Monday, June 7, 2010

“Rid of Your Blood”: Robes and Atonement in the Book of Mormon

Mankind has always been preoccupied with sin and death. In the temple-centric world of ancient Israel, the effects of sin resulted in rupturing the original covenant of creation, allowing chaos to disorder the universe until these bonds could be renewed on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16), when the Lord would redeem his people by atoning for their sins. As I noted in an earlier post, The Annual Fall Festival in the Book of Mormon, the Day of Atonement was part of the larger fall enthronement festival that saw the Lord celebrated as king and victor over the monsters Rahab and Leviathan and represented the final day of judgment, when the forces of evil would be bound, the prisoners would go free, and the people and their land would be healed. On this one day every year, the High Priest would set aside his usual ornate clothing to don simple white linen robes of purity, entering beyond the veil of the temple into the Holy of Holies with a bowl that carried the fresh blood of the sacrificial goat that represented Jehovah. The blood represented the sins of collective Israel, and in the darkness the high priest would sprinkle the blood before the mercy seat, covering himself in the process as he interceded for his people's sins. I believe this is the context behind the imagery of robes and blood used so vividly by Book of Mormon prophets such as Jacob and King Benjamin.

The blood is the key to the entire ritual. “For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul” (Lev 17:11). This is connected to the strictures to Noah against consuming blood (Gen 9:4‒6). According a halakhic midrash on Leviticus, “there is no expiation except with blood” (Sipra Lev, Nedaba 4:10). And in his great commentary on the Day of Atonement, the author of Hebrews tells us that “without shedding of blood is no remission” (Heb 9:22 NRSV). We are “justified by his blood” (Rom 5:9), overcoming the adversary “by the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 12:11). And the Savior tells us, “For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matt 26:28).

Some of Israel's priestly rituals appear to reflect the future Messiah's capacity to purify, cleanse, and redeem through blood. When collected Israel accepts the word of the Lord by covenant, part of the ritual act includes Moses sprinkling the blood of sacrificial oxen onto the people, saying “Behold, the blood of the covenant which the Lord hath made with you” (Ex 24:8).[1] Another blood ritual described in Exodus 29 purifies the priests, although there is some suspicion that the rite described is simply the outer form of a an earlier more meaningful event.[2] After dressing in the sacred robes, Aaron, his sons and their priestly garments were to be made holy through the blood of a sacrificial ram, whose life force was daubed on the right ears, thumbs, and toes of Aaron and his sons, flung against the altar, and sprinkled on their garments (Ex 29:19‒22).

However, blood usually made Israelites unclean. Women with a menstrual issue had to be quarantined. And blood would especially make priests ritually unclean in their capacity to offer sacrifices. In Jubilees, when Abraham instructs Isaac on the particulars of animal sacrifice, he tells him, “And let no blood appear upon you nor upon your clothes; be on thy guard, my son, against blood, be on thy guard exceedingly; cover it with dust” (Jubilees 21:17; see also 7:30). The text of Aramaic Levi has Isaac repeating some of these instructions to his son Levi.[3] Indeed, all of the blood from these rituals would have been an unsavory mess:

Sacrifice must have been an extremely messy ritual. Although P does not appear to be worried about blood on priest’s garments, the Mishnah contains some indications that it expected priests to change their garments frequently. A list of Temple officials includes a certain Phineas who was in charge of the garments (m. Sheqalim 5:1); he had a chamber designated for his use (m. Middot 1:4). We also learn that there were niches in which priests kept their garments when not participating in the service (m. Tamid 5:3).[4]

In contrast to the scarlet blood, the whiteness of priestly linen symbolized divine holiness and righteousness (Cf. Dan. 7.9 and 1 Enoch 14.20, which describe God’s holiness by the symbolism of his garment’s whiteness; see also Job 29:14; Psalm 132:9; Isaiah 61:10; Revelation 3:5; 15:6; 19:7-8, 11, 13-15). In the Book of Mormon, the heavenly guides for Lehi and Nephi during their visions wore white robes (1 Ne 8:5; 14:19), as did the Savior during his visit (3 Ne 11:8). In the context of redemption and atonement, Nephi talks about being encircled about in the Lord's “robe of righteousness” (2 Ne 4:33) and Jacob refers to “being clothed with purity, yea, even with the robe of righteousness” (2 Ne 9:14). But the profusion of blood on these sacred garments from ritual sacrifice would have rendered them unclean. Alfred Edersheim tells us that “every spot of blood from a sin-offering on a garment conveyed defilement, as being loaded with sin, and all vessels used for such sacrifices had either to be broken or scoured.”[5] The robes had to be washed free from the stain of the symbol of sin: “And when there is sprinkled of the blood thereof upon any garment, thou shalt wash that whereon it was sprinkled in the holy place” (Leviticus 6:27 KJV).[6]

