The book of Leviticus generally terrifies Western readers right from the beginning.
The first 10 chapters go into excruciating detail on various types of animal sacrifices, concluding with a story of two priest getting torched by God (literally) for not offering the sacrifices correctly.
You’re not alone if you’ve started the book of Leviticus and stopped either out of confusion or repulsion.
Why in the world would God command to be worshiped through animal sacrifices?
Well that is what I hope to clarify for you in this section.
I don’t promise if you read this to the end that you will like the concept of sacrificial worship but I hope to at least make it a bit more clear for you as to what this is all supposed to teach us about coming into relationship with God, and I’ll try and show you that if you have ever eaten meat, worn clothes, or have given or received gifts, the concepts of sacrifices may not be as foreign to you as you think.
The Modern Day Christian Understanding of the Sacrifices
In almost all strands of Christian denominations (anywhere from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism), the nearly unanimous reason given as to why God commanded animal sacrifices was for the purpose of achieving forgiveness of sins.
The general concept usually taught, is that when we sin we deserve to be punished. Before Jesus’ death on the cross, God allowed animals to take the punishment instead of us. However, when Jesus came he took the punishment for all of our sins, so we don’t have to kill goats and sheep anymore (the goats and sheep are dancing right now!)
A courtroom analogy is often used to illustrate this concept:
We are seen as on death row and deserve to be sentenced to death (or eternity in hell), but the judge says that if there is an innocent man that wants to take our place he will allow it. Jesus raises his hand and takes our place. He gets the punishment we deserved. We get off the hook.
Houston We Have A Problem
If you read about the sacrifices in Leviticus, however, you will notice some glaringly obvious problems with viewing the sacrifices in the above terms.
First, there are actually 5 different types of sacrifices mentioned and only 2 of the 5 have to do with sin.
Furthermore, the 2 that do deal with sin, are only for “unintentional sins” (Leviticus 4:2).
And what’s more, if we view the sacrifices that deal with sin as “taking the punishment the sinner deserved” this leads to a fairly jacked up justice system.
What do I mean by that?
How would you feel if your child got killed by a drunk driver, and the judge let an innocent man be put to death and the drunk driver got off scotch free?
Would you not conclude that he is a most incompetent and unjust judge?
An innocent man was wrongly punished and now the guilty man is likely to go out and harm someone else because he never got punished for his wrong.
As the saying goes, “Two wrong don’t make a right.”
Surely this can’t be how God’s justice system works.
Rebuilding What We Tore Down
Hopefully I’ve sparked some questions in your mind and at least got you open to challenging some assumptions that you may have held in regards to the sacrifices.
The rest of the blog will be trying to lay a foundation for helping you understand the sacrificial system better, but I felt it was necessarily to probe at some of the underlying assumptions held by most of Christianity today because I think these often blind us and deafen us from seeing the message that is being shown to us in Leviticus.
As with everything I write don’t assume it’s true because I say so, be like the Berrains who compared everything Paul said with scripture to make sure what he said was true.
Sacrificial Worship 101
1)What is a Sacrifice?
Sacrifices involved the following 4 concepts:
1)A gift – The most basic concept of a sacrifice is that it is a gift. This is why the worshiper couldn’t present a wild animal, but had to present a domesticated animal that they owned, “from the herd or the flock” (Leviticus 1:2), or grain that came from their field. The sacrifices were laid on the alter and thus at the most basic level a gift being presented to God.
2)Substitution – Another important concept with sacrifices is that of substitution.
Whenever the worshiper is instructed to lay hands on an animal, this represented that he was transferring his identity to the animal and the animal now represented himself.
In other words, it was as if this animal figuratively represented him putting himself onto the alter to be sacrificed.
I’ll go over this point in more detail later but at least for now note how this differs from the courtroom analogy’s version of substitution.
3)Draws us near to God– The word sacrifice, in Hebrew is ‘Korban’, and the root word is ‘Korba’, which means ‘something brought near.’ This encapsulates the main meaning of a sacrifice: it is a way in which the offer can draw near to God.
4)Meal – Lastly the sacrifices were symbolically seen as a meal for God as all of the sacrifices were either animals or grain that could be edible. Parts were only to be for God, other parts could be eaten only by the priest, and in the case of the peace offering, it could be eaten by the worshiper as well.
