The primary religious rituals of Israelite religion involved sacrifices and offerings. The ritual system within the Israelite cult evolved around gifts and offerings that were presented before Yahweh. In examining the book of Leviticus, the sacrificial system of the Israelites can be identified. It is this sacrificial system that was handed down by God through Moses that allowed the people of Israel to cross over the gap between their own weaknesses and corruption to the expectations presented by God. Sacrifices symbolized an acknowledgement of guilt and a need for divine grace and forgiveness.
The Israelite cult is set apart from other cults in that the people were bound together to worship one God. The distinctiveness of the Israelite cult is nothing other than the limitation of cultic activity to one particular patron deity (Anderson, 1987;3). The cults foundation of worship centered on those sacrificial gifts and offerings that were given to Yahweh. In addition, the Israelite cults were village centered. In the beginning of the 12th century BC, settlements on the hill country of Judea and Ephraim began to increase in number and density.
The farming that took place on these hills allowed Israelites to gain an independent economy from surrounding cult economies (Anderson, 1987;23). Sacrifice within the social context can be transgressed into two aspects, one relating to the offender, and the other being the offended one, God. If individuals entered a state incongruent with good relations with God, they had to undergo rites to restore them to a normative status (Davies, 1985;155). Thus the sacrifice encompassed this social dimension. The part played by God in the social lives of man and the action of his divinity.
The Meaning of the Sacrificial Ritual Mans very nature is sinful and redemption during this time was found in the rituals that they performed. It served as a medium between the people and God as a means of redemption for their sins. Sacrificial rituals were the mechanism by which disruptions within Gods world were acknowledged and made right. A complete act of worship implies not merely that the worshipper comes into the presence of god with gestures of homage and words of prayer, but also that he lays before the deity some material oblation (Smith, 1996:43).
Thus, sacrifices created a ritual framework within the community, providing the Israelites with a system of order in their society. Sacrifices often took place within the temple. The tabernacle itself was established to be a place of communion between God and Israel. Here the rituals performed to God revealed not only their guilt offerings but it also was where God revealed his will anew to Israel. The physical structure here is important. The tabernacle is the threshold by which the transition from normal to abnormal, this world to other is consecrated (Leach, 1985:144).
The altar was a gateway to the world of God through which offerings could be made but also the channel through which the power of God is visible to man (Lev 9:24, 10:2). Defining the sacrificial rituals is complex. Some sacrifices were part of the daily rituals and considered voluntary. Other sacrifices took on deeper meaning and were considered compulsory, or to be performed on more special occasions. Nelson breaks down sacrifices into three separate categories: status maintenance rituals, status reversal rituals, and status elevation rituals (Nelson, 1993:55).
All three categories share the same common practice of transference over some type of boundary. Maintenance rituals were intended to keep the daily life of the Israelite in equilibrium and to prevent disorder from occurring within the community or households (Nelson, 1993;55). The Day of Atonement, for example, was a day of rest where the people kept Sabbath and under the provisions of the Lord were not to perform any work during that day (Lev 23). The reversal rituals were designed to restore affairs to their proper condition by reversing impurity into purity and guilt into innocence.
The cleansing ritual of the Leper transferred the individual from the unclean to the clean again prior to their entrance back into society (Lev 14). The elaborate anointing which follows the healing served to remove the person from his status of seclusion into a position of social fellowship within the community, and also served to reposition him within the natural categories of the world (Davies, 1985;158). Finally, the elevation rituals were considered rites of passage, in that it transferred the person from one clear-cut social category into another.
Upon installation, priests endured seven days of isolation, humility and sacrality before entering into the community (Lev 8-9). This rite of passage allows the priest to cross over a threshold where the boundaries between the clean and unclean, holy and profane are blurred (Nelson, 1993;58). It was a state of liminality for the priest where the rules of society are suspended. Sacrifice within the Book of Leviticus In the book of Leviticus the sacrificial framework is broken down in a series of speeches from God to Moses.
In these speeches, God gave laws for the people of Israel directing them to glorify him through the sacrifice. In glorifying him, the Israelites were acknowledging that all their worldly possessions were gifts from God, and in sacrificing them, they were forfeiting themselves as sinners before him. These offerings were expressions of faith, whether it came as voluntary or compulsory. The priest or the sons of Aaron are the dominant actors in the sacrificial ritual. The rabbinic name for the book of Leviticus is kohanim, which means instructions of priests.
