#Leviticus 4:3-35

The “sin” offering. But we’re not calling it that.

We know the malady: unintentional sin. Now we get the treatment. It comes in four flavors, but the underlying procedure and concept is the same. And it’s absolutely crucial to understanding P’s system.
I’m going to start with flavor 4: the normal person who commits an unintentional sin. Since, after all, most of us are normal people. And so were most of the Israelites, too. (Kingdom of priests my ass.)
First things first, you have to know you screwed up. Did you unwittingly violate the sabbath? The moment that you realize what day it is, you’re obligated. Or the moment someone yells out the window “Dude, it’s Saturday!” That’s when you’re on the hook.
So first, bring a female goat. That’s the assigned animal for this offering. Gotta lay the hands, because this animal needs to get credited to you. Then the animal gets killed, and no one cares by whom, because, as I’ve said, it ain’t the killing that matters. It’s the blood.
Some of the blood gets daubed on the horns of the altar by the priest; the rest gets poured out. The fat gets burned on the altar - all fat is YHWH’s remember - but all the rest of the animal gets burned outside the camp. No one gets to eat any part of it. (Except YHWH.)
But it’s the blood that’s the important part here. Burning the fat makes a nice smell for YHWH; burning the rest of the animal is just disposal. The blood does the real work. Which is purification of the altar and, by extension, the rest of the sanctuary.
This is why many of us insist on calling the sin offering a purification offering (or similar term). It may be occasioned by unintentional sin, but its function is to purify. It removes sin from the sacred space that the sin has contaminated.
More importantly, as we’ll see, it’s an offering brought for purification of the sacred space even when no sin has been committed (as after birth, for instance).

But why, you ask, does the sacred space need purifying after I’ve committed unintentional sin? Don’t I need it?
No - a thousand times no. This isn’t Christianity, it’s ancient Israelite priestly animal sacrificial ritual.

When you sin - so sayeth P - what is contaminated by the sin isn’t you or your soul (🤮) or your body. It’s the sanctuary. You’ve created ritual dirt.
Sins - like impurities, which we’ll come to later on - make the sanctuary unclean, and, for the deity that lives there, increasingly uncomfortable to live in. Your sin dirties up YHWH’s home. And since you made the mess - even by accident - you have to clean up the mess.
So you bring this purification offering, and the blood - the ritual detergent - removes the sin from the altar and sanctuary to which it is clinging. You’re not in trouble. You just need to take responsibility for your actions, and make things right in YHWH’s house.
And what about you yourself? Don’t you need the sin to be taken from you? No - you never had any sin attached to you. That’s not how sin works. What you had attached to you was responsibility for having caused a mess.
So when the priest applies the blood, it purifies the sacred space *on your behalf* - you’ve now done the reparative work necessary - and you, the text tells us, are forgiven. Not because sin has been removed from you - because you removed the sin you caused from the sanctuary.
It’s just what happens with a kid. My daughter leaves her glass of milk on the counter. The cat knocks it over. It was an accident, but it’s her responsibility to clean it up. She’s not in trouble, or dirty. So as soon as she gets to it, it’s all good again.
But what if she decides not to clean it up, because, you know, it’s just one of those days with her? Then she’s not forgiven. And the smell and stain from the spill will just get worse and worse. That’s a bad thing for all of us, but especially me. (I’m YHWH in this scenario.)
And what if the milk gets spilled under the fridge or something, and no one ever realizes that it happened? It’ll still get worse and worse, but she’ll never know that she needs to clean it up!

There is a system in place for such situations. We just haven’t gotten there yet.
Recognizing how this ritual works is key to understanding almost all of the priestly cultic system. It’s all about YHWH’s home, and keeping it clean from sins (and impurities - wait for it). It is emphatically not about you, the individual. I’ll say more about this as we go.
Last things. The type of animal offered, and the placement of the blood, varies depending on who has committed the unintentional sin. For the normal person, it’s a female goat or sheep, and the blood goes on the horns of the sacrificial altar.
But if it’s the high priest, or the entire community, everything gets amped up. It’s a bull, and the blood goes not on the outer altar, but gets sprinkled on the curtain enclosing the innermost chamber, and put on the horns of the incense altar inside the Tabernacle.
The more important the sinner, the more the sin penetrates the sanctuary, and thus the more dangerous it is, and thus the more valuable the sacrifice, and the more sacred the space that requires direct purification. Hierarchy - it’s just what priests do.
Many of the concepts here will come back repeatedly in the chapters to follow. But this is the whole deal: contamination and purification. Making messes and cleaning them up. Individual responsibility for divine comfort and thus corporate well-being. It’s a system!
*A couple of important addenda/corrections:

1. The only purification offerings that are disposed of outside the camp are the extra special ones, from the high priest and the community. Because the priests can’t benefit from their own messes. Thanks, @lianemfeldman.
2. The key word for understanding the purpose of this offering comes at the end of the ritual: the priest purifies (כפר) the sacred space on behalf of the offeror. Translations often make that into “expiate” or “atone,” which has a moral connotation rather than a janitorial one.
The atoning here, if there’s any, is in the reparative act of bringing the offering in the first place. The sacrifice itself doesn’t atone - it purifies. This is no small thing. It’s the major misunderstanding of the whole system for the past 2000 years.