Though as God said in Psalms 50 we must not think that he was in some way hungry or lacking in some way.
“If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine.” (Psalms 50:12)
2)What a Sacrifice Isn’t
Notice what is absent from the above list:
Punishment – Sacrifices are not punishments! They are gifts that allow us the worshiper to draw near to God.
As we go further in Leviticus we will see that the Torah does prescribe punishments for sins, but no where did it indicate you could bring an animal to take the punishment that you deserved, nor does it ever describe you having to give a sacrifice as a punishment for sinning.
Punishing an innocent man, or letting someone else take your punishment is unjust, and God is not unjust and does not work this way.
So where did we get this idea from?
We get it from the ancient pagan sacrificial system. The pagan gods were angry blood thirsty deities who were always mad at you and you had to offer them blood to appease there anger. The most demonic and grotesque ones required even child sacrifice.
This is not how God works!
Some will say that God took pagan sacrifices and redeemed them, but this is not the case.
Sacrifices started in Genesis 3, with God performing the first sacrifice to clothe Adam and Eve, and as early as Genesis 4, we see Cain and Able performing sacrifices.
Satan loves to counterfeit things take things that God does and distort them. Pagan sacrifices represent a demonic distortion of what God intended.
God is not an angry abusive father just looking for someone to beat to get rid of his anger, that is in fact a description of Satan.
3)The 5 Types of Sacrifice
Now that I’ve described what a sacrifice is and what it isn’t, let’s take a look at the 5 different types of sacrifices described in Leviticus.
I will briefly describe each offering, show what it symbolizes and give examples of references to these images in the New Testament scriptures, as the authors of the New Testament would have been very familiar with the concept of sacrifices (as it was still being practiced at the time they wrote their epistles) and would not have had a negative view of them as most of us do.
1)The burnt offering
The name, in Hebrew, for the burnt offering is ‘Olah‘. ‘Olah’ means “that which rises up.” The reason for this name is that the burnt offerings were fully consumed and burned up and then the smoke would rise up (to God).
Inside the temple, a burnt offering had to be burning 24/7. There was to be one burnt in the mourning and then one at the afternoon. To this days Jews still hold daily prayer services which correspond to the time these offerings were offered.
“The fire on the altar must be kept burning; it must not go out. Every morning the priest is to add firewood and arrange the burnt offering on the fire and burn the fat of the fellowship offerings on it.” Leviticus 6:12
The greatest gift God has given to us is our very life.
At the most basic level our life consists of the ability to think, to feel and to make free will actions.
The only way that we have these things, is that God has in some way restrained himself to give them to us. What do I mean by that? Well thank of it this way: God is infinite, and infinity plus anything is still infinity. We tend to think of creation as God adding something, but in reality God had to subtract from himself (ie contstrain himself) to make room creation. God is completely sovereign so any free will we have is a result of him constraining himself.
The symbolism in this sacrifice is that it represented the worshiper voluntarily giving these things back to God, letting our mind, will and emotions be conformed to His. In other words, it is a way to exchange gifts back and forth between God and us.
Paul makes reference to this sacrifice in Romans 12:1-2:
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice [ie a burnt sacrifice that is burning 24/7], holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:1-2)
5 Parts of the burnt offerings
The burnt offering had to be chopped into 4 pieces (head, legs, intestines, and fat), and which represent the following:
1)Head – our minds, this was laid on the alter, notice how Paul equates this to having our minds transformed and renewed. We are handing our minds over to God to be transformed into his likeness.
2)Legs – our wills (ie our walk), notice how Paul talks about testing to discern the will of God so that we may do what is good, acceptable and perfect.
3)Intestines (or entrails) – this represents the emotions of the worshiper. (We speak of having “gut feelings”).
4)Fat – This one is a little more of a guess on my part as I so far haven’t been able to find a good explanation (so please let me know if you have a better idea then me) for what this represented but if I have to take a stab at it I would guess this represents the energy or strength of the worshiper. Fat is stored energy from the food we have processed so that would be my guess.
Lastly the blood was to be spilled on the alter.
In the Torah it says numerous times that life (or literally the soul) is in the blood. This is why the blood belonged exclusively to God. It was thrown onto the alter.
The alter represented a type of mystical portal between heaven and earth, so it was as if the life of the worshiper was given over to God.
