Tzav (Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36)

LEVITICUS 6:1-11 (8-18 in Christian Bibles)

Ritual and procedure are difficult matters for people to understand. Many want a religion with little or no ritual. In part, this is a cultural difference separating not only audiences in the modern world, but also separating audiences across time. That is, in the world today, some cultures highly value ritual, symbolism, and procedure, while others have little patience for symbolic meaning. In terms of history, it is fair to say that ancient audiences were more unanimous in valuing symbolism (at least based on cultural artifacts and writings left behind in ancient civilizations).

Leviticus contains ten “torahs” about sacrificial procedure and definitions of impurity. These ritual instructions concern a deeper symbolism which is for the most part unstated in the elements found in the central shrine of Israel as well as in daily life outside of the sacred precincts.

No priest should work around the altar in common clothing. Yet it is equally true in this text that no priest should wear sacred attire outside of the tabernacle courts. The ashes from the daily offerings must be removed and buried in a place that is “clean.” The fire on the altar must never go out. It shall be perpetually maintained. Every grain offering must be divided into two uneven portions. The smaller must be burnt on the altar with frankincense and oil added, so that it symbolically goes up in smoke to God. The larger portion is for the the priests to eat, but must be eaten between the altar and the tent.

The unspoken assumptions in these instructions are that some things are “holy.” Among the many meanings of the word “holy,” is the concept of separation. The holy garments of the priest should be reserved for use inside the courts, kept separate from the outside world which was not holy. Items burned on the altar are conveyed by their very destruction to God in the sense that people derive no use from them. Of course, God does not make use of these portions of grain or offerings of suet and meat either. But giving up use of these portions of food is a way of donating them directly to God. The altar becomes the portal conveying them to God’s domain.

Going deeper, behind all of these symbolic rituals lie deeper truths. God’s dwelling is apart from the human world. Nature is separate from Supernature. There are two realms joined by God’s decision to appear in our realm. He provided Israel with a linkage between the realms. When we begin to understand ritual as a way for human beings to participate in the space between the realms, the grandeur of the idea begins to occur to us.

Priestly instructions for the offerings in their daily administrative order (1-2a(8-9a)), the Burnt Offering (2b-6(9b-13), the Grain Offering (7-11(14-18)).

The sacrificial instructions in Leviticus are already difficult for the reader to understand, and the chapter break in Christian Bibles at Leviticus 6:1 makes them even more impenetrable. The break in Christian Bibles occurs in the middle of the reparation offering instructions. In Jewish Bibles, the chapter division fits the change in topic (and implied audience).

The first five chapters of Leviticus cover the burnt, grain, well-being, purification, graduated purification, and reparation offerings respectively. These appear to be instructions for a general audience, containing relevant information for the priests but addressed more specifically to the people as a whole. By contrast, chapters 6 and 7 have as their intended audience the priests themselves with a few instructions for the common people.

Chapters 6 and 7 also begin a new literary feature in Leviticus, a series of ten sections referred to as the “tōrōt” (תוֹרוֹת, the plural of “torah,” “instructions”). There are five “torahs” of sacrifice followed by five “torahs” of impurity. Milgrom (Leviticus 1-16, Anchor-Yale) calls these sections the “ten commandments of ritual life.”

Each of these Levitical torahs begins with a phrase such as זֹאת תּוֹרַת הָעֹלָה zōt tōrat ha’ōlah, “this is the torah of the burnt offering.” Most Christian Bibles tend to translate “torah” as “law,” so we typically find renderings such as “this is the law of the burnt offering.” The JPS is closer to the mark with its translation, “this is the ritual of the burnt offering.” Christian translation of the word “torah” is the result of a long history of seeing Judaism as “law” (unbending principle lacking grace) which waited for God to reveal grace and truth though Jesus in the form of “gospel.” But this false dichotomy does not truly exist and Leviticus is full of grace and truth.

The torah of the burnt offering is from the perspective of the priestly duties. It is the first offering in the morning and the last in the evening. The priestly attire, the requirement that an altar fire be perpetually maintained, and the proper handling of ashes that have become charged with ritual energy are the emphases of this set of instructions. The task of servicing the altar and removing the ashes is sacred, therefore requiring the sacred attire of the priesthood (white linen robe and undergarments). But carrying them outside the camp is a common task (some translations use “profane” instead of common) and so the priests needed to change garments. Milgrom says an additional principle at work here is that sacred attire should not be worn outside the sanctuary. Thus the process of removing altar ashes took place in two stages.

