The primary religious rituals of Israelite religion involved sacrifices and offerings. The ritual system within the Israelite cult evolved around gifts and offerings that were presented before Yahweh. In examining the book of Leviticus, the sacrificial system of the Israelites can be identified. It is this sacrificial system that was handed down by God through Moses that allowed the people of Israel to cross over the gap between their own weaknesses and corruption to the expectations presented by God. Sacrifices symbolized an acknowledgement of guilt and a need for divine grace and forgiveness.
The Israelite cult is set apart from other cults in that the people were bound together to worship one God.The distinctiveness of the Israelite cult is nothing other than the limitation of cultic activity to one particular patron deity (Anderson, 1987;3). The cults foundation of worship centered on those sacrificial gifts and offerings that were given to Yahweh. In addition, the Israelite cults were village centered. In the beginning of the 12th century BC, settlements on the hill country of Judea and Ephraim began to increase in number and density. The farming that took place on these hills allowed Israelites to gain an independent economy from surrounding cult economies (Anderson, 1987;23).
Sacrifice within the social context can be transgressed into two aspects, one relating to the offender, and the other being the offended one, God. If individuals entered a state incongruent with good relations with God, they had to undergo rites to restore them to a normative status (Davies, 1985;155). Thus the sacrifice encompassed this social dimension. The part played by God in the social lives of man and the action of his divinity.
The Meaning of the Sacrificial Ritual
Mans very nature is sinful and redemption during this time was found in the rituals that they performed. It served as a medium between the people and God as a means of redemption for their sins. Sacrificial rituals were the mechanism by which disruptions within Gods world were acknowledged and made right. A complete act of worship implies not merely that the worshipper comes into the presence of god with gestures of homage and words of prayer, but also that he lays before the deity some material oblation (Smith, 1996:43). Thus, sacrifices created a ritual framework within the community, providing the Israelites with a system of order in their society.
Sacrifices often took place within the temple. The tabernacle itself was established to be a place of communion between God and Israel. Here the rituals performed to God revealed not only their guilt offerings but it also was where God revealed his will anew to Israel. The physical structure here is important. The tabernacle is the threshold by which the transition from normal to abnormal, this world to other is consecrated (Leach, 1985:144). The altar was a gateway to the world of God through which offerings could be made but also the channel through which the power of God is visible to man (Lev 9:24, 10:2).
Defining the sacrificial rituals is complex. Some sacrifices were part of the daily rituals and considered voluntary. Other sacrifices took on deeper meaning and were considered compulsory, or to be performed on more special occasions. Nelson breaks down sacrifices into three separate categories: status maintenance rituals, status reversal rituals, and status elevation rituals (Nelson, 1993:55). All three categories share the same common practice of transference over some type of boundary.
Maintenance rituals were intended to keep the daily life of the Israelite in equilibrium and to prevent disorder from occurring within the community or households (Nelson, 1993;55). The Day of Atonement, for example, was a day of rest where the people kept Sabbath and under the provisions of the Lord were not to perform any work during that day (Lev 23).
The reversal rituals were designed to restore affairs to their proper condition by reversing impurity into purity and guilt into innocence. The cleansing ritual of the Leper transferred the individual from the unclean to the clean again prior to their entrance back into society (Lev 14). The elaborate anointing which follows the healing served to remove the person from his status of seclusion into a position of social fellowship within the