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No. 35: Skinned and Cut

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 35
March, 1992
Copyright 1992, Biblical Horizons

The normal word (`olah) that is translated as "burnt offering" and "whole burnt offering" has nothing to do with either burning or wholeness. It is the noun form of a verb meaning "to go up, to ascend, to climb." The reason for translating it as "burnt offering" is not difficult to see. After all, the burnt offering was the only offering wholly consumed in the altar fire. Yet, the names of the other offerings have nothing to do with the disposition of the animal’s flesh or blood. The "sin offering" is not called the "sprinkling offering," though the sprinkling of blood is highlighted in the rite of the sin offering (Lev. 4). The peace offering is not called the "partly eaten" offering, though the communion meal is highlighted (Lev. 3). Instead, the names of the other offerings tell us something about the meaning of the offering, not something about the rite, and it is only reasonable to conclude that the name of the burnt offering does the same.

I propose, at least for the duration of this essay, that we think of the "burnt offering" as an "ascension offering." (Similar suggestions are offered by S. R. Hirsch, The Pentateuch [Gateshead: Judaica Press, 1989], vol. III, pp. 10-11 and Baruch A. Levine, Leviticus [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989], pp. 5-6.) All of the offerings picture the "ascension" or "glorification" of the animal or cereal into the cloud of God’s presence. The "burnt offering," however, pictures this more dramatically than the others, since the whole animal ascends. Because the burning is highlighted in this offering, it is preeminently the ascension offering.

In this context, the rite of the "ascension offering," and especially the unique elements of the rite, point to the conditions for ascension into God’s glorious presence. The rite of the ascension offering tells us the conditions by which a sinner can enter into the kingdom of God. The rite teaches us that sinners enter the kingdom only through a bloody substitutionary death, just as the animal is turned into smoke only if it is set apart (by laying on of hands), slaughtered, and has its blood sprinkled around the altar. Beyond this, however, the burnt offering was skinned, cut into pieces, and certain parts were washed.

Before we look at two of those unique elements–the skinning and cutting–we must anticipate a series of questions. Are we reading too much into these details? Are the details of the ascension offering theologically significant, or are they merely convenient ways to burn an animal?

The skeptic would point out that there are obvious reasons why the ascension offering would be skinned and cut. Animals for other offerings were skinned (cf. Lev. 9:11), but the act of skinning is not mentioned and highlighted in the text. Is that a mere "accident," or does it mean that the skinning of the animal has some particular relevance to the ascension offering? Leviticus 1 says that the ascension offering was cut into pieces because it was the only offering in which all the flesh was actually placed on the altar. Are these obvious, practical considerations sufficient to account for the details of the text of Leviticus 1? Or do the details carry theological weight?

For several reasons, I believe the details carry symbolic and therefore theological significance. First, the rite could have been different. It was certainly possible for God to require the hide of the animal to be burned. There is nothing implausible about burning a whole animal on the altar. Recognizing this fact leads us to ask why God required this and not that. Why skinned and not with its hide? Why cut and not whole? Even if these questions do not readily occur to us, I submit that they would have occurred to the ancient Israelite. Anthropological literature suggests that the details of religious rites carry enormous symbolic weight among ritually sensitive people.

Second, these are the very words of God (Lev. 1:1). The whole chapter claims to be a transcription of the speech of God. Every word must therefore be taken with the utmost seriousness. God does not waste His breath.

Finally, the purpose of the text lends itself to a theological interpretation. Contrary to the assumptions of liberal and too much evangelical scholarship, Leviticus is not a mere historical document, which shows us how an ancient people worshiped their God. It is the revelation of God’s character and His plan for redemption. The sacrificial system is a revelation of the way sinners approach a Holy God. Superfluous details and mere conveniences have no place in such a text.

