The Temple in Biblical Israel

Kinships of Meaning

Jacob Milgrom

Jacob Milgrom, “The Temple in Biblical Israel: Kinships of Meaning,” in Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels, ed. Truman G. Madsen (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1978), 57–65.

Mormonism is a temple-centered religion and it presupposes that in their original fulness so were Judaism and Christianity. Now Yigael Yadin has published his three-volume work (in Hebrew) on the longest of the Dead Sea Scrolls which expands scholarly awareness of ancient temple faiths. Apparently written by a group of Essenes who lived about 150 years before Christ, the scroll teaches that the Temple of Jerusalem has been polluted and its priesthood violated. These faithful have fled to the wilderness to prepare for the building of their temple (and the scroll is full of details on its exact design and furnishings) preparatory to an eventual heavenly temple to be built by the Messiah. It is of interest to Mormons that the scroll gives renewed status to the Levites rather than the High Priest in temple service. (See Jacob Milgrom’s brilliant review of Yadin’s The Temple Scroll in the Biblical Archeologist, volume 41, number 3, September 1978.)

In this essay Professor Jacob Milgrom, himself a Levite and an expert in Leviticus and the temple cult, describes the centrality of the altar in the worship patterns of the second temple and brings to bear his recognized skill in symbolic analysis. The remarkable idea that Israel is accountable, as one collective individual, and purged by the propitiation efforts of the High Priest, and the idea that the pollution of the temple is a cumulative result of rebellion and sin which only repentance and regeneration can cleanse, is familiar to the Mormons. They believe of the Abrahamic peoples that “they without us cannot be made perfect,” and they identify man himself with the temple—a living temple whose glorification is the foundation of genuine holiness.

T. G. M.

I shall limit myself to one ingredient, of one ritual, of one sacrifice: the blood of the hatta’t on the horns of the altar. [1] The hatta’t must be rendered as “purification (or purgation) offering” [2] and it leads automatically to the question: Whom or what does it purge? Herein lies the first surprise: it is not the offerer of the sacrifice. It must be remembered that the hatta’t is brought by an individual under two circumstances: severe physical impurity, as that of the parturient, leper, or gonorrheic (Leviticus 12–15); or because of the commission of certain inadvertent sins (e.g., Leviticus 4). Clearly, physical impurity is removed by ablution: “he shall wash his clothes and bathe in water” (Leviticus 15:8, inter alia). Spiritual impurity, on the other hand, caused by inadvertent violation of prohibitive commandments (Leviticus 4:2ff.), requires no purificatory rite. The fact that his sin is inadvertent (bišegagah) [3] and that he feels guilty (weašem) [4] means that he has undergone inner purification.

The contention that the hatta’t never purifies its offerer is supported by the use of its blood: “Moses took the hatta’t blood and with his fingers put some on each of the horns of the altar, thereby decontaminating (wayehatte) the altar” (Leviticus 8:15). The hatta’t blood, then, is the purging element, the ritual detergent. Its use is confined to the sanctuary, but it is never applied to a person. For example, the rites for the healed leper and the priests’ consecration call for both the hatta’t and the blood-daubing, but the latter ritual stems from other sacrificial animals and not the hatta’t (Leviticus 14:14, 25; Exodus 39:20; Leviticus 8:22–24).

Finally, a study of the kipper prepositions is decisive. In the context of the hatta’t, kipper means “purge” and nothing else, as indicated by its synonyms hitta’ and tihar (e.g., Leviticus 14:51f.; Ezekiel 43:20, 26). When the object is nonhuman, kipper takes the preposition ‘al or be or a direct object. For example, all three usages are attested in the purging of the adytum on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:16f., 20), and they must be understood literally, since the kipper rite takes place on (‘al) the kapporet and on the floor before it, in (be) the adytum, or it can be said that the entire room (‘et) is kipper -ed (cf. also Exodus 30:10; Leviticus 6:23; 16:33). [5] However, when the object of kipper is a person, it is never expressed as a direct object but requires the prepositions ‘al or be’ad, both signifying “on behalf of” (e.g., Leviticus 16:6, 24, 30, 33; Numbers 8:12, 21). [6] This means the purgation rite of hatta’t is not carried out on the offerer but only on his behalf.

If not the offerer, what then is the object of the hatta’t purgation? The above considerations lead but to one answer: that which receives the purgative blood, i.e., the sanctuary and its sancta. By daubing the altar with the hatta’t blood or by bringing it inside the sanctuary (e.g., Leviticus 16:14–19), the priest purges the most sacred objects and areas of the sanctuary on behalf of the person who caused their contamination by his physical impurity or inadvertent offense.

