I. Approaching a Holy God through Sacrifice (Leviticus 1:1–7:38)


I. Approaching a Holy God through Sacrifice (1:1–7:38)

A. Regulations for the Burnt Offering (1:1-17)

1:1 The opening words of Leviticus give us the context we need to understand the importance of Israel getting their worship of God right; after all, his character is pure holiness. Moses recorded the moment when God revealed to him the regulations for proper worship: Then the Lord summoned Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, the tabernacle. Moses did not sit down with the priests and Levites to brainstorm a worship program that they thought would please God. The regulations contained in Israel’s book of worship came from the Lord himself.

1:2-9 In keeping with God’s perfect holiness, the burnt offering was to be perfect—an unblemished animal (1:3). The burnt offering was the most frequent of Israel’s offerings, to be offered by God’s priests every morning and evening (see 6:8-13). But its frequency in no way diminished its importance.The burnt offering could also be a voluntary offering brought by an individual in dedication or praise to God, which is the kind of offering spoken of here. The worshiper brought the offering and laid his hand on the animal’s head to signify that it was his substitute to make atonement for his sin (1:3-4). The offerer then skinned and cut up the animal for burning by the priests, who also sprinkled its blood on the altar (1:5-9). This was a messy affair. Atoning for sin is serious business.

The burnt offering was unique in that the entire sacrifice was consumed as a fire offering of a pleasing aroma to the Lord (1:9). The Hebrew word for the burnt offering means “to ascend.” The smoke from the fire ascended into God’s nostrils, so to speak, and pleased him. This was critical for Israel because pleasing a holy God by performing acceptable worship in his presence was a life-and-death matter to his people, as we will soon learn from the deaths of Aaron’s sons who violated God’s commands and paid the ultimate price for doing things their own way (10:1-3). God’s pleasure with and acceptance of the sacrifice also gave the worshiper the assurance that he, despite being a sinner, was accepted and forgiven in God’s holy presence.

1:10-17 One other feature of the burnt offering worth noting is that no Israelite was left out of giving it, no matter how poor he was. The most expensive offering came from the cattle herd (1:3), with a sheep or goat being next in order of cost (1:10). But those who could not afford either of these animals could offer turtledoves or young pigeons (1:14). Actually, poor people could bring birds for other offerings as well, which is what happened at Jesus’s birth when Joseph and Mary presented birds at the temple for his dedication (see Luke 2:21-24). They did this because the law of Moses in Leviticus 12:2-8 specified that the mother of a newborn was to offer both a burnt offering and a sin offering for her cleansing.

B. Regulations for the Grain Offering (2:1-16)

2:1-16 Leviticus doesn’t specify when the Israelites were to bring a grain offering to the Lord at the tabernacle, except for the period known as firstfruits at harvest time (2:12-16). These offerings provided a way for the people of Israel to recognize and confess their dependence on God for their food and their very lives. We learn from Numbers 28 that these offerings were, like the burnt offering, to be made every morning and at twilight.

The grain offerings were the only bloodless sacrifices, but they were still holy to the Lord. They were to be free of yeast or honey (2:11). These could be offered as firstfruits but not offered on the altar (2:12). We know from other passages of Scripture that yeast was often used as a symbol of sin (see 1 Cor 5:8).

Most of the chapter deals with the various elements that could be offered and the various ways the priests could prepare a grain offering. The portion to be offered to God included these instructions: The priest will take a handful of fine flour and oil from it, along with all its frankincense, and will burn this memorial portion of it on the altar, a fire offering of a pleasing aroma to the Lord (2:2). The incense increased the fragrance of the aroma that would rise. The remainder of the offerings—the holiest part—belonged to Aaron and his sons (2:3,10). In payment for their ministry, the consecrated priests were allowed to eat these offerings.

All of the grain offerings were to include the salt of the covenant with your God (2:13). Salt was a symbol of permanence; it was something that the ancients believed could not be destroyed even by fire. The concept of “a covenant of salt” appears in Numbers 18:19 and in 2 Chronicles 13:5, the latter referring to the permanence of God’s covenant with David to establish his throne forever. (This covenant will be fulfilled when Jesus takes the throne of David at his second coming and rules in his millennial kingdom.)

C. Regulations for the Fellowship Offering (3:1-17)

3:1-17 This was another largely voluntary sacrifice the Israelites could bring to the Lord at the tabernacle. Many of the specifics of its preparation and offering are similar to those of the burnt offering (1:1-17). The distinctive element of the fellowship offering is that the worshiper shared in it by eating the meat of the sacrifice (7:11-35; cf. Deut 12:7), except for the fat portions, which the priests burned on the altar as a fire offering of a pleasing aroma to the Lord (3:5).

