Blood for the atonement of the soul

The Book of Leviticus, the third book of Moses, is a book filled with rules and regulations, particularly pertaining to worship. The book is filled with many interesting features. It is here in chapter 19 that “love thy neighbor” appears for the first time: “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (19:18).  Also,with all the talk about sacrifices and the shedding of blood there is the brief clarification of its holiness: “And whatever man of the children of Israel, or of the resident aliens dwelling among you, eats any blood, I will set My face against that soul who eats blood and will utterly destroy him from among his people. For the life of all flesh is in its blood, and I give it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for its blood makes atonement for the soul.” (17:10-11).

The following chapter deals with another matter altogether – sexual immorality. Or, as Fr. Reardon in his Daily Reflections suggests (here), the two are quite related:

The consideration of blood, which is the symbol and bearer of life, is appropriately followed by regulations concerning sex, the sole means appointed by God for the transmission of life. The biblical laws governing sex are mainly negative and apodictic (as in “Thou shalt not . . .”)

The core material embracing the twin concerns in this chapter (listed below) is contained by an introduction (verses 1-5) and a conclusion (verses 24-30). Since the introduction and conclusion lay the foundation for the chapter’s core material, we will discuss these first.

The introduction (verses 1-5) establishes the serious tone of the chapter. It is stated, as a first principle, that Israel’s sexual behavior is to resemble neither that of Egypt nor that of Canaan, the place that Israel was leaving and the place where Israel was going. The Lord’s “judgments and ordinances,” it should be noted here, do not mean that Israel is suddenly faced with “rules” about sex, whereas Egypt and Canaan had no such rules. On the contrary, both Egypt and Canaan had their own sexual ordinances. No nation or culture is without rules and ordinances governing sex, in the sense of social expectations. The important thing, however, is that such expectations be correct and proper, and this is the tone in which Israel is to receive the ordinances of God on this subject. (Our own modern American culture certainly has its rules, or social expectations, on the matter of sex. Alas, they are almost all wrong!)

The conclusion of the chapter takes up once again the theme established in the introduction—namely, Israel’s separation from the sexual deviations of the Canaanites, among whom the Israelites will soon be living (verses 24-26). Just as those Canaanites were dispossessed of the Holy Land by reason of committing these abominations, so Israel runs the identical threat (verses 27-28). The teaching of this passage is the same as that of Israel’s prophets, who later traced Israel’s exile back Israel’s copying the behavior of the Canaanites.

Thus framed, the central core of the chapter contains the specific laws governing sex for God’s Holy People. These laws do address concrete social questions of two kinds.

First, in a culture where normally all the members belong to the same tribe, it is not surprising to find prohibitions of marriage within identified degrees of consanguinity and affinity (verses 6-18). Questions concerning these matters were bound to arise, and it was imperative to have clear, non-negotiable norms by which to address them.

The various prohibitions regarding consanguinity and affinity govern the household and family, where members of both sexes live in greater proximity than with other people. They are also bound by affections that are not shared outside of the family. Hence, the relationships established within the household are to be regulated with intentional severity, and on this severe code depends the stability of the whole society. A society that does not abhor incest has no future (verses 6-18). If relationships within the family are not closely and strictly governed, society collapses in one generation.

Second, because the experience of sex is so closely related to the imagination, it is inevitable that a society must eventually cope with more “imaginative” expressions of the sexual experience. Hence, there are rules to govern the proper judgment of such matters (verses 19-23). The Sacred Text is understandably severe about sex outside the family, such as adultery (verse 20), homosexuality (verse 22), and bestiality (verse 23).

It is instructive that in the midst of these references there is a prohibition of child sacrifice (verse 21). We gain some sense that sexual offenses and child sacrifice go together, a sense confirming our suspicions that a society that encourages promiscuity will be permissive with respect to the murder of children.

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One thought on “Blood for the atonement of the soul

  1. There is a great deal that could be commented on with regard to the sexual laws found in the Torah, but though we agree with them in the main as to prohibitions, something has changed, and we do not carry out the punishments indicated for their infraction. The Muslims, on the other hand, would like to do this, and have largely incorporated these punishments into sharia law.

    Why do we agree with the sexual laws of the Old Testament when we reject many of the formal injunctions, positive and negative, that are written there on the basis of our being under the New Covenant? It seems to me that though ‘no jot or tittle shall be removed from the Law until its purpose is achieved’ as Christ clearly teaches, the Law remains in force as a witness against us, telling us what is wrong, but not giving us the power to do what is right: that is reserved to Christ alone, and that is what makes the difference for us, as holy apostle Paul writes.

    The Law is the prescription for our sicknesses, but do we take it? or do we explain away our sicknesses as ‘nothing serious’ or just ‘a stage we’re passing through’ while we look the other way as our society and world crumble? Though the Torah, the Law, is of divine origin, that says nothing more than that it is of Reason, of the Divine Logos, who appears in the form of Man to take upon Himself not only to manifest what the Law fulfilled looks like, but to bear the consequences of our not following it as well. He is the Sacrifice which takes our sins away and cancels the debt that we go from birth to death owing. And owing to what or to whom? Is it not to Reason itself, which again, is the only Divine Nature we know, revealed in Jesus Christ, at once the Victim and the Victor in all our struggles?

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