Leviticus is a book about life. And we're not just talking about survival, but vitality and growth. You know, the good stuff.
So what does this have to do with animal sacrifice? Well, to us, animal sacrifice may stink of savagery, violence, and death, but that's not the message it conveys in ancient Israel. Back in the day, killing was a necessary evil. A man has to eat and wear clothes, right? And tofu, vitamin supplements, and pleather are centuries in the future.
Still, God says, the fact that killing animals will be part of day-to-day life doesn't mean that Israelites should take it lightly. Blood and fat are life in abundance, and they belong to God:
For it is the life of all flesh; the blood of it is for the life thereof: therefore I said unto the children of Israel, Ye shall eat the blood of no manner of flesh: for the life of all flesh is the blood thereof: whosoever eateth it shall be cut off. (17:14)
Offering up these sacrifices to God is a way for the Israelites to convey their gratitude to the giver, kind of like how a cat will bring a mouse that she's killed to her owner. Not that we worship cats.
Besides acknowledging God as the one with absolute power over life, offerings are designed to keep the Israelites from killing each other. The ritual transforms the necessity of death into a reminder of the need to respect life.
The whole thing has ripple effects throughout the community. After all, if Israelites aren't supposed to take violence toward animals lightly, how much more should they not abuse their families and neighbors? If we applied this theory to the things accused of causing violence today, the Leviticus approach wouldn't be to ban violent movies and video games, but to make us say a blessing every time we turn on Mortal Kombat or Resident Evil.
The image of animal sacrifice as a reminder to respect life actually goes all the way back to the book of Genesis. Remember Cain and Abel? The peaceful Abel sacrifices animals, while Cain merely presents offerings from his harvest and… becomes a murderer. The moral: watch out for vegetarians, because who knows what they're cooking up?
Sacrifice also keeps the purity whole by reminding people of how even the smallest mistakes can add up to big problems. In the rituals prescribed for atonement, the life blood covers and cleanses the decay resulting from disorder, thus preserving the community from collapse. Sacrificial offerings expel the community's sins and purify through contact with the holy, most notably the priests performing and eating the sacrifices.
Let's look at it this way (spoiler alert!): The process of atonement in Leviticus is kind of like the image of saving systems from collapse in The Matrix. Although the system normally goes through recurring renewal and collapse due to the cumulative effect of flaws, Neo saves the system from collapse by internalizing the destructive viral code of Agent Smith. If God had given the Israelites CGI instead of a discourse of bodily fluids, Leviticus might be much more popular today.
In more down to earth terms, like The Matrix movies, Leviticus is full of metaphors referring to feedback loops in a dynamic system. In a weird yet familiar way, the Israelites were trying to do science. They saw that small imperfections could lead to widespread instability and unwanted changes. So the priestly system of repentance, correction, and covering was designed to dampen the rate of system decay.
It's really not as out there as it may sound. One of the most influential modern applications of this strategy for improving community life is the broken windows theory. According to this popular approach, being mindful of attention to small messes—graffiti, trash, broken windows—can have broader effects throughout the community, including the reduction of violent crime (source). We hate to side with nagging parents here, but a similar principle is at work when adults tell kids to clean their rooms.
That said, there are also some serious bugs in this law code. One of the biggest bugs of all is the idea that Israel can make a sacred vow to dedicate the lives of conquered foreigners to God. Leviticus 27 makes it a sin not to follow through with such a vow:
Nothing that a person owns that has been devoted to destruction for the Lord, be it human or animal, or inherited landholding, may be sold or redeemed; every devoted thing is most holy to the Lord. No human beings who have been devoted to destruction can be ransomed; they shall be put to death. (27:28-29)
This law will play a major role in the Book of Joshua, where the Israelites wipe out whole populations as they conquer their enemies in the Promised Land.
No mistake about it—this is a real puzzler. How could this be consistent with the ethic of respect for life in chapters 1-25? Is it merely a literary symbol of God's absolute justice and not something that the Israelites actually did? Or is this a win for Team Richard Dawkins?