The meal offering or grain offering (translated meat in KJV, but only because meat meant food in general in Old English), was grain mixed with water that was baked into bread. It could contain no leaven or honey. You were to put frankincense on it and sprinkle it with salt.
A small piece of it was burned in the fire and the rest was eaten by the priest.
Besides our life, the next best gift God has given humanity is his creation and the ability to take the resources he’s put in this earth to create and express ourselves and to use them to enjoy relationship with God and one another.
Again for God to create he had to restrain himself and make space for creation. We then give back to God by taking his creation and making space for him.
This is the heart behind the meal offering, it represents the fruits of a man’s labor being offered to God.
In the meal offering, you were taking what grew in your fields and turning it into bread and then offering it to God.
Note this is the offering that Cain offered to God but his offering was rejected. We see why it was rejected with this verse:
And he built a city, and called the name of the city after the name of his son — Enoch. (Genesis 4:17)
Rather than building a place for God to dwell with man, and to make God’s name great, Cain built a place to run from God and to make his own name great.
Here’s what some of the parts of the grain offering symbolized:
1)Leaven – Represented sin, indicating the offering was to be free of sin.
2)Salt – Represents a conventional relationship. We tend to use salt primarily for taste, but salt in the Bible was primarily seen as a preservative, since they didn’t have refrigerators, so in this sense it preserves the covenant.
3)Honey – Not sure what this one is supposed to symbolize let me know if you have some ideas.
4)Frankincense – Again a bit less sure on this one but it is probably representing the beautification of our work that God delights in, frankincense is a type of perfume that smells good.
Paul references this offering in Romans:
If the part of the dough offered as first fruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches. (Romans 11:6)
Here Paul is arguing that the Nation of Israel has not ceased to be God’s people and will not be cut off from their inheritance. Paul is saying that Abraham’s faith is metaphorically seen as the piece of bread offered into fire and thus because of his faith the rest of the nation is still counted as holy.
3)Fellowship Offering or Peace Offering
This was an offering that you gave just to have fellowship and express praise and thanksgiving to God. It was often given if you had been saved from a major catastrophe or illness or had received a divine blessing.
Most of the holiday offerings were Fellowship offerings. For example for Passover all the Jews were required to travel to Jerusalem and would come bring a lamb to sacrifice then have a feast with all of your family.
What is notable about this one is that it is the only one that the worshiper actually got to eat. You would generally invite your family and friends and throw a feast when you gave one of these offerings. It was like a thanksgiving dinner.
The author of Hebrews makes use of the imagery of this offering:
Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.” (Hebrews 13:15)
The Order Of The Offerings
It is notable that all the first 3 types of offerings are described as “a pleasing aroma to God” (Leviticus 1:17, 2:9, 3;5), the following 2 offerings, which deal with sin are not described that way.
You should also pay attention to the literary framework of the order the sacrifices are laid out. What I mean by that is it is laid on in an ABCAB fashion, where the sin offering relates to the burnt offering and the guilt/restitution offering relates to the meal offering (I’ll explain how those relate when I get there).
This then tells us that the Peace/Fellowship offering is the the primary heart behind what the sacrifices are all about! Their about being able to having fellowship with God and peace.
Note: The Hebrew word that we translate as peace, is shalom, which has a lot deeper meaning than the English word peace. You could think of it this way: All of creation is in a synchronized dance, anything that throws off the harmony of that synchronized dance (sin) destroys shalom. When shalom exists in creation, all things are in harmony as they should be. In other words rather than in English where we think of peace in the negative sense (ie the absence of disharmony), the Hebrew word has the opposite connotation, it indicates the presence of complete harmony.
Any time you see groups of 5 in the Torah you should have your eyes looking for similar things.
For example the Torah itself is laid out this way but in an ABCBA fashion:
A)Genesis is the introduction telling the story of creation fall and the call of Abraham and the birth of the Israelite people
B)Exodus tells of the Isrealite journey out of slavery from Egypt into becoming God’s people
C)Leviticus is the climax of the Torah telling the story of God coming to dwell in the midst of the Israelites
B)Numbers tells the story of the Israelite’s journey through the wilderness heading towards the promised land.
A)Deuteronomy is the book end that reviews the rest of the Torah and concludes with the Israelites getting ready to head into the promised land (back where the story began in Genesis 1-2).
