes them in the exact same order as the last chapter.  He makes a sin offering to atone for the sin of the people, the burnt and grain offering form the core of the ritual, and then it is concluded with a peace offering and a benediction.

Most importantly, when Aaron and Moses come out and bless the people, the glory of the LORD appears and fire comes out and consumes the offerings, as a sign of acceptance and agreement.  It is a bit peculiar that the fire would consume offerings which were already "offered up in smoke".  I think we can assume that the sacrifices were still burning on the altar and fire came out of the cloud of glory and consumed what was left.

This teaches us that the LORD accepts offerings and the ritual system, but more importantly that he accepts Aaron as the high priest and this really serves as a very public confirmation of the whole system.  Given the rebellious behavior we have seen so far, this is very important.  This chapter teaches us the blessing of making the sacrifices in accordance with the commands of the LORD.  The next chapter will teach us the curse of disobeying the LORD.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Bible Commentary - Leviticus 8

In this chapter, Aaron and his sons are consecrated as priests.

When I first read this, I thought it was a duplicate with the content of Ex 40, but I double-checked and it turns out that in Ex 40, the LORD commands Moses to anoint the priests and the tabernacle and all of the various things that go in the tabernacle, but he doesn't actually do it there.  Of course, temporally I think this chapter is a continuation of Ex 40, so the gap in time is probably very small (while the gap in chapters is large).  Ex 40 concludes with Moses constructing the tabernacle and it says that "whenever the priests entered the tent of meeting... they washed", but this is a general statement related to process, and not regarding any particular event or time when "they entered".  Instead, the consecration is presented to us here, which is discontinuous from Exodus, yet I think it does fit into context here because Leviticus is the book of the priesthood.  While I think it would have been more complete to include this account in Exodus, I don't think it's out of place here either for that reason.

That said, this chapter is substantially identical to Ex 29, just as Ex 36-39 were substantially identical to Ex 25-28 and 30.  Everything that is described in this chapter, all of the details of the four offerings (bull, two rams, grain), the anointing process and the seven days of ordination were described in Ex 29 as well.  The details of the sin offering, burnt offering and grain offering are also virtually identical to the same sacrifices in Leviticus.  The one oddity is that the "ram of ordination" is not a sacrifice detailed in Lev 1-5, probably because it was extremely rare (only had to offer it once per high priest).  Even so, I noticed that this offering was largely similar to the peace offering of Lev 3, with the fat all burned and the meat eaten by the offerers (in this case, the priests).  The big difference is how the high priest and his sons are painted with blood in this peculiar way, but other than that it pretty much is a peace offering.  With that, we see that four of out the five core Levitical offerings are used to ordinate the priests, only leaving out the guilt offering.

Already we can see that the sin offering is being used in a much broader sense than it was stipulated in Lev 4, because in Lev 4 we are told that it is for unintentional sin or violations of the Law.  In this case, it is being used as an offering of atonement for sin in general.  There is no particular sin they are atoning, it is just a, "we are a sinful people" kind of statement.  The burnt offering and grain offering were already general when stated in Lev 1-2, so there's no difference here, and the peace offering is similar to the sense of Lev 3.  The guilt offering is not made presumably because it is not applicable (no ceremonial uncleanliness).

This chapter is also an early example of the commingling of offerings that I described before.  I talked about pairs of burnt and grain offerings, but we can see that the Hebrews had no problem merging together nearly all of the sacrifices at once.  I previously talked about the various offerings forming a story, and we can partially see that here.  The sin offering is made first, because they must atone for their sins before approaching the LORD.  Then there is a burnt offering and grain offering, which I guess is sort of the core ritual offering, or maybe the binding of a contract (between the priests and God).  Then they conclude with the "ordination offering", which is basically a peace offering, and that is the meal with God.  As we saw in Gen 31 and Ex 24, eating a meal with someone is how you formally conclude a covenant (the contract between Jacob and Laban for one, the covenant between the people of Israel and God in the other).  Eating the peace offering is therefore an apt conclusion to the covenantal assignment of the priesthood to Aaron and his sons.

This story is why the offerings (usually) must be paired together, because you cannot have a conclusion (peace offering) with an introduction (sin offering), and there is usually something in the middle too (burnt/grain offering).