If the worshiper brought an offering from the flock instead of the herd, the sacrifice could be either a male or female (3:6). Birds were excluded from this offering since they were so small that nothing would be left to eat. The worshiper, his family, and friends were invited to eat the fellowship meal consisting of the meat returned to them by the priests.

That this was a fellowship offering indicates that it was to be a festive meal as an expression of the offerer’s joy in experiencing communion with God. The fact that the fellowship offering is often mentioned in conjunction with the burnt offering (as in Ex 20:24 and 24:5) reinforces the picture of a worshiper first offering a sacrifice to atone for his sins—an offering given entirely to the Lord—and then presenting a fellowship offering in praise and gratitude.

The prohibition on eating any of the fat portions of the fellowship offering is explicitly stated: All fat belongs to the Lord (3:16). Various explanations for this have been offered, including the suggestion that since the fat is the choicest part of the animal, God alone is worthy of it. But the Bible never says exactly why the fat was to be reserved for burning. The prohibition against eating blood (3:17) was established in God’s cov-enant with Noah because in the blood is the life of an animal (see Gen 9:4).

D. Regulations for the Sin Offering (4:1–5:13)

4:1 Establishing an offering to atone for the sins of God’s people was an absolute necessity in order for a holy God to interact with sinful humans. That God himself had to initiate this is obvious from the opening phrase: The Lord spoke to Moses. Making a way for sinners to be made right with him has always been important to God. Interestingly, the natural human reaction for dealing with sin is to hide, as Adam and Eve did in the garden after they sinned (see Gen 3:8).

4:2 Israel’s sin offering provided forgiveness and atonement for sins committed unintentionally against any of the Lord’s commands. This is a broad statement that covers all kinds of situations, although in 5:1-6 the Lord gave four specific examples of unintentional sins needing atonement. Should you wonder about intentional sins committed in deliberate rebellion against God, know that the only atonement for them was the death of the offender.

4:3 The structure of chapter 4 outlines the sin offering requirements for four groups in Israel’s camp (the nation was still in the wilderness when Moses received the law). These groups were the anointed priest (4:3), “the whole community of Israel” (4:13), leaders (4:22), and “the common people” (4:27). The word common, of course, had nothing to do with their intrinsic value to God. Rather, it was a recognition of their diverse positions within the community and the potential impact their sins would have on the nation. This difference applied to the cost of the animals (or grain in the case of extreme poverty) that were required for the sacrifice and the ritual of applying the blood to achieve atonement.

With this in mind, we can see why the sins of the anointed priest were the first that needed to be atoned for. The entire sacrificial system would grind to a halt if the high priest, which is probably the more precise way to refer to the “anointed priest,” was carrying unforgiven sin that would disqualify him from ministering before the Lord. His sin would bring guilt on the entire nation, so his sacrifice had to be a young, unblemished bull, the costliest animal for an Israelite.

4:4 The priest would lay his hand on the bull’s head, signifying that this animal was bearing his sin. He was then to slaughter it before the Lord, catching the creature’s blood in a bowl. The phrase “before the Lord” occurs ten times in chapter 4 alone, and many times afterward. This means that through these rituals people were constantly being reminded that their sin was first and foremost an offense against the holy God they worshiped; thus, it was him they needed to satisfy. David showed he understood this truth when he was finally forced to face his sins of adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah. David cried out to God in his prayer of confession: “Against you—you alone—I have sinned and done this evil” (Ps 51:4).

4:5-12 The anointed priest who sinned took the blood of the sacrifice into the tabernacle, dipped his finger in the bowl, and sprinkled that blood seven times (4:5-6) in front of the veil that separated the holy place from the most holy place. He then applied blood to the horns of the altar of fragrant incense, pouring out the rest at the base of the altar of burnt offering (4:7). The fat of the sacrifice was burned as a further offering to the Lord, and the rest of the carcass was taken away and burned (4:8-12). Many of these procedures were the same for other offerings, but it’s important to note that the priest had to be first in line for cleansing and forgiveness so he could serve effectively before the Lord in handling the people’s sin offerings.

4:13 The second set of sin offering procedures is for the whole community of Israel. This signals a logical progression because if the congregation as a whole was under God’s displeasure for sin, nothing good was going to happen at the individual level. Similarly, in the church, God’s people need to keep short their sin accounts with the Lord, so that we can move ahead as one to advance his kingdom on earth. And even though the church is not given a formal ritual for corporate confession in Scripture, it is very appropriate for a local body of believers to acknowledge where they have fallen short and to seek God’s forgiveness through Jesus Christ.

