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In the books of the Torah, Yahweh devotes entire chapters to explaining in exacting detail what kind of animal sacrifices he expects from his people. The one common thread, repeatedly emphasized, is that the animals to be slaughtered must be “without blemish”:

“And this is the thing that thou shalt do unto them to hallow them, to minister unto me in the priest’s office: Take one young bullock, and two rams without blemish.” —Exodus 29:1

“And on the eighth day he shall take two he lambs without blemish, and one ewe lamb of the first year without blemish, and three tenth deals of fine flour for a meat offering, mingled with oil, and one log of oil.” —Leviticus 14:10

“This is the ordinance of the law which the Lord hath commanded, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring thee a red heifer without spot, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came yoke.” —Numbers 19:1

“And ye shall offer a burnt offering for a sweet savour unto the Lord; one young bullock, one ram, and seven lambs of the first year without blemish.” —Numbers 29:2

“And he shall offer his offering unto the Lord, one he lamb of the first year without blemish for a burnt offering, and one ewe lamb of the first year without blemish for a sin offering, and one ram without blemish for peace offerings.” —Numbers 6:14

Only animals that are perfect and flawless, without any physical defects, are acceptable as sacrifices to Yahweh. And this rule doesn’t just apply to animals, either. The Old Testament makes it equally clear that people with physical defects are equally unacceptable as servants in the holy places.

“Whosoever he be of thy seed in their generations that hath any blemish, let him not approach to offer the bread of his God. For whatsoever man he be that hath a blemish, he shall not approach: a blind man, or a lame, or he that hath a flat nose, or any thing superfluous, or a man that is brokenfooted, or brokenhanded, or crookbackt, or a dwarf, or that hath a blemish in his eye, or be scurvy, or scabbed, or hath his stones broken; no man that hath a blemish of the seed of Aaron the priest shall come nigh to offer the offerings of the Lord made by fire: he hath a blemish; he shall not come nigh to offer the bread of his God…. he shall not go in unto the vail, nor come nigh unto the altar, because he hath a blemish; that he profane not my sanctuaries: for I the Lord do sanctify them.”

—Leviticus 21:17-23

(By the way, if you’re curious about what the text means when it bars a man who has “his stones broken”, the RSV gives a more explicit translation: “a man with crushed testicles”!)

This passage says explicitly that if a person or an animal with a physical defect touched the altar or entered the sanctuary, it would “profane” them. But how can this be? Doesn’t God care about the state of a person’s soul, not the condition of their body?

These verses should be very disturbing to modern-day Jews and Christians. They attribute to God a primitive, superstitious and ignorant view – one in which a person’s worth is tied to their outward appearance, and people with defects are considered impure and unholy. Even people with flat noses are forbidden to come near the altar of God! (All those churches with wheelchair ramps are going against the word of God, if they but knew it!)

Granted, in the New Testament, Jesus abrogates this command. In its place, he expresses the much more sensible view that holiness (if that term has any meaning) consists not of outward appearances, but of attitudes and actions: “There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man… Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: all these evil things come from within, and defile the man” (Mark 7:15,22-23).

But this hardly solves the problem. If it was never a sin to be ugly or handicapped, why did God say precisely the opposite for the many centuries of the Old Testament? Why was that rule established in the first place, ensuring hundreds of years of discrimination, ridicule and hatred directed at society’s outcasts, if God never really meant it? Or did he mean it originally, and if so, what made him change his mind? Did he see the error of his ways? (Apologist site the Christian Think Tank claims hopefully that this prohibition was “perhaps a practical matter of the process of animal slaughter”. I’d just love to hear why people with flat noses or crushed testicles were unable to assist in this.)

The apologetic is also sometimes heard that the OT purity laws were a foreshadowing of Jesus’ sacrifice. For example:

The animals brought for the “bread of God” must be the best of their kind. They must be without physical blemish, because they were typical of him who had no blemish of sin.

The problem with this comparison is that the OT requires sacrifices and priests without physical blemish, while the NT claims that Jesus was without spiritual blemish. This is not a case of one foreshadowing the other – these are opposite concepts!

The shallow, appearance-obsessed, tribal deity of the Old Testament is just one of the many obscure corners of the Bible that modern-day believers would love to forget about. Atheists shouldn’t give them the opportunity.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...