Leviticus and Atonement

What does Leviticus 16 teach us about atonement?

Asked By: 
Day of Purgations
Let me begin with some background. Leviticus 16 is part of a larger system of ritual purification in the pentateuchal Priestly work. The latter is a literary composition that once stood alone as an independent work but is now interwoven with other, originally independent compositions to form the Pentateuch. (This is the reason that the Pentateuch has so many duplications, discontinuities, and content contradictions within it: it started out not as one work but as several.) The Priestly work (scholars call it P, for short) tells a story of how its god, Yahweh, ended up living in the midst of the Israelites and how such divine habitation among humans could be possible. P's beginning assumption is that the divine and human realms are most safely kept separate from each other—gods and humans have different needs—and because of this, gods and humans have a hard time interacting with each other. At the same time, P’s god really likes humans: he (P’s god is male) made them and judged them “very good” (Gen 1:31).
In this story, God determines that living very far from the created world is untenable, but his decision to move into the world is complicated by the fact that, when he created world, he didn’t make it with any intent to live in it himself. He thus didn't set it up to accommodate his own expectations and preferences. For example, the created world in P is full of contaminants that God finds intolerable. Some of these contaminants are naturally occurring impurities that carry no moral valence. For instance, according to P, the birthing process creates impurity (see Lev 12), yet in P God also commands people to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28; 9:1; etc.). This impurity causes no difficulty if the deity is not near it (i.e., if God lives very far from the earth), but when he decides to dwell on the earth amongst the Israelites, it is a problem that must be solved. (The assumption is that the effects of contamination relate to proximity to it.) Sins similarly cause contamination that the deity finds intolerable.
In P, God’s dwelling on earth is his sanctuary, which he has decided to locate amongst the Israelites and which the Israelites must build and then service in their midst. In order to make possible the deity’s ongoing residence in the sanctuary, the Israelites must also carefully avoid or manage their production of sin and impurity. They do so by assiduously following the rules that God gave them—including the rules for purification in Leviticus 16. By keeping these rules, the Israelites create something of a “decontamination bubble” in the midst of an otherwise contaminated world—a hospitable place for the deity to reside. 
Now, on to purification and Leviticus 16 specifically. Leviticus 16 works in concert with the rules for the purification offering (oftentimes termed “sin offering,” but this is something of a misnomer, for this offering is also employed in response to contamination that is not from sin) in Leviticus 4. Leviticus 4 describes the process for purifying the sanctuary from the contamination of unintentional sins. This contamination, which is created any time an Israelite sins unintentionally, is understood to be an aerial miasma that, though invisible, has a physical existence that is produced by the sin act. The sin contaminant is attracted to the sanctuary (which is a sort of vacuum, free of contamination) and accumulates there, in close proximity to the deity. Unintentional sins, which penetrate part-way into the sanctuary, must be purged by the application of blood to those surfaces in the sanctuary contaminated. The blood acts as a ritual detergent to remove the contamination. Leviticus 16 addresses cases of contamination through intentional sin. These sins are more virulent and penetrate all the way into the holy of holies, the deity’s inner sanctum. Once each the year the high priest is to apply the blood of the purification offering in the sanctuary, which releases the contamination of intentional sin from its surfaces. The priest is then to heap the intentional sins onto the head of a live goat (the so called “scapegoat”), which is to be set free to carry them away to the wilderness.
A few concluding details: first, you will note that I have not referred above to “atonement” at all. The idea of atonement has been a very productive one in the history of Christian thought, and I am hesitant to invoke it because of all that has come to be associated with it. The rite described in Leviticus 16 is oftentimes called “the Day of Atonement.” I would instead describe it as something like, “the Day of Purgations,” which better represents the concreteness and materiality of what is envisioned within it.
Second, I haven’t referred to forgiveness in this discussion. According to Lev 4, if a person sins unintentionally and then, upon recognizing their sin, performs the purification offering, s/he will be forgiven. As presented in P, there is no interiority to this process. The person need not feel badly about their action; it is not a penitential act in that sense. What is important is the purification of the sanctuary through the blood rite. In fact, there is no purification of the individual sinner in this case at all. In the case of intentional sins (Lev 16), by contrast, forgiveness is not possible at all. In P, intentional sins are not forgiven. Instead, the sinner “bears their sin,” which is understood to eventually crush them. (Note that there are apparently two physical manifestations of sin: one is a stain on the sanctuary; the other is a burden born by the sinner.)
Third, the purification system in P might appear to have a major flaw in it. If unintentional sins, which are less virulent than intentional sins, are nonetheless purged regularly from the outer parts of the sanctuary, but intentional sins, which are more virulent and penetrate all the way into the inner sanctum, are purged only once each year, wouldn’t the inner sanctum become the most contaminated part of the sanctuary? Shouldn’t the inner sanctum, where the deity spends most of his time, be the part of the sanctuary most carefully guarded from contamination? The solution to this apparent problem is in the Priestly god’s assumption about humans. Scholars have noted in P a “positive anthropology”: the Priestly god assumes that once humans know the divine will, they will follow it. Accordingly, though unintentional sins might happen at any time and are, by virtue of their accidental nature, unavoidable, intentional sins are understood to be quite rare—not impossible, but rare—for they are only committed purposefully. For this reason, it is only necessary to purge the sanctuary of intentional sin once each year, while unintentional sins must be purged regularly.
Let me conclude by recalling where we started. In P, the whole business of purification relates to the deity’s desire to live amongst his created beings, and this desire is born out of his affection for them. P addresses basic problems that continue to animate many religious people: how can humans and a deity interact productively with each other when they are so different from each other, and why should they?
Author: Jeffrey Stackert, Ph.D.




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