Category Archives: Old Testament

Very Bloody Sacrifices

altarstoke

Recently, I had an email back-and-forth with my friend who was wondering about the bloody nature of Old Testament sacrifice.

The conversation begins with his inquiry:

I’ve been trying to learn details of how OT Temple sacrifices were actually done. I’ve found articles that distinguish the different types of sacrifices and describe what they are but nothing that gives a concrete picture of how they were done. On the principle that God taught the Jews how to offer sacrifice so they would be prepared to understand Jesus’ sacrifice of himself to atone for sin I’d like to learn more about what a First Century Jew would have seen and experienced at the Temple.

For example, commentaries and articles explain that a holocaust sacrifice meant burning up the animal completely. How did they actually burn up a full-grown bull completely? Seems like it would take a very large fire and take hours to fully reduce the carcass to ashes. If they offered ten bulls and 50 goats as a holocaust how did they do it? Seems like it would take all day and use a lot of wood. (The Romans are usually blamed for the deforestation of the region around Jerusalem. Was it actually the priests?)

Communion or peace sacrifices involved giving some of the meat of the animal to the worshipper that provided the animal to be eaten as a sacred meal. How was that done? Did the priest butcher the animal on the Temple Mount in front of the people, skin the animal and then carve it up into various pieces some of which were given to the worshipper to cook and eat. Where did the worshipper who brought a sheep from Nazareth go to cook and eat his part of the animal. Was eating their share of the animal a festive meal like Christmas dinner or a religious rite like the Passover?

If the apostles had understood what Jesus foretold they would have expected that Jesus was going to be the sacrificial victim to atone for the sins of the world and that they would eat of his flesh and drink his blood just as one did with temple sacrifices. What images and experiences would have been in their minds? When they later realized the full truth of what Jesus did and what it meant to eat his body and drink his blood how would that have affected them given their long exposure to Temple sacrifice?

Are there any books I could read on the subject? Any good articles or lectures?

My initial response, I’ll admit, did not answer every question, but here it is:

Your question is very important, and, unfortunately understudied. My sense is that Protestants, who make up the bulk of biblical scholars, care little for questions of liturgical procedure. These minutia are more interesting to Catholics, Mormons and Jews. One other problem is that many biblical scholars regard the ritual texts of the OT as mere fantasy and believe that they do not describe a real cult that actually existed.

A handful of scholars address the questions:

  • Haran, M. 1978. Temples and Temple-Service in Ancient Israel. Oxford. (very expensive! A collection of the author’s earlier articles)
  • Jacob Milgrom –  a Jewish scholar who wrote multiple commentaries on Leviticus
  • Jonathan Greer – an evangelical biblical archaeologist – https://www.cornerstone.edu/staff/jonathan-greer/
  • Gary Anderson (at Notre Dame) has written quite a bit about OT sacrifice.
  • G.K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (an evangelical NT scholar, focuses on temple symbolism)
  • You might check out the work of the evangelical Leviticus scholar, Jay Sklar
  • Also of interest might be The Great High Priest: The Temple Roots of Christian Liturgy by Margaret Barker.

Since the biblical texts are not specific enough, it only later in the Qumran material (Jubilees, Temple Scroll) and the rabbinic sources (esp. fifth division of the Mishnah, Kodashim: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kodashim ; Available at Sefaria – https://www.sefaria.org/Mishnah_Zevachim.1?lang=bi ) that the details of the ceremonies are fleshed out. Again, for the rabbinic material, most scholars regard their comments as recalling an imagined past rather than actually describing real rituals. For some of that critique, turn here: https://www.amazon.com/Memory-Temple-Making-Rabbis-Divinations/dp/0812244575

The classic text that tries to answer your questions is Alfred Edersheim’s The Temple—Its Ministry and Services (https://www.ccel.org/ccel/edersheim/temple.html ), but his work in general has been rejected as being uncritically and sometimes inaccurately reliant on rabbinic sources. However, he might be one of the best biblical scholar-authors at inspiring the imagination and filling out the picture.

