05 Jan 2009

Pragmatic Function of Mosaic Laws

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(Note to new readers: Every Sunday I try to do a post on religious themes, but sometimes it spills over into Monday.)

I am working my way through the Book of Exodus. Last night was chapter 29, which concerned the sacrificial duties of Moses’ brother Aaron and the other newly anointed priests:

10 “Bring the bull to the front of the Tent of Meeting, and Aaron and his sons shall lay their hands on its head. 11 Slaughter it in the LORD’s presence at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. 12 Take some of the bull’s blood and put it on the horns of the altar with your finger, and pour out the rest of it at the base of the altar. 13 Then take all the fat around the inner parts, the covering of the liver, and both kidneys with the fat on them, and burn them on the altar. 14 But burn the bull’s flesh and its hide and its offal outside the camp. It is a sin offering.

Now to an atheist, the above sounds fictitious and/or barbaric. But for a Christian or Jew (not sure whether it applies to Muslims also), it would be odd for the Lord to issue such instructions if they didn’t serve some helpful function. For an analogy, a lot of times I tell my own son to do things and he doesn’t understand why, but (I hope!) I am not arbitrarily exercising my superior strength; the rules are issued for his own good (or sometimes because I have a headache).

So with the above passage, a few things occurred to me:

(1) The priests would become very adept at learning animal parts, handling blood properly, etc.

(2) This knowledge, in the minds of the most respected members of the community, would be very useful both for dietary and medicinal purposes. On the latter point, for example, Jesus told the former lepers to go present themselves at the temple. So if the priests are going to be in charge of deciding which people are sick (and need to stay outside the camp for x days) and which people can come back in, you want them to know what they’re doing.

(3) By instructing them to slaughter the finest animals, the Lord causes them both to take Him seriously but also to practice on the best examples. I.e. it would be both dangerous and less instructive if the priests always slaughtered a sickly goat with a limp, just like high school biology students shouldn’t be dissecting frogs that were diseased.

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