Saturday, June 22, 2013

Leviticus: My Temple, My Slaughter House

Welcome to the third book of the Bible: Leviticus. This is the book famous for all of the laws that it lays down, and as such I’m sort of expecting it to be a bit of a dry read. Although it’s also kind of famous in some circles for how horrible many of those laws are, so maybe there’ll be enough outrage to keep things interesting. Guess we’ll find out!

We start out with God calling Moses to the tent of meeting. Presumably this is somewhere on the journey after the Israelites left Mount Sinai, but the actual setting is never specified and I’m not sure it matters. But anyway, the reason for the meeting is that God has some laws to lay down about burnt offerings, which can be either bulls, male sheep or goats, or birds (specifically turtledoves or pigeons). And although the text spells out the process for each of those three categories separately, I’ll just give you the one for bulls since it’s pretty much identical to the one for sheep. The birds are a little different because the anatomy is different, but you’ll get the idea.

“Lev 1:4 He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be acceptesd for him to make atonement for him. 5 Then he shall kill the bull before Yahweh, and Aaron’s son the priests shall bring the blood and throw the blood against the sides of the altar that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting. 6 Then he shall flay the burnt offering and cut it into pieces, 7 and the sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire. 8 And Aaron’s sons the priests shall arrange the pieces, the head, and the fat, on the wood that is on the fire on the altar; 9 but its entrails and its legs he shall wash with water. And the priest shall burn all of it on the altar, as a burnt offering, a food offering with a pleasing aroma to Yahweh.”

This “pleasing aroma” theme gets repeated in all the descriptions of burning animal sacrifice to come as well. It’s apparently very important to understand that God loves the smell of burning flesh. Also… did you get a good visual of the entire blood volume of a bull getting splashed over the sides of the altar?

Next God moves on to grain offerings. These can take many forms, either fine flour mixed with oil, or mixed with oil and baked in an oven, or cooked on a griddle or in a pan. But regardless of form, it must be unleavened, and only a portion is burnt while the remainder the priests get to keep and eat. Free food for priests! Oh, and it must always be salted (I toss that in like an afterthought because the Bible does the same). Offerings of firstfruits should be roasted.

Next we move onto peace offerings, whatever they are. The choices are bulls, sheep, or goats, and each follows essentially the same procedure with slight variation for anatomy. Once again, the person making the offering kills the animal at the entrance to the tent of meeting, and the priest splashes its blood against the altar. In this case the whole animal doesn’t get burned, but rather just “the fat covering the entrails, and all the fat that is on the entrails, and the two kidneys with all the fat that is on them at the loins, and the long lobe of the liver…” It’s specified that all the fat belongs to God, and as a statute forever the people shall not eat fat or blood.

Notice how there’s a lot of that animal that’s not accounted for? What do you suppose happens to it? We’ll get to that, since the Bible will graciously spell it out in a bit. But first… more types of sacrifices.

Next on the list is sin offerings – to be made whenever someone does something God told them not to, but does so unintentionally. The offering is different depending on who committed it. If a priest (or the entire assembly) commits a sin, the offering should be a bull. Same procedure as a peace offering, but a portion of the blood gets taken inside the tent to get smeared on the corners of the incense altar and sprinkled in front of the veil of the sanctuary. The rest of the blood gets poured at the base of the altar instead of splashed on it. And the leftovers get taken outside the camp to be burned. When a leader sins, the same thing is done with a male goat. For common people, it’s a female goat or lamb. There’s also a list of specific sins for which anyone of any station must sacrifice a female goat or lamb or, if he can’t afford those, a pair of turtledoves or pigeons. Or if he can’t afford those, then flour.

Then there’re guilt offerings, which are apparently performed for breaches of faith or touching “unclean things,” or for sins committed unknowingly but discovered later. In addition to paying restitution for any ill-gotten gains from the breach of faith, the guilty party must offer a ram which gets the same treatment as a sin offering.

Anyone else notice that the tabernacle is a fucking abattoir?

