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Cut a Covenant

The Hebrew word covenant as we read in the Old Testament is: briyth (ber-eeth)

  • to cut
  • ‘from ‘barah’ (1262) (in the sense of cutting (like ‘bara” (1254);
  • a compact (made by passing between pieces of flesh)

Let’s explore some instances from scripture where we have something being cut or divided and then a passing between the parts.

Dividing in creation

In the Creation the following things are divided:

  1. Light from the darkness.
  2. Waters from the waters.
  3. Water from the earth.
  4. Plants from the earth.
  5. Day from night.
  6. Animals from the sea and land.
  7. Woman from man.
  8. Man and woman from Eden/God.
  9. Sacrifice instituted.

The Red Sea

Exodus 14:21,22
21 And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.
22 And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground: and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left.

Parting of the Jordan River

Joshua 3:16,17
16 That the waters which came down from above stood and rose up upon an heap very far from the city Adam, that is beside Zaretan: and those that came down toward the sea of the plain, even the salt sea, failed, and were cut off: and the people passed over right against Jericho.
17 And the priests that bare the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood firm on dry ground in the midst of Jordan, and all the Israelites passed over on dry ground, until all the people were passed clean over Jordan.

Elijah and Elisha

2 Kings 2:8-13
8 And Elijah took his mantle, and wrapped it together, and smote the waters, and they were divided hither and thither, so that they two went over on dry ground.
9 And it came to pass, when they were gone over, that Elijah said unto Elisha, Ask what I shall do for thee, before I be taken away from thee. And Elisha said, I pray thee, let a double portion of thy spirit be upon me.
10 And he said, Thou hast asked a hard thing: nevertheless, if thou see me when I am taken from thee, it shall be so unto thee; but if not, it shall not be so.
11 And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.
12 ¶ And Elisha saw it, and he cried, My father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof. And he saw him no more: and he took hold of his own clothes, and rent them in two pieces.
13 He took up also the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and went back, and stood by the bank of Jordan;
14 And he took the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and smote the waters, and said, Where is the Lord God of Elijah? and when he also had smitten the waters, they parted hither and thither: and Elisha went over.

Joel, “Rend your hearts”

Joel 2:13
And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil.

Passing between the parts

Genesis 15:7-10,17-18 NASB
7. He then said to him: I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land as a possession.
8 “Lord God,” he asked, “how will I know that I will possess it?”
9 He answered him: Bring me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.
10 He brought him all these, split them in two, and placed each half opposite the other; but the birds he did not cut up…
17 When the sun had set and it was dark, there appeared a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch, which passed between those pieces.
18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram…”

Jeremiah 34:18 NASB
Those who violated my covenant and did not observe the terms of the covenant they made in my presence—I will make them like the calf which they cut in two so they could pass between its parts—

Veil of the Temple Rent

Matthew 27:50,51
50 Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost.
51 And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent;

Captain Moroni

Alma 46:12-21
12 And it came to pass that he rent his coat; and he took a piece thereof, and wrote upon it—In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children—and he fastened it upon the end of a pole.
21 And it came to pass that when Moroni had proclaimed these words, behold, the people came running together with their armor girded about their loins, rending their garments in token, or as a covenant, that they would not forsake the Lord their God; or, in other words, if they should transgress the commandments of God, or fall into transgression, and be ashamed to take upon them the name of Christ, the Lord should rend them even as they had rent their garments.

Mount of Olives

Zechariah 14:4
And his feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east, and the mount of Olives shall cleave in the midst thereof toward the east and toward the west, and there shall be a very great valley; and half of the mountain shall remove toward the north, and half of it toward the south. (The Jews will pass through the halves of the mountain, initiating a new covenant.)

Priests During the Modern Sacrament Ordinance

In a modern LDS sacrament meeting, the Priests will take bread, usually a slice from a loaf, and divide it into smaller pieces. This is so that it can be easily dispersed to the membership, but also as a sign of the cutting as it relates to the covenants being entered into.

The Ancient Israelite Sacrificial Process as described by: Rabbi Shmuel Silinsky

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When the Temple was standing, there were many types of offerings, of korbanot, but the principles described above apply to them all.

One of the most common misconceptions deals with the word “sacrifice.”

We often think of sacrifices in the Temple in terms of buying off an angry deity with lots of blood and guts.

Alas, these pagan ideas show how much our thinking has been influenced by other cultures. God is not lacking anything and does not need our sacrifices — animal or any other kind. The offerings that were brought in the Temple, like all the commandments, were not done for God. They were done for us.

In fact, the Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban, comes from the root korav meaning to “come close,” specifically, to come close to God. The offering was meant to bring someone who was far near once again.

To understand something of the intense, elevating experience that bringing an offering must have been, let’s take a look at a typical offering: the peace offering.

How it worked

Imagine the scene during one of the holidays — Pesach, Shavuot or Sukkot. Everyone has come up to Jerusalem, and Jake is no exception.

Jake takes his lamb up to the Temple. This is not just any lamb. He has kept it for at least three days to make sure there is no blemish. The big day arrives and he takes “Little Fluffy” up to the Temple.

Many of us enjoy lamb chops, or some other cut of meat. To eat meat, the animal must be slaughtered and the meat prepared. Most of us, though, have never actually seen an animal slaughtered. However, when bringing an offering to the Temple, the owner of the animal had to be present.

Jake brings Little Fluffy forward. He puts his hands on the lamb’s head and rests his weight on it. In one sense, he connects with the animal so it was like an extension of himself.

To actually see a lamb killed right in front of you is an unsettling thing. A moment ago it was Little Fluffy, and now: dead meat. This shakes Jake up as it would anybody. Life and death are staring him in the face. Running through his mind is the startling thought: “This could be me.This animal is just like me with a heart, hair, gall bladder… What is the difference — a soul?”