This conclusion enables us to understand the distinction between the hatta’t for impurities and inadvertencies. The inadvertent offender is never called “impure” and hence requires no ablutions. In his case the concluding formula reads, we kipper hakkohen . . . wenislah , “the priest shall perform the purgation rite . . . that he may be forgiven” (e.g., Leviticus 4:20, 26, 31, 25), whereas for the impure person the formula reads, we kipper hakkohen . . . wetaher (ah), “the priest shall perform the purgation rite . . . and he [she] shall be clean” (e.g., Leviticus 12:6, 8; 14:9, 20). Thus the impure person needs purification and the sinner needs forgiveness.

The inadvertent offender needs forgiveness not because of his act per se—as indicated above, his act is forgiven because of the offender’s inadvertence and remorse—but because of the consequence of his act. His inadvertence has contaminated the sanctuary and it is his responsibility to purge it with a hatta’t. Confirmation of this thesis is provided by the Tannaim: “All the [hatta’t goats] make atonement for the impurity of the Temple and its sancta” (Mishna, Shebuoth, I, 4f.). This rabbinic tradition has preserved the postulate that the hatta’t blood is the ritual detergent employed by the priest to purge the sanctuary of the impurities inflicted upon it by the offerer of the sacrifice.

The hatta’t as the authorized purgative of the sanctuary echoes with a familiar ring for students of ancient Near Eastern cults in which temple purifications play so dominant a role. Impurity was feared because it was considered demonic. It was an unending threat to the gods themselves and especially to their temples, as exemplified by the images of protector gods set before temple entrances (e.g., the šêdu and lamassu in Mesopotamia and the lion-gargoyles in Egypt), and, above all, by the elaborate cathartic and apotropaic rites to rid buildings of demons and prevent their return. [7] Thus for both Israel and her neighbors impurity was a physical substance, an aerial miasma which possessed magnetic attraction for the realm of the sacred.

As will be shown below, Israel thoroughly overhauled this concept of impurity in adapting it to its monotheistic system, but the notion of its dynamic and malefic power, especially in regard to the sancta, was not completely expunged from the Priestly Code. Thus Molech worship is forbidden because it contaminates “My sanctuary” (Leviticus 20:3). Whoever is contaminated by a corpse and fails to purify himself “has contaminated the Lord’s sanctuary” (Numbers 19:20, 13). Those afflicted with pelvic discharges also need purification “lest they die through their impurity by contaminating My Tabernacle which is among them” (Leviticus 15:31). The two latter offenders are banished with the leper, “that they do not contaminate the camp in whose midst I dwell” (Numbers 5:3b). True, the rabbis interpreted each of these passages on the assumption that impurity came into direct contact with the holy, specifically that the offender while in an impure state entered the sanctuary or ate of sacred food [8]. However, it is patently clear that these texts are grounded in the axiom, common to all ancient Near Eastern cultures, that impurity is the implacable foe of holiness wherever it exists; it assaults the sacred realm even from afar.

The dynamic, aerial quality of biblical impurity is best attested by its graded power. Impurity pollutes the sanctuary in three stages:

  1. The individual’s inadvertent misdemeanor or severe physical impurity pollutes the courtyard altar, which is purged by daubing its horns with the hatta’t blood (Leviticus 4:25, 30; 9:9 ff.).
  2. The inadvertent misdemeanor of the high priest or the entire community pollutes the shrine, which is purged by the high priest by placing the hatta’t blood on the inner altar and before the paroket-veil (Leviticus 4:5–7, 16–18).
  3. The wanton, unrepented sin not only pollutes the outer altar and penetrates into the shrine but it pierces the veil to the holy ark and kapporet, the very throne of God (cf. Isaiah 37:16). Since the wanton sinner is barred from bringing his hatta’t (Numbers 15:27–31), the pollution wrought by his offense must await the annual purgation of the sanctuary on the Day of Atonement [9], which consists of two steps: the purging of the tent and the purging of the outer altar (Leviticus 16:16–19) [10]. Thus the entire sacred area, or, more precisely, all that is most sacred, [11] is purged on Purgation Day (Yôm hakkippurim) with the hatta’t blood.

Thus the graded purgations of the sanctuary lead to the conclusion that the severity of the sin-impurity varies in direct relation to the depth of its penetration into the sanctuary. This mathematical relationship between sin and sanctuary is best understood by the accompanying diagram.

