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Vayikra/Leviticus 8:15 And [Moshe] slaughtered ... and he cleansed the altar ... and he consecrated it for atoning on it.
This string of actions is part of the priestly account of the setting-to-work and consecration of the Tabernacle, also covered from a different point of view in Pekudei, the final parasha of Shemot. Here, before Moshe can anoint and set in Aharon, his brother, as the Cohen Gadol - the High Priest, and his sons as priests with him, Moshe needs to consecrate the key ritual furniture of the Tabernacle. In particular, the 'altar' here is the bronze altar that is situated outside the Tabernacle itself, in front of the Holy Place. Here all the burnt offerings and daily offerings are made as part of the regular ritual of the cult: the daily worship ofHaShem.
The second verb in our text - the Pi'el prefix 3ms form of the root in a vav-conversive construction, "and he cleansed" - is reversed in meaning from the Qal to Pi'el stems. In Qal, the plain meaning, is "to miss the mark, to stumble, to fall" (Davidson) and hence in most usage, "to sin". But like the root , which in Qal is "to learn", but in Pi'el is "to teach", the Pi'el meaning here is almost the opposite: "to de-sin, to cleanse".Ibn Ezra points out that it is used by the Psalmist where the same verb is translated "Purge me with hyssop till I am pure" (Psalm 51:9, JPS). Baruch Levine suggests that "cleansing the altar" should be translated "removing the altar's impurities", because the "Hebrew verb in Pi'el stem has the force of undoing or removing the effects of the action conveyed by the Qal stem". Targum Onkelos sidesteps the stem issue by changing the Hebrew to where the Aramaic root is not ambiguous, meaning simply "to purify from ritual uncleanness".1
The third verb in the text - , the Pi'el prefix 3ms form of the root , "to make holy or consecrate" with both a vav-conversive construction and with a 3ms suffix pronoun, "and he consecrated him" - draws our attention to the words in between: "and [Moshe] poured out the blood at the base of the altar" (JPS). Blood is necessary for the process, and blood comes from live animals; this is why Moshe had to slaughter the bull of the sin-offering in the previous verse: to provide blood.Rashi highlights that "it was the pouring of the blood that effected the purification, not another process that followed the pouring." The Ramban points out that the procedure described here seems to match "For seven days you shall prepare daily a goat for a sin offering; also a young bull and a ram from the flock, without blemish, shall be prepared. For seven days they shall make atonement for the altar and purify it; so shall they consecrate it" (Ezekiel, 43:25-26, NASB), where again, "the blood is the key, rather than the burnt offerings to follow in the next verse."
Our exploration of the Hebrew text is almost complete; the last two words of the text - , the Pi'el infinitive of the root , "to cover", followed by the preposition , offering one more puzzle to solve. The preposition is most often translated "on, over, upon", none of which seem appropriate here, but sometimes 'for'. This might make the last phrase read, "to atone for it", which at first glance appears reasonable for the context. However, since Moshe has just cleansed the altar, it doesn't need to be atoned for, so we need to find another reading that works. Rashi simply pushes through without explaining: "'to atone upon it' - from now on, all atonements." Ibn Ezra offers a partial explanation: "this is the process by which Moshe prepared the altar so that in future it could (in general) make expiation for sin", but doesn't quite say enough. Let's re-arrange our English text: change "(to-atone) (for-it)" to "to-(atone-on-it)". Since always means "to atone, to perform rites of atonement", this is telling us why the altar has been cleansed: for the purpose of making atonement, since atonement sacrifices require an altar.
But what do these ancient cultic rituals from the Tabernacle and Temple periods of Israel's history have to do with us as believers? Why is it important to study them and what can they teach us over 3,000 years later and in the light of the cross? There are two key points: the first that blood is the essential component for cleansing; the second that atonement requires things to be put on an altar. Let's examine these in more detail.
The book of Hebrews reminds us that covenants are not inaugurated without blood (Hebrews 9:18-20), "for a covenant is valid only when men are dead, for it is never in force while the one who made it lives" (v. 17, NASB); here the word 'covenant' is punned with 'will' or 'testament' to mean the document that contains instructions for the disposal of an estate after someone dies. The writer goes on to say that according to the Torah, everything is cleansed with blood - there is no other way - and concludes, "without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness" (v. 22, NASB). It is easy to think that we can obtain forgiveness for our sins just by asking, or by performing some kind of penance as a sign of contrition. That isn't how it works. Confession of sin is certainly required, as is appropriate restitution if other people have been affected by sin, but the Scriptures are very clear what actually happens: "the blood of Yeshua G-d's Son cleanses us from all sin" (1 John 1:7). If we are not covered by the blood of Yeshua on the cross, then we have no forgiveness; all our other efforts are completely in vain. Conversely, provided we have repented and made any necessary restitution, the blood of Yeshua guarantees our forgiveness, no matter what the enemy would like to tell us. Nothing else is required: no penance, no extra tithes or offerings, no self-denial or self-affliction; we are completely and absolutely forgiven and cleansed.
Ask yourself a question: when we give something up to the L-rd, is it really given up entirely, or do we retain an interest in it or hope to get it back later? Yeshua berates the Pharisees and the scribes about this: "Moshe said, 'Honour your father and your mother'; and, 'He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him be put to death'; but you say, 'If a man says to his father or his mother, anything of mine you might have been helped by is 'corban' (that is to say, given to God),' you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or his mother; thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition" (Mark 7:10-13, NASB). This needs a little explanation. Quite often, farmers would give an offering fro the L-rd to the Temple of some property that they owned. Since the Temple authorities did not actually want a field somewhere off in the middle of the country, they would sell it, keeping the money as the offering; and since the field would return to its owner in the Jubilee year, the value of the field was governed by the number of years remaining until the Jubilee; the rules can be found in Vayikra 27:16ff. From there, it also became possible to offer the crop of a piece of property for a number of years, one or more. Again, the Temple authorities would sell this - is this the start of the futures market? - so as not to take on the burden of farming, harvesting and then selling the actual crop themselves. The key here is that although a number of crop cycles have been given to the L-rd, the land itself or future years of crops will return to the farmer. Yeshua's point is that the farmers are using their current lack of finance, though it is real enough 'now', to avoid their responsibilities to provide for their parents, in spite of the fact that that lack is only temporary; their assets will be returned in due course.
Rav Sha'ul tells the Galatians, "I have been crucified with Messiah. It is no longer I who live, but Messiah who lives in me" (Galatians 2:20, ESV). This is expressing a one-way change of state. Once a person has been crucified, they don't start living again - their body is dead. For Sha'ul, there is no going back. He cannot be a believer in Yeshua one day and then change his mind and not be one for a few days while he goes off and does something else. When he writes, "I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of G-d, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to G-d, which is your spiritual worship" (Romans 12:1, ESV), he means it; the sacrifice doesn't get up off the altar and start walking around by itself - it is being consumed as an offering to G-d. Our sacrifice of self to G-d is an ongoing but non-reversible and non-negotiable offering.
1. - Michael Sokoloff, A Dictionary of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic, Bar Ilan University Press
Further Study: Matthew 26:27-29; Galatians 3:15-18
Application: Is your life on the altar, covered by the blood of Yeshua, or are you still trying to manage things and work stuff out for yourself and by yourself? Perhaps it is time to tell yourself to get back on the altar and stay there this time!
© Jonathan Allen, 2015
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