Better Than Prayer: An Approach to Leviticus (Lev. 1-7)

In current Christian thought, there is, truly, only one method of contact with the divine: prayer. Prayer takes many forms, whether it be whispers before bedtime, or song at a service, or an hour at a convent, or a simple thought over a hospital bed. The point is that it’s a singular one-on-one or all-on-one communication with the divine, solely through words.*

Of course, however, it was not always that way. In fact, the Bible, at least in the beginnings of the sleeper that is the Book of Leviticus (one is reminded of Samuel Johnson’s comment about “Paradise Lost,” something to the tune of not wishing it a sentence longer), shows a very, very different process. After reading over this section, the thought occurred to me that it highlighted a distinct contrast, one that many people often forget now.

The first seven chapters of Leviticus broadly consider all of the forms of animal sacrifice that God (here referred to as “the Lord”) sent via fiat. Despite the obvious issues with this text, which include why it was often enforced before it was set forth by God, and that it would have taken quite a scribe to take down all of the direct quotations that are attributed by God, it does shed light on an interesting angle: communication with the divine. In that time, animal sacrifices were perceived to be the single best channel of communication with God — not silent prayer, not group prayer, and not song. Why was this? Scholars postulate many different reasons — this topic could be a post of its own, but it is not particularly relevant to Holey Books — but the important point is that, as the fourth-century philosopher Platonius Sallustius noted, “Prayer without sacrifice is just words.” It was more than symbolic.

So why has all this animal sacrifice been abandoned by Christians, and turned into “just words”? That, too, could be its own post, or even series of posts, but it has mostly to do with the Paul/Peter debate over how much of the Law should be followed by Christians (see a comment I posted on just such a question here). Now, we have mostly abandoned all of the actual physical acts of prayer, and probably for good reasons: we think of the divine less as a physical, tactile presence and more of an abstraction, an idea, and a force. But this was emphatically not what Jews, or many other practicing religions of the Near East at the time, thought.

As we push through this book, it is important to read Leviticus, then, in that context: to these people the entire way of communicating with the divine was different. The divine smelled “aromas” (a notable refrain from the first few chapters of Leviticus) and the divine had tastes, sensations, vision. As Leviticus is frequently cited as a source for many moral principles, it is best to remember this — that in many ways, more than just prayer, we do not share the same mindset as those who wrote the book down. This was a community that envisioned God not as a force for good, or love, or enduring infinity, but a giant man, a tribal leader — a king, really — and, as such, he set forth his loyalty principles (cf The Ten Commandments).

*Yes, I realize there is the Eucharist, which is a symbolic action, but, as you’ll see, this (and all other symbolic actions) is/are very different from animal sacrifices. And of course one should consider how, at least in Catholic beliefs, the Eucharist changes form: simply through the words of the priest.

This entry was posted in Blog Post and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.