In my first columna I stated that biblical rituals are symbolic acts that, in the main, contain within them ethical values. This axiom is nowhere better illustrated than in the sacrificial system. To make this point I will focus on one rite, with one ingredient, of one sacrifice: the daubing of blood from the purification offering (widely mistranslated as “sin offering”) on the horns of the altar.
According to Leviticus, the purification offering is prescribed for moral impurity— an unintended breach of prohibitions (Leviticus 4)—and for severe cases of physical impurity (impurity in this context applies to either gender and has only to do with ritual, not with one’s character or morality). Two examples of such physical impurity are the genital flow from a new mother, or from a gonnorheic (Leviticus 12 and 15).
The first question to ask, naturally, is: Who or what is being purified? Surprisingly, it is not the bringer of the purification offering. If his or her impurity is physical, only bathing is required. If the impurity is moral (the unintended breach of a prohibition), an aware conscience clears the impurity. In neither case does the offering purify the person bringing the offering.
The clue as to who is being purified is the destination of the blood of the sacrifice. It is not smeared on the offerer; it is smeared, rather, on the altar. That act is described in Hebrew by the word kippur, “purge” (as in Yom Kippur: the day of purgation). Thus the first principle: Blood is the ritual cleanser that purges the altar of impurities inflicted on it by the offerer.
If an individual has accidentally violated a prohibition, the priest purges the outer (sacrificial) altar with the blood of the offerer’s purification offering (Leviticus 4:27–35). If the entire community has accidentally violated a prohibition, the priest purges the inner (incense) altar and the outer room of the ark, with the blood of the purification offering brought by the community’s representatives (Leviticus 4:13–21). If, however, individuals have deliberately and brazenly violated prohibitions, then, once a year, on Yom Kippur, the high priest purges the entire sanctuary, beginning with the inner and holiest area containing the ark. In this case, the purification offering is not brought by the culprits—deliberate sinners are barred from the sanctuary—but by the high priest himself.
The essential maneuvers of the blood of the purification offering are detailed in Leviticus 16, and are diagrammed here:
This graded impurity of the sanctuary and its purgation leads to the second principle: A sin committed anywhere will generate impurity that, becoming airborne, penetrates the sanctuary in proportion to its magnitude.
Israel’s neighbors also believed that impurity polluted the sanctuary. For them, however, the source of impurity was demonic. Therefore, their priests devised rituals and incantations to immunize their temples against demonic penetration.
Israel, however, in the wake of its monotheistic revolution, abolished the world of demon divinities. Only a single demon remained: the human being. Ironically, with the obliteration of the divine demon, the demonic human grew in power: He could even drive God out of his sanctuary.
Thus the third principle: God would not abide in a polluted sanctuary. To be sure, the merciful One would tolerate a modicum of pollution. But there is a point of no return. If the pollution levels continue to rise, the end is inexorable. God abandons his sanctuary and leaves his people to their doom.
What are Israel’s priests trying to say? I submit it is their answer to the question of questions, as voiced by Jeremiah, “Why does the way of the wicked prosper?” No intellectual circle within ancient Israel evaded the challenge of theodicy (justifying the ways of God). The prophets agonized over it but came up with no solutions. The wisdom teachers gave their superficial answers: For example, the wicked will ultimately receive their come-uppance—and an entire book (Job) was written to refute them. We expect a priestly answer but we search in vain. Is it possible that Israel’s priests, whose prime function was “to teach the Israelites” (Leviticus 10:11) had nothing to say regarding God’s providence?
We know now where to find this answer—not in words, but in rites, not in 014legal statutes, but in cultic procedure—specifically, in the rite with the blood of the purification offering. I call their response the priestly “Picture of Dorian Gray.” In the novel by Oscar Wilde, once virtuous Dorian was granted eternal youth, he embarked on a career of increasing evil. Oddly his evil acts did not affect his handsome appearance. His portrait, however, hidden away, became ugly and grotesque. The priestly writers would claim that, like the Wilde character, sin may not leave its mark on the face of the sinner, but it is certain to mark the soul of the sinner, namely, the hidden face of the sanctuary; and unless it is quickly expunged, God’s presence will depart.
Thus the fourth and final principle: the priestly doctrine of collective responsibility. The sinner may go about apparently unmarred by his evil, but the sanctuary bears the wounds, and with its destruction, the sinner too will meet his doom.b
The priestly doctrine of collective responsibility yields a corollary. The “good” people who perish with the evildoers are not innocent. For allowing the brazen sinners to flourish, they share the blame. Indeed they, the involuntary sinners, have contributed to the pollution of the sanctuary. They are the “silent majority” of every generation—the Germans who tolerated the Nazi rise to power and the peoples of the free world who acquiesced in silence. …
How would the old priests see our world today? How easily they could label the physical pollution of the earth: oil spills, acid rain, strip mining, ozone depletion, nuclear waste. They would be aghast at the moral pollution of the earth: the brazen slaughter of thousands in Bosnia, Somalia, Sudan, Timor, Armenia, Angola … millions dying of hunger, while again the free world, involuntary moral sinners, silently observes the carnage, and with vague guile and impotence, changes the channel. How long, how long, before God abandons his earthly sanctuary?
I have limited myself to one rite, to one ingredient of one offering, in a vast sacrificial system, a symbol system alive today. If its message were fully implemented it could transform the world.
In my first columna I stated that biblical rituals are symbolic acts that, in the main, contain within them ethical values. This axiom is nowhere better illustrated than in the sacrificial system. To make this point I will focus on one rite, with one ingredient, of one sacrifice: the daubing of blood from the purification offering (widely mistranslated as “sin offering”) on the horns of the altar. According to Leviticus, the purification offering is prescribed for moral impurity— an unintended breach of prohibitions (Leviticus 4)—and for severe cases of physical impurity (impurity in this context applies to either gender […]
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