This section of material is so fascinating to me. So often we have no context for the priesthood, nothing concrete enough to say, "This is how folks become ministers of God." But here we have a unique glimpse into the sons of Aaron (Moses' brother) and how they become the priestly line that will be in charge of the tabernacle.
If you remember from last week we talked about all the different types of sacrifices and what they were used for, now we get to the place where we have to have someone to administer the sacrifices, someone to be in charge of all the activities that occur in the tabernacle. There were daily sacrifices going on--perhaps far more than we can imagine. The writers of Leviticus outline how these sacrifices were to be carried out by the priest and that their pay, so to speak, was a portion of the sacrifice. This might seem odd, but it is how the system was established in the beginning. A ram would be sacrificed and the offal and fat would be used to create smoke on the altar, the meat would be cooked and partly consumed by the priest, and unleavened as well as leavened bread would be consumed. There was also a ton of oil that was used in all of these activities.
With this kind of system, it raises many questions for me?
1. Slaughtering that many animals would have produced an enormous amount of blood. Where did all the blood go?
The text tells us that they scattered blood on the ground around the altar, put some of the blood on the tips of horns of the animal, and more blood was thrown onto the curtain that hung between the Altar in the Inner Chamber and the Holy of Holies where the Ark of the Covenant was stored. But this doesn't account for all the blood. It would have smelled like a slaughter house inside the tabernacle.
2. And then there are the bones, which would have piled up rather quickly. Where did they put all the bones? The truth is, we just don't know. The text isn't explicit enough to give us those kinds of details.
3. There is also the issue of understanding all the rules regarding the slaughtering of an animal and the technical aspects of doing it correctly. We have the benefit of reading the law in print form, but they were taught on the job without an employee handbook. How were they able to accomplish this? I know I would have messed up on multiple occasions. And since they were making these sacrifices on behalf of the people who had violated the law, their sacrifice could could be nullified if not done properly, which means that the individual in need of forgiveness or redemption was out of luck if they happened to get forgetful Frank who couldn't get the procedure right.
4. There were also special garments that they were supposed to wear while performing the duties of priest. I cannot imagine what these garments smelled like after a period of time. How many changes of clothes did they have? Where was the water source that allowed them to scrub their clothes clean? How did they not risk contaminating their water source with all the blood spilled from these animals?
There are far more unanswered questions than there are answered questions. However, what we do know is that this system was put in place by God to place boundaries around his people. He wanted them to operate under certain guidelines that clearly separated them from all other people that lived in the region. This tracks with the notion of holiness and how God called us to set ourselves apart in order to maintain our holiness. We often define holiness as the act of being set apart for God.
Another way to look at holiness, though, is transparency. God is revealing to the people a side of himself that they can only see through becoming a sacrificial people. I used to think about how barbaric is to slaughter all those animals, but in the early days of forming the Israelite people, God needed them to understand what it meant to sacrifice for their faith. It wasn't just about the forgiveness of sins, but it was also about their ability to live in community with one another, something they struggled to do since the beginning. They always found ways to violate covenant and community through all manner of selfish and self-centered behavior. Creating a sacrificial system pulled their focus toward what they must let go of and give up in order to follow God.
In today's society, we are reluctant to give up anything for God. It is rare that we actually sacrifice anything of value to claim the faith by which we live. Over the years, we have altered our perceptions of the law and its full meaning, but we cannot deny that there is something powerful about physically making an effort to right the wrongs we have done to others and to God. If we were more conscious of our violations, and more sickened by what it took to right the wrong, we might actually be willing to change our ways and treat each other with the dignity, respect, and holiness God is calling us to live by.