For more thoughts on the topics of this chapter, please see my discussion of Ex 29, which I shall not repeat here.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Bible Commentary - Leviticus 7

In this chapter, we are given a variety of new laws governing the various sacrifices, and this concludes the section on offerings.

In the first part of this chapter, we are told the regulations of the guilt offering, which were omitted back in chapter 5.  At the time, it was written that the guilt offering would be made in the same fashion as a sin offering, and this chapter confirms that (v. 7), but also explains all of the details (which match the specification of the sin offering from chapter 4); namely, all of the fat is to be burned and the rest of the animal is given to the priests.  In some situations the whole sin offering is supposed to be burned, and in some only the fat is burned and the rest is given to the priest.

Verse 7 also tells us that "the priest who makes atonement with it shall have it", so this is clearly intended as a form of salary or compensation for the work they do in the tabernacle.  Verse 8 confirms what I said before about the burnt offering, that while the priests do not eat any meat of the burnt offering, they receive the skin of the animal.

Everything up to verse 18 is basically just a recapitulation of things we have already been told, with maybe a few more details included.  Starting in verse 19, we are again told that (ceremonial) uncleanness is commutative, as anything that touches something unclean becomes unclean.  This section is very repetitive and clear-cut, so I don't have anything to add.

Note that all of these things are given only to the sons of Aaron, i.e. the priests.  What about the women, their wives and daughters (who, by law, cannot serve in the priesthood)?  Since they cannot eat the sacrifices of the tabernacle, and one presumes that the priests are too busy with sacrifices to also go out and farm or raise livestock to feed their female relatives, they have to be provided for some other way.  In this society, men were very much the providers of the family, so this is a real issue.  The answer will be found later, but to spoil the surprise, it's the national tithe.  I will explain when we get there.

Beginning in verse 22 we are told that the Israelites cannot eat fat or blood.  They cannot eat fat because the fat (as the best part) is given to God, while the blood contains the life of the animal and is therefore considered sacred.  As we have seen, the blood is always an important part of sacrifice rituals, because it is the sacrifice of blood that makes atonement for sin (cf. the Passover).

Verse 28 is again a restatement of what we have seen from the rituals of the peace offering, but focused in particular on what is given to the priest as his share.

And with that, we are DONE with the offerings (of Leviticus).  This is definitely the longest and most detailed set of instructions governing sacrifices in the whole bible.  Most of these details do not play an important part in the story, though obviously they played a big role in Israel's society at the time and up until the final temple was destroyed in 70 CE.  But really, unless one is specifically studying the role of sacrifices, I don't think it's important to know all of the details.  Just remember that there are five types of sacrifices and they use different sacrifices depending on the circumstances.  Guilt and sin offerings are to atone for guilt and sin, peace offerings are "eating a meal with God" and burnt offerings and grain offerings are very general and used in the broadest sense, to make an offering to God.  And with that, we will move on to the consecration of the priests ... though I could've sworn we had done this already back in Ex 40.

Bible Commentary - Leviticus 6

In this chapter, the LORD gives even more commands regarding the guilt offering, and then summarizes what parts of the various offerings the priests are allowed to eat.

The first thing I noticed reading this chapter is that in verse 2, the LORD equates sinning in a variety of ways (chiefly related to stealing or lying for the purpose of material gain) to "act[ing] unfaithfully against the LORD".  To steal someone's property is unfaithful towards the LORD.  This is an interesting perspective, and perhaps shows us why the Law of Moses, ostensibly a religious document, contains moral laws at all.  I mean, after what we've read, I think everyone can understand why the covenant, a lordship treaty between God and the Hebrew people, precludes "religious sins" like idolatry or profaning the name of the LORD.

However, the ten commandments implies a peculiar equivalence between the first five "religious" commands (having another god before the LORD, idolatry, revering the name, obeying the Sabbath, honoring parents) and the last five "moral" commands (do not murder, steal, testify falsely, commit adultery, or covet).  I think one could reasonably ask, why does the LORD care about "moral" behavior that is interpersonal (i.e. between you and another person) and does not involve sinning against him?

This chapter equates stealing to acting unfaithfully, but that's possibly just a reference to the commandment.  That is, since "not stealing" is part of the covenantal agreement, stealing is simply a violation of the covenant.  So this verse doesn't really answer the question I raised above, why the LORD cares about interpersonal actions.

