#187. Is the non-sacrificial slaughter of a sacrificial animal for the consumption of its meat strictly prohibited OR is it allowed in certain cases? (Lev 17:3-9 vs Deut 12:21-25)


In its present redacted form, the Pentateuch has Yahweh both commanding the prohibition of all non-sacrificial slaughter as an eternal decree (Lev 17:3-9) and commanding non-sacrificial slaughter for certain cases (Deut 12:21-25)—and as we shall see, these are specific cases defined by the Deuteronomist’s unique historical circumstances.

As we have seen elsewhere (#137, #139-140, #141, #143, #146, #155, #175, #178, #183, #184, #185, #186), rather than seeing Yahweh commanding contradictory laws, it is more accurate to acknowledge that these contradictory views were composed by separate individual writers who each sought to legitimate their own position and beliefs by placing them on the lips of their god. Centuries later when these contradictory texts were brought together, such contradictions became visibly apparent since they now were separate components of the same “book.” In the present case, the Deuteronomist’s position concerning the non-sacrificial slaughter of sacrificial animals for the consumption of meat is at variance with that of the Priestly writer.

Before looking at this specific contradiction, it is necessary to address the larger issue of sacrificial slaughter. In the ancient world, one of the predominant reasons for sacrificing an animal was to consume its meat. This was especially so for those animals typically associated with other forms of sacrifices—oxen, calves, sheep, and goats. In ancient Israelite culture, if an individual or family wished to eat one of these animals, then they would have to sacrificially slaughter that animal. In other words, parts of it such as its fat had to be sacrificially offered up to Yahweh. This was Yahweh’s portion: “all fat is Yahweh’s” (#172).

The rationale behind this archaic practice still remains elusive: perhaps these animals were viewed as sacred and therefore demanded a sacrificial slaughter. That the Israelites themselves sacrificially slaughtered these sacred animals as a means to prepare their meat for consumption and/or to make an offering to Yahweh (or to other deities) is attested as the background behind the legislation for both Deuteronomy 12 and Leviticus 17. The latter informs us that Israelites were sacrificing to the “satyrs” of the open fields during the time that this text was written, presumably the exilic or post-exlic periods. Likewise, the Deuteronomist also notes the prevalent practice of offering sacrifices and performing sacrificial slaughter to either Yahweh or other gods at unsanctioned altars, as the Deuteronomist saw this (#137-138). Thus the prohibitions in both Leviticus 17 and Deuteronomy 12 against sacrificial slaughter at any other place than at Yahweh’s altar, or to any other deity, must be understood against these authors’ individual historical contexts. We start with Leviticus 17.

Leviticus 17 concerns itself with ritual legislation associated with the slaughtering and eating of meat. It displays a heightened concern for the proper disposal of the animal’s blood, with the atoning properties of the animal’s blood, and with the blood-guilt that an individual incurs upon himself when proper sacrificial slaughter is not followed, as decreed by the Priestly writer through the mouthpiece of Yahweh. In broad strokes, Leviticus 17 differentiates between those animals that are inherently associated with sacrifices to Yahweh—the burnt-offering, the sin-offering, the peace-offering, etc.—and those that are not. There are strict regulations for the slaughtering of Yahweh’s sacrificial animals, and conversely severe punishment is allocated to the individual who does not follow these regulations or eternal laws as the Priestly writer adjures.

This is the thing that Yahweh has commanded: Any man from the house of Israel who slaughters an ox or a sheep or a goat in the camp or who slaughters outside the camp and has not brought it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting to bring forward an offering to Yahweh in front of Yahweh’s Tabernacle—blood-guilt shall be imputed to that man. He has shed blood, and that man shall be cut off from among his people. (Lev 17:3-4)