Ideally, the altar fire in Israel would include the fire of God himself (since God ignited the altar in Leviticus 9:24) and would never go out, so that divine fire was always maintained.

The torah of the grain offering (vss. 7-11) provides instructions for two portions of the offering. One was burnt on the altar, an offering to God by fire. The other was donated to the priests as “prebends” (Milgrom’s term, actually terminology derived from Catholicism about income reserved from donations for the living expenses of priests). This food for the priests had to be eaten between the altar and sanctuary, a holy place for holy food.

The burnt, grain, purification, and reparation offerings are “most holy” while the well-being offerings are “holy.” The “most holy” things are not to be touched by laypersons. Their holiness is contagious and must be handled properly or holiness will be desecrated and this will be a sin against God.

LEVITICUS 6:12 – 7:10 (6:19 – 7:10 in Christian Bibles)

We all have functions and roles to play not only in our own lives, but in the lives of others. Similarly, we all rely on certain people who play a role and fulfill various functions in our lives.

One need we all have, whether we know it or not, is to have people who impart to us a sense of God’s presence. This was the key role of priests and Levites in ancient Israel. Without their constant work, the people who would not have had the Presence of God literally maintained in their midst. A lot of detail work went into the ceaseless preparations that made the tabernacle, and later the temple, seem so grand and awe-inspiring.

Clergy. Musicians. Thinkers and writers and speakers. We turn to various people who sanctify time and ideas with their thoughts, labor, and talent. We need them on occasions of joy and sadness. We may even seek them out daily. Their work is to unveil what is hidden, to lay out the mystery to us, to reveal the divine in the ordinary.

The altar of burnt offering in the tabernacle may seem a small thing. But at some times and to some people, it played a life-altering role in their experience. Parents who either celebrated a birth or suffered the loss of a child came to that altar to thank God or to inquire about their loss. On any of a number of occasions of rejoicing or sadness, people came to be near to the Presence within the tent and to stand right by God’s altar. What that nearness might have meant to them and what of God’s Being and Presence were communicated to them in that instant is beyond our ability to know.

But the repetitive, seemingly mundane, work of a cadre of priests was necessary to keep that altar always ready for those who came. God’s work is usually ordinary except in moments when we encounter his Presence and experience awe, fulfillment, joy, yearning, release, forgiveness.

The high priest’s daily Grain Offering (12-16 (19-23)), the Purification Offering (17-23 (24-30)), the Reparation Offering (7:1-6), the priestly portions from the offerings (7-10).

This portion is a continuation of instructions for sacrificial offerings, given in the order in which they were made daily. The burnt offering was first because each morning the first sacrifice offered was the perpetual burnt offering. The grain offering follows for two reasons. First, a grain offering accompanied the daily burnt offering. Second, immediately following the daily burnt offering, the high priest each morning was to bring a twentieth of an ephah (half a gallon) of flour prepared as described. Therefore, the order of offerings begins each morning with an animal for the entire nation with its grain offering followed by a sacrifice of grain by the high priest.

The nation and its highest priest were the first to be sanctified each morning and the last to be sanctified each evening. There is some difference of opinion about the nature of this daily grain offering. Some interpreters took “Aaron and his sons” to mean all priests. But vs. 15 clarifies what comes before, qualifying it. “Aaron and his sons” does not mean all priests, but whichever of Aaron’s sons replace him in high office.

Whereas vss. 7-11 (14-18) concerned grain offerings in general (the raw flour type being most common), vss. 12-16 (19-23) concern the twice daily grain offering required of the high priest. It’s manner of preparation is impossible to be certain about. Milgrom (Leviticus 1-16, Anchor-Yale) does not even translate one word in vs. 14 (תֻּפִינֵי tufinei). It is flour toasted on a griddle with oil as a hard, unleavened cake, which is softened with more oil and burned entirely on the altar. The high priest has a vested interest in the daily maintenance of the altar’s sanctity and in the process of giving to God to sanctify the people.

