I quickly glossed over Nanine Charbonnel’s discussion of what the various sacrifices meant in the Temple cult of Israel in my previous post. I need to back up and cover the key points of those sacrifices before moving on but I’ll try to do so without getting into the details of certain Hebrew and Greek words and manuscript lines.
Key point #1: The temple cult was essential for communion between God and his people. Cain and Abel could offer sacrifices anywhere because God was still on earth with them. After God left the planet a mediator or mediation ceremony of some sort was necessary to enable some form of communion between God and his people.
Key point #2: The covenant between God and Israel made at Sinai was made between God and Israel in the presence of each other; the people (it can almost be said) effectively saw God, stood with him, certainly experienced a theophany.
Key point #3: The temple cult enabled in some sense a repeat of that theophany, or at least a restored communion with God through a mediator and a mediating cult.
Key point #4: The cult of mediation required several sacrifices.
- One of these was the “asham” or guilt/sin/trespass offering that was made as reparation for damage done to the relationship and thus established the condition for the subsequent restoration of communion or a close relationship with God. This “asham” offering was a particular type of “sin offering” (“hattath” offering) . . .
- The other sacrifice of note here (there are others but these two are most to the point of the broader discussion) followed the sin offering for reparation above and was the “hattath” or sin offering. “Sacrifices for sin are sometimes called sacrifices of atonement. In Hebrew, they are simply designated by the word hattath, sin, rendered according to the case by sacrifice for sin or the victim offered for sin. A part of it was burned on the altar, the major part was eaten by the priest who thus absorbed the sinner’s guilt in some way.” (From https://leschretiens.fr/lexique.php#S)
Key point #5: The sacrifices came to cover the sins of the entire community of Israel. (That is, the temple cult was concerned with more than individual sins.)
Key point #6: The Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52-53 offers his life as a sacrifice of atonement. He took on the sins of the multitude and had God lay all of Israel’s sins upon him.
Key point #7: In Hellenistic times (second century BCE) the temple cult of sacrifices was halted and a version of the Book of Daniel had the three Jewish martyrs praying from the fiery furnace that their sacrifice be a fulfilment of all that was necessary for atonement and restoration of the communion of Israel with God.
Key point #8: The same concept of sacrifice as accomplishing the goal of fellowship or communion with God is found in the Day of Atonement ritual. The High Priest undergoes various stages of purification to bring him ever closer to a place and condition where he can be in the presence of God who descends to grant his blessing on Israel. His ritual begins with an “asham” or “reparation for sin” sacrifice of a ram and culminates with a more elaborate sacrifice of a second ram, a sin offering that consecrates him and allows for a restored communion of God with his people.
Below I copy a translation of the key pages of Grappe and Marx from which Charbonnel extracts a quotation to explain these sacrifices and their significance for restoring Israel’s relationship with God.
We are now ready to move on to the next critical part of NC’s discussion.
From pages 92-96 of Sacrifices scandaleux?: sacrifices humains, martyre et mort du Christ by Christian Grappe and Alfred Marx. This section is discussed and quoted in part by NC (pp. 375ff). The bolded highlighting is mine to enable an easier scan for key points.
Daniel:3, There is no longer at this time a prince, a prophet, a ruler, a burnt offering, a sacrifice, an oblation, incense, or a place to present the first-fruits before you and find favor.  Nevertheless, may we, with a broken soul and a humbled spirit [tapeinôseôs], be accepted as with [hos in] a burnt offering of rams and bulls and as with [hos in] myriads of fat lambs;  may our sacrifice [thusici] come to you to atone after you, for there is no shame for those who trust in you, and to lead to fulfilment after you.”
The passage poses multiple problems of interpretation, especially since the differences between the original (and revised) Septuagint and the version of Theodotion’, a Greek witness of primary importance for the book of Daniel, make the reconstruction of the Hebrew original very problematic. They show that this original will have been the object of more or less faulty interpretations.
This being said, and this is the essential point for our purpose here, it is undeniable that the martyrdom of the three young men is recognized here as having an expiatory significance.