We notice that the current prohibition solely pertains to oxen, sheep, and goats—that the slaughtering of these specific animals for the consumption of meat requires unwaveringly that these animals be sacrificially slaughtered to Yahweh alone and only at Yahweh’s altar (see also #137-138). We are furthermore informed that any Israelite not following this commandment, not sacrificially slaughtering these animals in front of Yahweh at his altar, incurs upon him blood-guilt and will be irrevocably cut off from his people. It is not difficult to surmise, especially when we read further, that the Priestly writer adopts this sacrificial legislation precisely because Israelites were not bringing their oxen, sheep, and goat before Yahweh to be sacrificially slaughtered by the Aaronid priests, but rather were sacrificing them in the open field to “satyrs.” The above law was decreed so that

the children of Israel will bring their sacrifices—which they are making in the open field—to Yahweh, to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, to the priest, and make them peace-offerings to Yahweh. And the priest shall dash the blood on Yahweh’s altar at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and burn the fat to smoke as a pleasant smell to Yahweh. And they shall not make their sacrifices anymore to the satyrs after whom they are whoring. This shall be an eternal law to them through their generations. (Lev 17:5-7)

The Priestly writer’s commandment that oxen, sheep, and goats must be brought before Yahweh and sacrificially slaughtered on Yahweh’ altar responds to two real historical and religious concerns that the 6th century BCE Priestly writer sought to address: the eradication of the widespread practice of sacrificing these animals to the natural field-spirits or satyrs, and the ritual atonement that was necessitated because of the blood-guilt that occurred as the result of slaughtering one of these animals. Apparently there had already been a custom that when traditional sacrificial animals—ox, sheep, goat—were slaughtered for consumption they were sacrificially slaughtered, and here the biblical text informs us, to the satyrs of the open field. Thus the sacrificial slaughtering of “animals from which one would bring forward an offering by fire to Yahweh” (Lev 7:25) or to other ancient Near Eastern deities was already a given. Leviticus 17:3-7 merely redirects this practice to Yahweh and specifically to his altar.

Furthermore, the mention of performing sacrifices to satyrs or open-field goat-demons outside the camp is an anachronism. It betrays the text’s real date of composition and the historical concerns it sought to address. This could not have occurred as part of the narrative setting in the wilderness, let alone the whole sacrificial institution demanded by the Aaronid priestly writer (see also #158). For starters, sacrificing “outside the camp” which was designated as a zone of impurity by the Priestly writer would have been nonsensical. Second, the whole sacrificial apparatus as laid out in Leviticus 1-8 highlights Yahweh’s Tabernacle and altar as the center of the camp where all sacrifices and offerings to Yahweh by fire were conducted. It is an idealized picture of the post-exilic cult retrojected back in time as part of the Sinaitic experience. The mention of sacrifices to satyrs occurring in and outside the camp is an archaism that speaks of the practice of sacrificing in the open fields away from the Jerusalem Temple in the post-exilic period. This context as well as the priestly legislation banning such practices were retrojected into the past as part of an archaized narrative.

Another issue at stake here is blood-guilt. The individual who slaughters an ox, sheep, or goat in the camp and has not brought that animal to the altar of Yahweh is guilty of spilling that animal’s blood (17:4). The accusation is one of murder, and the terms in which this unaccounted spilling of blood is articulated are the same for the spilling of human blood: “he has shed blood.”

It must be stressed that the importance of following this ritual legislation, which primarily sought the proper sacrificial treatment of the slaughtered animal’s blood and fat, were part of the priestly writer’s larger ritualistic theology. Any spilled blood had to be atoned for, and it was the blood itself, the animal’s life force (nephesh), that effectuated this atonement. To atone for this blood-guilt incurred by slaughtering one of these animals, the individual must bring the slaughtered animal to the Aaronid priest before Yahweh’s altar so that the priest may dash the blood of the slain animal upon Yahweh’s altar. “It is the blood [on the altar] that makes atonement for life” (17:11)—i.e., the life that was taken.

Before moving forward, it needs to be emphasized that the sacrificial legislation of Leviticus 17:3-9 is only for sacrificial animals. Leviticus 17:13-14, on the other hand, outlines the requirements for all other non-sacrificial animals. For any other animal that is permissible to eat—deer, gazelle, roebuck, etc.—that are non-sacrificial game animals or birds, sacrificial slaughter is not mandated. One simply needs to properly dispose of the animal’s blood by spilling it on the ground (Lev 17:13). All commentators seemingly hurry over these verses and the distinction the chapter is making being preparing sacrificial and non-sacrificial animals for meat. Properly read, Leviticus 17 commands sacrificial slaughter of sacrificial animals, and non-sacrificial slaughter of non-sacrificial or game animals. On this point all the sources agree. As we shall see, Deuteronomy 12 also distinguishes between preparing sacrificial animals and game animals for consumption.

