The book of Leviticus/Vayikra gets right down to business. The first Torah portion opens with God calling to Moses, then telling him more instructions for the Israelites—this time about conducting the rituals at the altar.
Speak to the Israelites, and you shall say to them: Any human among you who offers an offering to God, from the livestock—from the herd or from the flock—you shall offer your offering. If it is an olah he will offer from his herd… (Leviticus/Vayikra 1:2)
olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering; an offering that is completely burned into smoke. (Plural: olot (עֺלוֹת).)
A person who offers an offering of minchah to God, fine flour will be his offering … (Leviticus 2:1)
minchah (מִנחָה) = gift of allegiance or homage; a grain-offering.
And if he offers a zevach as a thankgiving-offering … (Leviticus 3:1)
zevach (זֶבַח) = animal slaughter as an offering on the altar. (Plural: zivechim (זִבְחִעם).)
The text continues through this week’s Torah portion (Vayikra) and next week’s (Tzav) with instructions for a total of six kinds of offerings. (See my post Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 2.) The last four all involve slaughtering animals, burning parts of them so God can enjoy the smell of the smoke, and eating the remaining edible parts after they have been roasted on the altar.
The primary method of serving God throughout the Hebrew Bible is turning animals into smoke, “… a fire-offering of a soothing smell for God” (Leviticus 3:5). In the first twelve books of the bible (Genesis through 2 Kings) this method goes unquestioned.
Where does this idea come from? The Torah does not say, but I believe the ancient Israelites assumed God wanted animal sacrifices because the other gods in the Ancient Near East were worshiped that way.1
Only when foreign empires began swallowing up the kingdoms of Israel did prophets and psalmists begin to question this approach. The first prophet in the book of Isaiah reports:
“Why your many zivechim for me?” God says.
“I am sated with olot of rams.
And suet from fattened animals
And blood of bulls and lambs and he-goats
I do not want!” (Isaiah 1:11)
“… And when you spread your palms
I am averting my eyes from you.
Even though you multiply [your] prayers
I am not listening.
Your hands are full of blood!
Wash, become pure;
Remove your evil acts from in front of my eyes;
Cease doing evil!
Learn to do good!
Make the oppressed happy,
Defend the orphan,
Argue the widow’s case!” (Isaiah 1:15-17)
Here God does not totally reject animal sacrifices, but God does consider good deeds and justice a higher form of service.
Psalm 40 declares:
[God] gave my mouth a new song,
A song of praise for our God.
May the many see, and may they be awed
And may they trust in God. (Psalm 40:4)
Zevach and minchah you do not want.
You dug open a pair of ears for me!
Olah and guilt-offering you do not request. (Psalm 40:7)
That is when I said:
Hey, I will bring a scroll of the book written for me.
I want to do what you want, my God,
And your teaching is inside my guts.
I delivered the news of right behavior to a large assembly.
Hey! I will not eat my lips. (Psalm 40:7-10)
The speaker in Psalm 40 maintains that God does not want smoke, only words of praise. Nothing can make this poet recant; he will not “eat his lips”. (See my post Tetzavveh: Smoke and Pray.)
What does God want? Most, but not all, of the Hebrew Bible assumes God wants offerings on the altar. Today we assume God wants words of prayer and blessing, as well as deeds of kindness and justice.
But why should we give God what we think God wants?
Suppose you want to manipulate or appease a person who has power over you. You might speak to them, send them a card, send them flowers or a bigger gift.
The same human impulses apply to thanking or manipulating a semi-anthropomorphic God. In the bible, the Israelites slaughter their animals in order to give them to God, either in gratitude or in an attempt at appeasement.2
Today, do we pray and do good deeds to express gratitude? Or to appease God? Or to manipulate God into giving us what we want?
- For example, the odor of Utnapishtim’s burnt sacrifice gives the gods of Mesopotamia pleasure in Gilgamesh tablet 11, part 4. In the book of Numbers, Moabite women invited Israelites to worship Baal Pe-or with them through “zivechey their god” (Numbers 25:2). (Zivechey (זִבְחֵי) = slaughter offerings of.) In the book of Ezekiel, God complains that Israelites are flocking to foreign altars and burning sacrifices to give idols soothing smells (Ezekiel 6:13, 16:19, and 20:28).
- Offerings of wholeness or thanksgiving (shelamim, שְׁלָמִים) are described in the portion Vayikra in Leviticus 3:1-16 and in the portion Tzav in Leviticus 7:11-21. Offerings to appease God after violating one of God’s rules (chataat, חַטָּאת, and asham, אָשָׁם) are described in Vayikra in Leviticus 4:1-5:22.