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More from @JoelBaden

9 Jun
#Leviticus 4:2

Here's the introduction to the second major category of sacrifices in Leviticus (and P), and where P goes off into its own little priestly world. Welcome to the involuntary sacrifices. Here we get what you have to offer when you screw up unintentionally.
"How do you screw up unintentionally," you might ask. Well, I'll tell you: when there's a divine commandment not to do something, and you do it without meaning to or without knowing that you did. So says Lev 4:2.

But, you say, give me an example so I know what you mean! Uh...
In pretty classic P style, we get here detailed instructions for a scenario that essentially doesn't exist in reality yet. Because while there have been lots of laws in E to this point, in P...not so much. YHWH hasn't actually given any prohibitions to violate yet.
Read 6 tweets
8 Jun
#Leviticus 4:1

At this juncture, it’s worth stepping back a second and talking about the major groups of sacrifices in Leviticus, since we’re transitioning from one to the other here.

(There’s obviously nothing worth saying about this actual verse.)
What we’re about to enter into are the sacrifices that are generally described as involuntary: they’re required in certain situations, and the text lays out what those situations are (at least in general terms and for the most part).
What we just read in Lev 1-3, then, is generally described as the voluntary offerings: ones you can bring whenever you like. And this is true! While the next ones tell us the conditions under which you must offer x, what we’ve read so far just says “if you want to offer x.”
Read 13 tweets
24 May
#Exodus 39:1-31

Making the priestly garments

This section is basically a near-verbatim fulfillment of the instructions from Exod 28, which isn’t so surprising. What’s interesting here is this repeated phrase, “as YHWH had commanded Moses,” which shows up seven times.
What makes this otherwise pretty standard phrase interesting here is that in all of the Tabernacle construction preceding this, that phrase had appeared only once - and that in the late section we just read, in the summary statement of 38:22.
Suddenly it appears after basically every subsection in this chapter - and seven times, which is a number that we’re trained as biblical readers to sit up and take notice of. (It doesn’t always mean something. But it is a semi-regular structuring device, as probably here.)
Read 5 tweets
23 May
In much of “Western” thought, it is standard, to the point of barely noticeable, to describe monotheism as an “advance” over polytheism - as “enlightened,” or “superior,” etc. As if the natural course of human development leads naturally to monotheism.

I think this is nonsense.
I saw it just the other day in a recent essay on the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten, often considered the first monotheist: the author asks, “Was the king an enlightened religious leader?” as if monotheism is self-evidently enlightened.
It’s natural enough: we are monotheists, we are descended from monotheistic traditions, traditions that replaced polytheism with monotheism, so naturally we think ourselves to be enlightened, and monotheism to be the advanced state of being.
Read 12 tweets
22 May
#Exodus 38:21-31

A little accounting

It’s not that lists and numbers and adding are foreign to the priestly story - far from it - but this section seems, to my eye at least, patently a later insertion. It both interrupts and contradicts its context.
At the beginning of the construction section, the Israelites were to bring all of their materials to make all the Tabernacle stuff. But here we’re getting an accounting before they’re done - they haven’t made the priestly garments yet.
You might say, sure, but they’ve made all the stuff that uses the precious metals, so that’s why this is here. But they haven’t, actually: the priestly garments require gold too, plenty of it.
Read 8 tweets
21 May
#Exodus 37:1-38:20

Bezalel gets to work

Here we have the long description of everything that Bezalel, master craftsman, made for the Tabernacle. Which is to say, all the good stuff, basically in descending order of awesomeness. (Okay, holiness.)
He starts with the ark, which resides in the innermost sanctum; then the table and the menorah and the incense altar, which are in the chamber just outside the ark. All of these are made of gold, which signals their status and sanctity.
Then it's on to the copper stuff outside the sanctum, in the courtyard: the altar for burnt offerings and the wash basin. And here we encounter what is decidedly one of the weirdest details in the whole thing: the wash basin and its stand are made from...women's mirrors?
Read 5 tweets

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