God then moves on to talking about how the priests are to deal with the offerings. Stuff like how he has to put on his priestly robe and underwear to remove the ashes of burnt offerings from the altar, but then change into other garments to actually take them out and dispose of them. Oh, and all the leftover bits of the animals (which in many cases includes the vast majority of the meat) that I mentioned earlier? The priests get to eat them. They also get to keep the hides, which are all kinds of useful and can represent significant wealth in a primitive society.

Hmmm… convenient how the God that only Moses can talk to in person has set up a system of sacrifices that provides the priests (i.e. Moses’ immediate family) with free food and wealth.

Oh, at the end of all this, the Bible finally mentions that these laws were handed down on Mount Sinai. I love how the Bible is so awesome at scene setting that you often don’t know where something is happening until after the event.

OK, so now that it’s established how the priest class can leech food off the people of Israel, it’s time to actually create the priest class. Yep, time for the ordination ceremony for Aaron and his sons.

So Moses gathers everyone around the tent of meeting for the start of the ceremony. Now, I’ve never been to an ordination ceremony myself, but this one started out in what I can only imagine is a fairly typical fashion: dressing the new priest in his holy robes, spreading about some holy anointing oil, killing a bull and two rams then splashing their blood all over the altar then setting the carcasses on fire and sprinkling blood on the priests-to-be. Y’know, the kind of shit I’m sure we’re all accustomed to seeing at religious ceremonies. Then Aaron and his sons were sequestered in the tent for seven days. It’s not clear exactly what they were doing in all that time – maybe trying to bone up on the ridiculously complicated ceremonial rules. As we’ll see, mistakes were made…

On the eighth day, they emerge for the next portion of the ceremony. This involves Aaron giving offerings for his ordination (a bull calf and a ram), and then making offerings on behalf of the people (a male goat, a calf, a lamb, an ox, and a ram). All of these animals were slaughtered, and their blood poured out on and around the altar, and then the carcasses burned. And when all of this was done, Aaron and Moses went into the tent. When they emerged they blessed the people, and the glory of God appeared and consumed the offerings in a ball of fire.

Now this is the point where one of those aforementioned mistakes occurs. Two of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, put burning incense in their censers to offer before God. The text doesn’t say why – there certainly doesn’t appear to have been any call for incense in censers at any point in the ceremony, so it’s not like they got something out of order. Maybe they were just caught up in the excitement of the moment and decided to embellish a little. It was a historic occasion, after all, and I imagine they were pretty excited. Anyway, this being the first time this ceremony has ever been performed, and it’s pretty fucking complex, one might expect a mistake or two and a bit of patience and understanding about the whole thing.

Or one might have been paying attention up to this point, and realized that that’s not the kind of God being described in this book.

“Lev 10:2 And fire came out from before Yahweh and consumed them, and they died before Yahweh. 3 Then Moses said to Aaron ‘This is what Yahweh has said “Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.”’ And Aaron held his peace.”

Oh, and just to add insult to injury, Moses declared that while the people were allowed to put on mourning displays for the dead men, Aaron and his remaining sons weren’t. I must admit, I’m quite impressed with the superhuman self-control with which Aaron did not turn and kick his brother in the nuts at this point until he vomited up his own intestines. Or maybe it was just shock.

At this point God speaks up – not to acknowledge the horror he’d just perpetrated, but to declare that the priests were, as a statute forever, not allowed to drink alcohol when going into the tent of meeting, or they’d die. From this point Moses shuffles the ceremony onward, instructing Aaron and his surviving sons to eat their portion of the offerings that had been given on the altar. So they sit down and eat it. But then Moses notices that the goat, which they had been supposed to eat, had accidentally been burned up completely on the altar. So he got pissed at Aaron and his sons and demanded to know why they’d messed that part up.

“Lev 10:19 And Aaron said to Moses, ‘Behold, today they have offered their sin offering before Yahweh, and yet such things as these have happened to me! If I had eaten the sin offering today, would Yahweh have approved?’ 20 And when Moses heard that, he approved.”

I’m pretty sure that’s Bible-speak for Aaron going “Really? You wanna fuck with me right now? If I ate your fucking goat, would God give me my sons back?” followed by Moses shutting the fuck up before he got his ass curb stomped in front of God and everybody.

And that seems like a good, happy place to bring today’s post to a close. Catch you next time – there’s more laws!

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