A God of Obsessions

In the books of the Torah, Yahweh devotes entire chapters to explaining in exacting detail what kind of animal sacrifices he expects from his people. The one common thread, repeatedly emphasized, is that the animals to be slaughtered must be “without blemish”:

“And this is the thing that thou shalt do unto them to hallow them, to minister unto me in the priest’s office: Take one young bullock, and two rams without blemish.” —Exodus 29:1

“And on the eighth day he shall take two he lambs without blemish, and one ewe lamb of the first year without blemish, and three tenth deals of fine flour for a meat offering, mingled with oil, and one log of oil.” —Leviticus 14:10

“This is the ordinance of the law which the Lord hath commanded, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring thee a red heifer without spot, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came yoke.” —Numbers 19:1

“And ye shall offer a burnt offering for a sweet savour unto the Lord; one young bullock, one ram, and seven lambs of the first year without blemish.” —Numbers 29:2

“And he shall offer his offering unto the Lord, one he lamb of the first year without blemish for a burnt offering, and one ewe lamb of the first year without blemish for a sin offering, and one ram without blemish for peace offerings.” —Numbers 6:14

Only animals that are perfect and flawless, without any physical defects, are acceptable as sacrifices to Yahweh. And this rule doesn’t just apply to animals, either. The Old Testament makes it equally clear that people with physical defects are equally unacceptable as servants in the holy places.

“Whosoever he be of thy seed in their generations that hath any blemish, let him not approach to offer the bread of his God. For whatsoever man he be that hath a blemish, he shall not approach: a blind man, or a lame, or he that hath a flat nose, or any thing superfluous, or a man that is brokenfooted, or brokenhanded, or crookbackt, or a dwarf, or that hath a blemish in his eye, or be scurvy, or scabbed, or hath his stones broken; no man that hath a blemish of the seed of Aaron the priest shall come nigh to offer the offerings of the Lord made by fire: he hath a blemish; he shall not come nigh to offer the bread of his God…. he shall not go in unto the vail, nor come nigh unto the altar, because he hath a blemish; that he profane not my sanctuaries: for I the Lord do sanctify them.”

—Leviticus 21:17-23

(By the way, if you’re curious about what the text means when it bars a man who has “his stones broken”, the RSV gives a more explicit translation: “a man with crushed testicles”!)

This passage says explicitly that if a person or an animal with a physical defect touched the altar or entered the sanctuary, it would “profane” them. But how can this be? Doesn’t God care about the state of a person’s soul, not the condition of their body?

These verses should be very disturbing to modern-day Jews and Christians. They attribute to God a primitive, superstitious and ignorant view – one in which a person’s worth is tied to their outward appearance, and people with defects are considered impure and unholy. Even people with flat noses are forbidden to come near the altar of God! (All those churches with wheelchair ramps are going against the word of God, if they but knew it!)

Granted, in the New Testament, Jesus abrogates this command. In its place, he expresses the much more sensible view that holiness (if that term has any meaning) consists not of outward appearances, but of attitudes and actions: “There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man… Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: all these evil things come from within, and defile the man” (Mark 7:15,22-23).

But this hardly solves the problem. If it was never a sin to be ugly or handicapped, why did God say precisely the opposite for the many centuries of the Old Testament? Why was that rule established in the first place, ensuring hundreds of years of discrimination, ridicule and hatred directed at society’s outcasts, if God never really meant it? Or did he mean it originally, and if so, what made him change his mind? Did he see the error of his ways? (Apologist site the Christian Think Tank claims hopefully that this prohibition was “perhaps a practical matter of the process of animal slaughter”. I’d just love to hear why people with flat noses or crushed testicles were unable to assist in this.)

The apologetic is also sometimes heard that the OT purity laws were a foreshadowing of Jesus’ sacrifice. For example:

The animals brought for the “bread of God” must be the best of their kind. They must be without physical blemish, because they were typical of him who had no blemish of sin.

The problem with this comparison is that the OT requires sacrifices and priests without physical blemish, while the NT claims that Jesus was without spiritual blemish. This is not a case of one foreshadowing the other – these are opposite concepts!

The shallow, appearance-obsessed, tribal deity of the Old Testament is just one of the many obscure corners of the Bible that modern-day believers would love to forget about. Atheists shouldn’t give them the opportunity.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    One explanation that comes to mind is that the keepers of the temple were Moses’ tribe:Levites. It has always seemed to me, reading the old testement, that this was jobs for the boys as the priests got to eat a large amount of the sacrificed meat without having to do any actual work to get it. It seems reasonable that they would want to put people off turning up with any old diseased animal. By the same token they may have tried to protect themselves from disease by limiting contact with obviously diseased people.

  • Stacey Melissa

    I’ve always just thought the rules regarding “blemishes” went right along with the detailed rules regarding how the animals should be slaughtered and cooked to meet the fine tastes of the lazy priests, who suckered their followers into providing them with the most exquisite banquets, in return for little or no actual work. Quite a racket they had going on. And it continues today, although the pilfered currency is now monetary instead of BBQ.

    And the anti-A.D.A. rules in the OT were just the priests way of staying clear of what they must have thought were contagions.

  • CailinBan

    Also, Jesus wasn’t without blemish when he was sacrificed, not when he had been scourged. So he wasn’t a proper sacrifice at all.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    Did Lev 21:17-23 remind anyone else of the Holy Hand Grenade?