The sin offering was an offering made for ‘unintentional sin’.
The symbolism here is again that the animal represents the worshiper getting up on the alter and offering himself up to God.
Note, this is quite different from the courtroom analogy. It is not ‘taking your punishment.’ (If it was taking your punishment, why did it have to die? Shouldn’t it only have to die for murder or sins that require murder as punishment? Couldn’t it just do some jail time for you if you did a more minor offense?)
To get why this atoned for sin, we have to view sin more as a sickness or life force that develops within us than just merely the breaking of a rule to get this concept.The goal is not merely for a ‘just punishment to be paid’ because God’s hands are tied by some divine math formula.The goal is for sin to be purged from the sinner so that shalom can be restored to creation.
The Torah (ie law) defines what sin is and what righteousness is.
When we sin unintentionally it indicates that something is wrong with our very nature, it is tainted by sin. The only way that shalom can be restored to creation, and we can return to fellowship with God is for us to give up our sinful nature.
This is what the worshiper was doing when offering a sin offering. They were acknowledging before God that they were a sinner and that they desired to die to their sinful nature and have fellowship with God restored. It was not a way to get out of punishment/consequence for an intentional sin.
The Different Types Of Acceptable Animals
The sin offerings is also particularly interesting because it gives us some insight into the symbolism of the particular animals that were to be used for the sacrifices:
If a priest, the entire community or an elder sinned the had to offer a bull.
The ordering here again, is important as the community is sandwiched between priests and elders.
This shows that the priests and elders (older fathers) in the community were scene as having a responsibility to protect and uphold the community (the priest were to uphold the sacred affairs of the nation and the elders more of the secular) and it also shows the shared communal responsibility for sin, in other words sin isn’t just an individual thing.
The bulls are a symbol of strength so it likely symbolized the strength of the community.
It was also possibly a reference to the Golden Calf incident (where the community had built with the strength of their own religious efforts).
If you recall the story in exodus after Moses came down the mountain he commanded them to burn the calf and eat it.
Goats and Rams
The next group is when a king sins he was to present a male goat. Male goats are often used to heard sheep and therefore represent leaders. For example in Daniel chapter 8, a male ram is used to represent the kings of the Medo-Persian empire, and a male goat is used to represent Alexander the Great. In Zecheriah chapter 10:3, God refers to the shepherds of Israel as goats.
When a common person sins they were to present a female goat or sheep.
The female goats and sheep represent the willing submission that the people were to uphold to the king. Sheep also represent humility and meekness.
When a poor person sinned they could present a turtledove.
Turtledoves are representative of covenant love and friendship.
If you’ve ever seen Home Alone 2 for example, there is a scene where he gets a gift of friendship doves where you keep one for yourself and give the other to friend. This represents that you will remain friends as long as you each have this. This comes from the fact that doves are known for lifelong monogamous relationships.
It is likely also significant that the turtle dove is a bird so in a sense it is a gift that was provided from heaven.
Another thing of interest is that you will see some instances where a sin offering was required for something that was not sinful. For example you had to give a sin offering after having a baby or for certain cleansing rituals. Why is this?
Well again if we view it as ‘taking the punishment’ this is problematic. However, if we view it as I described above this makes sense. In these cases you are purging sin, (in the case of the baby for sin that will be brought into the world through it’s birth, or in the case of the cleansing rituals, the sin that was symbolically picked up through coming in contact with something that made them ‘unclean’ (I’ll devote a whole section to this but the uncleanliness basically symbolizes the effects of living in a sinful world. For example you hear someone else gossip, and now your thoughts are contaminated do to the gossip you heard. You didn’t sin at all but you know picked up ‘unclean’ thoughts just from coming in contact with other sinners.)
John uses the imagery of the sin offering when he says the following:
If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9)
Here you can see that John says God gives us both forgiveness and cleansing (or purification) from unrighteousness. This is important because in the courtroom analogy forgiveness is the goal, but it doesn’t in any way deal with cleansing from our sin nature (both our own unrighteousness and our defilement form being sinned against and being in a sinful world), and we need not just be cleared of guilt before God but cleansed of shame and defilement.
5)Guilt or Restitution Offering
This offering was similar to the sin offering but was more specific for when you had in someway robbed something from God or others.
If you had in someway robbed someone you were to repay them whatever damage you caused plus 1/5.