And this brings us back to the Day of Atonement. When the High Priest sprinkled the blood on the mercy seat in the pitch dark (except for the light from the glowing coals) of the Holy of Holies, the blood that represented the sins of collected Israel—and the means of expiating both them and healing the land—would have covered his white linen garments as well as the veil.[7] Some commentators see this Day of Atonement blood imagery behind Isaiah's scarlet-sin-to-white-snow metaphor in Isaiah 1:18.[8] (Isaiah 63:2 gives us the Messiah as high priest soaked in the blood of the vineyard.) After the sacrifices were complete, the high priest would remove his blood-soaked garments, bathe himself, and then put on new robes that were free from the impurities associated with the sins of the people. (Leviticus 16:23-24).[9] In another day of atonement pericope,[10] the high priest Joshua is taken into the Holy of Holies, where his filthy garments, representing the sins of the nation[11] are changed for clean ones:

Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments, and stood before the angel. And he answered and spake unto those that stood before him, saying, Take away the filthy garments from him. And unto him he said, Behold, I have caused thine iniquity to pass from thee, and I will clothe thee with change of raiment. (Zechariah 3:35)

We see this type of blood garment imagery associated with the sins of the people in a very similar context in the Book of Mormon. And like those found in the Hebrew Bible, these passages also evoke a larger context of the fall festival of which the Day of Atonement would have been a part. Jacob uses it first in his great sermon on the atonement:

O, my beloved brethren, remember my words. Behold, I take off my garments, and I shake them before you; I pray the God of my salvation that he view me with his all-searching eye; wherefore, ye shall know at the last day, when all men shall be judged of their works, that the God of Israel did witness that I shook your iniquities from my soul, and that I stand with brightness before him, and am rid of your blood. (2 Nephi 9:44)

Jacob refers to the iniquities of his people on his robe as if he were the high priest in the Day of Atonement ceremony, with the bloody sins of his branch of collective Israel defiling his garments. He also uses this imagery twice more at the temple during another sermon about sin and redemption:

And we did magnify our office unto the Lord, taking upon us the responsibility, answering the sins of the people upon our own heads if we did not teach them the word of God with all diligence; wherefore, by laboring with our might their blood might not come upon our garments; otherwise their blood would come upon our garments, and we would not be found spotless at the last day. (Jacob 1:19)

Now, my beloved brethren, I, Jacob, according to the responsibility which I am under to God, to magnify mine office with soberness, and that I might rid my garments of your sins, I come up into the temple this day that I might declare unto you the word of God. (Jacob 2:2)

This image seems clearly to evoke the process of the Day of Atonement where the high priest ritually incurred the sins of his people onto the skirts of his robes in the form of blood. And we see the same type of imagery from King Benjamin during the enthronement ceremony for his son. In what has often been identified as a Feast of Tabernacles ritual[12]—part of the annual fall festival of ingathering that includes the Day of Atonement—this righteous priest-king assembles his subjects to anoint a new king and proclaim atonement through the blood of the coming Messiah. But he frames the context with blood imagery worthy of a high priest on the Day of Atonement:

I say unto you that I have caused that ye should assemble yourselves together that I might rid my garments of your blood, at this period of time when I am about to go down to my grave, that I might go down in peace, and my immortal spirit may join the choirs above in singing the praises of a just God. (Mosiah 2:28)

Combined with an Atonement/Tabernacles setting, the imagery here seems clearly linked to the high priest's bloody robes from Leviticus 16. And there are several other passages where Book of Mormon prophets talk about the sins of others as blood on their robes (cf. Mormon 9:35; Ether 12:38). Additionally, this concept seems to grow into the related idea that requires all of Israel to be free from their own sins by redemption through the blood of the Messiah as symbolized by white garments free from blood (cf. Alma 5:21-22, 24, 27; 7:25; 13:11-12; 34:36; 27:19; Ether 12:37; 13:10). Yet these three instances—two by Jacob and one by King Benjamin—all clearly seem to have a fall festival setting that uses the rituals of Leviticus 16 as the backdrop for much of their entire discourse


1. The book of Jubilees tells us that the blood sprinkling as part of this covenant ritual relates back to the stipulation not to eat blood given in Genesis 9 (see Jubilees 6:11‒12).

