Priestly Sacrifices
September 21, 2020

At the beginning, Cain and Abel both brought “tribute offerings” (minchah) to the gate of Eden (Genesis 4:3-4). After the flood, Noah offers the first “ascension offering” (‘olah; Genesis 8:20). At Sinai, Israel offers “peace offerings” (shelem) for the first time (Exodus 20:24).

At no point do we learn anything about the rituals for any of these offerings. We’re not always sure what needs to be offered. Abel offers animal minchot, Cain offers vegetable. We know Noah offers animals as ascension offerings, but we don’t know anything about how he performs the ritual. Not until Leviticus do we learn the specific rites of the tribute, the ascension, and the peace offerings (Leviticus 1-3).

For the ascension offering, we get our first glimpse in the middle of the priestly ordination rite (Exodus 29:15-18). And along with that, we have the Bible’s first reference to the sin or purification offering (hatt’at, Exodus 29:10-14), again in the midst of the description of the ordination ceremony.

That seems significant. Prior to Exodus 29, we don’t even know such a thing as the purification offering exists. When we do finally hear about it, it’s linked with the priests and directly precedes two other offerings, the ascension and the “ram of filling” (Exodus 29:19-28). That points to the significance of this offering. Whatever it does, it has something to do with priest-making. Aaron and his sons are washed, anointed, and fully decked in their priestly garments when they lay hands on the bull and Moses slaughters it. The priestly dimension of the offering is there in the sin offering of laymen as well: Purified by a sin offering, they’re restored to the “general priesthood” of the Israelite community.

Further, whatever it does, it doesn’t do it in isolation. It’s designed as the first of a series of offerings, an offering that makes other offerings possible. Specifically, the sin offering restores the offerer to a form of priesthood, and so enables the offerer to ascend (through an offering) into Yahweh’s presence, so he can eat, drink, and rejoice before Him.

Even when Yahweh starts describing what to do with the bull, He doesn’t identify the offering. Only after He’s described the entire rite does He say “it is a sin offering” (Exodus 29:14). The description of the ascension offering has the same pattern: First instructions about the rite and then - oh, yeah! - that thing you’ve been doing, it’s an ascension offering (Exodus 29:18).

The rite of the sin offering has several steps:

1. Aaron and his sons lay hands on the bull.

2. Moses slaughters the bull at the doorway.

3. Moses smears blood on the horns of the bronze altar, and pours the remainder at the base.

4. Moses removes the fat, the lobe of the liver, the kidneys, and turns them to smoke on the altar.

5. The remainder of the flesh and the refuse of the bull are burned outside the camp.

When we compare this rite to the “normative” rite of the sin offering (Leviticus 4-5), we can note some anomalies. First, the animal used is a bull, the appropriate animal for a priestly sin offering (Leviticus 4:3). Yet, second, the blood is placed on the horns of the bronze altar, not the horns of the golden altar. This deviates from the blood rite for a sin offering for priests, in which blood should be smeared on the horns of the golden altar. The sin offering of the ordination is/is not a priestly sin offering. The animal is right; the blood rite is wrong.

Third, Moses is in charge of the whole rite. He slaughters, distributes blood, turns the animal pieces to smoke. That is, he takes the role that the priest would normally have in the priestly sin offering (Leviticus 4:5-10).

All these divergences converge on one message: The sin offering in the ordination rite takes a special form because it is a sin offering for priests-in-the-making. Some elements match the priestly sin offering. Some don’t. Because Aaron and his sons are/are not priests. They are priests-on-the-way.

The ascension offering of the ordination rite is a standard ascension offering, with Moses again presiding as priest. In comparison with Leviticus 1, it’s an abbreviated description, but there are no anomalies.

Two further details. First, the movement from verses 9-10 is intriguing. Verse 9 ends with the declaration that Moses “shall fill the hand of Moses and the hand of his sons.” Then, almost immediately, they lay their hands on the bull. That is, they lay their “filled” hands on the bull. They have no sooner received priestly privilege than they need to relinquish it, offering it up to Yahweh in smoke and blood. We are reminded of Abraham’s call to relinquish his son, and we expect that the priests, having emptied their hands to Yahweh, will find them full again soon enough.

Second, the overall movement of these two offerings is noteworthy. The purification offering targets the altar, purifying it for other offerings and (in Jim Jordan’s terms) opening doors to Yahweh’s presence. Once the doors have been unlocked, the ascension begins, and it comes to an end in a burst of fragrance, a “soothing aroma” to Yahweh. The word ‘ishsheh, normally translated as “offering by fire,” should be translated as “bridal food.” Through the sin offering, Aaron and his sons, representing Israel, climb up into Yahweh’s presence, bearing the aroma of sacrifice, fragrant as a bride prepared for her Husband.

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