Bible Review 9:2, April 1993

The Priestly “Picture of Dorian Gray”

Ancient Israel’s priests would be aghast at the moral pollution of the earth: the brazen slaughter of thousands, millions dying of hunger, while the free world silently changes the channel.

By Jacob Milgrom

Bible Review

In my first columna I stated that biblical rituals are symbolic acts that, in the main, contain within them ethical values. This axiom is nowhere better illustrated than in the sacrificial system. To make this point I will focus on one rite, with one ingredient, of one sacrifice: the daubing of blood from the purification offering (widely mistranslated as “sin offering”) on the horns of the altar.

According to Leviticus, the purification offering is prescribed for moral impurity— an unintended breach of prohibitions (Leviticus 4)—and for severe cases of physical impurity (impurity in this context applies to either gender and has only to do with ritual, not with one’s character or morality). Two examples of such physical impurity are the genital flow from a new mother, or from a gonnorheic (Leviticus 12 and 15).

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