The supposed situation is that of the interruption of the sacrificial cult, a situation known precisely during the Maccabean uprising of the years 168 to 165 B.C. And what Ananias, Azariah and Mishael ask is that the gift of their lives, their sacrifice (3:40), be accepted by God (3:39), even though verse 38 insists that the sacrificial cult is interrupted. In a situation where the Temple and the sacrificial rites that were meant to take place there can no longer ensure the role of mediation between God and his people, the oblation that the three young men make of their own lives is called upon, in a way, to substitute for the sacrificial cult.
In order to understand what is at stake in our passage, it is necessary to keep in mind the role of mediation which, in fact, was the role of the cult.
As we saw at the beginning of our journey, in the story of the origins, when Cain and Abel present their tribute to Yhwh, there is no need for an altar or for the burning of the offering of either of them. This is because Yhwh is supposed to be physically present and, under these conditions, this mediation is unnecessary. On the other hand, as soon as Yhwh leaves the earth and takes up his heavenly residence, mediation becomes necessary. The altar and the burning of the sacrificial material become indispensable elements. In this way, the world of men can be linked to the world of God, whether it is a question of ensuring, in an ascending perspective, that the good odor of a sacrifice reaches Yhwh, appeasing him… or that, in a descending perspective, Yhwh makes himself present to the faithful on earth. The Temple and its worship were thus the place par excellence of the encounter between the human world and the divine world, an encounter which was to take shape and blossom in the commensality to which the sacrifices of communion (shelamim) and the vegetable offering gave rise in a very special way.
Azariah’s prayer thus confronts us with a crisis situation in which this indispensable mediation can no longer be carried out in the framework provided by the Torah. Is communion with Yahweh still possible? This is a question that can be asked with terrible acuity. And the wish expressed by the prayer of the three young men is precisely that the gift of their own lives should assume the function of the sacrifices, replace them in some way and achieve what the sacrificial mediation was supposed to achieve.
To go further in the understanding of the passage and better appreciate its importance, it may be useful here to make another reminder. If the purpose of worship was to establish a communion between God and his people, it also had to establish, or rather re-establish, the conditions of possibility of this communion. Worship thus had two poles: the pole of reparation, of absolution, and the pole of communion. The first of these poles was intended to re-establish the conditions required for the establishment of the second. Developed especially after the Babylonian Exile and the acute awareness of the price and weight of sin that the people derived from it, it assumed an importance that is abundantly illustrated by the place accorded, in a general way, to the rites of absolution and, in a more particular way, to the hattai in the liturgy of Kippur. The ritual of this feast of absolution, whose ultimate purpose was to rid the sanctuary of the impurities that had come to stick to it both by direct contamination and as a consequence of the sins committed, was called upon to make the Temple fit to welcome once again the mysterious divine presence, to make possible the communion between God and his people, a communion towards which the other sacrifices tended.
The cult was thus conceived as a means of encounter with God. It had the vocation of making God’s presence possible among his people on a regular basis, which is admirably expressed in Exodus 20:24: “You shall build me an altar of earth on which you shall offer your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of thanksgiving, your sheep and your oxen. Wherever I call to mind my name. I will come to you and bless you. Each sacrifice (tending to communion) was supposed to reproduce in its own way the unique and foundational experience that the theophany of Sinai represented for the people and to lead to a communality similar to that experienced by the privileged among the sons of Israel at the conclusion of the Covenant according to Exodus 24:1-11.2
But let us return to the prayer of Azariah. What is striking in the request that is formulated there is that the two poles of the sacrificial cult are represented. It is asked not only that the sacrifice of the three young men be approved, but also that it serve, on the one hand, for absolution and, on the other, for fulfillment. This motive of fulfillment refers us in all likelihood here to what could appear to be the supreme form of communion.
That the notion of absolution refers to the pole of reparation does not require any particular explanation. This absolution is expressed here through the verb exilaskomai, which is not surprising since it translates in a recurring manner in the Septuagint its Hebrew counterpart whose root, kpr, is found in the generic name of the feast of the Absolutions (yom ha-kippurim). Thus, in chapter 16 of Leviticus, which precisely institutes the ritual of the feast of Absolutions, we find it sixteen times!
