Friday, January 19, 2007

Old Testament Sacrifice

An Investigation into the Significance of Blood in Old Testament Sacrifice

Text: Leviticus 17:10-16

By Sara Bruya (c) 2007


Note: This paper was written as the final exam for "Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures" at Harvard Divinity School, Fall 2006 - Prof. Michael Coogan

The text of Leviticus 17:10-16 concerns the appropriate relationship of the human being to blood—its substance, meaning and uses in the sacrificial and mundane killing of animals. While the first half of the chapter essentially concerns the priestly perspective on the appropriate and inappropriate ways and places in which rituals of blood sacrifice should be carried out (Lev 17:1-9), it is the second part which is especially interesting for reflection on the possible meanings of blood rituals in ancient Israel. In this essay, we will examine first the general anthropological understanding of the meanings of sacrifice, and then focus primarily on the significance of blood in Old Testament sacrificial practices as illuminated by the second part of Leviticus 17.

As people throughout the ages have come to acknowledge that they depend upon forces greater than themselves, “ritual, including sacrificial ritual, [has] provide[d] a means of influencing, or rather of hoping to influence, these forces.”[1] People have also been aware that these larger forces are responsible not only for life and blessing, but for misfortune, difficulty, and even evil. As the human being has encountered both beneficent and malevolent forces, ritual has essentially developed as a system for controlling the unpredictable element in human experience. It can also be “the means whereby the body corporate preserves its integrity and health. The rite is felt to be effective in some mystic way in bringing about the desired result, and giving collective expression to the most fundamental of all instincts, that of the preservation of life.”[2] Thus, “sacrifice is thought of as a way of eliminating evil. And to feel purged of malignant forces in oneself is, in some measure at least, to be purged of them.”[3]

Scholars have made numerous attempts to “isolate or abstract the essential idea common to all sacrifice.”[4] De Vaux and many others suggest that there are three key motivations for the practice of sacrifice: communion, gift, and expiation.[5] In addition, other scholars have suggested homage of the subject to the Lord, renewal of covenant vows with the deity, and life released from the victim, transmitted to the deity, and conferred upon the worshippers as possible meanings of the sacrificial act.[6] In all cases, it is “essential to the concept that the human offerer remove something from his own disposal and transfer it to a supernatural recipient.”[7]

According to Daly, the most basic or central idea in ancient Israel’s practice of sacrifice as presented in the Old Testament is the gift idea.[8] “Sacrifices conceived as gifts can involve open exchange, in which the deity is expected to confer general protection and favor; or the sacrificial gift may involve closed exchange, in which the gift is offered in order that the deity may confer a defined benefit, such as health or a safe journey…”[9] However, contrary to Daly’s assertion, the priestly writers of Leviticus may have believed that Yahweh’s protection of Israel was already secured through the Sinai Covenant if the people committed to and observed Yahweh’s laws. According to Rogerson, “…When the Old Testament is taken as a whole, the context for understanding the sacrifices is the occasion when God set out the law that his people should obey in response to their delivery from Egypt.”[10]

As obedience to God seemed to be a perpetual obstacle for the people of ancient Israel, as described by the Old Testament narrative, it might be more accurate, if we are to identify the central theme for the priestly writers of Leviticus, to view their understanding of sacrifice as primarily expiatory. “In the narrow sense, expiatory sacrifices presuppose consciousness of a moral fault that can be punished by a higher being who must therefore be placated by suitable acts on the part of the human beings involved.”[11]

Although there are some forms of offering to a deity which do not require the death of an animal—such as first fruits of a harvest or other offerings of non-living objects—Leviticus 17 explicitly discusses the sacrifices that involve the slaughter of an animal and the manipulation of its blood. According to Leviticus 17:11, atonement for sin is (exclusively?) achieved through blood sacrifice, “for it is the blood that makes atonement...” As Ringgren explains, “…blood plays a significant part in the ritual of expiatory offerings. But we are still left in ignorance of the reason why this is so, and of the way in which expiation or atonement is brought about by means of the blood.”[12]

In Leviticus 17:10, we see a prohibition against the eating of blood, both for the people of Israel, “and the strangers that sojourn among them.” The explanation given in 17:11 is that “the life of the flesh is in the blood,” and in 17:14 that, “the life of every creature is the blood of it…the life of every creature is its blood.” Thus, life is in the blood, life is blood. The prohibition against eating blood may imply a couple of things: As Bourdillon suggests, perhaps there may be “…some kind of power to be released or removed in sacrifice,”[13] and the blood may be seen to be the substance, the representation of the mysterious power that generates or contains life.

