Wibble Wednesday: I Got 99 Sacrifices But a Pig Ain’t One (Leviticus 1:1–5:26)

Well, it’s debate night but I’m sick of politics even though we’ve got a month to go. Instead, I’d rather start a new book of the Bible! Two down, lots to go! The Book of Leviticus is perhaps undeservedly regarded as dry and dull; there’s really a lot of interesting cultural aspects to the legal code. It’s distinctly short on narrative, it’s true, but there’s definitely a lot to talk about. For instance, this week’s reading, פָּרָשַׁת ויקרא (“And He called” portion), focuses on the many circumstances when one’s supposed to offer a sacrifice, and the rules for the offering thereof.

The quick snarky summary: you can bring any of a number of animals, or even a pile of flour, to be burned on the altar. Depending why you’re doing it, you might get some meat back, or the priests might.


So, let’s start with the most notable aspect of this chapter for the modern world: we don’t actually offer animal sacrifices, or indeed any sort of sacrifices, any more. The ostensible reason for this is that, since the destruction of the Second Temple, there has been nowhere to offer sacrifices, but I have a sneaking suspicion that even before the Temple fell it was a practice on its way out. Judea was fairly oppressed and few people had the means to offer sacrifices, and as the Jewish population dispersed throughout the Roman empire travel to Jerusalem for the sacrifices probably became distinctly untenable for many of them. Also, while their grand temples and sacrificial altars and priesthoods might have distinguished Judaism considerably from the small, decentralized Bronze-Age cults they encountered in their early history, I imagine that by the height of imperial Rome the ritual and grandeur of the Jewish ceremonies may not have seemed terribly distinct from the temple practices of their Roman neighbors. Either way, today we think of sacrifice as a barbaric pagan practice, and it’s pretty foreign to modern Jewish culture or practice (although it’s worth noting that Jewish eschatological beliefs hold that the Temple will be rebuilt in the days of Messiah, and that sacrifices will recommence), so this chapter comes across today as alarmingly anachronistic and out of step with present practice.

To understand Jewish sacrifice law, we might have to consider larger sacrifice culture. Why do people sacrifice? Well, the understanding is fundamentally anthropomorphic: everybody likes gifts, and God is somebody, so God likes gifts, right? But you can’t actually walk up to God and give him a gift, so you have to send it to him somehow. If, like a lot of religions, you hold that the divine beings live in the sky, the easiest way to send something there is to burn it and let the smoke reach heaven. To you wrap an understanding that God likes the scent around this practice, and, wham, you have a basic sacrifice culture, not unlike the Israelites’ culture.

So why would people want to give God a gift? Well, either in appreciation of good fortune, expiation of sin, or to curry favor. Basically, to set accounts straight, to the extent one can achieve equality with an invisible omnipotent force. It’s actually pretty silly when you think about it, although it’s more coherent in a polytheistic society where sacrifices are a dedication to a specific god, elevating his service over that of others. Notably future, more monotheistically-leaning stories (such as Saul and the Amelekites, as well as several writings of the prophets) suggest that sacrifices are not a panacea.

So these purposes for a gift track pretty closely onto some of the sacrifices described here, although some of these sacrifices aren’t given specific purposes. The first two fall under “miscellaneous sacrifices”, and I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that they were the favor-currying sort, but the Torah isn’t going to come right out and say, “if you want God to do you a favor, do this…”. The first type of sacrifice, the עלה, probably falls into this category, as the circumstances under which one would offer it are not really given; there’s an offhand reference in verse 1:4 to expiation of sins, but that same procedure appears in all the animal offerings. It’s notable among the sacrifices in that the entire offering (except the crop of a bird) is completely offered up on the altar; most offerings had at least a nominal portion for the priests. This sacrifice could only be one of four different beasts: an unblemished bull, an unblemished ram, a turtledove, or a pigeon. The procedure is described three times, but it’s fundamentally identical in each scenario with very slight variations for birds.: the animal is slaughtered, its blood spattered on the altar, and burnt completely.

