A seriuous contribution to the study of the Old Testament sacrificial cult has just been made. Let me explain.
Anyone doing work in Leviticus these days know that there is a major debate regarding the theological rationale behind the rituals of atonement, particular those of Yom Kippur and the hatta’t (the “sin-offering”).
In particular, Jacob Milgrom has argued that, contrary to what many have thought of such atonement rituals, their primary focus is not purging the individual of impurity, but the maintenance of the ritual purity of the sanctuary. In his magisterial commentary on Leviticus he writes:
“Whom or what does the [hattā’t] purge? Herein lies the first surprise: it is not the offerer of the sacrifice.”
Thus Milgrom has argued that "sin-offering" is a misleading translation of the hatta’t, which he argues is best understood as a “purification offering.” Indeed, a survey of the recent secondary literature reveals his influence―most scholars now refer to the “purification-offering” rather than the “sin-offering.”
In essence, Milgrom wants to move us away from the idea that the offering cleanses the offerer himself--it is the sanctuary that is primarily in view. He compares the theology of Leviticus to the Portrait of Dorian Gray. The fundamental idea is that transgressions against the Lord are borne by the sanctuary. The sacrifices effectively purify the sanctuary from the resulting impurity incurred by Israel.
I've been closely following the debate about Milgrom's theory with great interest. It has especially important theological implications, which should be obvious (i.e., as an antecedent to Christian atonement theology). In fact, a number of scholars have argued that while Milgrom is right in showing that scholarship has generally neglected the purity concerns of the cult to assert the sacrifices do nothing for the individual overstates the case. For example, Steven Finlan sums up the view of many others well when he writes:
“Milgrom has correctly exposed a (former) scholarly neglect of purity concernsThe fact is, however, most of those who have taken Milgrom on are Christians who clearly have theological reasons for opposing his view. Of course, that's not to say that an anti-Christian polemic may be at work in Milgrom's view. Nonetheless, most of the critiques of Milgrom's work come in the form of sections of works dealing with Christian atonement theology. An in-depth, comprehensive treatment of the Levitical law code has been sorely needed.
in Leviticus, but he has tried to impose a new hegemony of meaning upon actions
that were really understood in a dual sense, as cleansing both the symbols (the
sancta) and the things symbolized (the priests and the people).”
Enter Roy E. Gane, a student of Milgrom. Gane has offered what is clearly the most balanced and well-argued critique of Milgrom’s work in Cult and Character: Purification Offerings, Day of Atonement and Theodicy (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2005). In fact, the back cover features a blurb from Milgrom himself:
“[Gane’s] book is a marvel of close reading and impeccable logic…. [It] is the first major critique of my work, and I am immensely happy and proud that it was done by my student and that my contribution is so comprehensively acknowledged…. It is a major work and will be the standard for a long time.”Gane points out that, contrary to Milgrom’s view, the text indicates that the offerings are made for (the Hebrew is מן) the offerer―not simply the sanctuary. See for example Leviticus 4:26: “so the priest shall make atonement for him for (מן) his sin, and he shall be forgiven.”
In fact, Milgrom wrote a response to Gane’s work, “The preposition מן in the חטאת Pericopes,” in the Journal of Biblical Literature 126 (2007):161-63. There Milgrom offers a respectful response to Gane’s argument.
For example, Gane looks at the use of the preposition in Leviticus 15:15b, which describes the case of a person who has contracted ritual impurity because of a discharge: “the priest shall offer [two turtledoves or pigeons], one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering; and the priest shall make atonement for him before the Lord [מן = for, from, or on behalf of?] his discharge.” Here Gane argues that the preposition Nm should be translated as indicating that the priest is to effect purgation on behalf of (=for the benefit of) the offerer from his discharge―in other words, the sacrifice is meant to remove residual impurity from him.
But Milgrom believes this is “simply incomprehensible. Purgation (כפר) is not offered ‘from’ but ‘for, because of’― ‘his flow’ (15:15)…” In other words, Milgrom believes the sanctuary is what has been defiled because of the person’s sin―the offering therefore is made to atone/purge it. Thus, the offering is made on behalf of the impurity caused by the discharge.
Today I received the latest edition of the Journal of Biblical Literature and..., lo and behold, the first article is written by Gane: “Privative Preposition מן in Purification Offering Pericopes and the Changing Face of 'Dorian Gray.'"
Suffice it to say, I think Gane is absolutely right on. Gane strengthens his case and answers Milgrom’s response to his critique. In regard to Leviticus 15:15b he points out that Milgrom himself is inconsistent. Particularly instructive is his analysis of what Milgrom does with Leviticus 12:7. In this passage we read about the case of a woman who is ritually impure because she has just given birth. The passage reads: “[the priest] shall offer [the sin-offering] before the Lord, and make atonement for her; then she shall be clean from [מן = for, from, on behalf of] the flow of her blood.” In this case Gane points out that Milgrom translates מן as “from”--in other words, he translates the preposition differently in this case. He writers,
“[W]hy does Milgrom render ‘from’ rather than the causative sense of Nm in 12:7, ‘from her source of blood,’ also referring to residual impurity in terms of its physical origin…? The fact is, only ‘from’ is comprehensible in 12:7, and a consistent rendering of ‘from’ elsewhere is only incomprehensible if one approaches the purification-offering goal formulas with an a priori assumption.”There’s much more, but I can’t discuss it all here. To sum it up though, Gane’s piece is so clear I believe it will represent the standard view. Milgrom has made a tremendous contribution by refocusing us on the purity concerns of the Old Testament cult, but he is wrong to deny that it is also related to the individual offerer. Gane is absolutely correct: the sacrifices effected something for the offerer―not merely the sanctuary.
I think Gane just closed the door on that debate in this article.
 See Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, 254. In addition, see Jacob Milgrom, “Studies in the Temple Scroll,” JBL 97 (1978): 501-523; idem., “Israel’s Sanctuary: The Priestly ‘Picture of Dorian Gray,’” RB 83 (1976): 390-99.
 Stephen Finlan, The Background and Context of Paul’s Cultic Atonement Metaphors (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004), 33.
 Milgrom, “The preposition,” 162.
 Gane, “Privative Preposition,” 220.