Thus, since priests came from the tribe of Levi, the book came to be called Leviticus. The priest served as the intermediary between the lay congregation and God (Gerstenberger, 1996;50). The first seven chapters in the book of Leviticus depict divine descriptions of the sacrificial system. The main types of sacrifices outlined are the whole burnt offering (olah), the grain offering (minchah), the peace offering (shelamim), and the purification offering (chattat). Although the rituals differed in presentation, many elements of structure remain consistent throughout.
The Burnt offerings purpose was to be a gift to God. Usually in the form of a whole animal it was offered daily as an offering of dedication. The ritual was a method of giving something pleasing or savory to God. The ritual was performed in portions, which are allocated into categories of the offering and the residue (Leach, 1985:145). The offering consisted of the essential organs and the surrounding fat and was burnt completely upon the altar. The remaining residue was often discarded but not considered essential to the actual offering.
The sacrificial animal in such offerings held great significance for Israel. The ox was a symbol of wealth because of its high importance within the community. Their milk production and value of trade made the oxen sacrifice the top of the list in ordinances of Israel (Gerstenberger, 1996;27). Other sacrificial animals included the sheep, for those who could not afford to offer the ox, and for those with even less, the turtle-dove or pigeon was acceptable. The second chapter outlines the grace offering which presents an animal offering to the Lord but not in the form of killing.
Rather, a portion of a meal is ceremonially mixed with oil and flour and presented to the priest in offering. The priest then burns a portion of the offering upon the altar and partakes of the rest. Providing food for God out of feelings of gratitude and obligation is the original intention of this sacrifice (Gerstenberger, 1996;42). In times of impurity, one would make an offering in order to purify or cleanse themselves again in the eyes of the Lord. The peace offering, outlined in the third chapter, gives a detailed account of how man was to bring this sacrifice for atonement.
Offering it voluntarily, the animal must be offered at the door of the tabernacle where the man must put both hands upon the head of his offering. This action of putting his hands on the head of the offering was to signify his desire and hope that it would be accepted as atonement for his sins. The sacrifice was to then be killed by the priests who would then sprinkle the blood of the victim upon the altar. It is important to note that the Israelites as a culture were largely vegetarians. Fat during this time and still even today are considered delicacies in the Middle East.
The consumption of meat then, especially the fatty parts, was reserved for festival occasions (Gerstenberger, 1996;48). It was also from these fatty portions that the offerings to God were made. Chapter four and five discuss the sin offering and the role of sacrifice in ritual purification. The Hebrew word chattat encompassed the sin, the sacrifice that deletes it, and the victim of such a sacrifice. When an individual or the community committed a forbidden action, an offering was to be made for redemption. The sin offering is much like the burnt offering in that the victim is burnt on the altar, but the distribution of parts is never eaten.
Rather the ashes of the victim are carried outside the sanctuary to be burnt. Leviticus 4-5 represents a core text of the priestly effort at the elimination of sin and guilt (Gerstenberger, 1996;56). The text focuses in on atonement. This act of reconciliation brings a person back into the fellowship with God after there is disruption in the initial relationship. This disruption consists of ethical, legal and rational discernible transgressions against commandments and affronts to God (Gerstenberger, 1996;57). In the priestly system, atonement could only be achieved through a blood sacrifice.
Blood was held in particular reverence because it was considered the substance of life (Lev 17:14). The blood of the sacrificial animal therefore, substituted for the life of the offending person. It functioned to return that person to fellowship with God. This life force can redeem a life given over to death, and for that reason can also eliminate defilement and reestablish sundered fellowship (Gerstenberger, 1996;60). From this chapter on a combining of sacrificial rituals becomes a consistent occurrence within the book of Leviticus.
Frequently sin offerings, burnt offerings, and often peace offerings are mentioned in the same sequence as the sacrifice (Lev 5:7, 9:2, 9:3, 9:7, 9:22, 10:19, 14:13, 14:19, 14:22, 14:31, 15:15, 15:30). This procedure thus acknowledges that the sin of man is first rendered and the sins effects are dealt with and removed prior to the spiritual death. The sin offering hence nullifies and removes the effects of sin and uncleanness. The concluding remarks in 7:37 and its reference to the opening verses in 1:1-2, constitute the framework enclosing the collection of sacrificial regulations within Levitical law (Gerstenberger, 1996;24).
It is within these first seven chapters that God outlines the religious laws for Israel to follow. The sacrifices are arranged so that their concepts and distinctive features are memorable. With the framework that is established in chapters 1-7, the Levitical text is then able to in the remaining chapters describe the roles of sacrifice in festivals and everyday life. The Day of Atonement where the sin offering secured another year for the community of Israel in the eyes of the Lord (Lev 23). This sacrificial system is thus the foundation of life by which the Israelites live their day to day lives.