Advent and Sacrifice Print
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Thursday, 09 December 2010 22:09

According to Leviticus 4, the flesh of any “sin” or “purification” offering (Heb. hatta’t) whose blood goes into the holy place has to be burned outside the camp (Leviticus 4:5-7, 11-12, 16-18, 20-21).  The placement of the blood depends on the one making the offering: Blood of a priest’s sin offering has to be placed on the golden altar of incense, as does the blood of an offering for the whole congregation of Israel (Leviticus 4:2, 13).  In these cases, then, the sacrificial flesh is not eaten, but destroyed outside the sanctuary precincts.

Hebrews 13:10-13 applies these regulations to Jesus’ death as a sin offering, not generically but in specific detail.  Jesus the Priest does not offer a sin offering for His own sins, since He has none (4:15; 9:7).  Rather, he offers Himself to “sanctify the people” (13:12), and Torah prescribes that the blood for a hatta’t for the whole congregation be taken into the sanctuary (Leviticus 4:13).  That is just what Jesus does, ascending to the heavenly sanctuary to present His blood there.  Because Jesus’ blood has gone into the sanctuary (Hebrews 9:11-12), His “flesh” has to be taken outside the camp (13:11).  Jesus’ death outside the gates of Jerusalem, His ascension to heaven, His presentation of blood in the heavenly sanctuary – this entire sequence of events fulfills the ritual typology of the hatta’t.

We can get a deeper grasp of how the purification offering regulates Christian liturgical practice by looking in somewhat more depth at the purification offering.  In various studies of “sin” (hata) and the hatta’t or “purification offering,” Japanese scholar Nobuyoshi Kiuchi’s has argued that a) hata does not refer to evil acts but to the condition of the whole person who has violated God’s commandments, b) the verb means “to hide oneself,” a hiding not of the act itself but of the person from the presence of God, and c) the hatta’t offering reverses the offerer’s hiding and brings him out into the open, into the presence of God.

Jeremiah 3:24-25 illustrates the plausibility of Kiuchi’s argument.  After scolding Israel as an unfaithful son and bride (3:19-23), Jeremiah concludes, “But the shameful thing has consumed the labor of our fathers since our youth, their flocks and their herds, their sons and their daughters.  Let us lie down in our shame, and let our humiliation cover us; for we have sinned (hata) against Yahweh our God, we and our fathers, from our youth even to this day. And we have not obeyed the voice of Yahweh our God” (3:24-25).

Jeremiah 3 has multiple verbal and conceptual links with Genesis 3.  In both Genesis 3 and Jeremiah 3, those who violate God’s commands suffer “shame” (Genesis 3:7 with 2:25).  In both situations, the wrong is described as not hearing Yahweh’s voice (Genesis 3:17), and in both situations, human beings respond wrongly to the voice of Yahweh (Genesis 3:8, 10).  Both texts refer to “covering” (Genesis 3:7).  Wrong-doing leads to estrangement from God in both, and in Genesis 3 this estrangement from Adam’s side is described as “hiding from the face of God” (Genesis 3:8, 10).  In Genesis 3, Adam “hides” from God immediately after violating God’s commandments, and insofar as refusing to listen to Yahweh involves “hiding” from his Word or hiding his word from one’s consciousness, hiding is of the essence of Adam’s original sin.  What Jeremiah labels hata and hatta’t, Genesis labels “hiding.”

On strictly linguistic grounds, Kiuchi’s proposal is not altogether convincing.  Yet, as a theological (or psycho-theological) perspective on the nature of sin, Kiuchi’s work is profound.  On Kiuchi’s proposal, sin is not on the surface of human life but at its depth.  As Kiuchi points out, it is the person (nephesh) that hatas, and many texts locate the source of hata in the heart.  There is a deep self-alienation involved in our sinful turning from God, a self-alienation that Kiuchi finds in passages that speak of “hata against one’s own nephesh” (Proverbs 8:36; 20:2).

Kiuchi insists the essence of sin is not acts of wrongdoing, but in our hostile, distrusting withdrawal from God’s presence.  We all recognize estrangement from God is the result of sin, but Kiuchi shows that deliberate, willful estrangement – hiding oneself from God, hiding from His Word and its application to us, withdrawal from God’s presence – is already happening with and in every act of disobedience.  That is why Yahweh’s characteristic response to sin is to hide Himself from them (cf. Deuteronomy 31:17-20; Psalm 13:1; 27:9; Isaiah 64:7; Micah 3:4).  When Yahweh excludes Adam and Eve from Eden, he is turning them over to their own hatta’t, their own withdrawal from Him.  They hid from Him, so He goes into hiding and casts them into hiddenness.  Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, withdrawal for withdrawal.

After Adam, humanity was an outcast from Yahweh’s glorious presence, excluded from His house.  Even Israel knew Yahweh only from a distance.  Israel heard His voice, but saw no form on the mountain.  Yahweh commanded Israel to build His tent in the midst of the camp and a house in the midst of the land, but only a few were invited in.  From Eden to the incarnation, God hid from those who hid from Him, hid Himself behind veils and coverings and in a thick cloud.

Under the covenant of exclusion, hatta’t offerings brought human beings out of hiding and reconciled the hidden God with the hiding sinner, but these mutual revelations and reunions were partial and temporary.  Torah was good; but it could not finally deliver from sin, from human self-hiding.  Thus, for example, the common Israelite’s table fellowship with Yahweh was real but very limited.  They ate portions of the peace offerings, but no more.  Priests ate the flesh of some hatta’t offerings, but even they were kept at arm’s length, excluded from the flesh of hatta’t offerings whose blood was taken into the sanctuary.  The altar from which even the priests could not eat was a standing sign of the covenant of exclusion, a symbol of the fact that hatta’t (sin) cannot be overcome with the hatta’t (sin offering) of a bull or a goat.

What Torah could not do, God did.  In Christ, in the fullness of time, God showed Himself.  He came out of hiding to be heard, seen, touched, handled (1 John 1:1-4).  In Jesus, the indwelling Father has made Himself visible, so that those who see Jesus see the Father (John 14:9; cf. John 6:46).  We all see Jesus through the Spirit, and the Father in His face (2 Corinthians 3:12-18; 4:3-6).  The veil is torn, and we all with unveiled face can enter into the house, gaze at the glory, and be transformed into its image.  Jesus is God’s self-unveiling, and besides, He gives Himself as the final, and fully adequate hatta’t offering, which brings us out of hiding into the light of God’s presence.  Jesus comes in the “likeness of sinful flesh and as a sin-offering” to condemn sin and by this makes it possible for the requirements of the law to be fulfilled in those who walk by the Spirit (Romans 8:3-4).

Because of the Advent of the Son, we now eat from an altar that even the priests who serve at the tabernacle had no right to eat.

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Last Updated on Thursday, 09 December 2010 22:16