Leviticus is about being clean. And that is highly relevant to us today because we are all very concerned with staying clean now in the time of the corona virus. My friend Dan McClellan, who is also a Hebrew Bible scholar, wrote on Facebook about the toilet paper hoarding some folks are doing. He wrote,
“People hoard/panic-buy toilet paper because of an intuitive aversion to contamination (that is particularly acute during a pandemic) combined with the intuitive association of toilet paper with removal of contamination. It’s not that people are stupid, it’s that intuitive reasoning is first in line, and when we are pressed for time, feel under threat, or see social capital at stake, our intuitions are given a much wider berth and we tend towards rationalizing it instead of using our reflective reasoning to suppress it.”
This is what Leviticus is all about: contamination and how to remove it. Ancient Israel is more similar to the modern world more than ever right now. Most of us are concerned with contamination. We want to make sure we are not contaminated. We want to make sure the people we love aren’t contaminated, and we want to make sure that high risk people won’t suffer or even die because someone else contaminated them. And its not just people, we also want to make sure the spaces we share won’t be contaminated when we use them, whether they be workplaces or restaurants or gyms or schools. Everyone is doing a deep cleaning right now trying to decontaminate shared spaces.
This is what the whole book of Leviticus is about: how to identify contamination, how to decontaminate shared space, and how people who contaminate and people who are contaminated can be made healthy. I’m not saying that there’s a medical cure for COVID-19 in Leviticus. But I am saying that we Christians are keeping our heads in anti-Semitic sand to think that its not relevant to us right now. So here’s 3 things to remember about Leviticus: 1) Sin isn’t simply a moral category. 2) Blood is detergent and its not put on people for sacrifice. 3) Forgive doesn’t mean forgive.
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1) Sin isn’t simply a moral category.
If you read into chapter 4 of Leviticus, you will find the first appearance of the word “sin” in the book. Its interesting that the first sacrifices in Leviticus have nothing to do with sin. In fact, the book of Leviticus starts with a conditional “if” or “when” statement in Lev 1:2. “If you are going to sacrifice” or “When you sacrifice”, here’s how to do it. There is no command opening the book of Leviticus which orders the Israelites to make sacrifices. Rather, there was a cultural assumption that people should sacrifice to the gods and Leviticus is speaking to that culture. But when Leviticus finally gets around to mentioning sin in ch4, you will read about a “sin offering”. If you read some of the details, you will learn that sin offerings are sacrifices given to “atone” for sin. When someone makes a mistake that hurts someone else, they can give a certain sacrifice in a certain way and through that sacrifice, the person will be restored to the community and God will forgive them. But if you keep on reading to Leviticus 12, you will read a very strange scenario of the sin offering. There, we read that women must have a sin offering performed on their behalf after they give birth to a child. Why a sin offering? Is it a sin to have a baby? Did the woman do something wrong in giving birth? Of course not. Child birth is not a sin. However, there is a lot of blood lost during child birth and even with modern medicine, child birth can be very messy. How do you clean up a mess, particularly a mess with blood in it? In ancient Israel, they wanted to make sure any contamination after a child birth had been cleaned. So they performed a sin offering. This shows us that “sin” doesn’t mean what we generally think of as “sin” in the Bible. Most often, people think sin is the bad choices you make. And it certainly is that. But in Leviticus, sin is any kind of contamination. Sin is anything that makes something else dirty. It could make a person dirty, a place, or a relationship. And this contamination of dirtiness must be cleaned. So “sin offering” is actually a poor translation for modern English speakers. Something less confusing would be “cleansing sacrifice” which a number of commentators have chosen as a better way to translate.
Sin, whether it be physical or moral, is contamination. And just like today, contamination spreads. And we want to be as sure as possible that we have done everything we can to clean up contamination and stop it from spreading. We don’t want to make others sick. And so, for an ancient culture dealing with social and physical contamination, they needed a strategy to decontaminate. The sin offering, or better, the cleansing offering, was one of those strategies.
2) Blood is detergent and it is not put on people for sacrifices.
