Tzav–Between Purim and Pesach, Part 2


Moses took the blood and with his finger put some on each of the horns of the altar, purifying  the altar; then he poured out the blood at the base of the  altar. Thus he consecrated it, to make atonement for it.  . . .  (Lev 8: 15)

Tzav shares with Pesach the protective use of sacrificial blood.  Recall that the blood of the Passover sacrifice was applied to the doorposts of the houses of the Israelites in Egypt.

In this week’s parsha, we not only have the anointing of the altar described above, but also a remarkable parallel application of blood to the priests themselves: “Moses took some of its blood and put it on the lobe of Aaron’s right ear and on the thumb  of his right hand and on the big toe of his right foot.  After Aaron’s sons were brought forward, Moses put some of the blood on the lobes of their right ears and on the  thumbs of their right hands and on the big toes of their  right feet.”  (8:23-4)  The application of the blood to the priests confirms the transfer to the sacred realm embodied in their clothes; the priest is a human counterpart of the altar.

While in the Passover narrative, the blood on the doorposts is a “sign,” in Leviticus it has the more common function of purification, since in this ritual context blood has what Jacob Milgrom calls a “detergent” effect.  In all three cases: (doorpost, altar horns, human extremities) it is applied to the edges, the boundaries, the point where the contact with the holy (in the case of the priest and altar) or the destructive/demonic (however we understand the “Destroyer” of Exodus 12:23) is most immediate and therefore most dangerous.

2 Comments to “Tzav–Between Purim and Pesach, Part 2”

  1. Will, Would you be so kind as to entertain some questions? If so, here they are. Of course, I’m looking at this as Christian coming up on Holy Week. My biggest question is –why blood?–. Why does blood even act as a detergent?

    My next question is–why is the death of an animal or Jesus necessary for atonement? Why does violence need to be a part of atonement? Why not water?

    Peace, Cherie

    • Cherie–Good to hear from you! These ARE big questions and I may try to address them more fully in next week’s blog. For the present, let me say two things.

      First, I approach these texts as a cultural outsider. While some sacrificial metaphors persist in Judaism, the culture of sacrifice is basically an alien culture to me, as it is to most Jews. I don’t know WHY blood acts as a detergent, only that it seems to have that function.

      Second, insofar as I reflect on sacrificial worship theologically, I frame whole idea with the Priestly strand of the Flood story. There, the earth is already full of violence, and sacrifice comes in to set bounds to it. There is then no necessity from God’s standpoint—it’s a concession.

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