Monday, August 27, 2007

The Priesthood and Genesis

Alice C. Linsley

The priesthood is intrinsically linked to blood. The priest is the functionary who addresses the blood guilt that resulted from killing and the dread that accompanied the shedding of blood. In the ancient world blood was regarded as having mysterious power and there had to be an accounting for all shed blood.

There are two types of blood anxiety: blood shed by killing and bloodshed related to birthing. To archaic peoples both types were regarded as powerful and potentially dangerous, requiring priestly ministry to deal with bloodguilt through animal sacrifice and/or to deal with blood contamination through purification rites.

From earliest times man observed that when an animal or human bled heavily, death resulted. Blood was recognized as the liquid of life. Among the Hebrews and other people of the ancient Near East there was a prohibition against eating flesh that still had blood in it.

Blood represents both life and pollution. Because of this, it is the custom among many peoples that women about to give birth are isolated from the rest of the community, often remaining in a birthing hut until they are restored to the community. The period of isolation depends on the gender of the child, the condition of the mother and the preparations for the mother and child to be re-introduced to the community. This practice is observed in many cultures.

After her time of isolation, Blessed Mary presented herself for ritual purification according to Jewish law. The "churching of women" after childbirth is a vestige of this practice. While the churching of women is not observed much in the West because western women regard it as humiliating, it is still practiced among eastern Christians, who view the practice as following the example of Blessed Mary, the most honored woman in history.

This information on blood anxiety helps us to understand the primeval origins of the priesthood as it is developed in Genesis. Let us consider the pertinent passages.

Genesis 1:29

God also said, “Look, to you I give all the seed-bearing plants everywhere on the surface of the earth, and all the trees with see-bearing fruit; this will be your food.”

In Paradise there is no blood sacrifice because there is no bloodguilt. Adam does not need a priest because Adam enjoys perfect communion with God.

Genesis 4:3-6

“Time passed and Cain brought some of the produce of the soil as an offering to God, while Abel for his part brought the first-born of his flock and some of their fat as well. God looked with favor on Abel and his offering. But He did not look with favor on Cain and his offering…”

After losing Paradise, blood sacrifice with prayer became the acceptable way to commune with God. Here Abel is the archetypical priest whose offering is acceptable to God. Cain brings only a grain offering, which involves neither blood nor priestly action. This is not acceptable to God and Cain becomes angry. Cain represents all who seek communion with God on their own terms, instead of God’s terms.

Genesis 9:1-5

God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Breed, multiply and fill the earth. Be the terror and the dread of all the animals on land and all the birds of heaven, of everything that moves on land and all the fish of the sea; they are placed in your hands. Every living thing that moves will be yours to eat, no less than the foliage of the plants. I give you everything, with this exception: you must not eat flesh with life, that is to say blood in it. And I shall demand account of your life-blood too. I shall demand it of every animal and of man.”

Here we see man as hunter who must account to God for the shedding of blood, not only the blood of animals, but also the blood of his fellow human being. Man is not excused from offering fruits and grain, as he had done from the beginning. It is just that where animals are killed in the hunt, there must be a priestly offering of sacrifice with prayer to address blood guilt according to the law.

This helps us to better understand the Cain and Abel story. Cain’s grain offering represents the old offering, which did not require a priest, because no blood was shed. Cain’s guilt for killing his brother, Abel, requires a new offering. The new offering requires a priest since there must be an accounting for the shed blood.

In Christian belief, an aspect of Jesus Christ’s uniqueness is his service as both sacrificed victim and priest. In the one person both roles are fulfilled.

Finally, we turn to the mysterious character, Melchizedek, the priest of Salem (Gen. 14:17-24) Melchizedek came to Abraham after Abraham and his allies routed their common enemy in battle. Melchizedek did not offer a blood sacrifice for Abraham to cover blood guilt. This suggests that blood sacrifice was not required by Abraham in this situation. Was Abraham without bloodguilt in this war?

Melchizedek brought bread and wine, a different kind of offering, and gave this blessing: "Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High for putting your enemies into your clutches." The defeat of the enemy did not involve bloodguilt for Abraham since God delivered the enemy to Abraham. In recognition of this, Abraham gave to the priest a tenth of everything as a thank offering, but he refused to accept any booty for himself, as doing so would make him guilty of bloodguilt. The King of Sodom was greedy for all he could get, but Abraham refused to accept what was gained by bloodshed. In this account Abraham appears as one who is scrupulous about avoiding bloodguilt and conscious of God's intervention on his behalf.

Related reading:  Blood and Binary Distinctions; Mining Blood; The Blood of Jesus; Life is in the Blood


Anam Cara said...

When our first child was born (1979), we were Episcopalian. I asked the Dean of the Cathedral where we worshiped to have the service for the Churching of Women. He was astonished and said it had been years since he had done such a service. I believe he was also pleased that he was asked.

Alice, I have never understood, because it isn't clearly stated to me, anyway, how Cain knew he needed to offer a blood sacrifice.

The Genesis account goes from the birth of the sons to offering the first fruits of their labors - Cain had crops and offered them, Abel was a shepherd. Is there something between the lines that I am missing?

It says that Cain was angry that God did not regard his offering. Is that because he gave of his labor and was upset that his work wasn't good enough? Did he know before hand that crops weren't acceptable and he would have to get animals from someplace? When and how did God tell them that only a blood sacrifice was acceptable? Did Adam never have to offer a sacrifice - or are his previous sacrifices just not mentioned?