I'm not going to fully answer this question here; I think there are a lot of ways to look at it, some of which are even correct (that's a joke).  I will offer one perspective and otherwise leave this as an exercise for the reader: I believe this all goes back to the pre-Curse world of Eden, that before sin entered the world and Adam and Eve were drive out, there was no interpersonal strife like we see in the ten commandments.  I have written many times that the Covenant is a reversal of the curse of Adam, and we have seen how it protected the Israelites from the plagues in Egypt, including the plague of death, which I equate to the threatened death of Genesis 3.  It stands to reason, then, that the various commands in the covenant are also part of the reversal by commanding the Israelites to not do the things that are a direct result of the curse, such as murder.

Of course, since murder is a result of volition and not divine judgment (like the flood of Noah or the plagues of Egypt), it is perhaps more fair to equate murder with the sin of Adam rather than the curse of Adam.  In that sense, commanding the Israelites to not murder is a parallel to God's command to Adam not to eat the forbidden fruit.  At the end of the day, the reason for not murdering will always seem tautological because God simply commands it without explanation, just as eating the forbidden fruit is prohibited without explanation.  By analogy, it is impossible to "think outside the box", i.e. outside of a given moral system, if you "live inside the box", i.e. live in a universe in which that moral system holds.  If anyone wishes to disobey these commands, then they must risk living outside the protective boundary of the covenant.

Moving on, we should compare verses 2 through 5 with Exodus 22, which also concerns property rights.  It's interesting to note that the penalty, the "extra" that must be returned, is much, much lower here than it was in Exodus.  Exodus was concerned primarily with the theft of livestock, and the penalty there varied from double to five times what was stolen (if the thief is no longer in possession).  Here, the penalty is 20% of what was stolen.  I don't know why there is such a big difference, other than perhaps livestock theft was much more common considering the livestock would spend most of their time outside grazing, and also considering how important livestock were to the Israelite economy.

In addition, the person must make a guilt offering (which was not commanded anywhere in Exodus).  It is important to note that this chapter talks about "incurring guilt" and not about "becoming unclean".  Because of this, and other reasons, I think theft is pretty clearly a moral sin.  However, in the last chapter I explicitly noted that the guilt offering was primarily related to ceremonial cleanliness, so this is a bit of a contradiction.  This mixed usage of the guilt offering is one reason why I am hesitant to consider moral sin and ceremonial uncleanliness to be fully separable.  At the same time, the last chapter never told us what the guilt offering was for; I was simply trying to infer it based on context.  It appears that the guilt offering is a bit vaguer than I made it sound last chapter.

Next, we are told what parts of the sacrifices the priests are allowed to eat.  This is largely in conformance with what we have already read.  We also see that the bronze altar is to be kept burning always, much like the altar of incense and the golden lampstand within the tabernacle itself.

As before, the burnt offering is mostly destroyed, and therefore unprofitable to the priest.  Since a burnt offering is usually paired with a grain offering, they at least have that.

Lastly, the regulations governing the sin offering are repeated, consistently with before.  If you recall chapter 4, there were some sin offerings where it was to be burnt outside the camp (the offerings for the high priest and the congregation) and some where only the fat was to be burned (offerings for a leader or the common people).  In the second case, we are now told that the priest is allowed to eat of it, but that it is most holy (a ceremonial designation) and it is variously restricted for that reason.  The part about breaking earthen vessels and scouring bronze vessels is just about keeping the "holiness" of the sacrifices within the confines of the tabernacle, i.e. to prevent those vessels from being used outside of the tabernacle and accidentally making other things holy.

As before, the reason to "keep the holiness within the tabernacle" is because holiness cannot mingle with things that are not holy.  That's why the Israelites washed before encountering the LORD in Ex 19, that's why the LORD refused to go with Israel after their sin in Ex 33:3 (but then later changed his mind).

The subject of offerings continues in the next chapter.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Bible Commentary - Leviticus 5

In this chapter, the LORD instructs Moses on the ritual of the guilt offering.

Since this is the last of the five primary offerings, I will first discuss the guilt offering in particular and then conclude by summarizing the character and applicability of the five offerings in general.