Interestingly, this daily grain offering of the high priest is included in a short list in Numbers 4:16 among the responsibilities of the high priest. The Kohathite clan of Levites carried the sacred items related to the sanctuary. But four items required the high priest’s personal supervision even if the Kohathites transported them: the oil for the menorah, the incense supply for the altar of incense, the supplies needed for the daily grain offering of the high priest, and the oil for anointing.

Vs. 17 (24 in Chr Bibles) begins the third of the ten torahs of Leviticus (see comments on 6:1-11) with the “torah of the purification offering.” This offering is food for the priest who brings it and his fellow priests as long as its blood is not offered inside the tent (as is the case for some of the offerings, such as the bull for the sin of the high priest).

The purification offering absorbs impurities from the altar and, is thus, most holy. Any contact with the flesh or the blood of it renders objects holy (not persons, according to Milgrom). Holy in this case means “reserved for God’s purposes in the temple.” Therefore, these objects must be de-sanctified afterwards so they will not be liable to defilement. As a consequence, the priest’s garment must be laundered, the identical procedure (ironically) for purifying something that is impure. Purification offerings which have been used inside the sanctuary (and not just on the altar) must be burned and handled properly.

The start of chapter 7 begins yet another torah of Leviticus, concerning the handling of the reparation offering. The reparation offering is just as the purification offering in procedure.

Vss. 8-10 summarize the portions donated to the priests from the offerings: the skin of burnt offerings, all of the grain offerings besides the memorial portions, and the portions of the purification and reparation offerings which have just been discussed. The ceremony of daily maintaining the holiness of the altar is the duty of the priests and in so doing they serve all the people of Israel, mediating between the people and the infinitely holy God. Without this work of the priests, the connection between Israel and God is broken.


Sometimes we find a special motive in life for worshipping God and joining with others to celebrate or mark a significant life event. The Israelites in general gathered at the central shrine for festivals, especially the three pilgrim feasts (Passover, Shavuot [Weeks], and Sukkot [Tabernacles]). If nothing else, these were occasions for bringing the kind of well-being sacrifices known as freewill offerings. With a tiny portion given to the priests and the rather inedible suet (skin and organ fat) burned for God, this left most of the meat available for the common people to eat. In other words, the offerings turned the festivals into a sort of national feast.

But sometimes the occasion called for something more specific. For various reasons, people felt they needed to make vows to God. Perhaps they would vow an animal offering if the crop was successful. The idea was the pledge to God added weight to the prayer or made the offerer feel that the prayer would be more effective. It was a part of the culture of the ancient Near East and perhaps God included these offerings in his sanctuary to meet the psychological need people have to feel that their prayers can be answered.

More importantly, after a recovery or escape from a life-threatening event, people would bring the most sacred kind of well-being sacrifice: the thanksgiving offering. This interpretation of the thanksgiving sacrifice is based on Psalm 107, especially vss. 20-22, “he delivered them from their destruction…let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving.”

The reader may put together the similarity of the thanksgiving offering rules to those for the Passover sacrifice. The meat had to be eaten before morning and anything left over was to be burned. The reason for the similarity is simple: the Passover was a thanksgiving sacrifice. It was an offering celebrating a life-saving deliverance — one that happened long ago.

The rabbis found inspiration the thanksgiving offering. It is a kind of offering that will never cease, they said, even in the world to come (Leviticus Rabbah 9:1, 7). Since the motive for this offering has nothing to do with a sin or breach of trust or impurity, it is a worthy kind of offering even when the world is perfected. We will always be thankful to God in the next world, being more aware then than ever that he has delivered us. The kind of thanksgiving and worship associated with this offering, then, is most holy.

The Well-Being Offering (11-18), purity issues and sacred meat (19-21), suet and blood (22-27), the priestly portions of the Well-Being Offerings (28-36), section conclusion (37-38).

The fifth of the ten Torahs of ritual life in Leviticus (see comments on 6:1-11) concerns the well-being offerings, זֶבַח הַשְּׁלָמִים zevach hashelammim (frequently translated “peace offerings”). The common element in all well-being offerings, distinguishing them from burnt offerings, is that the meat is eaten by the offerer except for small portions burned on the altar for God and donated to the priests.