Alice C. Linsley said...

Aram Cara! So glad to hear from you.

If I understand your question, you are curious why God would expect Cain to offer a blood sacrifice if he didn’t know that it was required?

I think the problem is that you are reading Genesis as a literal historical account from the creation of the first human parents to the covenant with Abraham. The text itself does not require that. In fact, a deep study of Genesis makes it clear that this was not the author’s intention.

The names “Adam” and “Eve” are etymological etiologies, like the word Nod. Adam means soil or humus (from which we derive the word “human”) and Eve means living, because she is one who brings forth life. The fact that these are not real names suggest that they are speaking of symbolic figures.

The oldest human fossils date to about 3.4 million years and were found in Africa, but Cain probably can’t be dated much before 6000 years ago, if we regard him as a founder of the Nok civilization, which reached its artistic peak about 2500 years ago. Of course, Genesis tells us that he married into a noble family, so the region of Nok was already under someone’s control before Cain came there, so we have to push the date of human society in Central Africa back even before Cain.

Now to your question: “When and how did God tell them that only a blood sacrifice was acceptable? Did Adam never have to offer a sacrifice - or are his previous sacrifices just not mentioned?”

Adam is a mythological figure so we don’t have historical information about him. Cain, on the other hand, is clearly an historical figure and he lived at a time when there was already government, which means that laws existed. While there is still much to learn about those laws, they were what we moderns would regard as “religious” rather than secular. Also, since one of the earliest ethical problems of humans was what to do about blood, we can be fairly confident that the religious laws gave specific direction about blood sacrifices.

Anam Cara said...

Yes, I confess that I am reading somewhat literally. I realize that some things may be ommitted for who knows what reason. So I guess I could say there might be more to the story. But I have a hard time believing that what we have been given is false.

If Adam is a mythical figure, why does the Holy Spirit inspire the writers of the New Testament to write as though he were a specific person?

ex: Luke3:38, Romans 5:14, 1 Cor.15:45, Jude 1:14

What means do we use to determine if a person is mythical or not? If Enoch is seventh from Adam, and Adam is mythical, is Enoch also?

Another problem I have with making Adam mythological is the concept of sin and death. If death is the result of sin, and God created with no death (we were meant to live forever with Him), when did death enter the world? Is it possible that there were no "first parents"? That Eve was NOT the mother of all living as we are told? Were other humans created who gave birth to children but when one unnamed person sinned, all became subject to death?

I just can't seem to get my mind to wrap around such ideas.

Anam Cara said...

Just finished readiing the post on Nod/Nok and comments. It is clear that Cain and Seth existed and are not mythology. What about Abel? Is he mythology or fact? Again, I don't understand how you can tell them apart.

Anam Cara said...

Please don't think I'm trying to bait you - I want to understand your thought process.....
Please forgive me if I have offended in my questions.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Heavens! I'm delighted by your questions, Anam Cara. Please keep asking them. If I don't know, I'll tell you and maybe you can help me figure out the answer.

Abel probably was an historical person because Genesis usually presents generations as three brothers. Here are examples: Cain, Abel and Seth; Shem, Ham and Japheth; Abraham, Nahor and Haran. Another reason I believe that he lived is that Cain's descendent, Lamech, refers to Cain's killing of Abel and how God showed Cain mercy, claiming a double portion of that mercy for himself after he killed a man.

The story of Adam and Eve is very powerful. There are two ways to convey Truth: through history and through mythology. History is to memory as mythology is to dreaming. Memory can sometimes fail us, by the symbols of dreams penetrate deeply into human consciousness.

Bultmann attempted to "de-mythologize" the Bible because he took an empirical approach. C.S. Lewis, on the other hand, understood the lasting power of mythology and argued that we shouldn't say "It is only a myth" but rather "It is nothing less than a myth."

Adam and Eve tell us that sin entered the world through human rebellion that led to loss of perfect communion with God, that is "Paradise." It is a very old story, the closest parallels to which are found in central African creation stories (See for example the story of Gikuyu and Mumbi, the first parents of the Gikuyu.)

The writers of the Bible regard Adam as a type of both humanity and Jesus Christ. They did not approach the sacred texts as empiricists, (as we tend to do today), but as platonists who were looking for the spiritual pattern. (To gain insight into this approach, you might read my essay on Abraham and Moses here:

Heather said...

This thread is very old, so I don't know that you'll read it, but here goes:

If Adam is not a historical figure, how does this impact Christ being the second Adam? I.e. how can their be a second Adam if there wasn't a first? And, if you do respond, may I have permission to quote you on my blog, Someone asked me this question and I didn't have an answer, but thought you would. Thanks.

Heather said...

oops... I meant "how can there be a second Adam if there wasn't a first?

"There" instead of "their"

Alice C. Linsley said...

Adam is real in the Platonic sense and this is how St. Paul is thinking of him. The real is the eternal Form of Man that exists outside time. So when Adam was made in the image of the eternal true Form, he was truly made in the Divine Image. Jesus Christ's incarnation is the Divine being made in the human image, but without the fallenness since He was begotten, not made and His existence is from before time.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Read more on Adam and Eve here:

There are many other essays on the preisthood and binary distinctions between blood shed by males and blood shed by females in the INDEX under Priesthood, Binary Disticntions and Blood Symbolism.