The second type of offering is the מנחה, which is likewise presented without a specific reason why one might offer it. Exegetically it’s been interpreted as serving the same role as the עלה, but for a pauper, as this offering is not of herd animals (which would be a quite rich sacrifice) or even the more modest offering of small birds, but is of flour. The authors of the sacrificial laws may have been dubious on the attractiveness of plain grain to God, so unlike the beast sacrifice, the flour offering is ameliorated with the addition of oil and, in many cases, frankincense. It’s not clear whether this was provided by the temple or by the donor: if the latter, the raw-flour offering was a rather pricier proposition than many paupers might be able to manage, as the oil and particularly the frankincense might well be costly. Fortunately, there were offering options which didn’t involve incense: if the flour was baked or grilled or fried it only needed flour, oil, and salt. The commandment to include salt appears only at the end, oddly after all the recipes, none of which themselves include salt. The priests got to keep all except a handful of these offerings, which lends some support to the whole “God doesn’t like the smell of grains” theory, and suggests that the handful of grain sacrificed was largely a salve to the pride of a poor man with a poor offering.

A notable special case מנחה is the first-fruits offering from a farmer of grain; as we saw a while back in the Real Ten Commandments, a farmer was supposed to bring first fruits to the Temple, and if those happened to be grains, they’d just be classified and handled as a grain offering.

The next sacrifice is the שלמים, variously translated as the “peace” or “well-being” offering. Based on this name, I’m going to assume it’s a sacrifice of gratitude: not to curry favor, but given because someone figured that things were going so well, they owed God one. This one is less restricted than the עלה, as it could be cattle, sheep, or goats of either gender (presumably the recompense for a kindness done is less than an outright bribe would be), and in this case only the most savory parts of the animals, the rich flesh around the kidneys, are sacrificed. It doesn’t say what’s done with the rest of the meat; presumably it’s distributed to the priests and the petitioner in some proportion. Incidentally, a close reading of Leviticus 3:17 suggests the donor isn’t even giving anything up by performing this sacrifice, if he’s getting the rest of the meat back, since he’s not actually allowed to eat those parts of the animal anyways.

We’ve addressed the bribe sacrifice and the happiness sacrifice, so all that’s left is the guilt sacrifice, in its various permutations. And, boy, oh, boy, is this one complicated. There are two major categories for different kinds of guilt, divided up somewhat arbitrarily. The חטאת was for most kinds of personal or community guilt in civil matters, and it’s first described as an offering for community leaders who have abused their position, so a high priest who errs offers a bull, a civil leader who errs a male goat. Both of these are generally regarded as greater, in the grand value scheme, than the commoner’s offering, which is a bit vague: verse 4:28 mandates a female goat, but 4:32 gives instructions for offering a ewe instead. Regardless of the actual offering, this sacrifice is described as being offered for unwitting violation of the commandments, and is quite similar in particulars to the שלמים, in that only certain portions are burnt. The primasry difference is in what is done with the blood: instead of splattering it all over the courtyard altar, a bit of it is brought into the Tabernacle and placed on the inner altar, and the rest is poured on the courtyard altar. The symbolism suggests a greater immediacy and intimacy to this offering, since the Tabernacle, or the Temple Interior, bring the sacrifice much closer to the presence of God on earth. The details of the circumstances under which this sacrifice is offered, or perhaps some specific examples from which people were expected to extrapolate general rules, are briefly described in Chapter 5: This sacrifice expiates the guilt from failure to deliver relevant testimony, accidental ritual uncleanliness, and vain oaths. So presumably in general it’s supposed to atone for carelessness rather than malice. The next sacrifice kind of addresses malice, but most malicious acts, presumably, are not atoned for throguh sacrifice alone.

The final sacrifice described in this section, the אשם, is for a rather particular kind of deliberate misdeed, broadly coming under the heading of “misappropriation”. For misuse of temple utensils, or for fraudulently depriving someone of their property. the sacrifice is always the same, namely a ram or its value in silver. Incidentally, this ram doesn’t have a ritual sacrifice attached to it, so maybe it just becomes part of the temple chattels instead of being given to God. In addition, a little bit of justice is added to this apparently blatant theocratic cash-grab: to be forgiven for his sin, the petitioner must also repay 120% of the value of the misappropriated object to the injured party. So at least they get something out of it.

So, yes, this parsha is a rather mind-bogglingly long list of ritual practices, but a number of them serve interesting social-justice purposes. There’s a definite sliding scale of payments described here, with different sexes and species of animals serving to achieve sacrificial goals for different social classes (and in one case, even providing the possibility to sacrifice grain). A few of the sacrifices are particularly attached to and acknowledging of significant systemic failures, such as a mistake by the community’s civil or religious leaders, or providing restitution to a cheated party. It’s not deeply progressive, but it is indicative of a social-cohesion purpose to sacrifice besides “God likes how cooked meat smells”.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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