Diagram of Sanctuary Contamination

Moreover, this diagram provides graphic confirmation that the priestly source propounds a notion of impurity as a dynamic force, magnetic and malefic to the sphere of the sacred, attacking it not just by direct contact but from a distance. The outer altar is polluted though the non-priest may not even enter it, and, finally, the adytum is polluted though no man, not even the priest, may enter [12]. Yet despite the fact that Israelites have had no access, the sancta must be purged “of the impurities of the Israelites” (Leviticus 16:16).

Significantly, the requirement of two hatta’t goats on Yom Kippur reveals how Israel transformed an ancient exorcism. Demonic impurity was exorcised in three ways: curse, destruction, or banishment. The last was often used; rather than evil being annihilated by curse of fire, it was banished to its place of origin (e.g., netherworld, wilderness) or to some other place where its malefic powers could either work in the interests of the sender (e.g., enemy territory) or do no harm at all (e.g., mountains, wilderness). Thus the scapegoat was sent to the wilderness, which was considered uninhabited except by the satyr-demon Azazel. [13] The best known example of this type of temple purgation is the Babylonian New Year festival, when the urigallu (high priest) literally wipes the sanctuary walls with the carcass of a ram and then throws it in the river. Thus the same animal which purges the temple impurities carries them off.

Why then are two goats required in Israel? The text itself provides the answer. The sacrificed goat purges the sanctuary (mittume’ot benê yisra’el) “of Israel’s impurities” (Leviticus 16:16), whereas the scapegoat carries off kolcawonot benê yisra’el, “all of Israel’s transgressions” (Leviticus 16:21). The discrete function of the goats is supported by rabbinic tradition:

For impurity that befalls the Temple and its sancta through wantonness, atonement is made by the goat whose blood is sprinkled within [the shrine] and by the Day of Atonement. For all other transgressions in the Torah—minor or grave, wanton or inadvertent, conscious or unconscious, of commission or omission—the scapegoat makes atonement. (Mishna, Shebuoth, I, 6.)

Thus the slain hatta’t purges the sanctuary but the live hatta’t purges the people. The reason for this variance from ancient Near Eastern praxis is clear: Israel, the holy people (Leviticus 11:44; 19:2; 20:26), needs the same purification as the holy place.

Finally, why the urgency to purge the sanctuary? The answer lies in the postulate: the God to Israel will not abide in a polluted sanctuary. Though the merciful God will tolerate a modicum of pollution, there is a point of no return. If the pollution continues to accumulate, the end is inexorable: “The cherubim lifted their wings” (Ezekiel 11:22). The divine chariot flies heavenward and the sanctuary is left to its doom. [14]

On this point, Israel is in full accord with its neighbors’ obsessive compulsion to purify their temples. However, this common ground is split by an unbridgeable chasm. One of Y. Kaufmann’s keenest observations [15] is that the ancients feared impurity because it was demonic, even meta-divine, capable of attacking the gods. Hence men were summoned, indeed created, for the purpose of purifying temples to aid the benevolent resident gods in their battles with cosmic evil. In Israel, however, there are no traces of demonic impurity. Kaufmann would have us believe that biblical impurity has been completely devitalized. True, the demons have been expunged from the world, but man has taken their place. This is one of the major contributions of the priestly theology: man is demonized. True, man falls short of being a demon, but he is capable of the demonic. He alone is the cause of the world’s ills. He alone can contaminate the sanctuary and force God out.

If this reconstruction of the priestly theology of the hatta’t is correct, then we have succeeded in uncovering one of the ethical supports upon which the sacrificial system was reared. It constitutes the priestly theodicy. No intellectual circle of ancient Israel evaded the challenge of theodicy; the prophets agonized over it but came up with no solutions. Wisdom gave its superficial answer, and its refutation motivated the writing of Job. Thus we should be led to expect a priestly answer, but we search for it in vain. Is it possible that Israel’s priests, who had as their prime function “to teach the Israelites” (Leviticus 10:10), had nothing to say concerning God’s providence?