The well-being offering category is further divided into three subcategories based on the motive for which the offering was brought. When someone experienced recovery from illness or escape from life-threatening danger, they brought a thanksgiving offering. Upon completing a vow to God, they brought a votive offering. And for general purposes of feasting at the sanctuary, especially at festivals, they brought a freewill offering. Vss. 12-15 describe the procedure for sacrifices of thanksgiving and vss. 16-18 combine instructions for votive and freewill sacrifices. The main difference is that thanksgiving offerings are accompanied by two grain offerings. An unleavened offering of grain was burned on the altar and a leavened load was donated to the priests. By contrast the votive and freewill offerings were not accompanied by grain.

From every well-being offering the priests received the breast and right thigh. The suet (skin and organ fat) was burned on the altar to God. It was forbidden for an Israelite to eat the suet, which was always reserved for God. Similarly the text prescribes a strict penalty for anyone who ate blood, since blood was reserved for purification.

The meat of well-being offerings had to be eaten according to various rules which ascribed a certain level of sanctity to the meat. No one who was in a state of ritual impurity (the subject of chapters 11-15) could eat the meat. If the meat came in contact with anything impure, it had to be burned (not on the altar). The holiest of the three kinds of well-being sacrifice was the thanksgiving offering, since its meat had to be eaten on the same day it was offered with none reserved for the morning. The meat from votive and freewill sacrifices could be eaten also on the second day.

Vss. 37-38 bring a conclusion to the summary of offerings, which include the first five torahs of ritual life in Leviticus. The text will turn to other matters in chapters 8-10, bringing back the torah theme in chapters 11-15 where the final five torahs will be about ritual impurity.


In the process of inaugurating the central shrine of Israel, the tent shrine known as the tabernacle, one of the methods used to elevate things and people to an almost otherworldly status was perfumed oil which was sprinkled on them. The ceremonial use of fragrant oil was a custom in that period of history and in that part of the world. Kings, priests, and prophets were designated by anointing rituals and the very term “Messiah,” which is the basis also of the word “Christ,” comes from the verb for anointing with oil. מָשִׁיחַ mashiach is the Hebrew word which has come to be known in popular form as “Messiah.” The root משׁח means “to anoint.” Similarly χριστός christos, from which the word “Christ” originates, refers to anointing or pouring over something or someone. The application of the Greek term “Christ” to Jesus reflects the transition of the movement of his earliest followers from Jewish origins to a broader movement spreading out into the Roman empire.

In the ceremony of the installation of the priests and the inauguration of the tabernacle in Leviticus 8, anointing with oil is a key feature. Curiously, the most anointed of all persons and objects in the text is not the high priest nor the ark of the covenant. Unexpectedly, we find instead that the most anointed object is the altar of burnt offering.

This altar was outside the tent. It was by all other indications a less sacred space. Articles inside the outer room of the tent were, seemingly, more sacred. And items in the innermost room of the tent were deemed most sacred of all. So why, then, was the common altar which all of the people had access to and which was in the exposed courtyard of the tabernacle anointed not once, but seven times?

The answer would have to be that the function of the altar gave it an importance beyond its level of sanctity. This was the place of encounter and of a repeated transaction between God and the common people. Many thousands would stand here, by the base of the altar, whereas only a chosen few would enter to see the more sacred objects inside the tent.

The holiest, then, of all places, was where people and God came into close proximity and where the needs of the people were met by God’s Presence. It seems to be a statement that what God cared about most in his shrine was meeting with the people. Of course, the encounter a person would have at the altar was with a hidden God, in silence. But it was, nonetheless, a meeting with God.

Section introduction (1-5), washing Aaron and sons (6), clothing Aaron with the vestments (7-9), anointing the Tabernacle (10-11), anointing Aaron (12), clothing Aaron’s sons with the vestments (13).

God’s initial command to anoint and clothe Aaron occurred in Exodus 29. Then in Exodus 40, God commanded Moses to set up the Tabernacle and anoint it. What was commanded then is being fulfilled now in this section (chs. 8-10) in which the Tabernacle and priesthood are installed. In between the command and fulfillment, the instructions have been given for all the offerings (Lev1-7).