To understand the symbolic significance of the skinning of the animal, we need to remind ourselves of the biblical theology of skin. Within the theology of Leviticus itself, skin and clothing are analogous to each other. Leprosy, for example, can infect either the skin or one’s clothing (Lev. 13:22, 47-51). The priest had to wear undefiled garments (Ex. 28; Zech. 3:4) and was disqualified from service if he had unclean skin (Lev. 21:20). The verb translated "skin" in Leviticus 1:6 is elsewhere used to refer to stripping off clothes (cf. Lev. 16:23; 1 Sam. 19:24). Skin is our natural clothing, and clothing is an additional layer of skin.

When Adam and Eve sinned, they realized that they were naked and they hid from God. Because of their sin, their skin was defiled, and they knew that they were unfit for God’s presence. Throughout the Bible, nakedness and shame are virtually synonymous; both point to God’s judgment against sin. To be ashamed is to stand condemned before the Judge. In His mercy, God slaughtered animals and made new clothes for Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:21). Still, even with their new clothes, Adam and Eve were unfit for God’s presence; they were still barred from re-entering the Garden.

The rite of skinning points to the fact that ascension into God’s glory, re-entrance into the Garden, requires a more radical remedy than the covering of animal skins. It is not enough to cover defiled skin; the defiled skin must be stripped, and new skin must be provided. Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; this mortal must be stripped to put on immortality, this perishable flesh must put on imperishable, this defiled skin must be replaced by robes of glory (1 Cor. 15:50-53). In baptism, our defiled skin is stripped, and we are clothed with the Resurrected Christ (Rom. 6:1-11; Gal. 3:27). Baptism brings with it an obligation to daily strip off the old skin and put on the new; the rite of burnt offering teaches us that we must kill the flesh to enter into life (Rom. 8:13).

This is made possible because Jesus Christ, the perfect Ascension Offering, was stripped of His seamless garment-skin and, despising the shame, was crucified naked. Because of His obedience unto death, He has ascended on high and has received the gift of the Holy Spirit, which He poured out to clothe His people with power from on high.

A second element unique to the rite of burnt offering was the cutting of the animal into "his pieces" (Lev. 1:6). The word for "cut" means "dismember," and the fact that the animal was cut into his pieces implies that he was divided into his constituent parts. The idea is not so much that of chopping a bull or sheep into stew meat; the idea is more cutting the legs from the hips, the tail from the spine, etc.

James B. Jordan has correctly explained that this points to our being cut up by the word of God (Heb. 4:12). To ascend to God, to be translated into His kingdom, to become new, glorified creations, sinners must first be dismembered by the Word. ("The Whole-Burnt Sacrifice: Its Liturgy and Meaning," Biblical Horizons Occasional Paper No. 11, p. 12).

The cutting of the animals also refers back to the covenant-cutting rite of Genesis 15. The similarities between the rite of Genesis 15 and that of Leviticus 1 are marked. In both, the animals were cut in pieces, but the birds were not (Gen. 15:10; Lev. 1:17). In Genesis 15, the smoking oven and flaming torch of God’s presence passed through the cut animal parts; in Leviticus 1, the fire of God’s presence licked around and enveloped the pieces placed on the altar of burnt offering. Visually, the two rites are very similar: Fire and smoke passing through pieces of animal flesh.

(The main difference is that Leviticus 1 pictures the flesh being taken up into the smoke and flames. Perhaps this points to the fact that God takes the curse up into Himself. More likely, it pictures the heart of the covenant promise, that He take us into Himself, to be a God to us and to our children forever.)

Thus, whenever a priest placed an ascension offering upon the altar, he was standing in the place of Abraham. Each morning and evening, as dismembered carcasses of the daily offerings were consumed on the altar, God was confirming and renewing His self-malediction. He was renewing His promise that sinners could ascend into His presence.

Jesus Christ is the perfect ascension offering in this sense as well. The carcass of the Perfect Victim is public testimony to the righteousness of God, to the fact that God keeps his oath, even to His own hurt, even though it cost Him His Life (Ps. 15:4). Each time we celebrate the Supper, God confirms His promise by giving us the signs of the dismembered victim. And, eating the flesh and drinking the blood, we take into ourselves the self-malediction.