That the notion of fulfillment, or rather what we have tried to render here through it, refers to the pole of communion requires, on the other hand, further explanation. The Greek verb that we have translated in this way is the verb leleioô, which is rarer in the Septuagint than exilaskomai and which, in the cultic domain, regularly designates the consecration of the high priest, notably in the two great chapters that deal with this investiture rite. Exodus 29 (four times) and Leviticus 8 (once). The noun teleiôsis, derived from teleioô and designating in this case the action, the procedure of consecration, appears to be a technical term used to evoke the whole ritual. Out of seventeen uses of this term in the Septuagint, there are five in Exodus 29 and six in Leviticus 8, i.e. more than half! The teleiôsis, by instituting the one who was the essential character, thus allowed the cult to be carried out and could appear, to this extent, as the keystone of it. It is impossible, in fact, to imagine a cult that takes place without a character empowered to mediate, always problematic and particularly in the Bible, between men and God. The teleiôsis could therefore appear as the rite par excellence by which the people, through the duly consecrated high priest, had access to a possible communion with God, a communion which constituted, let us remember, the very outcome of the cult and the very accomplishment of Israel’s vocation as a people of the Covenant.
In detail, the ritual to which the high priest was subjected at the time of his consecration established a separation between him and the people in order to make him fit to be admitted into the proximity of God. Thus he was first subjected to a purification bath (Exodus 29:4 // Leviticus 8:6), a rite that is easily understood since God, in his holiness, could not cohabit with impurity. Then the high priest had to change his clothes and put on the official garment which made him recognizable in the exercise of his function, with notably Yephod and the breastplate (Exodus 29,184.108.40.206 II Leviticus 8,7-9). This was a further step in the process of transformation from the world of men to the world of God. He was again anointed with fragrant oil (Exodus 29:7 // Leviticus 8:12) and thus impregnated with holiness, an additional element that would enable him to enter the divine sphere. Three sacrifices followed. The first was the offering of a bull. This was a rite of absolution (Exodus 29:10-14 // Leviticus 8:14-17). It is necessary here precisely because it makes reparation, because it allows for the re-establishment of the conditions of possibility of the encounter with God which would otherwise be not only problematic but also fatal. This is what the solemn warning of Leviticus 8:33-35 implies. The second sacrifice took the form of the offering of a first ram. It was a burnt offering (Exodus 29:15-18 / Leviticus 8:18-21). The third was the offering of a second ram. This was the sacrifice of consecration itself (Exodus 29:19-28 // Leviticus 8:22-32). This last rite, the most complex and also the most detailed in the two chapters that describe the entire ceremony, falls into the category of communion sacrifices. It appears as the culmination of a carefully codified ceremonial, lasting seven days, which thus associates the two poles of the sacrificial cult, reparation and communion, and which precedes communion with reparation, thus signifying that communion constitutes the culmination of the system that is put in place. Thus invested, consecrated, the high priest could exercise his function and, in particular, once a year, during the feast of Kippur, enter the heart of the sacred space, the Holy of Holies, in order to decontaminate the sanctuary of all the impurities which had come to be aggregated there and thus to re-establish the conditions of possibility of the presence of Yhwh in the midst of the people. Admitted to the very dwelling place of God, the high priest thus exercised a mediating function between the people and God. From this relationship, made possible by a movement that could be considered as an ascending movement of separation between the Chosen One of God and the people, was supposed to result a descending movement of blessing for the people, with, on the one hand, the obtaining of reparation, and, on the other hand, the re-establishment of the conditions of possibility of communion.
Charbonnel, Nanine. Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Paris: Berg International, 2017.
Grappe, Christian, and Alfred Marx. Sacrifices Scandaleux?: Sacrifices Humains, Martyre et Mort du Christ. Genève: Labor et Fides, 2008. pp. 92–96.
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