My conversation partner later supplied a great quote about bloody sacrifice in the time of Julian the Apostate, which illustrates the gruesome nature of sacrifices:

Ammianus writes that “he drenched the altars with the blood of too great a number of victims, at time sacrificing a hundred bulls at once . . . he was called a slaughterer rather than a priest by many . . . and though he took offense at this, he controlled his feelings and continued to celebrate the festivals.”  Yet even despite such a spectacle as this, the ordinary people stayed home. “In the temples, after he had spent a long time with his tunic tucked up and sweating like a slave at quartering his victims, he would suddenly realize that almost all the spectators had quietly walked away.”  (Bennett, Rod. The Apostasy That Wasn’t: The Extraordinary Story of the Unbreakable Early Church (Kindle Locations 3670-3674). Catholic Answers Press. Kindle Edition.)

I was able to offer up a few things in response:

  1. That many scholars believe the Temple in Jerusalem had a drainage system to evacuate all the animal blood from the sanctuary
  2. That you can actually find a handful of videos of Jewish (and Samaritan) animal sacrifice on YouTube:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5kgbRusmqjshttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-KPnmSj_TA

Conclusion

Here are a handful of takeaways from this wide-ranging conversation worth thinking about:

  • Old Covenant animal sacrifice was technical and bloody. To perform it properly involved a lot of logistical challenges like large amounts of fire wood, sufficient numbers of priests, caring for animals before they were sacrificed and disposing of their blood and remains properly.
  • Early Christian perceptions of Jesus as sacrificial lamb would be shaped by Jewish experience of animal sacrifice at the Temple. The shocking, violent nature of his death could be interpreted in light of the public slaughter and sacrifice of animals at the Temple.
  • While many scholars disregard the OT sacrificial cult as a fantasy or as unimportant, a serious consideration of its technical execution can help bring together insights from archaeology (as in the work of Jonathan Greer), liturgy and biblical theology. In fact, recently NT scholars have started to see “cultic language” all over the New Testament literature, emphasizing the centrality of Temple-worship in the consciousness of the earliest Christians.
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The “Finger of God” in the Bible

The “finger of God” in Exodus

The first time the “finger of God” appears is during the plagues of Egypt, specifically during the plague of gnats. Pharaoh’s magicians are frustrated in their attempts to produce gnats by their magical arts and tell Pharaoh: “This is the finger of God” (Exod 8:19). Of course, he does not believe them and continues in his famous obstinance. But the point is, in this instance it seems that “finger” means power. I’ll quote the UBS Handbook on Exodus on this point:

This is the finger of God is a literal translation. The expression finger of God, however, is usually understood to mean the power of God in the same way that “hand of God” is often used (for example, 3:20; 7:4; 9:5). This type of figure of speech is known as “synecdoche,” meaning that a part represents the whole, a finger or hand here representing the full power or the full person. And so this may be translated dynamically as “This is the power of God,” “This is an act of God,” “God has done this” (8:19 TEV), or “God has shown his power by doing this” (N. D. Osborn & H. A. Hatton, A Handbook on Exodus, [New York: United Bible Societies, 1999] p. 188).fingerofgod (Small)

Ok, while the UBS Handbook goes on to discuss other possibilities, for example, that the magicians identified Aaron’s staff as the “finger of God,” here the idea of finger=power seems to work just fine. So far, there is no distinctions between “finger” and “hand” as far as denoting abstract ideas.

Yet if we jump ahead just a bit to Exodus 31:18, then we see that the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments are “written with the finger of God.” Here, rather than indicating raw power, the “finger” is connected with the activity of writing. The same idea reappears in a parallel discussion of the tablets in Deut 9:10.

 

Later in the Old Testament

While the largest share of the “finger” references in the Old Testament have to do with blood manipulations rituals in Leviticus, God’s “fingers” reappear in Psalm 8:3

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place

Here, one could equate “finger” with power, but I think it would be better to go with the poet and see God as setting the various heavenly bodies in the canopy of heaven, almost like one decorating for a party. The psalmist is not describing God’s capability to create, but his artistry, his dexterity, if you will.

(While not divine fingers themselves, Isaiah criticizes those who bow down to idols made with their own fingers [Isa 2:8, 17:8].)

The next, and I think most telling, example comes from Daniel, where the “fingers of a human hand” (Dan 5:5) appear and write a terrifying inscription on the wall of the palaWriting-on-the-groundce during King Belshazzar’s sacrilegious romp, where he and his frat buddies are drinking wine from the sacred vessels of the Temple. This divine hand writes out a death sentence for Belshazzar: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN (v. 25). Here, clearly, the fingers of God are connected with the concept of writing, as they were in Exodus 31 and the stone tablets.

