Purification and the Liturgy
March 24, 2021

For decades, our little Biblical Horizons clan has argued that the order of Levitical offerings provides an outline for Christian worship. The order of offerings is: Purification, ascension, and peace. The corresponding order of Christian liturgy is: confession, ascent, and communion.

That claim is based on passages where those three offerings are required in that order:  The ordination rite of priests (Leviticus 9:22), and at the end of a Nazirite vow (Numbers 6:16-17). Some rituals require only two, but the purification always precedes the ascension (e.g., Leviticus 14:19).

There’s also a liturgical logic to the sequence. Before a worshiper approaches God, he must be clean (Purification offering). Having been cleansed, he ascends to Yahweh’s presence (Ascension offering) to enjoy a feast (Peace offering).

I agree with those arguments, and not only because I’ve reached my stubborn sixties. I think they’re persuasive.

The weird thing is, the Bible records precisely one instance of this sequence actually being performed: The Chronicler’s account of Hezekiah’s temple rededication (2 Chronicles 29:21-24). The other passages that mention these three offerings are all prescriptive.

In fact, through a long stretch of the Old Testament, the purification offering (hatt’at) isn’t mentioned at all. After the Pentateuch, it just disappears. There is no reference to the hatt’at offering in Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, or Nehemiah. The word hatt’at is found in these books, but only in the sense of “sin.”

In these same books, ascension and peace offerings are mentioned, sometimes in combination (Josh 8:31; 22:23, 27; Judg 20:26; 21:4; 1 Sam 10:8; 13:9; 2 Sam 6:17-18; 24:25; 1 Kgs 3:15; 8:64; 9:25; 2 Kgs 16:13). In none of these passages is an ascension offering preceded by a purification offering.

The reference to the hatt’at in 2 Chronicles suggests a possible explanation: Perhaps the hatt’at is a founding sacrifice, used only when the temple system is starting or re-starting. Alas, that doesn’t work: Solomon offers ascension and peace offerings at the original temple dedication, but no purifications.

I assume purification offerings were offered at the tabernacle and at the temples, perhaps on a daily basis. The point is, there’s virtually no canonical record of these purifications.

How do we explain this? I don’t know, but here’s a rudimentary theory: Perhaps there’s a typological explanation.

Here’s another weirdness that may support my theory: The only individuals who offer a purification offering are in the New Testament. Joseph and Mary bring the required turtledoves after Mary gives birth to Jesus (Luke 2:22-24; cf. Leviticus 12:6-8). Paul offers a purification offering when he purifies himself (Acts 21:23-24). (The sharp irony of the scene is that Paul is virtually the only person in the Bible who follows the rules, yet he’s arrested for nullifying the law of Moses!)

More importantly, Jesus’ death is a sin offering (Romans 8:3) and a purification for sin (Hebrews 1:3). Israel almost never offers purification offerings, but the true Israel does. He offers the offering His Father always desired (Hebrew 10:1-10).

Perhaps the canon anticipates the conclusion of Hebrews: The blood of bulls and goats can’t take away sin (Hebrews 10:4) – in part because, according to the Scriptures, bulls and goats were almost never offered.

Perhaps the message is this: Without purification, there is no full ascent and no feast. Jesus alone purifies, and so only in Him do we rise to heavenly places to eat and drink and rejoice in the presence of the Lord.

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