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Durham University

Department of Theology and Religion


Publication details for Dr David Janzen

Janzen, David (2018). Sin and Expiation. In The Oxford Handbook of Ritual and Worship. Balentine, Samuel Oxford University Press.

Author(s) from Durham


Expiation refers to a ritual attempt to deal with sin, and while in the Hebrew Bible it can include such things as prayer and acts of mourning, we most frequently find it manifested in sacrifice. Biblical texts rarely explain how sacrifice functions in relation to sin, but sacrifice is described at greatest length in the Priestly writing, particularly in Leviticus 1-7, which has been described as a manual of sacrifice. Even here, however, P does not provide a theory of sacrificial expiation—does not, that is, explain how or why sacrifice functions as the proper ritual response to sin. Jacob Milgrom’s re-creation of the worldview that stands behind P’s understanding of sacrifice claims that the Priestly tradents understood sin as creating a miasma of impurity that polluted the sancta, and saw the blood of the sin or purification offering as a ritual detergent that cleansed the sanctuary. If we read the Priestly narrative without trying to reconstruct this worldview, but look rather for the ways in which P portrays sacrifice and expiation, we see that sacrifice functions as a way for Israelites to publically acknowledge their sin and to signal that they have no intentions of violating God’s commandments again. Part of this ritual message involves honoring God as sovereign, and so acknowledging as well God’s right to command and indicating the sacrificers’ awareness that they must act as loyal subjects to their divine sovereign.