 

New Testament Fingers of God

Jesus uses his fingers to cure a deaf man (Mark 7:33), which seems to indicate they have to do with power. In addition, he refers to how “it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons,” (Luke 11:20). Here, we could easily equate finger and power: “it is by the power of God…” Yet, I think there might be one slightly hidden example in John 8:6, where Jesus writes “with his finger on the ground.” It is during the scene where an anger mob is trying to stone a woman caught in adultery and get Jesus to sanction their action. He instead writes on the ground. If the writing is anything like stone tablets or even worse, the cryptic phrase on Belshazzar’s wall, Jesus could be writing the condemnation of the woman’s accusers in the dirt.

 

In sum, when the “finger” of God appears in the Bible, as opposed to his “hand” or “arm,” it seems to indicate the writing of God and therefore his intentions—whether in law, creation or judgment. Jesus exemplifies this meaning when he writes with his finger in the dirt, perhaps listing off the sins of his opponents.

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Abraham’s “Promised Lamb”

Photo Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Swiss_Guard_near_Basilica_di_San_Pietro.jpg

When it comes to the Bible, I have never ceased to be amazed at the number of interconnections. So often, one can draw out a web of links from one passage to a thousand others through themes, prophesies, anticipations, foreshadowings. The possibilities are endless! Rather than giving me a sense of unease or haphazardness, these connections continue to inspire me as planned, perfect and beautiful. The more points of contact we find, the more the whole thing hangs together, the more impressive it is. It is like taking apart a Swiss Guard’s handsome uniform to realize that it has been sewn together from one hundred and fifty-four pieces![1]

 

One of those connections starts with an odd hanging question that Isaac asks his father when they are hiking up Mount Moriah: “Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” (I apologize for starting in the middle of things, but if you need a refresher, check out Genesis 22 where God tests Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son and then stops him at the last minute.) Essentially, Isaac, the ostensible victim of the imminent sacrifice is a bit concerned about the fact that his dad has all the appropriate sacrificial implements, except one: the all-important sacrificial animal. Isaac even goes through a verbal checklist with his dad, “Fire, check. Wood, check. Lamb, nope!”

 

Now if you read to the end of the chapter, which you should, you’ll find out that at the end of the story, God stops Abraham from sacrificing Isaac and instead provides a ram for sacrifice that had gotten stuck in a nearby bush by its horns. There are a couple juicy exegetical tidbits that can be extracted from Isaac’s exchange with his father. Most importantly, it seems that God does not actually fulfill Abraham’s prediction. Abraham predicted a lamb, but God provided a ram. So…where’s the lamb?? Then, over a millennium later, Jesus walks by the Jordan and a prophet points a bony finger at him and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” (John 1:29). It would be very tempting to say that John is referring back to Abraham’s prediction that God himself would provide the lamb for sacrifice and since the ancient prediction was never fulfilled in Abraham’s life, it is now coming to fruition in Jesus, the ultimate “lamb” of sacrifice.

 

Photo credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Abtei_Seckau_Basilika_%C3%A4u%C3%9Feres_Portal_Abrahams_Opfer.jpg

Bear with me, here. I like this line of thinking and it has been adopted by quite a few Christian interpreters,[2] but we have to put the brakes on first and go back to the original language to see if we can really find warrant for this direction. Otherwise, we could end up on an exegetical gangplank.

 

First, if you go back to the original father-son Q&A, maybe we don’t have such a strong contrast between prediction and fulfillment after all. Isaac asks where the sheep (seh) is (Gen 22:7). Seh is the all-purpose word for sheep and goats. It is not very specific. Normally, the word, which appears 47 times in the Hebrew Bible, is translated as “sheep.” However, Isaac’s question is the first occurrence of the word in the Old Testament and seh can refer to a lamb, as we can see in Lev 5:6-7, where the word seh in v. 7 refers to the lamb previously mentioned in v. 6. In addition, though, it can refer to a young animal when specified as such (see Deut 14:4).