The first thing we see in this chapter is a list of conditions where the guilt offering is required.  This is similar to the sin offering, albeit more specific, because this chapter lists particular offenses that makes one "unclean".

The use of the word "unclean" is notable.  Also, all of the things to make one "unclean" are referenced for the first time here.  To be sure, they will be explained in more detail later, perhaps even more detail than some of my readers would want.  But this is a legal document as well as religious, so the author had to consider many of the technical details so that the people could actually follow everything correctly.  In light of this, and the general complexity of the law, perhaps the sin offering is starting to make more sense (i.e. an offering made by those who accidentally violate the law)?

Beyond that, this is the first time we read the word "unclean" in the OT.  Previously we had seen the notion of "clean" with regards to Noah's sacrifices (Gen 7:2 and following), and now we are seeing the opposite of that, uncleanliness.

As I remarked at the time, "clean" doesn't mean free from dirt, although it possibly has that connotation.  The OT largely uses these words, "clean" (Hebrew "tahor", pure, clean) and "unclean" (Hebrew "tame", foul, defiled, polluted) to refer to ceremonial purity.  These rules can seem arbitrary and capricious when you read them without context, so I think the best example I can give is when the people washed themselves in preparation for the LORD's descent onto Mount Horeb in Ex 19.  They weren't washing because God cares about their physical appearance.  They were washing primarily as an outward sign of the inner purity and cleanliness that is required to meet with God.  For one thing, being commanded to wash is supposed to change their mindset, to teach them that God is holy and that they have to prepare to meet God.  That is, it is instructive for the people to wash, because it teaches them how to relate to God, how they must purify themselves to approach God.  It is instructive to us as well, reading their example.

With that in mind, we understand that God was intending to dwell amongst the people in his tabernacle, his residence.  As such, we can understand that there is an expectation or a requirement that the people must maintain a certain level of purity or cleanliness all the time that God dwelt amongst them.  One must be even more clean or pure to approach the tabernacle itself, and that's one reason why the priests must wash before changing into the holy garments.  In fact, the priests cannot wear their common clothes into the temple because the standard of holiness was too high.  Cleanliness is simply a word to express that standard: to be clean is to follow it, to be unclean is to have broken it (accidentally or otherwise).

The purpose of the guilt offering then becomes clear.  If a person somehow breaks the standard of cleanliness and becomes unclean then he can make a guilt offering to "clean" himself.  It is important to note that being unclean is very different from violating the covenant.  It is very possible to be unclean yet not violate the covenant and, depending on your interpretation, it is possible to be clean yet to break the covenant.  This second point is hard to prove, but circumstantially, consider the golden calf incident of Ex 32.  Nowhere in that entire chapter does God or Moses call the Israelites unclean for committing idolatry, yet the LORD was about to destroy the entire nation for what they had done.

We had been told a whole series of legal regulations governing the covenant in Ex 20-23, and neither "clean" nor "unclean" appeared anywhere in that covenant.  Those were the laws which the people must follow to remain within the protective boundaries of the covenant.  The violations here in Lev 5 (and later) that refer to cleanliness are rules that exist within the covenant.  We can see that violating these rules have consequences in terms of offerings that must be made, but it categorically does not entail a violation of the covenant, which is punishable by death as a general rule [1].  Instead, what we will find is that the laws of ceremonial cleanliness primarily dictate what status a person has to 1) enter the tabernacle, 2) dwell within the community.  We had already seen precursors of the first in Ex 19 and when the priests were commanded to wash (Ex 29:4), so this should not surprise us.  The second point (must be clean to dwell within the community) is related to the first, because as the LORD dwells amongst the people, his presence consecrates the entire camp of the nation.  Just as one must be clean to approach the LORD, as a correlation to that one must be clean to be within the camp where the LORD dwells.

Since I'm now discussing the distinction between ceremonial law and covenantal law, I think now is as good a time as any to try to explain the various types of laws to my readers.  I will start by listing what I believe are some of the various kinds of law in the OT and then some thoughts about them.  In general terms, I think of about three kinds of law, though fully admitting that one could reasonably list more or less than that.  The three kinds of law I consider are civil law, moral (or criminal) law and ceremonial law.  In brief, civil law is the law that governs contracts, property disputes, and most anything that involves a dispute between two people that doesn't rise to a criminal offense.  Some examples would be a contract between two people to sell wheat at a certain price, but one party decides to back out after agreeing to the deal.  This is not covered by moral law, but the wronged party is still able to pursue compensation or demand an authority to enforce the contract (in modern terms, "equitable relief").  The Pentateuch is mostly not concerned with civil law.  We know that Moses appointed judges who "judged all disputes" and maybe there are some provisions which are arguably civil, but that's roughly the end of it.

