At first glance Torah can be a tough read for those concerned about animal welfare. Much of the first ten chapters of Leviticus contain cultic material, especially in parsha Vayikra that, that concerns itself with sacrifice, which is more than occasionally of the animal variety. Though this brutal instruction may violate our contemporary sensibilities, the animal sacrifices in Torah must be understood within the cultural context of ancient Israel and its surrounding neighbors. While it is true that many of the particulars of Israel’s sacrificial system were borrowed from the cultures of pagan neighbors, the sacrifices they offered are to be understood theologically according to the particular character of Israel’s God and in accord with the peculiar covenantal relationship that He enacted with them. In this respect Israel’s sacrificial system can best be understood as a domestication of existing practices by inculcating God’s highest values into the normative ritual milieu. Israel’s community of faith put incredible energy and attentiveness into these offerings as material gestures, which defined the importance of God for the life of the community. The various sacrificial practices prescribed for Israel were vehicles designed to celebrate, affirm, enhance, or repair the defining relationship between them and God.
No doubt though, Israel’s devotion to God was of little consolation to the animal population in their camp, but it can be argued that the detailed regimen would have proved limiting and more humane than the practices of neighboring sacrificial cult. This is later understood and augmented in the derivative rabbinic tradition of shechita (humane ritual slaughter). Certainly the teachings of Torah were instructive to Israel regarding the value of all life, as I pointed out earlier. But the drama of sacrifice and its ancillary teaching on the preparation of meat for consumption would prove additionally instructive. Prohibitions against eating blood (Lev.17) and “cooking a young goat in its mother’s milk” (Ex. 23:19; 34:26; Deut. 14:21) ritualize the sanctity of all life.
But animals were not the only ones threatened by the brutality of sacrifice in the world that surrounds the Israel of Torah. It should be noted that the sacrificial systems of the ancient world were threatening to human life as well. It is well documented that human sacrifice was not an uncommon practice on the Sumerian plain or the Phoenician coast. The bible also records the abominable practice of human sacrifice among Israel’s neighbors to pagan idols. On several occasions in Scripture an extreme sacrifice of a child is made to God (Jer.19:5; Micah 6:6-8; Judges 11:29-40; 2 Kings 3:26-27). These are rare occurrences that need not be explained away as an embarrassment. I think they are best to be understood, as barbaric as they seem to us, as indications of the depth of urgency that was felt in regard to ceding what is of worth over to God, in the context of a world that did not condemn, rather normalized these sacrifices. Though silent on a few occasions (Judges 11:29-40; 2 Kings 3:26-27), at other times God strongly condemned these action (Jer:19:5).
It is in the context of these human sacrifices that Torah introduced the concept of animal sacrifice as substitutionary. God’s command to offer all firstborn sons to him is ameliorated by the counter command to redeem them with an animal sacrifice (Ex. 22:28-29; 34:19-20). This can be understood in each case contextually by the divine self-attribution of compassion. In essence a compassionate God provided a way out, by concurrently engaging and reforming the abominable practices of the ancient world. What I think is essential in understanding the impact of the ritual is that it is nullified unless the exchange of innocent life can evoke sentimentality. Though clearly the human life is valued higher in Torah, in the sacrificial cult, an animal’s life is considered to be of great value to be offered as ransom for the firstborn of Israel. Torah’s identification of animal life with human life, which is created in the image of God, demands that we place higher value upon these lives than mere property.
It is also helpful to understand the animal sacrifices as occurring within the confines of the Mishkan. The regimen of the sacrificial system in this parsha occurs directly after the Mishkan was completed at the end of Shemot, and filled by the presence of God (Ex.40: 34-36). The ritual of Mishkan building is a sacred drama of world building in which Israel participates with God, bringing His cosmic plans into their socio-moral plane. Jewish theologian Jon Levenson describes the parallels between the construction of the Mishkan and the construction of the world.
The function of these correspondences is to underscore the depiction of the sanctuary as a world, that is, an ordered supportive, and obedient environment, and the depiction of the world as a sanctuary, that is a place in which the reign of God is visible and unchallenged, and his holiness is palpable, unthreatened and pervasive. (Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988. p. 86)
The Mishkan does more than complete the cosmic design; it effectively reclaims creational intentions from the disruptive forces of chaos and human sin and re-creates the primordial hopes. Since the Mishkan is Israel’s primary locus of worship, the acts of Mishkan building and occupying bind together Israel’s vocation with God’s purposes to restore, complete,and perfect the creation.
It is here in the Mishkan, a ritualized world that represents the consummation of God’s work of creation as well as the rescue of peaceable order from the forces of chaos that Israel is brought face to face with the horror of animal death as a conciliatory measure for human disobedience. By engaging in this sacrificial drama, Israel is urged toward contrition and is asked to assume their role as a “kingdom of priests.”With the destruction of the Great Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, emerging Judaism needed to effectuate these concepts without the benefit of the Temple sacrifices. It was never the intention of Judaism to do away with the sacrifice; rather sacrifice was to live on in the eschatological hopes of Israel. According to Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod,
Enlightened religion recoils in horror at the thought of sacrifice, preferring a spotless house of worship filled with organ music and exquisitely polite behavior. The price paid for such decorum is that the worshiper must leave the most problematic side of himself outside the temple, to reclaim it when the service is over and to live with it unencumbered by sacrifice. (Wyschogrod, Michael. Body of Faith. Northvale: Jason Aronson, 1996.)
It would be difficult to reflect on the sacrificial system from a Messianic Jewish perspective without taking into account what the New Testament has to say about it. While Romans and Hebrews both seem to agree that Yeshua as a sacrifice to God has replaced the obsolete system of the Hebrew Scriptures, replete with animal sacrifices, our entire understanding of Yeshua as priest and sacrifice is cast in the categories of Israel’s sacrificial practices. Without taking seriously the efficacious material gesture, as well as the pure brutality of animal sacrifices, the New Testament claims simply do not work.
Like the ritual slaughters in the Mishkan, the sacrifice of Yeshua begs us to examine our damaged relationships with God and with man, bringing the cosmic drama of chaos versus order into the arena of the world we occupy, initiating the peaceable kingdom of God. Just as empathy with the sacrifices in the Mishkan caused the worshiper to view themselves disemboweled before God, so Yeshua invites us to pick up our crosses daily. This becomes mere metaphor unless we can identify with the sacrificial death of Yeshua, informed by the historical material gesture of animal sacrifice in all of its brutality.
It is interesting to note that when Yeshua gave himself as a vicarious sacrifice, he promised the contrite thief who was crucified with him that he would “ be with me in paradise (paradeis lit. garden)” (Luke 23:43). This allusion to Gan Eden begs us, along with its scriptural connections to the sacrifices in the Mishkan, to consider Yeshua’s sacrifice as intended for reparation of the relational disharmony wrought by human disobedience. As we continue to study the devotional material throughout the entire book of Vayikra, let us do so in light of this reality, so that it may cause the light of the Age to Come to break into our present reality and renew and restore us.