Priests or People. Leviticus 4: 13-21

So, if a priest unwittingly does something he should not, he can make it right with a big sacrifice.  Big ones are bulls, and the killing is elaborate, with spreading of blood, burning of fat and guts, then dumping the rest of the carcass, including the valuable meat and hide outside the camp, beyond the pale, as it were, to the ash heap.

The horror here is that the priest’s sin, even when it is negligent, inadvertent, or careless, reflects on the people.  Our denomination has struggled with clericalism, and the moral standards for clergy, as lawsuits have brought too few of us to account for intentional sin.  This provision is more related to general incompetence than conspiracy.

Logically, we move on in 4:13 to the inadvertent sins of the congregation.  What if we regular folk mess up, without intention? This is a surprisingly postmodern understanding of vicarious liability, of risk management of collective behaviour, though without imputation of evil intention.  Imagine how useful this would be in our worldview!

The same scale is required as for priests’ sins, a bull, sacrificed and wasted and the remnants dumped beyond the pale, on the ash heap. The key difference is that the elders of the community have to lay hands on the head of the bull as it is killed, in a sort of substitutionary symbolism.  Choices have consequences and costs. Instead of externalizing costs onto the environment or voiceless neighbours, we make it visible.

Our government and denomination have tried apologies, around Japanese internment and first nations residential school abuse.  But we all like white hats, and we have lost the moral texture of this kind of communal ritual of repentance. Jürgen Habermas invites us to recognize the ‘thick life-world’ of our traditional parochial communities, compared to the ‘thin’ discourse of the public sphere today.  Are our ways less adequate than Leviticus’? Yes.


13 If the whole congregation of Israel errs unintentionally and the matter escapes the notice of the assembly, and they do any one of the things that by the Lord’s commandments ought not to be done, and incur guilt;
 
14 when the sin that they have committed becomes known, the assembly shall offer a bull of the herd for a sin-offering and bring it before the tent of meeting. 
 
15 The elders of the congregation shall lay their hands on the head of the bull before the Lord, 
and the bull shall be slaughtered before the Lord. 
 
16 The anointed priest shall bring some of the blood of the bull into the tent of meeting, 

17 and the priest shall dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle it seven times before the Lord, 
in front of the curtain. 
 
18 He shall put some of the blood on the horns of the altar that is before the Lord in the tent of meeting; and the rest of the blood he shall pour out at the base of the altar of burnt-offering
that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting. 
 
19 He shall remove all its fat and turn it into smoke on the altar.
 
20 He shall do with the bull just as is done with the bull of sin-offering; he shall do the same with this. The priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven. 
 
21 He shall carry the bull outside the camp, and burn it as he burned the first bull; it is the sin-offering for the assembly.