Moral, or criminal, law covers any action that breaks a moral law which is sometimes directed at another person (theft, murder) and is sometimes directed at God (idolatry, violating the Sabbath).  In the modern world, criminal law is prosecuted by the state, but in ancient Israel, the state apparatus was extremely primitive, so criminal law was generally prosecuted by the community as a whole or by the family/clan of the wronged individual.  Instead of a professional judiciary, the judges over these disputes (both criminal and civil) were the judges appointed by Moses, typically the elders of the people or the heads of the clans.  Sometimes younger men were appointed leaders, as is the case with Joshua, but this would have probably been uncommon.  Anyway, I could write a whole blog post on the Israeli judicial system, but for the sake of time and space I won't put it here.

The last type of law I will address is ceremonial law.  Ceremonial law, as I said above, is primarily a set of rules that govern one's ceremonial cleanliness for the purposes of living in the community and approaching the tabernacle.  It is never explicitly described as such by the bible, yet there are clear textual clues that support making the distinction between moral law and ceremonial law.  For instance, the keyword "unclean" identifies many parts of Leviticus as being centered on ceremonial law.  We can identify the ten commandments as being predominantly moral law, because they predate the tabernacle and any attendant ceremonies.  From this basic framework, we can try to identify whether a given law is more like the ten commandments or more like the laws of cleanliness (which fill most of Leviticus).

It is very difficult to discern one type of law from another, because as I pointed out above, is the law against idolatry a violation of moral law or ceremonial law?  Most people say moral law, because as I pointed out, it was contained in Exodus which is chiefly related to moral laws.  Yet not every law is this clear.  Case in point is Leviticus 19 which (without stealing my own thunder by analyzing it here) posits a peculiar blend of what modern scholars consider moral law and ceremonial law, commanding in v. 11 that "you shall not steal, nor deal falsely..." which are clearly moral commands as they were also within the ten commandments in Ex 20.  But in the same chapter, v. 19 states that "you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor wear a garment upon you of two kinds of material", which is widely regarded as a ceremonial law.

Of course, the reason why it's hard for us to distinguish between moral and ceremonial law is that in most cases the author does not explain what kind of law he is talking about.  In fact, even the words "ceremonial" and "moral" do not appear in the OT.  That forces us to dig into context and innuendo when resolving what type of law is being given.  Ironically, it is actually pretty important to figure out what is moral and what is ceremonial, because moral law is regarded as universal: it was wrong to murder before, and it's wrong to murder now.  However, ceremonial law is situational: it is only necessary insomuch as one seeks to enter the tabernacle, which no longer exists.  Even if the tabernacle did exist, the NT abolishes the Levitical sacrificial system so it would not be necessary to keep ceremonial cleanliness in any case (more on this when we get to the NT).  This leaves us in what appears to be a rather awkward position: by assumption, we are required to follow moral laws from the OT but free to disregard ceremonial law.  Without the OT clearly distinguishing between the two, we must dissect the OT ourselves by whatever criteria we can find.

This is a challenging problem, and (if I may be allowed a moment of sarcasm) it usually breaks down to: "the laws I want to follow are moral, and the laws I want to disregard are ceremonial", i.e. a post-hoc moral relativism, backfilling one's personal opinions into the text.  Without a firm textual basis for dividing the laws, it is left as a matter of personal fiat.  My hope is to do better than that, and my plan is to focus on context and intent.  If we can capture the underlying purpose and motivation of the laws of the OT, this will enable us to more carefully analyze and apply them to the NT era in which we live.  I will continue this discussion later when we are further into the bible and have more context for me to write about.  Moving on.

Regarding the specific rules governing ceremonial cleanliness, that is the subject of large portions of Leviticus which are coming up, so this is not the last time we will discuss this subject.  In fact, the rules listed in verses 1-4 are repeated later (at a much greater length), so I feel little need to explain them now.  I will discuss these individually when I reach their corresponding sections.  For now, I will simply note that while failing to testify leads to guilt, it is different from the commandment to not falsely testify (Ex 20:16).  Even so, I will say I'm a bit surprised by the distinction because I would probably lump them together if I were writing a law.

