Thursday, October 18, 2012

Sin Excluding Love

Last week I introduced Leviticus and described the practice of sacrifice in general terms. Having made that introduction, I think it is now important to point out that not all sacrifice in Leviticus is the same. There are actually five kinds of sacrifice described in the first 6 chapters of Leviticus. The first three are the whole burnt offering (1:1-17), the grain offering (2:1-16), and the peace offering (3:1-17). Each of these had different purposes and different procedures but one thing they all had in common is that they were all free-will offerings. There is no stipulation in Leviticus for when these sacrifices were to be made. Instead, they could be brought freely and willingly at almost any time by anyone in Israel.  Presumably this was done merely out of joy or thankfulness. These sacrifices were intended solely as acts of worship, as a response to the grace and salvation that God had provided for Israel. This is significant because I'm pretty sure that when most Christians think of sacrifice we almost always think of it in terms of something being offered because of sin.  At most, however, only half the sacrifices described in Leviticus are about sin (the sin offering and guilt offering in ch. 4-5 and the Day of Atonement offering in 16). Sacrifices could also be offered as a sign of deliverance (the Passover meal signifying the Exodus from Egypt) and provision (sacrifice at the Feast of Firstfruits and Feast of Weeks in relation to harvest). Sacrifice does not always signify sin.

Of course, there are times when it does. Leviticus 4:2-3 reads "If anyone sins unintentionally in any of the Lord's commandments about things not to be done, and does anyone of them... then he shall offer a bull from the heard without blemish to the Lord for a sin offering." Leviticus 4:1-5:13 goes on to describe the proper procedure for the sin offering to be brought by various people (for the sins of priests, leaders, the whole of Israel, etc.) whenever they have failed to keep God's law. However, even when a sacrifice does signify sin, I wonder if we still often miss much of what is going on here.

In a good portion of evangelicalism the reasoning for sacrifice often goes something like this:
God is a perfectly just God whose righteousness can not be impugned. Therefore, when God's perfect law is broken the offending party must be punished in order to keep God's justice and honor intact. God graciously provided the sacrificial system so that God's justice might be satisfied and his wrath averted by the blood of an animal. This, in turn, explains Christ's sacrifice on the cross. The Son absorbed the wrath of the Father so that we would not have to bear punishment for our sin.
 Aside from all the theological problems one might have with such a characterization of God (Why is this God so vengeful and blood-thirsty? Is Christ's death an instance of divine child abuse?), there is also the fact that this reasoning for sacrifice is never given in Scripture itself. It is a reading imposed upon the text by a certain idea of God and God's justice which is not necessarily in line with the character of God as it is revealed in much of the rest of Scripture. In fact, there is very little, if any, explanation or reasoning given for the sacrifices proscribed in Leviticus. They are simply proscribed. This means, of course, that any attempt to explain the "theology of sacrifice" in Leviticus will have to go beyond what Scripture says since it gives no explanation. However, in attempting such an explanation we can pay careful attention to the details of the rituals themselves and how they fit into the larger story of God revealed in Scripture.

First, we must take note of the only statements in this chapter which come close to an explicitly stated theology. After the ritual of the sin offering is described the text says "So the priest shall make atonement for his sin and he shall be forgiven." (4:26, 31, 35; 5:6, 10. 13) There is no mention here of God's wrath being appeased or justice being satisfied. Instead, the Hebrew word for atonement indicates the idea of covering over the sin that has been committed. The Greek equivalent of this same word in the Septuagint carries the idea of purging obstacles that might stand between the person and God. Even our English word itself, at-one-ment, speaks to the idea of being at one with God. The emphasis here is on maintaining the relationship between God and the people.

We find this same idea highlighted in the practice of the ritual itself, especially in the use of blood, which acts as a kind of cleansing agent in the sanctuary. In contrast to the whole burnt offering where the blood of the animal is merely splattered against the sides of the altar and then poured out at the base of the alter, here the blood is placed on the horns of the altar and, in the case of the priests and the congregation of Israel, sprinkled seven times in front of the curtain leading into the most holy place. Much as the Hebrew and Greek words communicate, the animal's blood is used to cover over and purge the effects of one's sin from the tabernacle. (So much so that many scholars believe this should be referred to as the purification offering rather than the sin offering.) To be sure, the individual receives forgiveness in accordance with the sacrifice but forgiveness is really only part of the problem. The bigger problem is that the stench of sin threatens to drive God out of the Israelite camp. When someone sins, it threatens to pollute God's house. In the case of priests and communal sins of the whole people, it seems the stink is so pungent that it reaches right up to the inner curtain, threatening to enter into God's very dwelling. The concern of Leviticus is less for God's justice and more for God's holiness; that God's wholly otherness, God's sacredness will be profaned by the common and impure. The biggest problem with sin isn't that it might invite God's punishment but that it might drive God away entirely.

This understanding of sacrifice and sin is also in keeping with the picture of God we are given in the rest of Scripture. There are certainly times when God sends wrath and punishment but often it serves the purpose of rehabilitation more so than retribution. God exhibits his wrath to get Israel's attention and to call the people of Israel back to God. Likewise, we've just seen in the book of Exodus that it is God's presence with the people which is the number one concern of Israel. Indeed, Moses says it is the one thing which distinguishes them from all the other people on the earth.

Sin is a troublesome word these days. To speak it is to almost guarantee that you will be misunderstood. But before we go blaming our "relativistic, amoral culture," we as the Church need to realize that sin is our word. It is uniquely a part of our faith vocabulary. If others misunderstand the meaning of a word that is uniquely ours to define, perhaps the problem is that our speech and our lives have not served as trustworthy dictionaries.

I believe that the sin offering described in Leviticus shows us that sin is a deadly serious thing and as such it is a word worth reclaiming. Perhaps Leviticus can also help us take the first step in knowing how to reclaim it - by reminding us that the real tragedy of sin is not the failure to keep what can sometimes seem an arbitrary moral code. The real tragedy of sin is that it threatens to drive the presence of God out of our lives. And conversely, if we can't say that something really threatens to distance us from God then maybe we should think twice about calling it sin. Sometimes Christians can become so absorbed with fleeing sin that we forget we should be running toward God.

It is not the narrative of an angry God which under-girds the notion of sin but the story of a God who is holy love; who will go to any length - even taking on our own flesh - in order to dwell among us. Sin is the name given to the things which keep this loving God out of our lives. On a blog to which I subscribed just earlier today, I happened across these words.

The man who keenly longs to escape his sin
Has first to forget about escaping sin.
What he requires instead
Is a role in a Larger, Better Story.
A Good Story.
A God Story.
And when he finds it, he will realize,
There is no escaping sin.
There is only learning Love.

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