The book of Leviticus describes the sacrificial cult as ordained by God and supervised and executed by the priests and the Levites. The cultic slaying and skinning of animals, the draining of their blood, consuming the offering, burning the rest, offering up various birds and grains, and so forth, are all exhaustively discussed. There are lots of details regarding methodology.
I’ve always wondered: what must it have been like in the temple courtyard, animals braying, altars burning, people leading oxen and goats, carrying cages of birds and baskets of fruit and grain? The answer is that… there is no answer. There are no descriptions of the sacrificial cult. When the Second Temple was destroyed in 70CE, not a thing was left behind. It was obliterated to show the Jews as well as the rest of the world, that Roman gods were stronger than the Jewish God.
As I read Leviticus these days, I’ve come to wonder: was there ever a sacrificial cult? Or was the whole thing a projection of a perfect world, where sin can be removed, where a contaminated body and soul can be cleansed, where atonement is possible? In a world of uncertainty, did our ancestors find peace in a series of stories and images that “guaranteed” God would hear them and accept their offerings?
World of uncertainty surely defines where we live today. Anything that might assuage anxiety about the unknown would be so useful. I listen to the news as I always do. This week, despite all of my reading, I have no idea what’s going on. Who is in charge? Who is guilty? Who is innocent? Should I be worried about 1) the Russians 2) the North Koreans 3) the Chinese 4) ISIS 5) Hamas 6) the FBI 7) the President 8) the Left 9) the Right 10) etc. Someone, please! Assuage me!
In the perfect alternative Universe of Leviticus, you offer up a sacrifice without blemish. The priest does the sacrifice on your behalf. God receives it. Done. It’s all in God’s hands. Everything is clear. There is no uncertainty.
Well, I’ve got some news. God does not control us or our fate in this world. God cannot change the way of any human being who refuses to ponder their choices. I believe that God loves us, implants within us the capacity for love and faith and compassion and nurturance. But God does not install spiritual fog lights in our souls. God can help us define the way to be, but cannot clear the way for us.
The perfect world has a sacrificial system. It has clear, absolute answers. We have prayer. We ask God to give us strength and resilience. That God can do. But the transaction happens, not on an altar, but in our hearts.
This is a crazy Universe, far from perfection. God roots for us, for all who seek peace and reconciliation. It is not an option to passively sit it out. Every minute counts. There is no sideline.
I dream of a perfect world. It isn’t about animal sacrifice or priests making offerings on my behalf. In my perfect world, it’s about human understanding, it’s certainty that we are, all of us, in accord, accepting our unique capabilities even as we unite in common cause over what we share. It may be that my perfect world is as far away as was the world of Leviticus. But I will never cease to talk about it and dream about it and share it with you and with God: in prose and music and prayer.