“In every sacrifice an object passes from the common into the religious domain; it is consecrated.”[14] It could be said that blood, as a substance, was seen by the people of ancient Israel to exist in both realms—the common/material and the mysterious/spiritual. It is a physical and yet symbolic substance representing the life of beings, existing in both domains, or passing from one to the other. Since the origin of life is not only mysterious but seen to be the property or domain of Yahweh (i.e. powers beyond the control of the human being), blood is seen as belonging to his realm, the realm of the mysterious forces of life. Thus, blood is a mystical substance existing in the common realm of human beings, but belonging to the realm of God.

It is not explained in 17:10 why eating blood will “cut one off from among his people,” as the priestly writers of Leviticus adamantly assert. But, as with other prohibitions, we might suppose that it points to some kind of antisocial or subversive practice or behavior that the priestly writers were trying to condemn. As Beattie explains, sacrifice is almost always seen as “being, mostly about power or powers.[15] Perhaps a belief in the life-power contained in blood led to unsanctioned rituals of eating or drinking blood to gain a kind of vitality. Perhaps this verse is even a sanction against eating human blood (Leviticus 17:10 does not specify), as human sacrifices were known to have taken place in certain ancient civilizations, and perhaps even among the Israelites. As de Vaux explains, “some writers hold that apostate Israelites offered human sacrifices to foreign deities, that some of them even offered such sacrifices to Yahweh…and even that at some distant era, Yahwism gave official recognition to, and actually prescribed human sacrifice.”[16] The passage does explain that the power of the blood is “given for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls,” and implies that it should not be used for any other purpose. Even blood not offered in a sacrificial rite is to be treated ritually, either poured out and covered with dust, or treated as unclean, for which ritual cleansing is necessary (17:13-16).

How is the sacrificial killing of an animal, and the use of its blood, understood to positively affect the life of the offerer or the community? Scholars have attempted to answer this question in various ways. James describes blood as a vital substance common to all living beings and as such, it is seen as having mystical properties. He writes, “…The possession of a common vitality establishes a mystic vital bond between all who share the same life-essence, and since this potency is capable of transmission from one person or object to another, renewed health and strength can be secured by a ritual transference of soul-substance…It is this fundamental principle which underlies blood ritual in its various manifestations…”[17] Thus, James might argue that the offerer is essentially cleansing and replacing his sinful life-essence with that of another, presumably purified, life-essence, because “…men and animals are animated by a common soul-substance [blood] which… is capable of projection from one species to another.”[18]

In contrast to the idea of transference of vitality, Ringgren and others describes blood ritual as a ransom—the sacrificial animal acting as a substitute for the human offerer. This theory develops the belief that some life must be given in exchange for human transgression. “Sin and its consequences are hostile to life; therefore, in order to ransom man from these consequences, life must be given. Now, life is in the blood, and therefore the blood of the sacrificial animal is exactly what is required to bring about atonement, i.e. the removal of sin and guilt.”[19] According to this understanding, the death of the animal represents the life of the offerer which was forfeit because of his sin against God.”[20] This theory of substitution is another possible explanation for the reason why the sacrificial killing of an animal is seen to atone for one’s transgressions. As Beattie explains, “One of the things that seems to happen in… the consecration of an animal for sacrifice is that the animal is made into a symbol…[which] stands for (probably among other things) the person or persons who are making the sacrifice or upon whose behalf the sacrifice is being made.”[21]

Another possible meaning of the blood in ritual sacrifice could be the re-establishment of a covenant between God and the individual. “When a man had sinned, he needed to find grace again, and he had to ask God to re-establish the covenant whose terms he had broken. This was the purpose of sacrifices for sin and of sacrifices of expiation…”[22] As Coogan points out, blood, and the killing of an animal was an integral part of the covenant-making process in ancient Near Eastern cultures. “Ceremonies that were part of ancient treaty and covenant making…involved cutting an animal as a symbolic acceptance of the consequences of breaking a covenant.”[23]

The question remains of how expiation or atonement is brought about by means of blood. How does the death of an animal bring about renewed life, or atonement for sins? Leviticus 17:11 states, mysteriously, that “blood makes atonement, by reason of the life.” Henninger suggests that “perhaps…originally what was sacrificed was either something living or an element or symbol of life; in other words, [what] was surrendered, [was] life itself.”[24] Life itself seems to be the appropriate expiatory offering, yet ironically, to offer life (blood) requires the taking, ending, killing of life.

