Studies in Leviticus: The Blood of Bulls and Goats, Part 1

LeviticusThe author of Hebrews makes abundantly clear that the sacrificial system cannot adequately deal with sin. He writes: For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins (Heb. 10:4). In reading through Leviticus, however, it seems like that is precisely what the sacrificial system is intended to do. How can we reconcile these two conflicting notions of the sacrificial system? It helps to try to understand Leviticus within its original historical/cultural context.

Leviticus does seem to imply that the sacrifices offered in the sanctuary will deal with both individual and communal sin. The language of the texts speaks of removal, reconciliation, purification, and expiation. Leviticus is highly concerned with dealing with sin in the camp of Israel. The scapegoat in particular bears out this reality. Leviticus 16 records the relevant details of the this animal’s role in the removal of sin. We read:

 And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. 22 The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness. (21-22)

The symbolism of the act indicates that the sacrificial system is intending to do precisely what the author of Hebrews says it could never do: take away sins. This is a troubling conflict that readers of the Scriptures must seek to understand. A possible answer to the tension can be seen in the important role of geography in the Levitical theology of holiness.

The trouble we often have with understanding the book of Leviticus is related to our failure to read it within the worldview of its original audience/author. John Walton explains:

Sometimes our failure to see the logic stems from the fact that our idea of logic and of what is important in a book is very different from an Israelite view. One of the elements of Israelite thinking that is foreign to us has recently been receiving increased attention: sacred space. (“Equilibrium and the Sacred Compass”)

There are, of course, theological reasons for why we have failed to grasp this idea of sacred space. Within Christianity the veil of the temple has been torn in two (Matt. 27:51). The temple of God has been opened to us. Even more significantly in the New Testament we find that believers themselves have become the temple of the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 6:19). “Sacred space has not been a central plank in the theological platform of Christianity,” says Walton. Yet, we must read Leviticus within its original historical redemptive context to make sense of it, and that includes understanding this notion of sacred space.

Walton writes about what he calls divine equilibrium, that is God’s ordering of the cosmos and His keeping them in balance. This equilibrium has at its heart the goal of God dwelling with His people. So, when the Fall corrupts this reality, God gives Israel the tabernacle to “reestablish this equilibrium in a sacred space – God’s presence on earth – while retaining restricted access.” Along with this He establishes certain rituals aimed at maintaining equilibrium. Walton, following Frank Gorman, notes “the three most important aspects that rituals relate to are time, space, and status.” He states:

Gorman uses these categories to delineate the important conditions under which rituals must be performed. That is, they must be performed at specific places at specified times (with specified sequences) by people of specific status.

The whole idea is to maintain equilibrium in a specific place as an idealized “island of order in a world of threatened chaos.” It was a small place where God’s special presence could dwell with His people and reestablish His covenantal Lordship over the earth. Reading Leviticus through this “sacred-space” lens can help us resolve the tension between it and the comments of Hebrews.

Attentive readers of Leviticus will find that the most frequent object of “kipper,” the Hebrew word translated as “to atone” or “expiate,” is not the individual but the sancta. “It is not the person who is the focus of the ritual,” writes Walton, “but sacred space.” Because of our theological understanding of the believer, and the soteriological emphasis on change of status, we tend to read Leviticus through this lens, “addressing one’s status with regard to sin.” Yet in Leviticus there is a great emphasis placed on sanctifying the objects of the tabernacle, purifying them. So, in Leviticus 4 we find that the blood of the sacrifice is applied not to the people but to the objects in the tent. We read:

16 Then the anointed priest shall bring some of the blood of the bull into the tent of meeting, 17 and the priest shall dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle it seven times before the Lord in front of the veil. 18 And he shall put some of the blood on the horns of the altar that is in the tent of meeting before the Lord, and the rest of the blood he shall pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting. (16-18)

Leviticus 16 points us towards this conclusion as well. Thus, Allen Ross writes:

On the Day of Atonement the blood was sprinkled on the parts of the tabernacle “to make atonement for the most holy place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites” (16:16). In this sacrificial ritual the blood was not put on the person, but on the different parts of the sanctuary itself. When Moses offered the purification offerings (8:15), he “decontaminated” the altar. The point is that sin and its effects defiled God’s sanctuary and that such defilement put people in mortal danger should they enter the sanctuary in that condition. (Holiness to the Lord, 124)

Thinking about sacrifice in terms of purification of the sacred space, maintaining the equilibrium, allows us to see how the author of Hebrews can speak as he does about the blood of bulls and goats.

The sacrifices of the Old Testament were never designed to take away sin, at least not in the same sense that the New Testament speaks of the removal of sin. They were designed to decontaminate the people and the place of God’s presence among them. They were designed to maintain the divine equilibrium. When, in the New Testament, the place of God’s dwelling becomes the temple of His people there is a shift in the application of the sacrificial blood. The author of Hebrews, then, highlights the differences between the Covenants. Sacrifices in the Old and New Testament do deal with the removal of sin, but the former focuses on the place and the latter the people as the place of God’s dwelling.

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