Sacrifice & The Scapegoat (On Leviticus)

The Scapegoat , by  William Holman Hunt  (1854)

The Scapegoat, by William Holman Hunt (1854)

After all the exciting stories in Genesis and Exodus, reading Leviticus can be a bit of a slog. The difference is not only in substance, but also in form; where Genesis and Exodus are composed primarily of narratives concerning the family and the people of God, Leviticus is chiefly a book of law on sacrifice, ceremony, and ethics. Thus, the experience of reading Leviticus presents a stark change of pace.

But it does make sense for Leviticus to immediately follow the construction of the tabernacle at the end of Exodus. Once the tabernacle has been created, the Israelites now need to know what to do in the Tabernacle; they need to know the practices by which they can engage the presence of God. The opening chapters of Leviticus therefore deal with various kinds of sacrifices, both from the perspective of the people (Chapters 1-5) and the priests (Chapters 6-7). The only narrative portion of Leviticus is in chapters 8-10, where Aaron and his sons Nadab and Abihu are consecrated to serve as priests (Chapter 8), where they make the first sacrifices (Chapter 9), and where Nadab and Abihu are struck down for having offered “unauthorized fire” before the Lord.

Though there are multiple kinds of sacrifice, the central logic in all sacrifice is substitution. Because God is just, human sin cannot enter God’s presence. Any who would enter the presence of God must therefore seek cleansing from sin. This is accomplished by substitutionary sacrifice - an animal takes the place of man and is killed, thereby expiating the sin which would prevent him from God. We get a fairly vivid depiction of the concept in Leviticus 1:

He shall bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the Lord. He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him (Leviticus 1:3-4).

While the people give animals to take the place of their sin, only the priests do the killing. This is made explicit in Leviticus 17, where the people are prohibited from killing any animals (even simply for the purpose of eating them). Functionally, this meant that the priests served as Israel’s butchers, and it kept the priests fed by giving them a portion of every animal that would be eaten. At a deeper level, it preserved the people from any guilt associated with shedding blood.

In Leviticus’ sacrificial system, there is special emphasis on the “Day of Atonement,” an annual high point in the process of sacrifice and atonement, described in Leviticus 16. On this day, two goats are selected. One goat is killed as a sin offering, and the high priest brings the goat’s blood into the Holy of Holies, where he sprinkles it on the Ark of the Covenant. This is the only day in the year when anyone enters the Holy of Holies. Afterword, the high priest confesses the sins of Israel over the head of the second goat, and then releases it out into the wilderness. This second goat, which takes all the blame, is the origin of our term “scapegoat.” The concept of the scapegoat, along with the role of the high priest, are particularly significant for Christians. We believe that Jesus was both the great high priest who could make atonement, and also the scapegoat who took our sins upon his head, and became a substitutionary sacrifice for our sake.

The purpose of all this sacrifice is holiness, by which the people of God may enter the presence of God. Chapters 18-26 detail the practical features of holiness, and are often called the “Holiness Code.” There is some scholarly debate about the relationship between this “Holiness Code” and the “Cleanliness Code” in chapters 11-15. The “Cleanliness Code” identifies what can make a person unclean, including certain animals, diseases, and bodily conditions. While many Jews still keep the “Cleanliness Code,” Christians generally understand this code as a ceremonial law that is no longer in force. The “Holiness Code,” by contract, includes many ethical teachings that are still binding for Christians today, including the now controversial prohibitions on adultery, homosexuality, incest, bestiality, and infanticide (in Leviticus 18).

Perhaps less well remembered is that the “Holiness Code” also includes central teachings of Biblical social justice, as outlined in Leviticus 19. This chapter gives the lie to the notion of a sharp dichotomy between Old Testament and New Testament. For it is from this chapter that Jesus developed his teaching on social justice, including his second commandment of loving neighbor as oneself:

“You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord (Leviticus 19:17-18).

Peter Johnston