Thus Leviticus 17 ordains that an animal from which one would bring forward an offering by fire to Yahweh—namely an ox, sheep, or goat—must be sacrificially slaughtered upon Yahweh’s altar, and all other animals one merely needs to observe the commandment to spill the blood on the ground and not to eat its blood. Deuteronomy 12 follows this same distinction with the sole exception of allowing non-sacrificial slaughter of those animals from which one would bring forward an offering by fire to Yahweh—namely an ox, sheep, or goat—if the individual lived far away from Yahweh’s altar. We note that this would have been anathema to the Priestly writer.

The central claim of Deuteronomy 12 is that all burnt-offerings and sacrifices (along with tithes, vows, etc.) must be presented to Yahweh “at the place where Yahweh will choose to tent his name” (Deut 12:5-7, 11, 13-14, 17-18, 26-27). In this respect Deuteronomy 12 ordains the same commandment as Leviticus 17:3-9—namely all burnt-offerings and sacrifices including the sacrificial slaughter of sacred animals for consumption must be brought before Yahweh and sacrificed on his altar. Certainly Deuteronomy places a lesser accent on the whole ritual apparatus. But the text is clear about the necessity to sacrificially slaughter at Yahweh’s altar those animals from which one would bring forward an offering by fire to Yahweh, and eat it there in the presence of Yahweh (see also #137-138).

You shall inquire at the place that Yahweh your god will choose from your tribes to set his name there, to tent it. And you shall come there and bring there your burnt-offerings and your sacrifices and your tithes and your hand’s donation and your vows and your contributions and the firstborn of your herd and flock. And you shall eat there in front of Yahweh your god. (Deut 12:5-7)

You may not eat within your gates the tithe of your grain or your wine or your oil or the firstborn of your herd or your flock or your vows that you’ll make or your contributions or your hand’s donation. But rather you shall eat them in fronto of Yahweh your god, in the place that Yahweh your god will choose. (Deut 12:17-18)

You shall carry your holy things that you’ll have and your vows and shall come to the place that Yahweh will choose. And you shall do your burnt offerings, the meat and the blood, on the altar of Yahweh your god. And the blood of your sacrifices shall be spilled on the altar of Yahweh your god, and you shall eat the meat. (Deut 12:26-27)

Pertaining to the preparation of all other animal meat—that is, non-sacrificial animals— Deuteronomy’s position is the same as that of Leviticus 17:13.

Only: as much as your soul desires you may slaughter and may eat meat according to the blessing of Yahweh your god that he has given you in all your gates. The impure and the pure may eat it, as a gazelle and as a deer. Only: you shall not eat the blood. You shall spill it like water on the earth. (Deut 12:15-16)

That this passage deals with non-sacrificial or secular animals is clear from the preceding context where the treatment of sacrificial animals was addressed, which required sacrificial slaughter at the place where Yahweh tents his name. Additionally, the text makes a concerted effort to distinguish these animals and the non-sacrificial slaughter associated with them. Like the game animals of Leviticus 17:13, Deuteronomy 12:16 specifies deer and gazelle. In other words, animals not associated with forms of sacrifice do not require a sacrificial slaughter, and therefore their meat can be consumed at home, “in your gates.”

The reference to the fact that both pure/clean and impure/unclean individuals may partake of this meal suggests that for sacrificial animals that are slaughtered at Yahweh’s temple and eaten there one needed to be pure to partake in the eating of the meat (#178). At any rate, both Deuteronomy 12 and Leviticus 17 distinguish between the sacrificial slaughter of a sacrificial animal for consumption at Yahweh’s altar and the non-sacrificial slaughter of a non-sacrificial or game animal at one’s home. In this these two texts are in agreement.