Since cleaning off contamination is so important in Leviticus, there must be a powerful detergent that the ancient Israelites could use and Tide won’t cut it. So, they used blood. That seems odd to us because we think of blood as a contaminate that needs to be cleaned. But that was not the way their culture worked. For them, blood was life. For sin and the consequences of sin, which is death, to be cleaned, only life itself could do the cleaning. They only way the priests could handle life itself was to handle blood. Blood was a detergent. But what actually gets cleaned? Its not the people. In the Bible, blood is never once used to clean people. There are a handful of places where its used to consecrate people or ceremonially declare some people ready for a special job. But its never once put on a person during a sacrifice. The Bible never once pretends that the blood of an animal can clean a person. This is unlike other ancient near eastern cultures. In the sacrificial practices of other cultures, blood was regularly put on the person offering the sacrifice and was said to clean them. You might remember the HBO show Rome. There’s a scene where Atia wants to do her religious duty and performs a sacrifice to make herself clean of past wrongdoings. She is a rich lady, so she can afford a big animal. She stands beneath a platform with lots of holes in it. A bull is taken up on to the platform and a priest slaughters it and the blood is poured down all over her body. Its very gross. Poorer people used smaller animals and blood would be smeared on their heads. In cultures like these, people actually believed that killing an animal would please their god and that they could be cleaned by that blood. But the Bible never once says this. Instead, all over the Leviticus, you will find that instead of putting the blood on a person, blood is smeared or poured on spaces. Most often, blood is put on the altar. So, the person is not washed by the blood, instead, the altar is washed by the blood. Just like we want to make sure shared spaces are cleaned so as not to contaminate another person, so did ancient Israel. The altar was a place they could all meet with God. And it needed to be cleansed of the sin they brought to it. They didn’t believe it cleaned them, but they did believe it cleaned the space. This is very important in the New Testament. I don’t want to go into the details because this is about Leviticus and I have one final point to make, but if you think that Jesus’ blood has been poured over you, you have mistaken the places in the New Testament that refer to Jesus as an altar.
3) Forgive doesn’t mean forgive.
From chapter 4 on in Leviticus, you will see the repeated phrase, “atone and forgive”. The priest will perform the sacrifice on behalf of a worshipper and then the worshipper will be forgiven. The trouble is that “forgive” does not mean “forgive” in Leviticus or Numbers. The word translated as forgive in Hebrew is /salach/. And it does not mean forgive in the way you and I as modern English speakers use the word forgive. If you go to Numbers 14, you will see this word at work.
The people of Israel, led by Moses and Aaron, are complaining. They are lamenting their situation and wishing that they had died in Egypt as slaves. They start speaking against and then plotting against their leaders. First, they try to replace Moses with a new leader. Then the situation gets violent and the mob tries to stone Moses and Aaron. In anger, Yahweh says he wants to kill all the people and make a new nation from Moses. In a famous passage, Moses reminds Yahweh of his great reputation and his commitment to keep his promises. He asks Yahweh to /salach/ the Israelites in Num 14:19. Most translations say “Please forgive” for the Hebrew /selach-na/. Then Yahweh agrees, saying, “Ok, I have forgiven them”. He then describes the terms of this “forgiveness” which is the death of all the Israelites who came out of Egypt. Only Caleb is exempt, and the children born in the desert will carry on in their parents’ place. This is not what it means “to forgive” in modern English and so misunderstanding of the Hebrew Bible abounds.
There are cases in English of the word “forgive” meaning conditional forgiveness with terms attached. One might think of dealing with a creditor regarding financial debt. As financial guru Dave Ramsey teaches, speak politely to your creditors and you might receive some debt forgiveness. This means that if you are nice and explain your financial situation to your creditors and negotiate to pay some portion of the debt owed, you might be forgiven part of the debt.
But that is imprecise to use “forgive” this way when people expect “forgive” to mean something else entirely. This imprecision is the weight that Bible translations put on their readers. Most often in English, forgive means to “forgive and forget” or forgive unconditionally. Now, unilateral forgiveness is used in trauma healing as a way for victims to move past a trauma. When many Christians who are not Bible scholars think about forgiveness, they think of God forgiving unconditionally. They think of Jesus forgiving the very people who were murdering him while they were murdering him. That is what forgiveness means for most modern English speakers, especially religious people. That is what forgiveness means in Father forgive them, they know not what they do. So, Bible translations are not wrong, per se, to translate /salach/ as “forgive”, but it is terribly imprecise. So much so that it invites modern readers to misunderstand significant portions of the Hebrew Bible.
