Friday, July 13, 2007

Leviticus I - Correcting the Terms

The words we traditionally use to translate Hebrew terms in the "sacrificial" system are confusing and often convey the wrong ideas. If we are going to understand Leviticus and the old world system of sacrifices and offerings, the first thing we have to do is get the words right.

We use English words to translate some of the Hebrew terms in Leviticus that are not helpful, but are in fact loaded with all sorts of unfortunate connotations. The book of Leviticus is a book of rituals (mostly) and the language used is extremely precise. I believe our Bible translations make these rituals obscure because of traditional, but inappropriate designations.

I hope I'm not sounding arrogant. Once you get the words right, the sacrificial rituals are much easier to understand and can be better appreciated for their practical instruction.

Take for example, the noun "offering" and the verb "to offer." I look at my English translation (it doesn't matter which one) of Leviticus chapter one and see the word "offering" used over and over again (16 times). The verb "offer" also occurs over and over again throughout the book of Leviticus. Offering and offer. What's the problem?

What does the word "offering" mean to you? Well, an "offering" is something "offered" to someone else, right? It's something we hope to give to someone either as a gift or maybe to patch things up? A husband "offers" his wife flowers to help mend things after a fight. A boss "offers" an employee an opportunity. If I offer you something, you have to reach out and take it or at least accept it. Two people make some sort of exchange when something is "offered." The essential idea of an "offering" is that something is given, a present or gift given to another. Something passes from one person to the next: "I offer you this . . ."

Now, you might think that this word "offering," as we have explained it above, occurs all over the book of Leviticus. After all, aren't all the "sacrifices" named "offerings"? No, they are not. The Hebrew word that comes closest to meaning what our English word "offering" denotes is minchah. This word is often translated "grain offering" because it usually involves the fruit of the ground (but not always). You can find the word all through Levitus chapter 2, for example. Even so, the word minchah is never used in the Hebrew Bible to refer to any of animal "sacrificial" rite. For instance, the word is not found in chapter one, even though the English word "offering" is used there repeatedly.

Here's a standard translation of Levitus 1:1-3a (ESV):
The LORD called Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When any one of you brings an offering to the LORD, you shall bring your offering of livestock from the herd or from the flock. If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he shall offer a male without blemish. . .
Notice that how the words "offering" and "offer" dominate the last sentence. This translation, I believe, creates the wrong impression about what is being prescribed here.

The Hebrew word translated "an offering" is qorban. It is related to the verb qrb, which means "to draw near, to approach." It's not too hard to figure out. A qorban is something that is brought near, something that or someone who approaches something or someone else. The word does not have anything to do with "offering" someone something or exchanging gifts. It's about someone or something approaching or drawing near.

What Yahweh says to the people is: "When a man draws near to Yahweh with something that is brought near from the livestock or from the flock. . ."

That's rather literalistic and wooden, but it brings out the meaning of the Hebrew nicely. The worshipper is not "offering" something to Yahweh. At least that's not the idea here. The worshipper is "drawing near" (qrb) with a "something brought near" (qorban). The entire emphasis here is spacial. It's about coming near to God. It's about being invited to draw near to God. Yahweh speaks from "the tent of meeting" (Lev. 1:1) and gives instructions to the sons of Israel through Moses about how to visit his house. This is one of the most important points to learn about the "sacrificial system": it's about drawing near to God. It prescribes the manner in which one is to enter Yahweh's personal space, his house. A qorban is not an "offering" to God, rather it's "a nearbringing," if we can invent a neologism.

Every time that something is described as an "offering," it is almost always really a "nearbringing" (qorban). They are not "burnt offerings" or "sins offerings," rather, they are "things that are brought near" to Yahweh. Indeed, as we shall see, these "nearbrinings" represent the worshipper, who himself is drawing near through these ritual acts.

If I had the opportunity to go back and edit my book The Lord's Service, this is one of the corrections I would make to the terminology I use throughout the book. I'll explain a little more about that later on.


Colin Clout said...

Wow--thanks, I hadn't realized that's what "sacrifice" should mean.

That makes Hebrews make a lot more sense--"Come near through the curtain of his flesh" or whatever it says.

Anonymous said...

How can I contact you?
I am Presbyterian and have a bit of a mess. Would like some advice on how 2 proceed.

Trey said...

Hey, Jeff, do you have an email address somewhere? I couldn't find it on the blog page anywhere.

If you don't want to post it, but you're willing to share it with me, drop me a line if you will:

Anonymous said...


What relationship do you find between qorban and memorial? Are not the "nearbringings" offerings? E.g. the qorban in Lev. 3 is the sacrifice that is brought near. Sacrifices by their nature are nearbringings and since grain offerings are not "sacrificed" as animals but "brought near" as memorials before God are they not also brought to the altar as a nearbringing offering? The qorban is the coming near but it is a coming near to offer sacrifice or memorial to God. So, how does this change impact the sacrificial system? (see Lev. 2:11-14)

Jeff Meyers said...

Jeff: Good question, I think. I'll have more to say about all this as I move through the terms used in Leviticus. But I don't think it is accurate to say that all the animal rituals are about drawing near to offer sacrifice or memorial to God. It's precisely that language of "offer" that is NOT found throughout the "system."

The rituals in Leviticus are about drawing near to God's house. Yahweh invites his people to meet with him in his house. And the path up to the house, into the house, and into the most intimate room in the house, is ritualized in the "system." This sequence of rituals on the path toward fellowship with God in his house involves all sorts of things, but they are not all "offerings." There is an offering, but it comes at a particular place in the sequence.

Everything is not "offering." Everything done is not about offering something to God. Not if we pay careful attention carefully to the language of Leviticus. That's my point. Every animal brought, every animal ritual engaged in, cannot and should not be reduced to the idea of "offering." That's not in the text. What is in the text, however, is that they are indeed all qorban.