Levitical Sacrifices: Do They Still Matter?
To Skim or Not to Skim
Would I be correct in saying that the only time most people read through Leviticus in its entirety, is as part of a Bible reading plan? Even still, if you’re like me, you mostly skim through the book in order to get to the more ‘interesting’ parts of the Bible. But this dismissive attitude – of which I’m totally guilty of – towards the book of Leviticus is unfortunate, because it contains information that is foundational to Ancient Israelite worship, modern Judaism and Christianity. The New Testament (NT) Gospels and Epistles are impossible to grasp and appreciate without knowledge of books such as Leviticus. For example, the immense shame felt by the woman with the issue of blood and the audacity of her faith recounted in Mark 5:25-43 cannot be appreciated without knowledge of Leviticus 15:25-27. As well, when John says about Jesus…
… “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
John 1:29 (NKJV)
…his Jewish audience would have automatically clued in on the sacrificial system reference and thereby understood the significance of that statement. Furthermore, major theological themes in the epistles such as salvation, atonement, grace, and holy living – just to name a few – also draw from an understanding of the worship system outlined in Leviticus. Afterall, Jesus and the NT authors were Jewish – expect Luke, but his authority was largely based on his close companionship with Paul – and they understood Christianity from a Jewish context. As one scholar rightly puts it, “Christian faith was the fulfillment of the hope of Israel, and not a sudden apparition from heaven.” (+)
The Gospel of John speaks of Jesus coming in the flesh to dwell among us (John 1:14). The Greek verb translated as ‘dwell’ is skēnoō. It means ‘to live, settle, take up residence’. (^) God’s first instance of dwelling among humanity occurred in the Old Testament. His very presence – although not in flesh form – was represented by the tabernacle, and later temple. The book of Exodus records God’s covenant ceremony with Israel at Sinai and His instructions for the building of the tabernacle. Exodus closes with God’s endorsement of the tabernacle:
33 Then Moses set up the courtyard around the tabernacle and altar and put up the curtain at the entrance to the courtyard. And so Moses finished the work. 34 Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. 35 Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.
Exodus 40:33-35 (NIV)
The book of Leviticus continues precisely where Exodus leaves off:
1 The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting. He said, 2 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them…
Leviticus 1:1-2 NIV)
The structure and furnishings of the tabernacle were completed and the presence of God, in the form of His Glory, had descended and now occupied the tabernacle. What now followed – in the book of Leviticus – were instructions regarding the usage of the newly constructed tabernacle. The sacrificial system was a gracious provision established by God which enabled Him, a Holy God, to dwell among the sinful Israelite community.
It is certainly true that the sacrificial system has been rendered obsolete by Christ’s death on the cross. Nevertheless, the fundamental truths upon which the system was established still remain. In order for sinful humanity to relate to a Holy God, a form of mediation is needed. If, therefore, the purpose and significance of Christ’s death is to be fully appreciated, then a greater level of understanding of the Levitical sacrificial system is crucial.
Offerings: A Means to Draw Near
The Israelite sacrificial system was comprised of five sacrifices. The first three offerings – the burnt, grain and peace offerings – were voluntary, while the last two offerings – the sin and guilt offerings – were mandatory. The Hebrew word that is translated into English as ‘sacrifice’ or ‘offering’ is korban. It is based on the root which means ‘to draw near’. Our English translation unfortunately fails to capture the essence of the word because it focuses on the process of the act, namely the slaying of the animal or the burning of the grain. However, the Hebrew word korban focuses on the function and goal of the act, that is a means to draw near to God. God’s opening instruction to Moses concerning the sacrificial system is translated thus into English:
Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When anyone among you brings an offering to the Lord, bring as your offering an animal from either the herd or the flock’.
Leviticus 1:2 (NIV)
A wooden translation of this verse from Hebrew, brings out the meaning of korban, and may be rendered as thus:
Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: ‘Any person from among you who brings near [krb], an item with which to draw near [korban] to YHWH, you must bring near [krb] your item with which to draw near [korban], animals from the herd or from the flock.
Leviticus 1:2 (My Translation)
The entire sacrificial system was designed and initiated by God to make it possible for the nation of Israel to draw near to Him for the purpose of relationship and community. The focus of this article will be the three voluntary sacrifices, while the next article will discuss the mandatory offerings.