The backdrop to both D and P is in fact the widespread custom of offering burnt-offerings and preparing sacrificial animals for consumption at altars other than Yahweh’s.  Like Leviticus 17, Deuteronomy 12’s prohibition against sacrificial slaughter is targeted at the current practice of sacrificially slaughtering animals for the consumption of meat to Yahweh at local and unsanctified altars (Deut 12:2-4, 8-9). It is part and parcel to the centralization of the cult: the sacrificial slaughtering of all sacrificial animals must be done at the place where Yahweh tents his name (#137-138). Verse 8, furthermore, implies that burnt-offerings and sacrifices are currently being done as each man saw fit, since narratively speaking the Israelites have not yet come into the land and therefore Yahweh has not yet marked that place to where all sacrifices and burnt-offerings are to be brought.

Although we must allow room for an overlapping, it nevertheless appears that while Deuteronomy 12 condemns non-sanctified slaughtering of sacrificial animals to any and every altar dedicated to Yahweh, Leviticus 12 condemns the non-sanctified slaughtering of sacrificial animals to another deity besides Yahweh. Put differently, Deuteronomy 12 condemns both the practice of sacrificial slaughter to Yahweh at unsanctified places and to other gods, while Leviticus 17 condemns only the practice of sacrificial slaughter to open-air deities of the field. The thrust behind the Deuteronomist’s condemnation is centralization.

The Deuteronomist’s distinction between the sacrificial slaughter of sacrificial animals and the nonsacrificial slaughter of all other animals is further brought out by the sole exception to the former rule. Thus this, and only this, is the specific contradiction between the Deuteronomic source and the Priestly source. That while the Priestly source mandates that all sacrificial animals must be sacrificially slaughtered in front of Yahweh at his altar, the Deuteronomist, although advocating the same view (Deut 12:5-7, 11, 13-14, 17-18, 26-27), nevertheless voices an exception to this rule.

When the place that Yahweh your god will choose to put his name there will be far from you, then you shall slaughter from your herd and from your flock that Yahweh has given you as I’ve commanded you, and you may eat within your gates as much as your soul desires—just as a gazelle or a deer are eaten so too you shall eat it. The impure and the pure may eat together. Only, be strong not to eat the blood because the blood, it is the life, and you shall not eat the life with the meat. You shall not eat it. You shall spill it like water on the earth. (Deut 12:21-24)

Most commentators miss what is going on here in Deuteronomy as well as in Leviticus 17. They point to verses 15-16 and these verses above as if both passages speak of the same thing. They do not. Although both passages allow for the slaughtering and eating of meat apart from Yahweh’s altar, verses 15-16 are equivalent to Leviticus 17:13-14—namely the common (non-sacrificial) slaughter of non-sacrificial or game animals: the gazelle, deer, etc. Verses 21-24 allow for something else—the non-sacrificial slaughter of sacrificial animals for meat! How is this deduced? By the reference to what types of animals are being desired as meat: “from your herd and from your flock”—in other words, cattle, sheep, and goats, “those animals from which one would bring forward an offering by fire to Yahweh.” This is the sole exception to the Deuteronomist’s otherwise stern commandment to bring all burnt-offerings, sacrifices, tithes, etc. to the place that Yahweh will choose to tent his name. And it is in complete contradiction to the Priestly writer’s claim that there can be no exception to this rule least one incur blood-guilt and is cut off from the people.

The Deuteronomist’s more secular and less ritualistic agenda does not even consider the blood-guilt that happens, according to the Priestly writer, when blood is shed (Lev 17:4). Indeed, given the historical circumstances behind the Deuteronomic ideology of a centralized cult, those who live far from the altar of Yahweh are forced not to eat cow, lamb, or goat since these animals require sacrificial slaughter and since for the Deuteronomist there is only one altar where this sacrifice is permitted, the altar in the Temple at Jerusalem. Prior to this Deuteronomic innovation, we know both through the text of Deuteronomy and Exodus 21:23-24 that sacrificial animals intended for meat were sacrificially slaughtered at any altar throughout the Palestinian landscape and perhaps even to a variety of different deities, Yahweh included. With the Deuteronomist’s new legislation this is no longer permissible.

