In the Priestly literature that we are now looking at, the cult, sacrifices, and maintaining strict ritual and ethical purity were the central concerns and elements of its belief system and worldview. As we’ve already discussed (#148-149, #151, #152) the Priestly writer’s legislation was largely concerned with safeguarding and/or restoring ritual purity and cleanliness, as well as ethical purity and cleanliness, i.e., being blameless or sinless.
When an individual came into contact with something prohibited by the law code, such as a dead animal, a menstruating woman, a leprous man, unclean food, etc., that individual needed to restore his state of purity, since for the Priestly writer Yahweh dwelt among the people (#151). Often ritual and ethical purity were restored by bathing in water and being set aside from the community for a certain period of time. Additionally, the impure or contaminated individual would have to go to the Aaronid priest and have his uncleanliness or sin expiated through a sacrifice. Sacrifice was the only means to atone for sin in the Priestly system.
Most modern Christians don’t really understand sacrifice—amazing since apparently their whole Christology is built on the ideology of sacrifice. And frankly speaking, how could they? Sacrifice reflects the ideas, beliefs, and worldviews of peoples living millennia ago—and ditto that for the whole Bible!
In the ancient world, sacrifices were performed to/for one’s god for a number of reasons. In fact, the most common reason for performing a sacrifice was in order to eat meat! In both the Levitical and Deuteronomic law code if a family wished to eat one of Yahweh’s sacrificial animals—sheep, goat, or oxen—they had to take that animal to the priest and have it ritually sacrificed (Lev 17; Deut 12). Furthermore, both of these law codes command that “all fat is Yahweh’s.” No one is allowed to eat the fat. The fat of any animal slaughtered for consumption had to be ritually burnt on Yahweh’s altar for Yahweh, and so too its blood.
Other forms of sacrifices in the book of Leviticus include: sacrifices that expiated an individual’s or the community’s sin—a sort of ritual transference of the sin onto the sacrificial animal. And then there were the whole burnt-offerings—sacrifices of whole animals to Yahweh, burnt on his altar. The peace-offering was the form of sacrifice used when eating meat was involved. It was seen as a sacrificial meal between humans and god. Yahweh always gets his portion. In sum, sacrifice is what mediated between the divine and human realms, a communion, a link between the earthly and heavenly spheres. One readily sees the central importance of the priest in such a worldview, and, as spoken of earlier, why there were no prophets in the Priestly literature (#153-154). That is, in other traditions it is the prophet who functions as mediator between god Yahweh and the people, but not in the Priestly system.
Thus sacrifices were the central fixture to the Priestly cult. The sacrificial system and its ability to atone for sins and breaches of uncleanliness were woven into the very fabric of creation itself. Something I tried to highlight in discussing the Priestly creation account (#1).
The tāmîd, or continual-offering, is the first sacrifice mentioned in the Priestly literature (Ex 29:38-42). It was the daily sacrifices—one in the morning and one in the evening. This, our Priestly author has Yahweh command as an eternal law! Every day, twice a day, a year-old unblemished (ritually and ethically pure) lamb was sacrificed as a whole burnt-offering to Yahweh.
There are numerous other sacrifices that are commanded by Yahweh in the Priestly wilderness narrative as well. There are the sacrifices of bulls, rams, and lambs in Leviticus 8-9 which celebrates the anointing of Aaron and his sons as Yahweh’s priests, and the inauguration of the Tabernacle—on the New Year! There are the ritual laws of Leviticus 1-7 which outline the various sacrifices to be preformed when an individual or the community sins. The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur, literally day of purification) is commanded to be performed once a year in Leviticus 16. The numerous sacrifices for each of the appointed times is given in Leviticus 23 and Numbers 28-29.
And my favorite, the donation sacrifices of Numbers 7, where each tribe brings forth: 1 bull, 1 ram, and 1 lamb for a burnt-offering; 1 goat for a sin-offering; and 2 oxen, 5 rams, 5 he-goats, and 5 one-year old lambs for a peace-offering! Let’s see that’s 12 tribes, so that yields a sacrificial ceremony consisting of: 12 bulls, 24 oxen, 72 rams, 72 lambs, and 72 goats! —all done on a single day, “the day Moses finished setting up the Tabernacle.” At roughly 14 hours of daylight, that’s sacrificing 18 animals per hour! And these are the same people that cried that they apparently had no meat to eat!?! (see #126). See how the assembly of different texts and traditions actually created the very contradictions we’re looking at!
Yet contrary to this body of Priestly literature, there are other traditions now preserved in the Bible that have Yahweh say the complete opposite, that he did not command sacrifices in the wilderness! These traditions stand in utter contradiction to the whole Priestly corpus.
Thus saith Yahweh of hosts, god of Israel: “Add your burnt-offerings to your sacrifices, and eat the flesh. For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt-offerings and sacrifices”. (Jer 7:22)
“Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel?” (Amos 5:25)
As we saw in contradiction #124, here too we see the literary technique employed. Both the Priestly writer and the author of these prophetic traditions use Yahweh as a mouthpiece to express their own beliefs and views! And these beliefs and views are at odds with each other. Yes, Yahweh clearly did command burnt-offerings and sacrifices for the forty years of the wilderness period and beyond, as we just surveyed above.
On a more speculative note, the author of Jeremiah, possibly even Jeremiah himself, seems to strike out rather vehemently against an unidentified scribal guild or community. He does this by proclaiming, in the name of Yahweh, that this scribal guild’s literature is a falsehood and full of lies!
How can you say, “We are wise, and the laws (torahs) of Yahweh is with us,” when in fact the false pen of the scribes has made it into a lie? (Jer 8:8)
Against the judgement of many of my colleagues who think that Jeremiah is writing against the Deuteronomic scribes, I am inclined to think that Jeremiah is reacting against the Priestly corpus of literature and in general disagrees with their whole sacrificial ideology and cultic system. Remember also that there is no place for prophets in P’s cultic system. Rather the priests are the mediators.
Thus, Jeremiah’s distaste for the idea of Yahweh having commanded sacrifices in the wilderness period might have been a direct attack against what the Priestly literature was, contradictorily, claiming. Indeed, this body of literature, at least how it was viewed by the Aaronid priest Ezekiel, blamed laxness and corruption in the sacrifices as the reason why Yahweh let the Babylonians destroy Judah and the Temple in 587 BC (Ez 44). For the Deuteronomist, the reason was idolatry!
This is just one small example of how different authors of what later became the Bible disagreed with each other’s beliefs and ideologies and even wrote texts to defame those beliefs, as Jeremiah clearly does here. Remember the Priestly writer’s defamation of Moses by calling him “uncircumcised of lips” (#93). Or as we will shortly see, the Elohist’s defamation of Aaron by presenting him as the culprit responsible for the Golden Calf sin. Modern readers who mistakenly “read” these texts as a homogeneous divinely-inspired story are grossly negligent of these very texts themselves and their authors and their beliefs. Rather, they have come to “read”—if we can even call it that—these texts through later reader-oriented and imposed interpretive frameworks, the most persuasive of which goes by the name “the Holy Book”—a complete fabrication by a generation of readers living centuries after these texts were written. For more on this see What is the Bible?