Tzav (Command) Lev 6-8: Burning the Kidneys

Burning the Kidneys

Although I am fully convinced (in my own mind) that every letter and word of Torah matters, I still find a lot of things in Leviticus a bit intimidating, even abstruse. I don’t want it to be that way. The sin or guilt offering is one of those odd things. The guilt offering law directs the priest to burn the entrails and kidneys and other inner things on the altar. The same instruction appears a number of times before this passage in both Exodus and Leviticus, so it is by no means unique to this portion; however, as I read it in Tzav, I’m wondering what it is about the kidneys when the Lord says to Moses,



This is the law of the guilt offering. It is most holy. In the place where they kill the burnt offering they shall kill the guilt offering, and its blood shall be thrown against the sides of the altar. And all its fat shall be offered, the fat tail, the fat that covers the entrails, the two kidneys with the fat that is on them at the loins, and the long lobe of the liver that he shall remove with the kidneys. The priest shall burn them on the altar as a food offering to the Lord; it is a guilt offering. (English Standard Version, Lev.7.1-4)



There are the instructions. The priest is to offer the fat and kidneys; of that there is no doubt. Why are these things burned up on the altar? Is it some kind of health issue? Is it symbolic? What is this supposed to mean?



Today, I happened to be reading Psalms 139, the “you have searched me and known me” Psalm (verse 1). In the KJV, David sings, “You have possessed my reins” (verse 13). Reins? What, pray tell, are these reins? According to the Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures by Wilhelm Gesenius, kilyah, reins, also means kidneys and can be used to refer to the inmost seat of emotions, affections, and desires. If kidneys are literally or figuratively connected to affections and desires, then I feel it is not totally out of line to apply that definition to this Torah requirement of offering the kidneys to God.



Here’s one interpretation: maybe part the idea behind burning the kidneys of the sin offering to God is that when our own affections and desires lead us (like the reins of a horse) to sin against God, there’s only one way to sufficiently deal with that. We’re not to tweak the desires, trying to use what motivates us to do evil to motivate us to do good; instead, when we seek forgiveness, we are to allow our priest, Yeshua, to utterly destroy, to burn up completely, that deadly affection. We ought not eat of it, chew on it, mull it over and give it a hold somewhere deep inside ourselves even while we turn it over to the priest with our lips. No, it should be slain but also consumed in the fire, altogether removed so that we can be new creatures with new innards and new desires, new reins, that conform to the will of God.



Chassidic commentary about these verses goes so far as to say that an animal intended for a sin or guilt offering is not technically a guilt or sin offering until after the sacrificial parts, the kidneys and innards, have been given over to be burned. It would take more research to check on the accuracy of that statement since the reasoning provided is a bit circumstantial (that it is called a guilt offering only after the instructions are given to burn it in this passage); however, the idea does fit a general principle: our lips, prayers, bulls, words, may look like they are in the service of God, but actually, we may be holding our our inward affections, our kidneys and reins, back for ourselves, never burning them, never actually offering what we set out to offer when we asked for forgiveness.



Another possible interpretation leads in the opposite direction: since Yeshua is our sin offering, perhaps the burning of the innards, kidneys, and reins symbolizes his complete inward consecration to God, that nothing inside of him was unsuitable, unfit, or unworthy of being wholly consumed according to the will of a holy God. In this case, the fire burns up the innards completely not because they are utterly evil, but because they are so completely pure. Which is it? Both? Neither? Something else altogether? Pure things generally can withstand fire, so I’m not terribly invested in this possibility.



I’m sure there are more than two ways to read this tiny detail in Tzav, and I will keep looking, but in the meantime, I’m going to use this Shabbat as an opportunity to check my reins. In the words of David, “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: and see if [there be any] wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting (KJV, Psalm 139.23-24).


Chassidic commentary


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