One readily sees the dilemma that the Deuteronomist faced. For those communities that lived too far away to bring their sacrificial meat to the Temple in order to have it sacrificially slaughtered, they might relapse to an earlier practice of sacrificially slaughtering them at other altars, high places, or rooftop shrines—all of which the Deuteronomist sought to abolish. To prevent this real and potential relapse the Deuteronomist was forced to classify this type of slaughter as non-sacrificial, and therefore allowed for the preparation and consumption of sacrificial meat just as one would prepare and eat a gazelle or a deer! This is the Deuteronomist’s innovation, and it would have undeniably been perceived as anathema by the later Priestly writer. And this brings us to our last point.

It is more than possible that the author of Leviticus 17 wrote this chapter and had his god specifically prohibit all non-sacrificial slaughter of sacrificial animals “outside the camp” as a polemical corrective to Deuteronomy. It is interesting to note that one of the groups that the Priestly writer condemns are those who sacrifice “outside of the camp” to the satyrs of the open fields. We have already discussed how this comment reflects the historical circumstances of its author rather than the narrative setting. Thus the reference to those who sacrifice “outside of the camp” is a pointed polemic against those who sacrifice “those animals from which one would bring forward an offering by fire to Yahweh” apart from the altar of Yahweh. Could these be the Deuteronomist’s communities who live far from Yahweh’s altar? It certainly seems possible.

Also, the Deuteronomist, on account of his focus to centralize the cult in an ever widening geography, has implemented what was never before conceived of—the non-sacrifical slaughter for consumption of “animals from which one would bring forward an offering by fire to Yahweh.” The Priestly writer in effect reinstates the religious and sacrificial nature of this type of slaughter for these types of animals. It is so sacred of an ordeal for the Priestly writer that to sacrificially offer an “animal from which one would bring forward an offering by fire to Yahweh” to any other deity besides Yahweh (Lev 17:5-7) or to non-sacrificially slaughter an “animal from which one would bring forward an offering by fire to Yahweh” (Deut 12:21-25) would incur blood-guilt. For these types of slaughter, the blood needed to effectuate an atonement through the ritualized act of being dashed upon Yahweh’s altar and a peace-offering needed to be committed to Yahweh upon his altar. That is part of these sacrificial animals, their fat, belonged to Yahweh!

The inherent given in all these sources is that an animal, for the consumption of its meat, not belonging to those animals which are offered up to Yahweh by fire, needs no sacrificial slaughter. They are in effect outside the sacrificial system. Only their blood must not be eaten; it must be poured on the ground—thus Deut 12:15-16 and Lev 17:13-14. There is not much space devoted to this issue in these texts because this was a given. In other words, if one wished to eat deer meat—a non-sacrificial animal—one merely had to pour its blood on the ground. Yahweh desires nothing from the deer, neither its fat nor its blood. However, if one wished to eat a sheep from the flock—“an animal from which one would bring forward an offering by fire to Yahweh”—then a sacrificial slaughter is necessitated. Yahweh requires this animal’s blood be dashed upon his altar and its fat offered up on the altar to Yahweh himself. Only Deuteronomy pronounces an exception to this: if one lived far away from Yahweh’s altar, then they may prepare the meat as one would a deer or a gazelle, i.e., a non-sacrificial animal. Thus the issue is not between nonsacrificial or common slaughter and sacrificial slaughter—as many of my colleagues assume—but between preparing sacrificial and nonsacrificial animals for consumption. Sacrificial animals require sacrificial slaughter. Nonsacrificial animals simply require that their blood be poured on the ground.

Thus D, P, and H all permit the nonsacrificial slaughter of animals for the consumption of meat; however if the animal one wished to consume is an “animal from which one would bring forward an offering by fire to Yahweh”—namely an ox, sheep, or goat—then nonsacrificial slaughter is prohibited, and the animal must be offered as a sacrifice to Yahweh (blood on the altar and for P fat burnt on the altar). D however has an exception to this legislation: if one lived too far away from Yahweh’s altar, then one may slaughter the sacrificial animal without the sacrifice (thus in effect diminishing the danger of sacrificing to Yahweh on other altars or to other gods) and eat the lamb or goat like one would a gazelle or deer.

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