February 26, 2007

Leviticus 5-7: Free food!

Today's reading is Leviticus 5-7 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the continuation of the sin offering; the gulit offering; regulations for burnt offerings, grain offerings, sin offerings, guilt offerings, and fellowship offerings; prohibitions against eating fat and blood; and regulations for which parts of the offerings belong to the priests.

While Lev. 1-4 dealt with many specifics in the procedure for sacrifices, much of Lev. 5-7 involves who gets to keep which part of the sacrificed animal or grain. At least as many verses are devoted to who retains the sacrificed property as are devoted to how to sacrifice it properly.

Let us have a brief survey of the requirements, then:

Grain Offerings (Lev. 6:14-18): Aaron and his sons eat everything but a handful, which is burnt as an offering. All the males of the children of Aaron eat it. Exception (Lev. 6:19-23): the grain offering provided by a priest when he is anointed must be burned entirely and not eaten.

Sin Offerings (Lev. 6:24-30): The offering priest eats it in the court of the tabernacle. Any male among the priests may also eat it. Exception (Lev. 6:30): sin offerings whose blood is brought to make atonement must be burnt entirely and not eaten.

Guilt Offerings (Lev. 7:1-10): Any male among the priests may eat it in a holy place. The offering priest also keeps the hide and any grain brought for a guilt offering.

Fellowship Offerings (Lev. 7:11-21): It belongs to the priest, but must be eaten within three days of the sacrifice. Lev. 7:28-38: The priest's share of fellowship offerings are the breast and the right shoulder (KJV) or thigh (NIV).

The first thing we notice from this list is that the priests eat very well. When you take into account the sheer number of people bringing sacrifices to the Temple -- there were 600,000 men in the Israelite camp, plus their families, if we believe the text -- there must have been sacrifices on an hourly basis. The priests received practically all the grains brought for sacrifice, as well as the sin offerings, guilt offerings, and portions of the fellowship offerings. Furthermore, the animals and grains offered as sacrifices were necessarily the best the Israelites could provide. God obviously would not want anything sub-par, while the farmer kept his best goods to himself. Instead, the best animals, the best fruits, and the best grains were offered as sacrifices, and consequently eaten by the priests. And they were able to have all this excellent food without the need for farming or animal husbandry.

Of course, the flip-side to this situation is that the priests couldn't farm or tend animals. Once the Israelites reached Canaan, the Levites were not given any land, because they were the priests of the people. The sacrifices were the only way the priests were able to eat. They couldn't simply go out into the farm and plant a few rows of wheat; they needed to rely on the sacrifices brought to them by the rest of the Israelites.

This situation is not as unusual as it might appear. Throughout the Middle Ages, Christian priests were paid out of the benefices and tithes offered by their congregation. This may even be true today. When the congregation gives offerings (in the form of money) to God, it is tacitly understood that they are also supporting the local man of God, the priest.

The priests did more than oversee the sacrifices, of course. They provided mediation, counselling, judgement, and other important functions for a large community. If they could be fed by activities pleasing to God, sacrifices, then so much the better.

One question that arises from these chapters, however, is what did the wives and female children of the priests eat? Unlike Catholic priests, Jewish priests were allowed to marry and have children. Otherwise, the text would not state "Aaron and his sons," referring to future generations of priests. In Catholicism, priests were ordained regardless of their parents. Contrarily, in Judaism, priesthood was and is hereditary. Today if you meet a person whose last name is "Cohen," it is likely that he descents from the line of priests.

If, however, priests married and had children, their wives would need to eat something. However, the text states regularly that only men of the priests' families could eat the sacrificial offerings. They Levites, as I mentioned, did not have land to farm or animals to tend. This would leave the women of the Levites in an unfortunate situation of having no food. I do not remember future chapters well enough to recall whether there are provisions for them later in the text or whether, like so many other issues relating to women, this is merely a point that is passed over in silence. If anything comes up, I shall be certain to note it. For the time being, however, we don't know.

In the end, therefore, we are left with a favourable situation for the priests, at least the male ones. They don't need to do the manual labour associated with the other tribes, and yet they are able to eat very well. And if they needed to clean the ashes out of the burnt offerings altar (Lev. 7:8-13) and wash their blood-splattered clothes (Lev. 6:27), then these were simply ancillary chores associated with getting free food. I can only imagine it was better than back-breaking labour all year.

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