Now we know what the priestly theodicy is. It is found not in utterances but in rituals, not in legal statutes but in cultic procedures—specifically, in the rite with the hatta’t blood. I would call their response the priestly “Picture of Dorian Gray.” On the analogy of Oscar Wilde’s novel, the priestly writers would claim that sin may not leave its mark on the face of the sinner, but it is certain to mark the face of the sanctuary, and unless it is quickly expunged God’s presence will depart. In truth, this teaching is not a startling innovation; it is only an extension of the doctrine of collective responsibility, a doctrine which, all concur, is basic to the priestly theology. It is only natural that they would regard the sanctuary of which they were the stewards as the spiritual barometer to measure and explain God’s behavior to his people. They knew full well that the prophet was justified in protesting “Why does the way of the wicked prosper?” (Jeremiah 12:1), and they provided their answer: the sinner may be unscarred by his evil, but the sanctuary bears the scars, and, with its destruction, he too will meet his doom.

The theology of Israel’s Temple as concretized in the blood ritual of the purification offering will not fall on deaf Mormon ears. Like Israel of old, Mormons hold to the centrality of the temple in their corporate existence in determining the weal or woe of the community. As their Prophet has declared: “. . . do not suffer any unclean thing to come into it. . . . But if it be defiled I will not come into it, and my glory shall not be there; for I will not come into unholy temples” (D&C 97:15, 17). Thus for Mormons, too, man can, by his sin, defile the temple and force God to abandon his earthly residence.

To summarize: The hatta’t is a vantage point from which to view Israel’s cultic ties with its neighbors as well as the gulf that separates them. They hold in common that the impure and the holy are mutually antagonistic and irreconcilable. Thus the sanctuary needs constant purification lest the resident god abandons it together with his devotees. On one basic issue they differ: the pagan world is suffused with demonic impurity, whereas Israel has eviscerated impurity of its magical power. Only in its nexus with the sancta does it spring to life. However, this malefic impurity does not inhere in nature; it is the creation of man. Man can evict God from His earthly abode, but only to destroy himself.


[1] Cf. my previous articles: “The Function of the hatta’t Sacrifice,” Tarbix, XL, 1970–71, 1–8 (Heb); Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1971, s.v. “Day of Atonement,” Kipper; “Israel’s Sanctuary,” Revue Biblique, LXXXIII, 1976, 190–99.

[2] “Sin-offering, or Purification-offering?” VT, XXI, 1971, 237–39; Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1972, s.v. “Leviticus.”

[3] J. Milgrom, “The Cultic šeg?g?h and Its Influence in Psalms and Job,” JQR, LVIII, 1967, 115–25.

[4] J. Milgrom, Cult and Conscience (Leiden: Brill, 1976), 3–12.

[5] Lekapper ‘ala(y)w (Leviticus 16:10) cannot be rendered “to perform hatta’t of expiation beside it.” Moreover, the rites performed beside it, i.e., the hand-laying on and the slaughtering of the sacrificial goat, are not expiatory; cf. below. Rather, in keeping with the rule of kipper with a nonhuman object, ‘al means literally “on, over,” referring to the transfer of sins impurity to the scapegoat.

[6] See J. Milgrom, hatt?’t Leshonenu, XXV, 1970, 16–17 (Heb).

[7] Let examples from ANET suffice: Egypt, 325, 329–30; Hattia, 346, 351–53, 357, 358; Mesopotamia, 331–34, 334–38, 338–39.

[8] Tosefta, Shebuoth, I, 8; Sifra, Hobah, XIII, 10.

[9] The purgation rites prescribed for the Day of Atonement originally may have been used in emergencies the year around, as indicated by the text of Leviticus 16:1 f. and as reflected in the rabbinic tradition of Exodus Rabbah, XXXVIII, 10.

[10] According to the rabbis, the altar purged on the Day of Atonement is the inner altar of incense; cf. Sifra, Ahare, IV, 8 (based on Exodus 30:8). That this was not the plain meaning of the text was first recognized by Ibn Ezra (on Leviticus 16:18).

[11] Cf. J. Milgrom, Studies in Levitical Terminology (Berkeley: University of California, 1970), 54 f., n. 211, and cf. below.

[12] Ibid., 38–43.

[13] The rabbinic description of the practice of killing the Azazel goat may not reflect biblical praxis. It is neither stipulated by the text of Leviticus 16 nor demanded by ancient Near Eastern praxis in which the return of impurity to its source frequently required a live agent.

[14] The first eleven chapters of the prophet-priest Ezekiel are constructed on the priestly axiom that God’s departure from his sanctuary is tantamount to Israel’s doom.

[15] Tôledôt haemûnah hayyisreelît, I, Dvir: Tel Aviv, 1938, 350–416, 458–573; II, 1946, 111–37, 404–503; cf. The Religion of Ancient Israel, abridgement-translation by M. Greenberg (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1960), 21–121, 301–16.