Milgrom (Leviticus, Fortress Press) asks, “Why is the realization of the command so far from the initial decree?” He answers: “Moses must learn the sacrificial procedures before he can proceed with the priestly consecration.” This is why chapters 1-7 have intervened and, in fact, at Aaron’s installation a bull is offered in keeping with Leviticus 4:3, “if it is the priest who has incurred guilt, so that blame falls on all the people, he shall bring for the violation by which he incurred guilt a bull of the herd.” Though this offering is not in response to a transgression, it nonetheless consecrates Aaron and insures that he begins his office in a state of ritual purity (Levine, JPS Commentary).

Anointing (vs. 12) meant pouring perfumed oil on the head of someone or applying it to an object. The oil for anointing in the Torah was made by a special formula described in Exodus 30. Whoever used this anointing oil for any purpose other than the service of the sanctuary was liable to the penalty of being cut off (Exod 30:33). The act of anointing someone raised their status, designating them for service to God which was envisioned as a higher state of being. Objects anointed were appointed to use for the domain of God.

Interestingly, of all the items and personnel anointed in Leviticus 8, only the altar of burnt offering was anointed seven times. It was the place where Israelites met with God in the most intense manner possible for a human being.


Unstated, but lying behind all this ceremony, is the assumption that God will work through an imperfect priesthood and dwell in a humble tent.

The priests are sequestered for eight days to the tabernacle courts. As part of the ceremony they all bring a purification offering (commonly known as a sin offering). They all lean their hand on its head before it is slaughtered, indicating that this decontamination of the altar is being made on their behalf. That is, by leaning their hand, they are admitting that they have brought contamination to God’s altar by living near it for eight days.

Leviticus has not taught us yet what “impurity” (uncleanness, contamination, pollution) is yet. This will be the subject of chapters 11-15. The definition and its principles will come to a head in Leviticus 15:31, which Milgrom (Leviticus 1-16, Anchor-Yale) translates as follows: “You shall set apart the Israelites from their impurity, lest they die from their impurity by polluting my tabernacle which is among them.”

Having God in your midst is dangerous. As human beings not yet completed in our transformation process for which we were created, we bear on us a condition that is unacceptable to God. Death pollutes us. And signs of death in us contaminate any place God decides to dwell on earth. The details of this contamination we bear will occupy the central part of the book of Leviticus in detail.

Therefore, when the priests lean their hands on this sacrifice, they are acknowledging that they have brought ritual pollution into a pure place. The altar is the special focus of this installation ceremony because it is where the people will come to encounter God. At the outset of their work, the priests learn they must keep this altar cleansed from human death and unfaithfulness at all times.

God is mediating his Presence to people through contaminated priests. There is a degree of incompatibility between us in our current state of ritual defilement. But God provides a way for the meeting of divinity and humanity to happen.

Purification of the priests (14-17), Burnt offering of the priests (18-21).

This narrative is about the actual performance of what had been commanded in Exodus 29, concerning the installation of priests. Together they brought one purification offering, but they all leaned their hand on its head, claiming ownership (Milgrom, Leviticus, Fortress Press).

This purification offering (aka, sin offering) was to decontaminate the altar and, therefore, the blood was not brought into the tent. The blood of purification offerings absorbs ritual impurities and thus decontaminates (a conclusion derived from Leviticus 4). At their installment, the priests decontaminated the altar in case it had been polluted by minor impurities which would defile the Presence (Milgrom). The meaning of impurity and defilement will become clearer in Leviticus 11-15, and with special focus in Leviticus 15:31 and Numbers 19:20.

After the purification offering, they brought a whole offering (aka, burnt offering) to seek God’s favor for the entire tabernacle and priesthood. The burnt offering is a more powerful means of seeking divine favor, a costly gift offered exclusively for the purpose of seeking God. The procedure for the burnt offering follows Leviticus 1:6-9, which itself adds more specific details to Exodus 29:17-18. Milgrom sees them as two different sources, but Leviticus is simply more detailed and there is no actual discrepancy. The service of the Israel’s priesthood was initiated with great care, to be a pure and holy institution serving God and the people.


