Atoning for the Altar? Medieval Honor Culture and Leviticus

One of the oddest puzzles in the Law comes in the Day of Atonement ceremonies outlined in Leviticus 16. On this great and holy day, the sins of Israel accumulated throughout the year were cleansed and atoned for in the sacrifices offered up by the high priest in the Holy of Holies. There are a progressive series of sacrifices to be offered up for the high priest, his family, Israel as a whole, the mercy seat, the Tabernacle, and even the altar:

Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses…Then he shall go out to the altar that is before the Lord and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and some of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar all around. And he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it and consecrate it from the uncleannesses of the people of Israel. (Lev. 16:16, 18-19)

This may initially strike some of us as peculiar. We typically would think that persons needed to have their sins cleansed and expiated and taken away. But the Holy Place and the altar itself have committed no sins–they are inanimate objects–so why should they need atonement?

leviticus as lit pictureJewish scholar Jacob Milgrom has forwarded an influential theory about the contagion of impurity and sin that causes the uncleannesses of the people to sort of pile up throughout the year around the Holy places of the Tabernacle. Sin is brought in regularly and it also penetrates through, polluting the Holy places rendering it in need of cleansing if God is going to dwell in blessing with his people.

In her work Leviticus as Literature, Mary Douglas finds Milgrom’s work helpful, but she says it’s too materialist in its discussion the accumulation of sin and uncleanness. Instead, she draws some comparative work between the logic of impurity in Leviticus and the discourse of honor in European cultures connected to the virtue of women or the honor of a knight (146).

She notes that the Bible itself presupposes a patronal structure where the client is concerned for the honor of the patron. God is the covenant Lord who has brought separated Israel out from the nations and made it his own people (Ex. 19; Deut. 7:6-10)–they are holy to him.

Defilement as a violation of holiness is a particularly apt expression for an attack on the honour of God perceived as a feudal Lord. The word for holy has the sense of ‘consecrated’, ‘pledged’, ‘betrothed’, as ‘sacrosanct’ in modern English, something forbidden to others, not to be encroached upon, diluted, or attacked. (147)

The Lord has saved Israel into a special relationship of dependence, loyalty, and love. This means they are to be obedient to him and keeping from insulting his honor and glory.

“This power also protects his people or his things and places, and to insult any of them is an insult to his honour.”

Douglas sees this as key to understanding the logic of the defilement of the altar:

In the courts of chivalry a warrior would recognize that his armour is dishonoured if he himself is impeached: as well as his children, and father and mother, his helmet, his coat of arms, his house, all are tainted and made worthless by the contagious dishonour. Blood washes off the major taint, a noble gift cancels a minor fault. In the same way, bringing uncleanness into the Lord God’s sanctuary makes it impure since the place shares in the insult to God. (148)

Of course, I’m obviously delighted to see a 21st century, anthropologist partially vindicate St. Anselm’s appeal to the logic of feudal honor codes to explain atonement. But beyond that, I find the analogy intrinsically persuasive. There is a clear logic of moral identification at work throughout Scripture such that an attack on God’s things is an attack on God and vice versa.

Leviticus is different that many other books–even from it’s closest kin, Deuteronomy and Numbers–but it is not utterly divorced from their moral, covenantal universe. Cleansing the altar, then, is another way of recognizing and reinforcing the holiness, majesty, and glory of the God who has chosen to dwell with Israel.

Soli Deo Gloria

One thought on “Atoning for the Altar? Medieval Honor Culture and Leviticus

  1. Pingback: N.T. Wright’s Assault on Moralistic Platonic Paganism? (A Review) | Reformedish

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s