Is God Truly Everywhere? Sacred Space and the Role of Sacrifices
Leviticus 6-7 lays out the rules for sacrifices of various types, carrying forward the theme of chapters 1-5. At the same time, these chapters (6-7) shift the emphasis from the ingredients, preparation, and applicability of the sacrifices to defining the role of the consecrated priesthood in their actual presentation.
Specifically, these chapters prescribe a detailed tôrāh “ritual instruction” to the priests for each of the major categories of sacrificial offerings:
- ʿôlāh, “burnt offering”
- minḥāh “grain offering”
- ḥāṭṭāʾt, “an offering that undoes the sin”
- ʾāšām, “guilt offering”
- šelāmîm “sacred gifts of greeting”
The sacrificial regimen resonates with the overall character of Israelite religion. First comes the ʿôlāh, literally, “the offering that goes up in flames”; it is entirely burned on the altar and intended for the deity. The ʿôlāh could be from animals or fowl. This is followed by the grain offering, minhāh. Thus, between the ʿôlāh and the minḥāh gifts could derive from all types of food sources.
Next sin offerings, ḥāṭṭāʾt, and the related guilt offerings, ʾāšām, intended to correct for inadvertent sins committed and impurities contracted in anticipation of worship. In some cases, the priests partook of sections of sin offerings in celebration of their own communion with God.
Finally, the šelāmîm is meant to greet the arrival of God when the communion feast begins. This offering is a subtype of a zebaḥ, “a sacred meal,” partly offered to God on the altar, and partly consumed by the priests and donors.
Sacrifices in the Torah and in the Ancient Near East
These chapters, like the rest of Leviticus, belongs to the Priestly component within Torah literature (P). Although P makes up part of Genesis, Exodus, and large parts of Numbers, Leviticus is the only Torah book entirely attributable to the Priestly component. The Priestly tradition locates the initiation of Israelite public worship in the generation of Moses, before the Israelites entered the Promised Land, and describes a portable Tabernacle suitable for use on the march.
Whereas the actuality of this wilderness tradition is open to question, the general realism of the sacrificial rites detailed in the Priestly source is more or less assured by the fact that many ancient Near Eastern societies practiced rituals of a similar sort, and recorded them in documents that resemble in form the documents or torot now found in the Priestly code of the Torah.
Archeological activity has uncovered previously unknown cuneiform documents from ancient Syria and Mesopotamia, from Hittite Anatolia, as well as alphabetic texts from Ugarit and the Phoenician city-states, including Carthage, from Aramean Syria and from Arabia, and more. These documents describe and prescribe royal and priestly installations, festival celebrations, sacrificial offerings and rites of purification.
Although we ought not to assume that the sacrifices prescribed in Leviticus 1–7, or in the Priestly source as a whole, were practiced uniformly throughout the biblical period, the abundant comparative evidence trumps the often heard notion that such sacrifices were fabricated and were never practiced in ancient Israel. To the contrary, their realistic interpretation is the key to decoding the deeper meaning of worship in ancient Israel.
The Meaning of Sacrifice
How are we to make sense out of all of these rituals, and why was sacrifice so important? It is generally acknowledged that prayer was not in itself a sufficient mode of worship in ancient Israel unless accompanied by sacrifice. This is because the objective of worship was not only to “communicate” with the deity but to bring about the nearness and presence of the deity, namely to establish “communion” with Him.
This was to be accomplished by invoking the deity to draw near through prayer, but more to the point, by offering Him hospitable gifts. A sacrifice is best understood, therefore, as a gift to the deity. Thus the Hebrew word minḥah expresses both a gift from one person to another (e.g. Gen. 32:14) as well as a gift a person offers to God—a sacrifice (e.g. Gen. 4:3).
The deepest desire of worshippers was to achieve qirbat ’elōhîm “the nearness of God” (Isaiah 58:9, Psalms 73:28). Worshippers longed for the presence of God, as expressed in the wilderness when the Israelites posed the dire question: “Is YHWH in our midst or not?” (Exodus 17:7).
The greatest fear was that God would withdraw from the human community, and abandon His people. The operation of sacred sites, and especially of a central temple, actualized the presence of God in the Israelite and later Jewish societies. Pilgrimages were undertaken as one means of preserving this vital connection, and especially in later periods, delegations from the diaspora assumed an important role.
The annual festivals were designated “ḥag” which means “pilgrimage.” The priests saw to it that the public cult operated effectively, and the awareness of this function helped to assuage the fear of divine withdrawal within the community, even for those who did not personally offer sacrifices.
The Limits of Sacrifice
It is inevitable, given human nature, that the efficacy of sacrifice would be misunderstood as being automatic, leading worshippers to believe that performance of rituals was sufficient to secure God’s blessings without regard for the moral character of Israelite society. Remarkably, the Hebrew Bible preserves powerful critiques of cult and worship, mostly by the prophets of Israel, who denounce this mentality in unmistakable terms.
This has led some to conclude that the prophets objected to sacrificial worship, in essence, which is hardly the case. All biblical sources endorse the concept of God’s acceptance of sincere sacrifice, conveyed by Hebrew le-raṣon “acceptably, desirably.” Thus, we read in the book of Isaiah:
ישעיה נו:ז וַהֲבִיאוֹתִים אֶל הַר קָדְשִׁי וְשִׂמַּחְתִּים בְּבֵית תְּפִלָּתִי עוֹלֹתֵיהֶם וְזִבְחֵיהֶם לְרָצוֹן עַל מִזְבְּחִי כִּי בֵיתִי בֵּית תְּפִלָּה יִקָּרֵא לְכָל הָעַמִּים.
Isa 56:7 I shall bring them to My holy mountain, and cause them to rejoice in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and their sacred meals will be acceptable on my altar, for My house shall be proclaimed a house of prayer for all peoples.
What Happened to Sacrifice?
The obvious question pertains to the fate of the sacrificial system. Is it that later Jewish religious leaders no longer regarded it as essential, and “outgrew” it, so to speak? This assumption does not stand up historically. Pursuant to carefully taken decisions on the part of kings, priests and prophets, sacrifice ceased because sacred space had been reduced to one site on the face of the earth, the Temple of Jerusalem.
The Judahites, who magnified the Jerusalem Temple, seemed not to be content with the assurance that God was everywhere, near to all who call upon Him truthfully (Psalm 145:18). If that were so, the effort and resources devoted to building and maintaining the Temple and its cultic operation would not have been undertaken.
As a result, when access to that singular site was no longer possible due to its destruction and the dispersion of Jews from their homeland, Jews everywhere were deprived of religious fulfillment, and have remained so until this very day. Present-day Judaism faces the challenge of redefining sacred space in light of the resettlement of the ancestral homeland in modern Israel, albeit in ways modulated by new concepts of sanctity, and by new modes of religious expression.
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March 10, 2014
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Prof. Rabbi Baruch A. Levine z"l was Emeritus Skirball Professor of Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at New York University. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. from Brandeis University and his M.H.L. and ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Levine is the author of the two volume Anchor Bible commentary on Numbers and the JPS commentary on Leviticus.
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