  • Scotlyn

    Of course, Aaron and his tribe would no doubt be in awe of our current progress toward a blemishlessness hitherto undreamed of, made possible by modern technologies such as airbrushing, make-up, various surgical procedures, etc. I have a feeling a differently abled, Christian sibling of mine would quickly point out that their particular faith community provides them with a break from this modern shallow and godless obsession with bodily perfection. Not an obsession secular society has been able to shake, unfortunately.

  • Entomologista

    I think the New Testament is supposed to cancel out all the bad stuff in the Old Testament. That’s what I’ve been told, anyway.

  • benjamin

    My guess for why these laws exist in the Bible is that it was a means of differentiating the Israelites from the idolatrous societies around them, which often engaged in forms of ritual mutilation; as do many societies today. That’s also why tattoos are banned in Jewish law, incidentally. This doesn’t explain circumcision, however, which seems to be a glaring exception.

  • Arch

    Dei Verbum is a Church document that serves as a nice guide for proper Scriptural interpretation.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    How do you or anyone else know what the “proper Scriptural interpretation” is?

  • http://generalsystemsvehicle.blogspot.com Hank

    A thought: anyone who tends, as Ebon does, to point out such Biblical inconsistency and moral anachronism as is listed above is frequently labelled “intolerant” by apologists. On such occasions I’m reminded of the passage of the “mote in your neighbour’s eye” …

    As for “Dei Verbum” (listed above), considering the Vatican pretty much exists to perpetuate its own existence, wealth and power (and more or less always has, frequently at the expense of the innocent), I’d take nothing it says as gospel whether regarding scripture or anything that actually matters.

  • Caiphen

    I used to be a very committed Christian and thought God was so wise in his requirements. It’s funny, now I think freely all I can say about this is- what a load of rubbish! I can’t believe so many people on the earth believe this nonsense. What is it about the bible that traps a person? I think the answer is simple, we are trained as children to believe. From a very early age faith infects the mind.

  • http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/ Spanish Inquisitor

    Click! Add one more reason to the growing list of why the Bible is bullshit.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Also, Jesus wasn’t without blemish when he was sacrificed, not when he had been scourged. So he wasn’t a proper sacrifice at all.

    What a fantastic observation, CailinBan! This would probably be the point where an apologist claims that the meaning has shifted, from physical perfection to spiritual perfection… but we can point out that the Gospel of John, at least, was still obsessed with Jesus’ physical state, since the author goes to some pains to explain why none of his bones were broken on the cross (paralleling the Paschal lamb).

  • Alex, FCD

    …the author goes to some pains to explain why none of his bones were broken on the cross (paralleling the Paschal lamb).

    I’d be interested to know how one can drive a nail through both of one’s ankles without breaking any bones.

  • http://unreligiousright.blogspot.com/ UNRR

    This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 12/1/2009, at The Unreligious Right

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    Re: Jesus being physically blemished when he died

    I don’t know how many times I read the crucifixion story, even knew that the nails were driven through Jesus’ wrists rather than his hands (I didn’t know about the ankles rather than the feet, but it seems to make sense for a similar reason to the wrist-hand thing physiologically), and never caught the contradiction with the “not one of his bones was broken” crap. That’s why I come to sites like this, rather than Christian ones, to learn about the Bible. I also like reading Jewish commentaries on the OT and love when they point out how Christians usually misread and distort the OT.

  • PenguinFactory

    “or any thing superfluous”

    I love how these instructions are so precise and well-defined.

  • Alex, FCD

    I didn’t know about the ankles rather than the feet, but it seems to make sense for a similar reason to the wrist-hand thing physiologically

    I don’t have any textual support for this, but its how I’ve always seen it portrayed (as a lapsed catholic, I’ve been exposed to my share of crucifixes).

    Apparently its not entirely clear what the historical preferences were. Wikipedia has a subsection of an article entitled nail placement in crucifixion which has a rundown of the possibilities.

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Still, if given the choice of “through the wrists” or “through the hands” and “through the ankles” or “through the feet” I’m pretty sure that I would pause thoughtfully, then ask if the Governor has called yet. Oh, and I’d make sure that my last meal consisted of seven pounds of prunes, a quart of expired milk and an undercooked steak. If I had to go out like that, I’d go out messy.

  • RollingStone

    “I think the New Testament is supposed to cancel out all the bad stuff in the Old Testament.”

    I’ve also heard this excuse before, and it makes no sense. If the Old Testament doesn’t matter anymore, then why the hell is it still there? Some argue that it provides context for the New Testament, but then why does it still contain all these cruel and ridiculously complicated laws that have supposedly been “canceled out?” If we’re just concerned with a historical context, then why weren’t they EDITED out? The historical part could easily have been written without all the awful details and still be comprehensible. A lot MORE comprehensible, in fact.

    Also, why was there a change in the first place? An infallible God would not say, “Whoops, forget all that stuff I said before; THIS is the REAL religion!”

    Of course, apologists only insist that “the bad stuff” has been “canceled out,” and their definition of “the bad stuff” is apparently “whatever is being criticized.”

  • lpetrich

    Furthermore, whenever there is anything they like in the Old Testament, they invoke it as an authority without any explanation as to what makes it an authority, and not as irrelevant as they claim the OT to be.

  • nfpendleton

    . This doesn’t explain circumcision, however, which seems to be a glaring exception.

    My understanding is that this is an even older religious practice of the royal houses of Egypt, adopted by the Hebrews as they developed their own belief system under Moses, who himself (if he existed) would have been an Egyptian, and not a Hebrew. Royal Egyptian males were differentiated from foreign and lower “beasts” by having their sheathes cut away.