Leviticus 9-12: God kills priests, food laws

On the eighth day following the beginning of the ordination of Aaron and his sons, they sacrifice animals and meal; the community does the same.  The LORD appears to all the people, and fire comes forth from him to consume the burnt offering and the fat on the altar.  Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu offer incense and kindling inside metal pans.  Because the LORD had not ordered this form of worship, he kills the sons.  Moses orders Aaron’s remaining sons to carry away the bodies with their tunics, and prohibits them from mourning.  After some more rituals, Moses becomes angry that the goat of purification offering had already been burnt, instead of eaten in the sacred precinct.

The LORD gives food laws to Moses and Aaron.  The clean animals are: land animals with true hoofs and chew the cud; marine creatures with fins and scales; several birds (eagle, vulture, falcons, etc); winged swarming things that walk on fours and have jointed legs to leap on the ground (locusts, crickets).  All other animals are abominations, including all small land animals (i.e. mole, mouse, great lizard).  Anyone who touches their carcasses shall be unclean until evening, and must wash themselves.  If an unclean small animal falls on a washable article, wash it and it shall remain unclean until evening; if it falls into an earthen vessel, break the vessel.  If an unclean carcass falls onto anything, it becomes unclean.  If it falls onto dry seed grain, the seed grain is clean; if it falls onto wet seed grain, the wet seed grain becomes unclean.  You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I the LORD am holy.

After a woman gives birth to a boy, she is unclean for 7 days and in a state of blood purification for 33 days; she must not touch any holy object or enter the sanctuary during these periods.  For a girl, the lengths are 14 and 66 days.  After this period, she shall bring a lamb as a burnt offering and a pigeon/turtledove as a purification offering; if she is poor, she may offer 2 pigeons/turtledoves instead.

Commentary:

  • Here and throughout Leviticus, “clean” and “unclean” do not refer to hygiene.  They are better translated as “[ritually] pure” and “impure”.
  • The reason for the food laws is given in 11:14: “For I the LORD am your God: you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy.”
  • Chapters 12-15 describe the disposal of impurity, or “tum’ah”.  Impurity is like a substance that envelopes the impure person or object.  There are 4 causes: human corpses, carcasses of animals, fluxes of life fluids (like blood or genital discharges), and a specific skin condition called tzara’at.  There is nothing morally wrong with becoming impure for ordinary Israelites.  Impurity is drawn towards the sanctuary and accumulates there.  If too much accumulates, God will be chased away from the sanctuary, thus dooming Israel.  There are 3 ways that impurity can be cleansed: through the passage of time, by washing hands and clothes, and by purification offerings.  The first two cleanse the individual, and are sufficient for minor impurities.  The latter cleanses the sanctuary, and is necessary for major impurities (like childbirth).
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