The burnt offering is the first of the voluntary offerings to be described. Its primary purpose was to garner the favour of God. One scholar calls it the sacrifice of “attraction”. (#) It served as a way to, in essence, attract God’s attention towards the offeror. Oftentimes it was the first in a sequence of multiple offerings because it signaled initial contact with God. The Hebrew word for this offering is ‘olah. It derives from the root ‘lh which means ‘to ascend’, a reference to the smoke that ascends from the altar up to God. The idea was that, by inhaling the smoke as a “pleasing aroma”, God communicated His willingness to be approached. (#) The term “pleasing aroma” should not be considered in a physical sense but rather as consequential. The word “pleasing” can also be understood as “soothing” or “tranquilizing”. (*) The act of God smelling the sacrifice was an anthropomorphic expression to denote God’s satisfaction with the offering, and by extension the offeror. His divine holy wrath against Sin was momentarily appeased, and He was – at the present time – willing to be approached.
The burnt offering is said to ‘make atonement’ on behalf of the offeror. (Leviticus 1:4) However, as one scholar explains it, the atonement in this sense is one of ‘appeasement’ rather than ‘cleansing’. (=) The Hebrew word is kipper. It means ‘to make atonement, appease, make amends’. (!) The burnt offering made atonement in the sense that it was a gift that would assuage God’s holy wrath which the sinful offeror was now in close proximity to. An apt example is the event of Jacob’s reconciliation with Esau. Jacob sent several companies of herds ahead of him as a gift to Esau.
20 …For he [Jacob] said, “I will appease [kipper] him [Esau] with the present that goes before me. Then afterward I will see his face; perhaps he will accept me.”
Genesis 32:20 (NASB)
In the same way, the burnt offering was a gift of appeasement which signaled the offeror’s desire to approach God’s face, namely His presence.
For this reason, in addition to being offered by individual Israelites, the burnt offering (along with grain and drink offerings) was also offered daily – twice a day in fact – by the priests on behalf of the entire Israelite assembly. God also instructed an additional burnt sacrifice to be offered once a week during every Sabbath. Besides these times, the burnt offering was also to be offered every first of the month during the new moon festival. On top of all this, the burnt offering was also required during annual festivals, i.e. Passover, Feast of Weeks, Festival of Trumpets, Day of Atonement and Festival of Tabernacles. (Numbers 28-29) The frequent offerings of the burnt sacrifice testify to the fact that Israel dwelled continuously in God’s presence. As God smelled the continuous ascension of the smoke from the burnt offerings, His holy wrath was appeased, and this signified that the community could always approach His presence.
The second voluntary sacrifice was the grain offering. It consisted of wheat presented in three different ways: as coarsely ground grits (similar to the consistency of semolina rather than fine flour), thick cakes or thin wafers. The wheat, mixed with oil, could be cooked on a griddle or fried in a pan. If the offeror presented raw grain, then incense – along with the oil – would be added to provide a pleasant aroma. (=) This offering was known as the minhah which means “gift, tribute”. It recalled the covenant relationship between God and Israel. (*) The term minhah was used broadly to describe a gift from one party to another. The giver – usually subordinate to the receiver – wished to communicate respect and honor by way of the gift. (-) In the ancient Near East (ANE), defeated nations often sent regular tributes (minhah) to the conquering king as part of a covenant agreement. During the tenure of ancient Israel, the people were both recipients of minhah…
2He [David] defeated Moab, and measured them with the line, making them lie down on the ground; and he measured two lines to put to death and one full line to keep alive. And the Moabites became servants to David, bringing tribute [minhah].
2 Samuel 8:2 (NASB)
…and also, givers of it.
12Now the sons of Israel again did evil in the sight of the Lord. So the Lord strengthened Eglon the king of Moab against Israel, because they had done evil in the sight of the Lord… 15But when the sons of Israel cried to the Lord , the Lord raised up a deliverer for them, Ehud the son of Gera, the Benjamite, a left-handed man. And the sons of Israel sent tribute [minhah] by him to Eglon the king of Moab.
Judges 3:12, 15 (NIV)
In addition to its political practice, the giving of minhah was also used in personal situations. Jacob described his companies of herds with which he hoped to appease Esau’s wrath, as minhah. (Genesis 32:20) In that instance as well, the giver – Jacob – wished to communicate his perceived subordinate status and respect for Esau. Finally, minhah was used in religious circumstances. Worshippers both in Israel and the wider ANE brought minhah to their various gods. Cain and Abel were each said to offer minhah to God, with Cain’s offering being a plant sacrifice and Abel’s an animal sacrifice from his flock. Evidently, minhah was not restricted to only grain offering in the wider cultural context of the ANE. However, within the Israelite religion, it became synonymous with the grain offering.