Then some of the blood is taken and put on the altar. On one level, the blood represents the animal nature of a human being. After that, certain fats are burned on the altar. This is represents desire, which should be elevated. Parts of the meat are given to the kohen, the Jewish priest, who helped with the offering. This reminds the owner of the offering that nothing actually belongs to him. It was granted to him by the Almighty and he must share with others.

At the end, the remaining meat is taken and can be eaten by the owner. Jake must eat it inside the walls of Jerusalem, a place specifically dedicated to spiritual growth. He must be in a state of ritual purity, which includes a state of heightened awareness for spiritual growth. This is not just another lamb chop on the plate. It is Little Fluffy and the whole process that went along with it.

The animal has actually become a korban, a way of helping its owner to come closer to God. Eating this meal is now a very spiritual experience. It is being raised from the level of animal to that of human, by actually becoming a part of the consumer and by being the vehicle for the entire process.

(Unfortunately, at times the opposite is true. Everything that has the potential for great elevation has also the potential for abuse. People can be so involved in the food they are eating that they forget all about the higher aspects. Instead of elevating the animal to human level, they are dragged down to the level of animal. The vernacular reflects this by calling that kind of mindless stuffing of oneself “pigging out.”)

One can easily see how a meal like this can be a focal point of holiday observance.

Other Offerings

Some offerings were not eaten at all, by anyone, and were entirely burnt. Some were brought on the national level, with the animal purchased by funds contributed equally by all Israel — everyone in the nation was aware that these offerings were an integral part of life, going on regularly and binding all Jews together in commonality and focus.

A sin offering was brought when someone had mistakenly transgressed certain laws. (Sin is also a concept often misunderstood and should best be translated as “mistake” or “error.” ) A mistake represents a lack of focus, and in the case of the chatot, the sin offering, the owner went through the whole process described above, which was designed to build focus. In this case, the owner did not eat the animal. Rather the kohen, the Jewish priest, an intrinsically focused individual, ate it.

Rav Yaakov Weinberg, of blessed memory, said that all commandments have an intrinsic reality in their own right, which transcends any meaning or explanation that we may give. A commandment, a mitzvah is a mystical powerhouse, regardless of our understanding. On the other hand, the more we can understand any mitzvah, the more effective we can be.

This brief article has only touched on the tip of what was involved in the Temple service, but it should be clear that a korban is far more than a “sacrifice.”

The Sacrificial Process as described in “The Continuous Atonement” by Brad Wilcox

Anciently the one performing the sacrifice would place the animal on the altar with its head to his right. He would then declare his authority by raising his right arm to the square, similar to how a priest today performs a baptism by raising his right arm to the square and saying, “Having been commissioned of Jesus Christ” (D&C 20:73).

The next action in an Old Testament animal sacrifice was for the one sacrificing to hold a cup with which to catch the blood of the animal. Blood, the source of life (see Leviticus 17:14; Deuteronomy 12:23), represented Christ’s “atoning blood” (Mosiah 4:2), complete with all the nourishment, purification, and healing it offers (see Leviticus 17:11; Hebrews 9:19–23). The cup was symbolic of the bitter cup from which Jesus would drink (see Matthew 26:39; 3 Nephi 11:11; D&C 19:18). While holding the cup in one hand, the one performing the sacrifice would lift the sacrificial knife with the other.

Following the slaying of the animal, the one sacrificing would have held the cup of blood in one hand and laid his other hand on the head of the beast. This symbolized the connection between the sinner and the sacrificial victim and served “to transfer personal sins and identity to the animal” (Andrew C. Skinner, Temple Worship, 183; see also Leviticus 1:4). In Numbers 8:12 we read, “And the Levites shall lay their hands upon the heads of the bullocks . . . to make an atonement for the Levites.”

At the end of the sacrifice, the one making the sacrifice prayed by lifting both hands above his head. In Psalm 141:2 we read, “Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” When Solomon dedicated the temple, he stood before the congregation “and spread forth his hands toward heaven: And he said, Lord God of Israel” (1 Kings 8:22–23).

Ann N. Madsen has pointed out that after the completion of ancient sacrifices, animals were not always burned. Some were roasted and became meals for those offering the sacrifices (see Opening Isaiah). In the same way, the lessons of Christ’s sacrifice are never complete until they too are internalized. The sacrament is not complete until we put the sacred emblems inside us.

Updated:

  • August 5, 2013 – Added the Brad Wilcox section.
  • August, 11, 2010
  • Janet

    Again, a great article. I do not know how old you are, but several years ago, symbolic cutting used to be a part of the temple endowment. I can understand why they removed it, along with the penalties, but those who were familiar with the symbolism of animal sacrifice saw the connection and understood the higher meaning. The Old Testament taught me more about the temple than anything else. I believe that the spirit of Elijah is to connect us, the children, with the covenants made to the fathers. When we understand the symbolism of the ancient covenant, it really helps us understand the covenants we make today.

    • oneclimbs

      Born in ’79 so the older endowment was before my time, but I know about it. Yeah, it’s too bad that so much has been trimmed off of the ceremony. I feel that it is a little like having a few chapters removed from scripture.

      I’m not totally clear as to why the changes were made. From what I’ve heard, the original endowment used to take pretty much all day and now it is about an hour and a half. I wonder how much the changes have to do with shortening the ceremony so that more ordinances can be done.

      Symbolic teaching, (immersive temple teaching, specifically) is a challenge to those unfamiliar with it. There’s really nothing like it in the contemporary religious world to compare it to. Altogether I find it fascinating.

      • Janet

        I personally believe they removed the penalties because it made the members uncomfortable. Also, possibly to help distance the ceremony from the Freemasons as well.