Also note that all of these guilts are "hidden", so that the person did not know his violation at the time.  If the person does know of their uncleanliness and addresses it more quickly, then (in general) a smaller sacrifice is required, and in most cases no sacrifice is required at all.  The issue of hiddenness is important not because of intent (it is presumed that nobody will intend to become unclean), but because of the implied duration.  In short, it is much more severe to be unclean for a long time than a short time, especially if you are unclean while still dwelling amongst the people in the camp.  That's why a larger sacrifice is required.

Now I will discuss the details of the guilt offering itself.  The guilt offering ritual is largely copied from the earlier offerings.  Note that in verse 6, it specifies that one must sacrifice from the flock "as a sin offering", meaning using the ritual of the sin offering from chapter 4.

As with the burnt offering, there are several economic tiers for the guilt offering, scaling from a goat down to a small grain offering (by far the cheapest).  Verse 7 tells us that the two doves or pigeons are offered as a sin offering and burnt offering, but since the sin offering does not have any provision for offering birds, it is explained to us how to do this in verses 8-9.

The grain offering is essentially identical to the grain offering of chapter 2, except without oil or incense "for it is a sin offering", and I guess this is meant as a sign of contrition on behalf of the offerer.  Also this chapter tells us how much grain must be offered, which is different from the unspecified grain offering of chapter 2.

The chapter concludes with a command that any general violation of the "things which the LORD has commanded not to be done" must result in a guilt offering of a ram.  Strangely we aren't told how the guilt offering must be performed, but it turns out that information is placed in Lev 7 for no reason that I can discern.

With that, I am done discussing this particular chapter and I'm going to summarize the five offerings.  Since this post is already too long, I will be brief.

When you see burnt offerings, this is the "miscellaneous" offering that is used to cover a wide variety of scenarios.  As such, it has the fewest definite connotations and is really just a way to give something to God.

Grain offerings are conceptually very similar to burnt offerings, and these two are frequently paired together. As with a burnt offering, both of these come from the "income" of the offerer, who would both grow his own crops and raise his own flocks.  The Israelites obviously don't grow crops now (wandering the desert), but when established in the promised land, this will become a significant industry.

Peace (or fellowship) offerings are metaphorical "eating a meal with God" offerings.  This is a sacrifice of communion.

Sin offerings are the offerings of personal or corporate atonement.  While chapter 4 lists certain conditions when sin offerings should be made, this list is not exhaustive, and there are many other places in the OT where sin offerings are performed.  The general rule is "atonement": a sin offering is a compensatory offering for some wrong committed, usually against the LORD (i.e. in the context of religious affairs).  Note that many sin offerings are not made as atonement for a specific sin, but rather as atonement for general sinfulness.  For example, the Passover was not atonement for a specific wrong, but rather was atonement for the Israelites' sinfulness in general.

Guilt offerings are similar to sin offerings, but typically more focused on ceremonial violations than moral or covenantal wrongs.  Unlike the sin offerings, the guilt offerings are typically much more focused and uncommon in the biblical text.  Of the ~40 references to "guilt offering" in the bible, more than half of them are in Leviticus, making this the least frequently encountered offering type in the bible.  Of course, that doesn't mean they were infrequent in practice, just that it does not play a prominent role in the biblical text.

And that's it!  With this framework laid, we are now ready to move on to the rest of Leviticus.

tl;dr: The OT has lots of sacrifices and laws and the death penalty and stuff like that.

[1] As a nomadic society, the Israelites could not materially support prisoners, because their society existed on razor-thin margins of survival.  If you doubt me, consider all of the famines we have seen and how narrowly the Israelites escaped disaster time after time.  Hence the focus on the death penalty: they simply could not afford to feed a set of people who did nothing to contribute to the survival of the nation as a whole.  What's more, these people would have to be guarded, which costs even more time and effort.  Compounded with the difficulty of relocating every few days (they are nomadic), and even keeping the prisoners from escaping becomes a serious problem.  Critics love to excoriate the Israelites for their judicial system, but you have to keep it in context.