Yom Kippur Diaries 3: The Triumph of Mercy

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I explained yesterday about the “afflction of soul” not being simply some kind of self-harm, but a fundamental blow to the arrogant human urge to seize control, to be in charge of our own lives. Afflicting the soul, then is more like Jesus’ call to deny self and shoulder the cross, or Paul’s testimony of being “crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20). Leviticus connects this directly to the “extreme” nature of the Yom Kippur sabbath, doing absolutely no work of any kind, at all, a shabbat shabbaton, a Sabbath-y Sabbath! The two themes literally explaining each other in 16:29, 31; 23:27b-28a, 32, and even negatively in 29-30: “whoever does not afflict themselves…and whoever does any work…” It’s almost like God is cutting off even the chance for the un-afflicted soul at least to assert itself religiously! No, like Peter submitting to Jesus washing his feet, the “soul” must submit to that hardest of all disciplines: yielding.

This student found one way to “get on top” of his religious obligations—by surmounting the Middle Bronze standing stone at the Shechem temple, possibly the stone before which Joshua covenanted with the Israelites. (Click the image for a larger view)

This festival is very life-affirming. For all the talk about afflicting the soul, there is an undercurrent of life. It’s seen in the prominence—unpleasant to modern sensibility—of blood. In a kind of “footnotes” to the Day of Atonement, Leviticus 17 explains some of the underpinnings of this Holy Day. In 17:10-16 Yahweh explains why he doesn’t want his people to eat blood. There are two reasons. First, “the life of the flesh is in the blood” (Lev. 17:11). For whatever reason, the biblical writers linked blood to the essence of life. And the term for “life” here isn’t the normal Hebrew word for “life,” which is חַיִּﬦ as in the toast, le-khayyîm! No, it’s our old friend נֶפֶשׁ nephesh, the term traditionally translated “soul,” but really pointing to the total embodied life of a person or even of an animal. It is actually used periodically in Leviticus simply to denote a person, and once or twice, even a dead body (i.e. what used to be a person!). The second reason not to eat blood emerges in 17:11b: not only is blood the “life,” it is a gift. God declares that he has given the blood-life of the animal as a gift upon the altar tp make atonement. So here it all is: that which the worshiper afflicts in himself (the nephesh) is embodied in the blood, which God has chosen to give as a gift on the altar in order to atone for sins. So every time an Israelite abstained from eating blood, he recalled God’s gift of life on the altar, a gift that atoned for his or her every transgression and sin.

When was the last time any of us made a choice about what to eatbased on honoring God’s gift of life, his atoning gift to forgive our sins? Anthropologists tell us that “foodways,”

Religion was work, but did it work? The massive walls of the Canaanite Temple at Shechem testify to the seriousness with which Canaanite polytheists went about creating and using worship space. For orientation, the standing stone at the front of the temple is upper left, where the altar would have stood. (Click image for a larger view)

our habitual eating choices, have a way of defining our distinctive identity, often over against some competing or threatening force. Eating can embody faith, as any eucharistic theologian will tell you. Avoiding blood was a way of recalling God’s gracious gift of atonement every time one sat down to eat.

The fact that the blood is God’s gift of life, given on the altar, as a gift, not as a reward or deserved payment  (remember, this is the most sabbathy of sabbaths, the totally no working at all sabbath), underscores another pervasive theme in Leviticus 16-17, one easily missed because, well, it’s everywhere.

Reading down Leviticus 16 I keep noticing the repeated expression “…he shall make atonement for…” The recipient of this atonement, though, is not the sinner, but rather the elements of the so-called sacrificial system! Check out Leviticus 16:6, 11, 16, 17, 18, 20, 24, 27, 32-33. The priest and his family have to be atoned for. Wait…I thought the priest atoned for my sins, but here he has to secure atonement for his own! You mean the guy who is supposed to make sure my sorry a… uh… soul… doesn’t get vaporized in a flash of divine wrath is, himself, in the same sorry spot that I’m in? It’s like seeing your karate teacher getting beat up by a hair-dresser!

Then the altar, the sanctuary, every single element of the whole apparatus of forgiveness and cleansing, of healing the breach between God and his people…must be atoned for, its own breaches healed! Wait…you mean the very machinery that they told me was part

Remains of 3 stages in the development of this Philistine temple can be seen, superimposed on each other, at Tel Qasile, now located in downtown Tel Aviv. The temple dates from the era of Judges. (Click the image for a larger view)

of a grand, divine system for insuring my sins would be forgiven…is itself tainted with sin and needs atonement? I counted, and I think there are actually 49 discrete acts of sprinkling sacrificial blood on the various elements of this “religious system.” It needs it badly. As badly as I do…

That’s a little disconcerting. The system that is supposed to fix the worshiper, itself needs to be fixed! I think I get what the author of the book of Hebrews was talking about on this topic, though I find the the book of Hebrews way more confusing and mysterious than the book of Leviticus!

So…a call to self-surrender, a prohibition on work and a frank recognition that the system that is supposed to secure the worshiper’s forgiveness and right relationship with God is in fact, in need of these very things itself. All of which tells me that none of this stuff actually worked in the first place, at least, not by some inner power or even divinely bestowed energy. These rituals provided a means by which God’s people could seek his forgiveness as well as act out and see acted out the deep needs and motions of their lives. But this “system” did not actually “work” the way ancient Mesopotamians or Egyptians belived their rituals “worked,” via some mysterious and magical power. No, the Israelite “religious system” didn’t work, nor could the Israelite worshiper “work the system” though later Israelites might try! This sacrificial system that did not work pointed the worshiper to a God who had already worked! It did not obtain redemption, because God had already redeemed his people! This annual exposé of the complete emptiness and ineffectualness of the “system,” along with the pathetic neediness of its priests and high priest, stood as a sign of Mercy. No sacrifice, offering, or sprinkled blood could forgive a sin that God had not, in his profound compassion, already decided would be forgiven.

And the news of Yom Kippur is good: He has decided, it’s Mercy!

And the centerpiece of all this forgiveness, all this good news, is something called the כַּפֹּרֶת  kapporet. It’s the lid of the ark of the covenant, above which God appeared in his glory, which meant instant death for any poor guy who was in there under the wrong circumstances. But that lid bore the name kapporet, something like the “atone-u-ary.” Actually, since this thing is actually the lid on the ark of the covenant, that is, the cover, I think we might have here a link in the text defining or, at least, coloring the notion of “atonement” with the idea of covering, concealing, sealing, even water-proofing or the like that we noted in an earlier post. I rather still, though, like the traditional translation: “the mercy seat.” The older translators recognized that whatever the Hebrew word means, it all converges on God’s mercy covering, dealing with, removing human sin.

Which is why this Day of Atonement is an xTreme Sabbath, a day of saying no to the prerogatives of our ego, a day of peculiar, pointed cessation from all allegedly productive activity. It is a day in which the OT believer recalled that all of life, even the life of religious devotion, isn’t about any system or religiously superior rituals; this life can only be lived under the mercy.

Nothing in my hands I bring…simply to thy cross I cling…

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I’m 60 years old, professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. I love my wife of 36 years, my three adult children and children-in-law. I love our three horses, two cats, and whatever other creatures decide to call our place home. I hate mowing grass, hanging pictures or shelves, or anything involving punching or drilling holes in walls. I love my job of studying and teaching the Old Testament. I’ve recently contracted a fierce interest in archaeology. I also enjoy guitars, jazz, vintage firearms, airplanes, photography, drystone masonry and, visiting the lands of the Bible.

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