When priests were installed into office in ancient Israel, the verbal expression used to describe their “ordination” was “filling the hand.”

In English, the installation of a Christian clergy person or priest is generally referred to as “ordination,” from the verb “ordain.” This comes from the Latin “ordo,” to put in order. The emphasis in this expression is about order in the community. The authority structure of the religious body is in view.

In Judaism, ordination of rabbis is called smichah, from the root סמך, “to lean.” This unusual expression comes from the practice of those offering sacrifices who would “lean” their hand on the head of the animal. One theory of the meaning of this hand leaning ritual is that it transferred something from the person to the animal. In the ordination ceremony for a rabbi, a gathering of experienced rabbis “lean” their hands on the candidate, symbolizing a transfer of knowledge and authority in matters of Torah.

But in the Torah, the expression for the installation of priests was not about “order” or “leaning” or “transferring.” It was about something else.

The hands of the priests were “filled” (מִּלֻּאִים millu’im). In about half a dozen cases in the Bible we find a story of someone being installed as a priest and find variations of the expression “his hand was filled” (Exod 29:9; Lev 21:10; Judg 17:5, 12; 1 Kgs 13:33; Ezek 43:26).

How was their hand “filled”?

First, quite literally, during the ceremony, the sacrificial portions to be burned on the altar to God were placed in their palms (perhaps in a basket or bowl) and raised up for onlookers to see (Levine, JPS Commentary). We see this described in Leviticus 8:26-27. Second, in a metaphorical sense, the hands of the priests were filled with the power of their office.

The office of the priest was something profound and deep. His knowledge of ritual procedure gave two things to the people who came to him: assurance and protection. Drawing near to the Presence of God found in the tabernacle (later the temple) was dangerous. A misstep in such a holy place could be deadly. The people trusted the priests to keep the sanctuary free from deadly contamination and to properly observe the required ceremonies so no one would be killed in proximity to the One God who manifested himself there. The story of Nadab and Abihu (in Lev 10) is an example of the danger of mishandled ceremony.

But the priest offered more than protection. He also offered assurance. By performing the ritual correctly and understanding what was required in different circumstances, he assured the people that they could maintain a good standing with God. Much more so than today, people in the ancient world feared that suffering would result from mistakes made and offenses against the deity. God invested the priests with knowledge of his ways of mercy and with offerings to maintain covenant relationship.

Moses presents the Ordination Offering and puts blood on Aaron and sons (22-24), Moses places the sacrificial parts on the hands of Aaron and sons and burns them (25-28), Moses takes the breast portion (29).

Aaron and sons were sequestered for seven days in the Tabernacle, according to Milgrom (Leviticus, Fortress, see Lev 8:33). They maintained a state of ritual purity for this entire seven says and they are passed from an ordinary status to a level of holiness. They loved between realms, at the boundary between the human world and God’s domain.

And so, in addition to the whole offering and purification offering, there was for them a third kind of offering and one that is unique in Torah. Interestingly this ordination offering was a thanksgiving offering, a sub-category of the well-being sacrifice, with one key difference. Blood from it was applied to the thumb, ear, and toe of the priests, a feature not usually seen with sacrificial offerings. Another small difference concerns which parts were burned for God on the altar and which parts donated (in this case to Moses). Usually a portion of the grain along with the fat, the tail, the liver lobe, and the kidneys were burned to God while the right thigh and breast were donated to the priests. But in this ordination offering the right thigh is burned for God and the breast was donated, but since the offerers were the priests this donation was made to Moses. The priests in this case were the offerers, so they ate the portions of the animal usually designated for the common people.

The word “ordination” (מִּלֻּאִים millu’im) means literally “filling” as in the expression “filling the hands” (Levine, JPS Commentary). We find this wording used, for example, in Judges 17:5 and 12 when Micah ordained one of his sons to be a priest: וַיְמַלֵּא אֶת־יַד אַחַד מִבָּנָיו “and he had filled the hand of one of his sons” (i.e., ordained him). Other uses can be found in Exodus 29:9, Leviticus 21:10, 1 Kings 13:33, and Ezekiel 43:26.