The purpose of this offering is to pay back and repair what was damaged by ones sin.
The sin offering removes our shame, the restitution removes our guilt (we feel shame because somethings inside of us is not as it should be we feel guilt because we’ve cause damage in some way that we can’t fix).
Jesus makes reference to this offering in the Sermon on the Mount:
Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother and then come and offer your gift. (Mathew 5:23-24)
Here Jesus is is teaching the principle taught in the restitution offering, that you are to go make things right with the person you sinned against first, before even going to make things right with God.
Again you can see this is related to the grain offering . The grain offering represents dedicating the work of your hands to God, and shaping God’s creation into a dwelling place for man and God. This offering represent repairing God’s creation when it is damaged.
Whereas the the sin offering restores shalom by purging sin, the restitution offering restores shalom by restoring what was lost.
Another big aspect of the sacrifices was atonement. Most of us have been taught that atonement primary means having our sins forgiven, but again if we look at the sacrificial system we will see that is not entirely accurate.
For example, the burnt offering was said to provide atonement for the worshiper even though as we saw above it was not an offering given to receive forgiveness of sins.
I believe the best picture of atonement is actually scene in Genesis 3, where God performs the first animal sacrifice. Adam and Eve where ashamed and tried to hide from God and sowed fig leaves around themselves for clothes.
God killed an animal, however, and clothed Adam and Eve with the animal skin. The flesh of the animal provided covering for Adam and Eve, to cover them from their nakedness which they were now ashamed of. So when God says it will provide atonement for them covering their nakedness and shame.
Is this not actually why we all still where clothes, to cover our shame and insecurity over our naked body?
Now in respect to the sin offerings the atonement does also provide forgiveness of sins, but covering (in the same way we where clothes), not merely forgiveness, should be the primary way in which atonement is thought of.
5)Jesus as Our True Sacrifice That Draws Us Near To God!
Now that we understand the sacrifice, we are ready to see how this lays the foundation for understanding what Christ did for us on the cross! (We’ll see even more aspects when we get to the Feasts such as Passover and the Day of Atonement):
First lets look at the 4 aspects of what a sacrifice is:
1)Gift – As we saw earlier, a sacrifice, is first and foremost a gift. Jesus’ sacrifice is no different. Like Abraham who was willing to give up what he loved most to God (Isaac), God gave up what he loved for us, (his Son). Jesus’ sacrifice first and foremost represents a gift given to us.
He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:28)
2)Substitution – As I stated at the beginning most Christians have been taught to view the cross as Jesus taking their punishment for sin, and substitution it terms of the courtroom analogy. But if you read through Paul’s epistles closely you will see that he never describes it this way.
I have been crucified with Christ it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. (Galatians 2:20)
But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Galatians 6:14)
We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:4)
For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:3 ESV)
As you can see, Paul instead consistently declared that we should view the Crucifixion as if we ourselves had been there on the cross with Jesus. Just like the worshiper was to place their hand upon the animal and this represented them getting on the alter and giving themselves to God, we figuratively place our hands upon Christ and it as if we ourselves got up on the cross and was crucified with him.
There is an aspect of “instead of us,” as we don’t have to physically put ourselves on the cross as Jesus did, but their is an often missed aspect of “on our behalf” which is more the primary aspect of the cross, where Jesus is our representative.
3)Drawing Us Near – The end result of Jesus’ sacrifice was that through Jesus we can now draw near to God.
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (Ephesians 2:13)
let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. (Hebrew 10:22)
Whereas the animal sacrifices allowed the Israelite’s to enter the earthly temple and draw near to God in their flesh (ie their physical bodies), since Jesus was a man with a spirit, his sacrifice was a heavenly sacrifice that allows us to draw near to God in our spirits in the heavenly temple.
4)Meal – The Lord’s Supper is now the memorial meal of this sacrifice, where we eat the eat the body and blood of Jesus. Remember that the peace offering was the only one that the worshiper got to partake of.
The Passover was a peace offering and what we are celebrating when we partake of the Lord’s Supper. This symbolizes us drinking Christ blood (our souls become one, as the soul is in the blood), and we are conformed to the image of Christ (you are what you eat!).
This is why it was celebrated as a communal festive meal by the early church and not in a somber individual manner in which it is usually celebrated today.
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:26)