As James explains, “In the ritual shedding of blood it is not the taking of life but the giving of life that is really fundamental, for blood is not death but life. The outpouring of the vital fluid in actuality, or by substitute, is the sacred act whereby life is given to promote and preserve life, and to establish thereby a bond of union with the supernatural order.”[25] It is certainly a strong implication in a wide range of sacrifices that a life is destroyed in an offering to a god in order that others, or another, be restored.[26] But Daly, de Vaux, and James contend that for the ancient Israelites, the death of the animal was not of primary importance, and was only the means necessary for obtaining the sacrificial blood. “In Old Testament animal sacrifice,” Daly writes, “the death of the animal is only a necessary prerequisite or condition for the sacrificial action. No significance is attached to the death of the animal. Its death, in itself, affects nothing.[27] Similarly, de Vaux states that it does not make sense to honor the creator of life with the destruction of life. Thus in his view also, the slaughter of the victim must only be an inevitable act in preparation for sacrificial ritual.[28] James also asserts that the destruction of the victim is insignificant “in comparison with the transmission of the soul-substance to the supernatural being to whom it is offered.”[29]

Leviticus 17:12 instructs that the blood of hunted animals must be poured out and covered with dust. We might ask why this blood is not also ritually offered to Yahweh, if it is also seen as containing life-power. What we find in the Old Testament is that only domestic animals are sacrificed. According to scholars, the primary importance of blood in ancient Israelite society may be derived from their semi-nomadic, tribal identity. It would have been evident to such herding peoples that their animals shared with them the same life-principle, or blood, and would have believed it to have been bestowed upon all of them by the deity.[30] “From the notion of blood as a kind of soul-substance responsible for the phenomenon of life, a sense of kinship doubtless developed at a very early period between man and the creatures upon whom he depended for his sustenance, and with whom he was united by the possession of a common vital principle.”[31]

In addition, the sense of kinship among peoples would have been very strong in such a society, which recognizes a sharing of blood among relatives descended from the same ancestor. As such, according to Ambusch, “…blood sacrifice maintains a relationship of kinship between men by the emphasis on a tie of blood and would agree with the emphasis on blood in a clan context.”[32] As the livelihood of the Israelites would have depended on the flesh and blood of animals of the herd, and they would have been aware of their blood-bonds of kinship among themselves compared to the indigenous element of the population they were conquering, they may have “tried to maintain that separateness by means of blood rituals.”[33]

The Israelites may not have identified as closely with the vital life-force of undomesticated or wild animals, yet Leviticus 17:12 recognizes a kind of power inherent in (or divine dominion over) all types of blood and that it must not be misused, but rather poured out. This pouring out seems not to be in the form of ritual libation, but rather in a sense of diffusing (or refusing?) any inherent power in it by covering it with dust.

In Leviticus 17:15-16, we find reference to the belief system that divides the world into pure and impure, clean and unclean. In this case the text instructs that contact with certain types of blood requires ritual cleansing. These verses explain that blood poured out or sacrificed is clean if it accompanies the killing of an animal. If one comes into contact with blood that does not accompany the killing of the animal, it is unclean, and certain steps must be taken to ritually purify oneself.

Most scholars agree that Leviticus projects the theology and concerns of post-exilic Priestly writers from the fourth or fifth century BCE back to the time and the mouth of Moses.[34] According to Jenson, the central concern of the priestly writings is the creation, maintenance and restoration of an ordered world. “The concern with purity and impurity is in part a concern for maintaining boundaries which must not be transgressed. Otherwise, there will be a descent into chaos, disaster and death. From this perspective, sacrifice has a crucial role in maintaining order and restoring equilibrium when that order is disturbed.”[35] One might argue that this priestly concern for order arose out of the need to maintain and formalize traditional religious customs during the period of exile. De Vaux confirms that “from the beginning of the exile, new trends appeared, and among them was a passionate concern for ritual.”[36] This may be, as anthropologists explain, because ritual helps to maintain social values, provide security in dangerous situations, and support the structure of and order in a society.[37]

Ancient Israel conceived of holiness (purity and cleanliness) and unholiness (impurity and uncleanliness) in a highly material way.[38] As such, material contact with blood under the wrong circumstances could lead to a compromise in the spiritual order of an individual’s life. In their belief system, “…impurity is not an abstract or secondary concept, but a powerful…social and religious realit[y]. The maintenance of a stable society requires a careful limitation of impurity and regular purification…Impurity is incompatible with holiness, and holiness is a necessary requirement if God is to dwell [among the people] (Ex. 25:8).” [39] Thus, sacrifice becomes the vehicle for performing the essential task of restoring the correct order of things when it is compromised by fault of some kind. “As such, it preserves and enhances Israel’s life before God, which is constantly threatened by the disorder and death associated with impurity and sin.”[40]

As we have discussed, Leviticus 17:10-16 concerns ancient Israel’s proper relationship to the substance of blood, according to the priestly writers of the post-exilic period. From the implications of their writings, the expiatory purpose of sacrifice seems to have been very important, if not central, in ancient Israelite ritual. A sacrificial offering of blood was seen as “a God-given institution to provide for man’s right relationship to God, and for his redemption from the evil forces that threaten his normal existence.”[41] As such, the blood was seen as a substance with mystical properties, the material of life itself—and the atonement to be achieved through the blood was an essential element in the process of achieving and maintaining moral order in the society. Thus, the practice of blood sacrifice in ancient Israel, according to the priestly writers of Leviticus, can be seen as an expression of the society’s moral values[42] and of their understanding of their relationship to God.


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