Why is it referred to as “filling the hands”? First, it literally fills the hands of the priests being ordained during the ceremony when they held up the parts of the offering that would be burned to God and elevated them in the sight of those who came to watch (Levine). Second, it seems to be an idiom for filling someone’s hands with the power of their office.


Consecration is a way of acknowledging that an earthly thing or person can exist in two realms at once.

The priests of Israel were, of course, mere human beings. At the beginning of their ordination process they offered a sacrifice of purification. In the theology of Leviticus, purification is about removing the signs of human death that pollute and contaminate God’s dwelling place. Wrongly referred to as a “sin offering,” this sacrifice had as its primary focus all of the symbolic signs of death, which could include acts of rebellion and breaches of faith, but which form a much larger category. Those symbolic states of death will be the subject of Leviticus 11-15.

Being mere humans, and thus firmly entrenched in this realm, the priests being ordained had to first effect a purification for themselves. They purged the effects of the death they wore on their bodies. Once this was done they now existed in a new state, one of purity or cleanness. But that was not enough.

Next they needed to be elevated to a higher state. The verb we use in English is consecrate. Blood and anointing oil which had been applied to the altar were gathered up in the bunched leaves of the hyssop plant (like a paintbrush) and sprinkled directly on the priests. Thus the one applying the blood and oil “consecrated” them. In Hebrew this is expressed using the Piel form of the root קדשׁ (qdsh, as in the word “qodesh,” holiness). In the Piel this verb means “to transfer something to the state of holiness, dedicate for use before God” (The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, Koehler & Baumgartner).

How can blood, which is usually ritual detergent and whose purpose in the tabernacle is usually to cleanse or purify, do something different? How can it consecrate? Jacob Milgrom (Leviticus 1-16, Anchor-Yale) answers that it is because the blood and oil have touched the altar, and according to Torah, whatever touches the altar “shall become consecrated” (Exod 29:37).

So the priests of Israel underwent a process in two stages. Firs the signs of death were removed from them and then they were elevated to an existence not only in this realm, but one in between, so that they reached into the realm of the divine. Existing in this state of betweenness they could effect real transformation for those people who came to them seeking closeness to God.

Oil and blood from altar sprinkled on Aaron and sons (30), seven days sequestered and repeating the rituals of consecration (31-36).

Milgrom (Leviticus 1-16, Anchor-Yale) observes that blood usually functions to purge like a ritual detergent. But here the blood, mixed with oil, consecrates. Purging is about wiping away contamination. Consecration is about elevating the status of a person or thing from being common to a higher state of being designated for God’s purpose. How can blood, a ritual detergent, consecrate?

The answer, says Milgrom, has to be that contact with the altar has changed the blood. The principle has been stated in Exodus 29:37, “whatever touches the altar shall become consecrated.” Thus, sprinkling Aaron and sons with blood and oil from the altar sanctifies them with the holiness of the altar. Jesus in the New Testament referred to this principle of Torah in a debate with his opponents, “which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred?” (Matthew 23:19). In that text, the priestly logic of Torah is used as the basis for Jesus to criticize a common practice of making oaths by the sanctity of the sacrifice on the altar. Jesus’ criticism hinges on the fact that certain “experts” in the Torah really did not understand Torah correctly at all. His saying “the altar that makes the gift sacred” is nearly a verbatim application of Exodus 29:37.

Aaron and his sons — and afterward, every new group of priests who underwent the ordination ceremony — were “consecrated.” This involves the use of the Hebrew root קדשׁ in the Piel verb pattern. In its basic Qal form, the verb means “to be separated for a purpose, to be holy.” In its Piel form it means “to transfer something to the state of holiness, dedicate for use before God” (The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, Koehler & Baumgartner). The priests were transferred from a common state to a holy status.

Aaron and sons remain sequestered for seven days as part of their consecration, which in Torah is the longest period of time for sanctification of holy things. The longest impurity is corpse defilement, which lasts seven days. Thus, if the priests are consecrated (elevated from common to holy) for the same length of time the worst impurity is purified (elevated from impure to common), we see how holy the function of the priests is. Furthermore, this seven day rite of passage for the priests can be compared to other rites of passage: seven days of mourning (Gen 50:10), of marriage (Gen 29:27), and the seven day period prior to a baby’s circumcision (Gen 17:12, Milgrom).