Light from the Sidra

Vayikra ('And he called...')

Torah: Leviticus 1:1-5:26 (6:7)*. Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1-24

You couldn’t make it up…

Religion and politics. They’re the two subjects everyone has an opinion about. I’m writing this on the UK’s Budget Day, and if I was a betting man, I’d wager that in every British pub tonight there are at least a dozen people who are assuring anyone who cares to hear that they could have come up with a foolproof way to get the economy back on track.

It’s the same with ‘religion’. Everyone knows that religion is a relic of mankind’s primitive fears and that all religions are basically the identical. They know that the Faiths ought to all abandon their superstitions or at least set aside their differences and coexist in harmony.

The faith of ancient Israel, however, poses some difficult questions for those who believe religion evolved and that there is no substantial difference between the various faith groups. Take the matter of Israel’s sacrificial system. Whether you think the notion of ritually slaughtering animals is humane or not, the regulations for the offerings in the first five chapters of Leviticus are elaborate and sophisticated.

The ‘Olah of chapter 1 was arguably the most important of the sacrifices. ‘Olah means ‘rising up’ and refers no doubt to the smoke that rose from the altar during the ritual to make atonement for the one who offered it (1:4). It was offered every morning and evening.

The Mincha, or ‘grain offering’ of ch 2, appears to have been a gift to God. Although the Mincha had no apparent atoning value, it nevertheless accompanied the twice-daily ‘Olah sacrifice that was offered to atone for sin. The Mincha and reminded worshippers, in the words of the biblical scholar Walter Eichrodt, that ‘God is the sole giver of life and nurture; and it is for this reason that their gifts to him take the form of the necessities of life.’

The third chapter sets out the instructions for the performance of the Shelamim, the ‘Fellowship’ offering, which was accompanied by a joyful celebration and fellowship meal in the presence of God. The Hebrew root of Shelamim is ‘shalom’, the peace and wholeness that results from being in covenant with God.

Through these three sacrifices, Israelites atoned for sin, expressed their gratitude to God and enjoyed fellowship with God and their fellow Jews.

Two final blood sacrifices are set forth in chapters 4 and 5: the Hattat and the Asham. They are distinguished from the previous three offerings by the words of introduction at the beginning of Chapter 4: ‘Then the Lord said to Moses…’ The ‘Olah was offered to God to atone for general sins but the Hattat and Asham sacrifices were for specific sins.

Hattat is related to the Hebrew word chet, which means to ‘fall short’ or to ‘miss the mark’. When an Israelite inadvertently ‘missed the mark’ by failing to keep the requirements of the Torah, the guilty party had to take a Hattat offering to the High Priest in order to be ‘de-sinned.’ The Asham was a ‘guilt offering’ accompanied by a repayment to anyone the worshipper had wronged. Both sacrifice and repentance were part of the Asham. Without either, there could be no restoration to fellowship with God.

How would anyone dream up a system whereby sins could be forgiven through a series of sacrifices? Other nations – Israel’s neighbours included – offered sacrifices to their gods but their sacrifices were not intended to achieve atonement. Few ancient societies had a system of social ethics and personal morality that approached the Torah, so forgiveness of sin was a low priority. The Canaanite deities were as morally flawed as their worshippers and so far as we can tell, the sacrifices the Canaanites made to their primitive deities (some of them human) were offered with a view to achieving merit in the eyes of their gods or to bribe the deities.  

Only in Israel was sin and transgression so serious that the shedding of blood could actually achieve atonement. When a worshiper placed his hands on the head of the ‘olah he was symbolically transferring his guilt to the sacrificial victim. And as the jugular of the animal was cut, the faithful Israelite was forcefully reminded that ‘the wages of sin is death.’

In Judaism today, sacrifice is viewed as something primitive but as far as Israel’s God is concerned, sacrifice remains an eternal necessity. After the destruction of the second temple was destroyed, the rabbis devised a new Judaism that circumvented the offerings and the Aaronic priesthood. It is clear from the Torah, however, that sacrifice was a necessity and in the remarkable prophecy of the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, a righteous servant of God becomes a sacrificial victim on whom God lays the guilt of Israel. Therefore Jewish people today have an infinitely greater sacrifice through whom they can approach God. 

If only they could see…

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