/Salach/, across its 48 usages in 46 verses of Scripture, means to make a deal or accept an amends. In Num 14, /salach/ meant to make a deal with Moses so Yahweh would not annihilate the Israelites. Instead, he would only annihilate some of them. Moses asked Yahweh to /salach/ the people, and he did. This is a kind of forgiveness, but the deal-making kind. This is more like accepting a lesser amount in collecting a debt than it is a modern usage of forgiveness in English, especially in English Bibles. It certainly is not like “carrying a sin” or “passing over an iniquity” like typical forgiveness phrases in biblical Hebrew. However, /salach/ does not mean harsh retribution which just happens to be not as devastating as a greater retribution. That is just the context of Numbers 14 about divine anger.
In Leviticus, /salach/ refers to the acceptance of an attempt at making amends. A similar kind of acceptance‒in the modern world that people might more readily understand as an analogy‒is Step 9 in the 12 step Alcoholics Anonymous program. In Step 9, AA members seek to appropriately make amends with those whom they wronged before their sobriety. /Salach/, in this AA scenario, would symbolize the offended party’s acceptance of the alcoholic’s attempt at sincere amends. The offended party might have rightly hated the alcoholic for the damage caused while drinking. Perhaps the offended party has lost money because of the alcoholic’s decisions and is rightly due full compensation. Maybe the alcoholic will try to repay if financially capable, or maybe the alcoholic is not capable. In any case, accepting the amends of an alcoholic means the offended party is convinced of the alcoholic’s sincerity in recovering from alcoholism and chooses to move on from past offenses and not hold them against the recovering alcoholic. It is a powerful expression of reconciliation, but it is not equivalent with unconditional forgiveness that many Bible translation readers associate with God’s forgiveness.
With this background knowledge and the specifics of /salach/, its positive usage can be properly understood in places like Lev 4:20. Since the people understand what they have done, they have the chance to express their sincere remorse for an action that they cannot change. But they can perform a ritual that the larger culture accepts as redemptive while still subverting that culture’s expectations. Instead of blood cleaning a person, blood is smeared on the altar in Leviticus. Rather than cleaning a worshipper, this cleans the worship space. God may then choose to accept the worshippers’ ritual of the priest cleansing the altar on their behalf because God views the sacrifice as sincere and proper. This acceptance is /salach/. English Bible translators, for the last phrase of v20, might consider a rendering like the priest will cleanse the altar on their behalf and God will accept their amends. This shows the graciousness of God’s interaction with and acceptance of proper sacrifice and does not confuse readers into thinking that sacrifice causes God’s forgiveness.
Such confusion has caused great misunderstanding in some theologies and church traditions. Some people think that Leviticus contradicts the book of Hebrews, and so while respecting it as Scripture, they functionally reject it as having any relevance to their faith. Some claim that Jeremiah 7 rejects the whole of Leviticus because God did not command it (which ignores the conditional if/when statements which frame the whole book). Many others very simply claim to be “under the New Covenant” and use that as a reason to dismiss that which they consider “the Old Covenant”. Never mind that in Mark 1 Jesus commands a man healed from a skin disease to follow Leviticus 13 and offer a sacrifice thanking God for his healing. Following a precedent established by the so-called Church Fathers, the Hebrew Bible, Leviticus included, has been turned into a second-tier kind of Scripture. As Orthodoxy had to respond to the claims of Marcion, they defended and retained the Hebrew Bible by lowering its status to “Old Testament”. It was Scripture, but the New Testament was more so, according to the Church Fathers.
Today, better research in biblical studies allows Christian exegetes to go beyond allegorizing the Hebrew Bible, as Patristic voices like Origen are known for. It is possible to read Leviticus in its own ancient near eastern context and learn how its procedures expose other ancient near eastern sacrificial traditions as mere murders which justify and cover continued violence. It is possible to learn how Jewish people read Leviticus 10 as a resurrection story and how Jesus referred to it in the Lord’s prayer. It is possible to learn how Jesus functions as the /kapporet/ or /hilasterion/ (to use the Greek term for the cover of the ark of the covenant) and how he became this worship space where sacrificial blood is poured. If Leviticus can be taken as is, rather than as some systematic theologies would have it be, then Bible translators can use translation projects as an opportunity to undo the damage that anti-Semitism has wrought through much of Christian theology. Jews need not be put down so Jesus may be lifted up. And when we finally do that work of not making ourselves out to be better than The Jew whom we worship, perhaps God will /salach/ us and accept our work as an amends.
– Daniel Rodriguez