 

Image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Boreray_Ram.jpg

Second, there is another word in Hebrew for lamb, a more specific vocabulary choice: kebes. This word occurs 107 times (or 108 if you include the sole feminine occurrence in Lev 5:6). If Genesis were trying to be very specific about making a distinction between Isaac’s question and the seeming fulfillment later in the verse then kebes would be the obvious choice. There’s some great online discussion about the terms here.

 

Third, the term used to describe the animal Abraham finds later in the chapter is ayil. This term is a subset of seh and simply means “ram.” So Abraham ends up sacrificing the ayil in place of his son, Isaac, which seems to fulfill his prediction that a seh, sheep, would be provided by God. Abraham himself seems to think his prophecy fulfilled in that he proclaims the place “yhwh-yireh,” the Lord provides (Gen 22:14).

 

So, that brings us back to the original question. Can we say that the promise or prediction Abraham makes is not fulfilled until the time of Jesus? Not really. On the other hand, I think we can say with confidence and faith that the ram caught in the thicket serves as a type of Christ. Rather than being a “throwaway” miracle, the ram itself is significant as a foreshadowing and precursor for Christ. In the same way that the ram took Isaac’s place on the altar, Jesus takes our place on the cross. He is the true lamb/seh/ayil who takes our sins upon himself. Like Isaac, we get to go free.

 

Wait, there’s on more exegetical nugget here! In the lead-up to the sacrifice, Abraham tells his servants that he and Isaac “will come again to you,” knowing full well that he planned on sacrificing his son on the mountaintop. While you could take this phrase multiple ways—perhaps Abraham was covering for the fact that he would return alone and was planning on making up a story about what happened; or maybe he was doubting his own resolve—some of the Jewish rabbinic tradition saw this phrase as indicating something unheard of: that Isaac would die on the altar and then rise from the dead![3]

 

Well, there you have it. Abraham not only received the promised land, but he predicted the “promised lamb”—which in one way is the ram stuck in the thicket, but in a bigger more magnificent way is the one Lamb of God who took our sins upon himself, actually being sacrificed on a mountain and, like Abraham expected of Isaac, rising from the dead.


 

[1] http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2001/11/1118_vaticanswiss.html
[2] See, for example: https://jewsforjesus.org/publications/blog/ram-or-lamb/
[3] See http://dovbear.blogspot.com/2011/11/more-or-isaacs-resurrection.html or http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Scripture/Parashah/Summaries/Vayera/Akedah/akedah.html

Photo Credits: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Swiss_Guard_near_Basilica_di_San_Pietro.jpg
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Abtei_Seckau_Basilika_%C3%A4u%C3%9Feres_Portal_Abrahams_Opfer.jpg
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Boreray_Ram.jpg

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On TV This Week

Johnette Benkovic and Mark Giszczak

This week, I’ll be appearing on Johnnette Benkovic’s TV show, Women of Grace, on the EWTN channel. The 30-minute shows will air at 11:00am Eastern and 11:30pm Eastern Monday-Friday. We’ll be discussing my recent book, Light on the Dark Passages of Scripture. If you miss the TV broadcast, you can always watch the shows online on the Women of Grace website. The shows are entitled, “Light in the Darkness: A Look at the Dificult Passages and Themes of the Bible.” Let me know what you think of the shows!

 

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The Mysterious Disappearance of Wisdom 18:9b

Image: Wikipedia

I was studying this Sunday’s first reading, Wisdom 18:6-9 while working on my weekly column and noticed something rather odd: The second half of Wisdom 18:9 is simply missing from the text. The full verse in the NAB is:

For in secret the holy children of the good were offering sacrifice
and carried out with one mind the divine institution,
So that your holy ones should share alike the same blessings and dangers,
once they had sung the ancestral hymns of praise.

Yet the English Lectionary only includes:

For in secret the holy children of the good were offering sacrifice
and carried out with one mind the divine institution,

Now, often the Lectionary will include partial verses, but they are always indicated by a letter, so you might have Gen 18:1-10a, for example. But in this case, there is no letter indicated by the verse reference. I thought this mystery might call for a little Catholic Bible Student investigation, so I dug up a copy of the Ordo Lectionum Missio, editio typica altera from 1981. This is the official Latin listing of the Lectionary readings. And sure enough for Lectionary #117, Wisdom 18:6-9 are listed not 18:6-9a.