2. Cf. Z’Ev Ben Shimon Halevi, Kabbalah and Exodus (Boston, MA: Weiser Books, 1988) 171:

The two rams were then to be slaughtered. The first was another burnt food offering to placate the Deity while the second ram’s blood was put on the right ears, thumbs and toes of Aaron and his sons, before it also was flung against the altar. This again is probably the description of a symbolic ceremony that had become corrupted by priests who no longer knew anything more than the outer form. The text goes on to describe how the ram’s blood should be sprinkled over Aaron and his sons’ vestments, that they might become holy. This is an account of an event that at one time must have had much more to it than what is described, if its purpose was really to make a man and his garments become holy.

3. Martha Himmelfarb, “Earthly Sacrifice and Heavenly Incense: The Law of the Priesthood in Aramaic Levi and Jubilees” in Ra’anan S. Bouston, Annette Yoshiko Reed (eds.), Heavenly Realms and Earthly Realities in Late Antique Religions (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004) 107.

4. Ibid.

5. Alfred Edersheim, The Temple: Its Ministry and Services As They Were at the Time of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregal Publications, 1997) 93.

6. Other bodily fluids would also render the garments unclean. When contaminated with semen, the garments must be washed, and the person affected was unclean until the evening (Lev. 15:17). If contaminated by leprosy, they must be examined (Lev. 13:47-59; 14:33-47) and either burned or washed, depending on the stage of growth (13:56-58).

7. Margaret Barker (The Gate of Heaven [Sheffield, England: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2008] 107) relates the following:

Similarly, in ad 70 Titus took the curtain of the temple among his spoils together with a great quantity of blue and purple wools. He ordered that the curtain be kept in his palace in Rome (Josephus, War VII.162), where a second-century Rabbi saw it. He also saw on it the bloodstains from the Day of Atonement sprinklings: 'Said R. Eleazar b. R. Yose, “I myself saw it in Rome and there were drops of blood on it. And he told me, “These are the drops of blood from the Day of Atonement'”' (Tosefta, Kippurim 2.16).

8. Edward Chumney, The Seven Festivals of the Messiah (USA: Treasure House, 1994) 154: “Isaiah 1:18 speaks of the blood-stained garments and the new garments that were put on afterwards.”

9. An interesting commentary on this is found in Jung Hoon Kim, The Significance of Clothing Imagery in the Pauline Corpus (New York: T&T Clark International, 2004), 22:

One interesting aspect is that the priest takes a bath before coming out of the sanctuary area. What is the reason for this bath? It cannot be because his regular garments are holier than the sacred linen ones which have been worn in his ministry. There are perhaps two reasons. Firstly, it is conceivable that the priest might be defiled in the process of performing an offering, in particular, a sin offering. On the Day of Atonement, washings and cleansings (symbolizing getting rid of all taint of sin) are significantly performed in various situations (Lev. 16.26, 28). R.E. Clements holds that ‘contact with the sin-bearing animal could lead to the rubbing off of sin onto the person touching it’. The sacrificial blood of the animal is holy, but this holiness, paradoxically, defiles the high priest; a garment which is stained with the blood should be washed in a holy place (cf. Lev. 6.27).

10. Cf. Daniel Stökl Ben Ezra, The Impact of Yom Kippur on Early Christianity (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003) 81; Marko Jauhiainen, The Use of Zechariah in Revelation (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005) 44‒45.

11. Cf. Herbert Lockyer, All the Parables of the Bible (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1963) 108; Jung Hoon Kim, The Significance of Clothing Imagery in the Pauline Corpus (New York: T&T Clark International, 2004) 24. George L. Klein (Zechariah [USA: B & H Publishing Group, 2008] 151) tells us this activity “would once more effect its ancient goal of restoring the damaged relations between God and his people”; James C. VanderKam, “Joshua the High Priest and the Interpretation of Zechariah 3,” CBQ 53 (1991): 564-65. David Baron, Zechariah: A Commentary on his Visions and Prophecies (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 1918:

The word צואים, tsoyim, which is found only here as an adjective, is the strongest expression in the Hebrew language for filth of the most loathsome character, and the garments so defiled denote the sins of the people as viewed by the Holy One, in which the high priest as their representative stood, so as to say, clad in His presence.

12. Cf. John W. Welch and Stephen D. Ricks (eds.) King Benjamin's Speech: “That Ye May Learn Wisdom” (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1998).

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