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The prominent feature of all four Gospel readings is that Jesus becomes enraged and throws out of the temple those who were buying and selling animals and those who were exchanging currency. But who were these people and what were they doing in the Temple?
The temple and the three great feasts, Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles, were the holiest of events for the Jewish people when "every able bodied man was commanded by the law of Moses to present himself before the Lord in Jerusalem" (Deuteronomy 16:16)
The journey to Jerusalem was often long and arduous and bringing a goat, sheep or cattle (or a dove for the poor) to be slaughtered would have been most difficult. The selling of animals to be sacrificed was a lucrative business and central to the temple economy. In addition, this was also the time that the temple priests began to collect the temple tax, which was supposed to atone the donor's sins and contributed to the running and maintenance of the temple.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke mention those selling doves and the money changers. John gives us a fuller picture. John tells us that, "In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money."
Those selling animals were providing a service to those who needed a sacrifice during Feast time. This had been approved by the Jewish leaders in the temple and was considered a great convenience to Jews traveling great distances. Since they did not have to have livestock in tow, they could buy the necessary sacrificial animals right at the temple.
Places to change money were also needed; for the tax was also being collected from every Israelite who was twenty years old, Exod. 30:11-16. This was due during the month preceding the Passover (17:24, etc.) and was either sent in by those who lived at a distance or paid in person by those who attended the festival, who then, however, had to have Jewish coin, which fact compelled those who came from foreign parts to have their money exchanged.
The money changers were providing a profitable service to the Jewish worshipers by exchanging Hebrew currency for Roman coin which would not be accepted by the temple priests.
The Sacrifices in the Temple
The animal, after being purchased, was then washed, hung upside down by its back legs and its throat slit. The blood of the animal would then be drained into a vessel to later be carried through the temple and sprinkled upon the alter along with the animals internal organs.
The temple priests would cast lots to decide who will slaughter and who will sprinkle the blood. This comes from Chapter III of the Tractate Tamid. The Mishnah goes on to state that the forelegs, the right leg etc., are each given to the priest who, by the drawing of lots, had been assigned those body parts. The slaughterer then tore open the carcass so that it was all exposed before him. He then put the fat on top of the place where the head had been severed.
The Mishnah goes on to describe the carving of the entire animal, the breast, the flanks, the spine, neck, ribs, tail, kidneys, etc. and the distribution of the body parts to the correct priests. After the slaughtering, blood sprinkling, and separation of limbs and organs, the priests leave the body parts on the side of the altar and recite the Shema, a Jewish prayer.
Blood Wrung from the Animals Heart
Chapter III, Mishnah 2 provides us with the detail of how the animals heart would then be wrung over the alter, the direction of the flow of blood, and bears witness to the quantity of blood that issues forth from the Temple sacrifices.
The line of worshippers and animals waiting to be slaughter stretched for as far as the eye could see, and a river of blood flowed from the temple, while the money changers made great profits for the temple priests. Truly, the house of the Lord, a house of prayer, had been turned into a slaughter house and a den of thieves.
Seeing this, Jesus would "make a scourge of seven cords and drive them out of the temple and loosed the sheep and the oxen, and the doves, and poured out the changers' money, and overthrew the tables."
This act of "cleansing the temple" would outrage the temple priests and seal the final fate of the Nazarene.
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