This particular sacrifice highlights God’s covenant relationship with Israel. The offering was divided into two parts: one part was offered on the altar to God as a ‘memorial portion’ while the other part was to be consumed by the priests. Several suggestions have been proposed for the subject of remembrance with regard to the ‘memorial portion’. Perhaps it was an appreciative remembrance of God’s provision in the form of a harvest, or it could have been intended to remind God of the offeror. Perhaps still, it could have been meant to keep God’s covenant with the whole community in His immediate memory, as it was one of the daily offerings along with the burnt offering. It is conceivable that it may have been a combination of all these sentiments. (=)
God reminds the people to always season the grain offering with salt. In the ANE when treatises and alliances were made, the two parties shared a communal meal which included salted meat. The salt was meant to symbolize the long-lasting nature of the agreement. In the same way salt in the grain offering was a reminder of the everlasting covenant between God and the nation of Israel. (-)
The peace offering was a good old-fashioned barbeque party! This voluntary sacrifice – an expression of thanksgiving celebration – was a communal meal between God and the offeror along with his or her family and friends. As such, it was the only offering where the offeror partook of the sacrificial animal. The Hebrew word for this offering is shelamim. It is a derivative of the word shalom which connotes a general state of wholeness and wellbeing, namely: to be in good health, physically safe, prosperous, and content. (*) Other proposed names for this offering are: fellowship offering, sacrifice of well-being, or communion offering. The shared meal was a sign that harmony existed between God and the offeror, thereby putting the offeror in a state of wellbeing (shalom). (-)
Several occasions prompted the peace offering: (1) Thank offering – appreciation to God for an unexpected blessing, (2) Vow offering – gratitude for an answered prayer where a vow was made to God, and (3) Freewill offering or as I like to call it, the ‘just-because-I-feel-like-a-party’ offering – for general blessings. (<>)
God was the honoured guest at the peace-offering meal. He therefore received the choicest portion of the animal, the fat, specifically the fat around the entrails. Animal entrails were used in certain ANE religions for divination. The liver was often consulted by priests for possible messages from the gods. (~) By offering the liver on the altar, the Israelite offeror was acknowledging God as his or her Source and Sustenance.
The peace offering is described as ‘food’ presented to God, but this is not to be taken in a literal sense. This idea of offering food to a god was a general ANE belief. Israel’s neighbours offered food to their gods because they believed the gods relied on it for sustenance. Israel adopted the nomenclature but differed in its understanding. The term ‘food’ here is used symbolically to describe God’s involvement in the communal meal. The Old Testament makes it clear that Israel did not consider sacrifices as sustenance for God. (-)
12 If I were hungry I would not tell you,
for the world is mine, and all that is in it.
13 Do I eat the flesh of bulls
or drink the blood of goats?
14 “Sacrifice thank offerings to God,
fulfill your vows to the Most High,
15 and call on me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you will honor me.”
Psalm 50:12-15 (NIV)
The sacrificial system described in Leviticus was more than a transactional means of atonement. It was a vivid portrayal of life lived entirely in the presence of God. The voluntary offerings allowed the Israelite community to enjoy joyful fellowship with God and with each other.
- (+) Justo L. González, The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, vol. 1 of The Story of Christianity, (Harper Collins, 1984), 62.
- (^) Bauer, Walter. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Edited by Frederick W. Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
- (#) Baruch L. Levine, Leviticus, vol. 3 of JPS Torah Commentary, ed. Nahum M. Sarna (JPS, 1989), 3-34.
- (*) Brown, Francis, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs. A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament. Oxford: Claredon Press, 1907.
- (=) R. E. Averbeck, “Sacrifices and Offerings,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker (Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity, 2003), 706-33.
- (!) Köhler, Ludwig, Walter Baumgartner, and Johann Jakob Stamm. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Translated by M. E. J. Richardson. 5 vols. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994.
- (-) John H. Walton, Victor Harold Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000), 119-24.
- (<>) Scott Langston and E. Ray Clendenen, “Sacrifice and Offering,” in Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, ed. Trent C. Butler (Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003).
- (~) David W. Baker, Leviticus, vol 2. of Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, (Tyndale House, 2008), 15-43.