The only reason I knew anything about the book of Leviticus growing up is because it has lots of weird rules about sex including nocturnal emissions which for a teenager was pretty entertaining. For me and most people the book is a pretty boring collection of rules and regulations about a lot of things that don’t seem to make any sense in our modern world. While there is plenty that remains a mystery to me, this book has become one of my favorites because of some of its key passages (Chapters 19 and 25 being my favorite).
The Divine Meal
That said, the opening chapters do appear to be some of the most boring in the whole Bible. Leviticus 1-7 gives instructions on offerings and sacrifices for the Israelites. There’s lots of detail and repetition and very little seems to connect to a world in which this sacrificial system is non-existent. A few things stand out to me at first glance, especially as it relates to our theme of food. First, the people making these offerings are all farmers. These are agrarian people who are bringing crops and animals that they grew themselves. This changes later and Jesus is not happy about it (see Mt 21:12-13; Mk 11:15-19; Lk 20:45-48; Jn 2:12-25). So, they are directly related to the sacrifice that they offer and it is an agricultural product, food.
The second is that for three of the five kinds of offerings there is no explicit reason given for the offering. The text simply says, “When any of you brings an offering to the Lord…” (Lev 1:2) and goes on with instructions about how it should be done. The instructions for these offerings (burnt, grain and fellowship offerings) conclude with something like “[It is] an offering made by fire, an aroma pleasing to the Lord” (Lev 1:17). While many people and theologians focus on the sin and guilt offerings (especially as they relate to the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection, particularly because of the connections made by the Letter to the Hebrews), these other offerings concern the ongoing relationship of the people to God apart from any need for atonement. This is the meal and the gift in which the people encounter the divine.
The burnt, grain and fellowship offerings are how they continue and maintain a relationship with God and they are intimately connected to the land which produces their sustenance in crops and animals. The burnt and fellowship offerings were to be “without defect” whether it was a cow, sheep or goat. The grain offering was to be “fine flour” whether it was baked into bread or not. In my mind I connect these offerings with the biblical practice of hospitality. It is as if God is a guest and we are preparing a meal to share. This is what we say to guests when they come to our houses. “Can I offer you something to drink or eat?” It is not just about being proper. It is about nurturing a relationship. I’m sure a lot could be added about “hospitality cultures” and the role of hospitality in episodes throughout the Bible, but you can see the basic connection.
I noticed a couple of interesting things about the sin and guilt offerings. First, the language is not one of harsh rebuke. It does not say when you really screw up and feel guilty you should come and give an offering to straighten things out and feel better. It says, “When anyone sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden…” (Lev 4:2) There is also language about intentional sin (Lev 5:1-6; 6:1-7), but unintentional sin is referred to as the reason for making either the sin or guilt offering five out of seven times (Lev 4:2, 13, 22, 27; 5:15). Imagine the humility of bringing your most prized possession, “a young bull without defect” (4:3), to atone for something you might have done wrong but didn’t know about.
We would have a hard time practicing this kind of relationship to God in our churches. We are way more concerned about figuring out our own sins (and often everyone else’s as well) and doing what it takes to atone for that sin. Whether it’s confession and penance for Catholics, Eucharist for all Christians or even the fervent prayers of evangelicals and ecstatic worship of charismatics, all are (some in more ways than others) an attempt to atone for intentional, known sin. What does it look like to approach God humbly with a precious offering for our unknown sins?
The second thing I noticed is the communal language concerning the sin offering. “If the whole Israelite community sins unintentionally…When they become aware…the assembly must bring a young bull as a sin offering… This is the sin offering for the community.” (Lev 4:13-14, 21) This is so foreign to our modern sensibilities that it is almost hard to imagine how this would work. How does the whole community even become aware of unintentional sin?Then how do they collectively act together to atone? Certainly there is some hierarchy involved, because “the elders of the community” (Lev 4:15) were to act on behalf of the people. Yet there is still a sense of the communal that our concept of religion, influenced by western individualism and American exceptionalism has a hard time grasping.
Pulling these thoughts together I have two main issues that, I think, this reading raises concerning our understanding of atonement theology and the implications for an agrarian context on the interpretation of the Bible.
First, If our theology of atonement has developed over the centuries by connecting Jesus’ work on the cross to the sacrificial system of the Israelites as outlined in these first chapters of Leviticus, then how would our theology change with a different understanding of the nature and purpose of the sacrificial system? The Bible uses a number of metaphors to understand Jesus’ work on the cross. The judicial language predominates in modern theology where Jesus takes our place in a transaction where he absorbs our guilt and offers a way out of the conundrum of sin. This language does connect somewhat to the practice of the sin and guilt offerings, but these were less than half of the whole sacrificial system and as we have seen they also involved a communal understanding of what took place. So, a better understanding of Jesus’ work that continues to draw on the sacrificial system as a metaphor, or better parallel, should include the communal and unintentional aspects of the sin offering along side our current emphasis.
This broadened understanding of atonement should also include the other offerings that were made. How would we expand our understanding of Jesus’ work on the cross to include the offerings of crops and animals to maintain and nurture a relationship? Could it be that Jesus’ death and resurrection can also be understood as a divine act that attempts to maintain and nurture (even in some ultimate or cosmic sense) the relationship between the divine and human? The fact that Jesus, himself, instituted a meal as the ritual for remembering the sacrifice he would make strongly suggests a connection to the offerings that were in effect divine meals. It also seems that the dual nature of Christ and the idea from Hebrews that Jesus is both the High Priest and sacrifice speak to the work on the cross as somehow transcending the sacrificial system, not by doing away with it, but incorporating it into this new work, the breaking in of the new heaven and new earth. In this way we can balance the traditional emphasis on guilt and repentance, which is important, with the other 3/5 of the sacrificial system which was meant to maintain and nurture the divine/human relationship.
The subtitle of Ellen Davis’ book Scripture, Culture and Agriculture is “An Agrarian Reading of the Bible”. Her book does an incredible job connecting modern agrarian writers and thought to the context of the biblical narrative, primarily the Hebrew Bible. What is left to do after her most helpful contribution is to begin to draw out the implications for our understandings of theological doctrines, such as the atonement, and what’s more our hermeneutic for reading and interpreting our sacred text. The historical-critical method and other schools of interpretation place emphasis on understanding the cultural and historical context in order to interpret the biblical text. While some work has surely been done in this area, most of the scholarship focuses on political, economic, social, cultural and religious realities. It seems that we may have ignored a fundamental dimension of the biblical context which should shape our understanding and interpretation of the text.
The question then becomes whether what we find can be transferred to our current technological society in which we are (in “developed” countries”) far removed from an agrarian lifestyle and worldview, or does the text from an agrarian interpretation stand in judgment of our way of life in relationship to each other and the land? My guess is that the answer is both, but the latter is the aspect of the text that has been neglected. In many ways this is what my Food in the Bible project is really all about. I am trying to reclaim an agrarian reading of the Bible that reads, interprets and judges the context of the world as we experience it today.