Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Sacrifices and Atonement

Leviticus 1-7

In Leviticus thus far, there are detailed instructions about how to perform animal sacrifices.

On the one hand, it’s a little gruesome reading all of these details about exactly how animal sacrifices are performed. But many humans do eat animals, even today, and eating them requires killing them first. And so, in a society that eats animals, having animal sacrifices in religious rituals means that at least some of the killing of animals is done with real reverence.

It is important to remember that these are a people in transition, who have not yet settled the land they hope to inhabit, but are wandering in a wilderness. Their livestock may be their most reliable food source. In this context, sacrificing animals is sacrificing something centrally important: fundamental to the very sustaining of life. They must choose the best (animals without blemish). In some of the rituals, people do eat some of the meat; but in others, the entire animal is offered to God. So the meaning of sacrifice is clear: when they offer animal sacrifices, they offer that which gives them life.

Sacrifices are offered for the following purposes (at least so far):

  1. For sins of omission or sinful thoughts.
  2. Offerings of well-being.
  3. Purification offerings: for having unintentionally sinned or for having become ritually unclean.
  4. Sins against the Lord (those having to do with desecrating holy objects or failing to fulfill vows to the Lord).
  5. Sins against others (deceit, robbery, fraud, lying).
  6. Votive offerings (when a person has successfully fulfilled a vow made to God).
  7. Freewill offering (spontaneous expression of happiness or gratitude).

These rituals then become a means of cultivating awareness and self-reflection. You must pay attention to how you live your life. You won’t do everything perfectly, but most of the common kinds of mistakes are forgivable. Having rituals gives you something specific to do when you realize the mistakes you have made. They mark your awareness (confession), and bring atonement.

I am moved by the reverence and humility in this way of life.

I reflect on the reasons for offering sacrifices above and ask myself whether there are things I should do to more clearly acknowledge my mistakes, and also to acknowledge my successes and times of well-being and happiness.

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