Today's reading is Leviticus 1-4 (read it in the KJV or NIV)
Today's passage covers procedures for burnt offerings, grain offerings, fellowship offerings, and sin offerings when either the priest, nation, ruler, or common man sins unintentionally.
Both today's readings and those for the next essay deal almost exclusively with types of sacrifice, especially animal sacrifice. I will discuss the specific procedure for the sacrifices in the next essay, but in this one I would like to discuss the concept of animal sacrifice more generally.
Animal sacrifice was a common feature of ancient religions that has fallen almost entirely out of favour in modern ones. Nearly every ancient European religion had some requirement to sacrifice animals for their god or gods. Sumerians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans all practised animal sacrifice. The Celts and Norse did as well.
On the other hand, almost no modern religion practises animal sacrifice. There are a few exceptions, such as the hybrid religion Santeria and a few re-creation groups attempting to revive the ancient ways. However, these are a distinct minority in the modern world. Even the Jews have not offered animal sacrifices for nearly two thousand years, since the destruction of the second Temple.
Before that, however, Judaism was a typical ancient religion in its attitudes towards animal sacrifice. Indeed, as early as Gen. 4, we have an example of animal sacrifice in the Cain and Abel story. Noah sacrifices animals after the abatement of the flood in Gen. 8, and nearly all his descendants, the progenitors of the Jewish and Christian lines, offer sacrifices to God at some point. By the time we reach Leviticus, the Israelites have a permanent place to offer their sacrifices, namely the burnt offerings altar set before the tabernacle. And, of course, Leviticus devotes its first seven chapters to the methods of sacrifice.
Why were sacrifices so important? There were sacrifices for every occasion, some of which are developed later in Exodus and others explained in today's passage. It might behove us, therefore, to look at one example, and see how it compares to today's usage. I am referring to the sin offering.
The sin offering must be made when "anyone sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the LORD's commands." (Lev. 4:2, NIV) The text goes on to point out four specific categories of people who might sin: the anointed priest (Lev. 4:3-12), the congregation as a whole (Lev. 4:13-21), the ruler (Lev. 4:22-26), or a common person (Lev. 4:27-35). The text, it seems, covers all eventualities.
It is important to note that these are unintentional sins, or, as the KJV describes, "sin[s] through ignorance." (Lev. 4:2) The sin offering is not used when someone has ill will and deliberately decides to sin. It is not used, for example, if I decided to go rob someone and then did so. A closer analogy would be if I accidentally took someone else's bag instead of my own and afterwards couldn't find them to return it. Or, as a more common example, it might refer to accidentally swearing against God or accidentally eating something forbidden. The sin offering occurs when the sinner acknowledges that he or she has sinned and wishes to make amends.
Given the severity of the penalties listed in Exodus, it seems certain that providing an offering would be a more lenient penalty than the one normally prescribed for the equivalent sin. (Ex. 21-23) It would certainly be better to provide an offering than to be killed or excommunicated for a crime, penalties often assigned. This is especially true if the sinner was the anointed priest or the ruler of the people. The sin offering ensures that they remain under the common law and do not receive special treatment.
But why require sacrifices at all? Even if providing a sacrifice is more lenient than killing the unwitting criminal, it is still cruel to animals, isn't it? It still seems barbaric and futile, doesn't it?
The short answer is "no." In the ancient world, people were far more attuned to the natural world than modern people living in cities. Almost every ancient person would have been experienced with killing animals for food: if they wanted to eat meat, they needed to kill it themselves. So the idea of killing animals, in general, would not have seemed particularly cruel. Furthermore, the sacrificed animals provided a useful service: food for the priests. The burnt portions of the animals, often the blood, fat, and certain organs, were considered spiritually unclean for eating regardless. The rest of the animals would often be consumed by the priests.
Note the use of "often" in the previous sentence. This is because, in the case of sin offerings, the animal actually was not eaten by the priests. Instead, it was burned outside the camp. (Lev. 4:12, 4:21) This is because the sin offering provides one extra service not usually adopted by the normal burnt offerings: it takes the place of the sinner. Before it is burnt, the unintentional sinner places his hand upon the beast's head, symbolically having the beast accept the burden of sin instead of the man. When the beast is sacrificed, the man is absolved.
Whereas today we offer community service and other lightened penalties to criminals with mitigating circumstances, such as ignorance of the law, in the ancient world they offered sacrifices. The two, at least in this case, serve the same purpose. And while it might seem barbaric by modern standards, animal sacrifice was a fact of life among the ancient peoples of the near east. At least it's better than ancient Latin America, where human sacrifice appears to be common as well. Bring out the animals!