OLM81_117

The abbreviation “Sap” is for “Sapientia,” Wisdom. After seeing this, I thought that the difference might be in the versification of the Nova Vulgata, on which the 1981 Lectionary is based. But no, the verse appears in full in the Nova Vulgata:

Absconse enim sacrificabant iusti pueri bonorum
et divinitatis legem in concordia disposuerunt;
similiter et bona et pericula recepturos sanctos
patrum iam ante decantantes laudes. (Wisdom 18:9)

You’ll also notice that the Ordo Lectionum also gives an “incipit” (Nox liberationis…) that clarifies the subject of the first line by adding a single word and omitting the first word of verse 6.

But in the end, we’re left with a puzzle. Why would Wisdom 18:9b be omitted from the reading in the English translation? Here are possible theories: (a) the Latin Lectionary actually omits the lines and the English translators followed suit, (b) the English translators made a mistake by omitting them, (c) the lines struck the English translators as problematic, so they deliberately omitted them. If we go with Theory C here, I still don’t understand why the lines would be problematic–perhaps because they mention the fact that the saints will share in dangers as well as good things?

Yet many other parts of Scripture talk about us sharing in suffering, so I can’t think that’s the issue here. In fact, the lines are included in the Spanish edition of this reading. I’d be curious to look at Lectionaries in other languages to see if these lines are present or omitted, but for now we’ll have to chalk this one up as a mystery!


 

Owl image credit: By Athene_noctua_(portrait).jpg: Trebol-a derivative work:Stemonitis (Athene_noctua_(portrait).jpg) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons 

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Abraham, Sand, Stars and Winning the Lottery

A few years ago, the media reported about Joan Ginther, the woman who has won the lottery jackpot four times. Yes, four times! She’s won all told, about 20 million dollars. The Harper’s story about her by Nathaniel Rich probed the probability of her luck and found that it was about one in 18 septillion. There are other reasons why she might be so “lucky” like her Ph.D. in statistics. But what caught my eye from Rich’s story was this line:

There are one septillion stars in the universe, and one septillion grains of sand on Earth.

If that doesn’t make a Bible scholars antennae go up, I don’t know what will! This should remind any Bible student of this line in Genesis:

I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore. (Gen 22:17 RSV)

God tells Abraham that he will have as many descendants as there are are stars and as there are grains of sand. What is so amazing about this is that upon scientific observation, those two totals are the same! There are roughly the same number of grains of sand on Earth as there are stars in the universe. Of course, there are many different estimates for these things. NPR even did a story on these questions. And then you start thinking, wow, we have a ways to go if Abraham is going to have a septillion descendants! If there have been, at highest estimates, 125 billion people ever, then we’re only 6.94 quadrillionths of the way there! (If I did my math right.) Whether you find interesting the number of Abraham’s descendants equaling the number of grains of sand or the number of grains equaling the number of stars, at least you can be happy knowing that the probability of winning the lottery four times divided by the number of Abraham’s promised descendants is 18.

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New Commentaries on Baruch

Several years ago in 2007, I put together a bibliography of commentaries on Baruch on this blog. A handful of new work has appeared since then that it is worth listing here. Unfortunately, there is still a dearth of publication on the deuterocanonical book of Baruch, but it is worth cobbling together what has been done. Hopefully, more will be written! The book of Baruch as normally presented in a Catholic Bible includes the Epistle of Jeremiah as the sixth chapter.

New Commentaries on Baruch

Adams, Sean A. Baruch and the Epistle of Jeremiah: A Commentary Based on the Texts in Codex Vaticanus. Septuagint Commentary. Brill, 2014. (Although I haven’t seen it yet, this looks like the most promising, most comprehensive recent work. It claims to be the first English language commentary.)

Hill, Robert Charles, trans. Theodoret of Cyrus: Commentaries on the Prophets. Vol. I. Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2007. (This includes commentaries on Jeremiah, Baruch and Lamentations.)

Viviano, Pauline. Jeremiah, Baruch. New Collegeville Bible Commentary, vol. 14. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2013. (This book includes about 20 pages on Baruch: a 2-page introduction and then the text of Baruch with commentary.)

Wacker, Marie-Theres. Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah. Wisdom Commentary. Michael Glazier, 2016.

 

 

 

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