4:14-21 The purification from sin for the community involved bringing a young bull (4:14) instead of a full-grown one. The elders of the community, as the congregation’s leaders and representatives, laid their hands on the bull’s head in confession of sin and acknowledgment that the bull was being offered in place of the people (4:15). The bull was slaughtered and burned in a way similar to the previous procedures, and the result was atonement and forgiveness of sins (4:15-21).

4:22-26 A leader who sinned unintentionally was to bring an unblemished male goat as his offering (4:22-23). Such a person could have been either a tribal leader or an official in one of the clans of a particular tribe. When the goat was slaughtered, the priest applied some of its blood to the horns of the altar of burnt offering (4:25).

4:27-35 If one of the common people in the Israelite community sinned unintentionally, he could bring an unblemished female goat or lamb for his sin offering (4:27-28, 32); these options were less costly for the average person to purchase. The ritual for atonement, however, was the same as for the leader (4:29, 33-35). No one who sinned in ignorance and offended Israel’s holy God was left without a remedy—but addressing the offense always required the shedding of blood.

5:1-4 The four conditions mentioned in these verses could be categorized as sins of omission or neglect. The first instance involved a person failing to speak up about something he knew in a particular case—that is, withholding information by not testifying (5:1). The fourth instance is similar to the first. This has to do with swear[ing] rashly to do what is good or evil (5:4). God took it very seriously when one of his people made a vow (see Lev 27). That’s why Scripture says, “When you make a vow to God, don’t delay fulfilling it, because he does not delight in fools. Fulfill what you vow. Better that you do not vow than that you vow and not fulfill it” (Eccl 5:4-5).

The other two offenses in this section concern touching something that made an Israelite unclean (5:2-3). This refers to ceremonial defilement that disqualified the offender from participating in worship and made him guilty before God. The things outlined here may sound like minor offenses to us, but God was using them to teach his people the important difference between being clean and unclean—between being holy and profane.

5:5-13 A female lamb or goat (5:6) was an acceptable sacrifice if the person could afford one. In cases of more severe poverty, the offering could be two turtledoves or two young pigeons (5:7) or even two quarts of fine flour (5:11). A person’s financial ability or inability in no way lessened the guilt that needed to be atoned for.

E. Regulations for the Guilt Offering (5:14–6:7)

5:14-19 The guilt offering was like the sin offering in several ways, since both of them required atonement for a guilty party through the blood of a sacrifice. However, this offering introduced the concept of restitution when one sinned against “any holy thing” or defrauded his neighbor (5:16; 6:2-3). The sacrifice required was an unblemished ram (5:15). A fine was added to this offering in recognition that a wrong had been done against God or the injured party (5:16).

The opening section here deals with offenses against God in regard to his holy things (5:15) or his commands (5:17). The offense against “any holy thing” could involve anything from mishandling the portion of a sacrifice that was meant for the priest, to failure to give God the tithe, to not keeping a vow. Since the offense was against God, the extra penalty was paid to his representative, the priest (5:16). In both of these instances the sin was done unintentionally or out of ignorance (5:15, 17), but, again, this did not excuse the guilty party once he became aware of his sin.

6:1-7 These verses address regulations for the guilt offering when a person deceives or defrauds his neighbor, specifically with regard to property (6:2-3). Not only did the guilty person have to make full restitution for the item, he also had to pay the owner an additional fifth of its value (6:4-5). Having to pay back the full value plus twenty percent was a strong deterrent to crime. And make no mistake about it. If the principles of biblical justice were implemented in our society today, we wouldn’t have prisons full to overflowing. The aim of biblical justice is always a cessation of the crime coupled, when possible, with restitution to the victim.

Regardless of the application, in fact, biblical restitution was always specific to the offended victim. Once full restitution was made, the sin was forgiven by God and the clear implication is that the two human parties involved would put the matter behind them and move on. Instead of this justice and closure in our current cultural system, however, we have offenders warehoused in prisons where they learn to be better criminals while their victims must seek restitution by other means, which all too often ends with nothing being restored.

Another crucial principle of biblical justice that speaks to a crying need in our legal system today is the concept that a person’s offense was both against God and against the victim, a fellow human being with a name and a family, rather than merely being a crime against some vague entity such as society or the state. We talk about people paying their debt to society; but in most cases, it wasn’t a society or the state that had its property taken by fraud or theft or some other crime. And it isn’t society or the state that suffers loss while the offender is locked away and cannot repay his victim even if he wants to.

F. Priestly Regulations for the Five Offerings (6:8–7:38)

This section deals with the same five offerings found in 1:1–6:7, but this time it is the priests who are addressed. This is something of a supplement to the instructions for the offerings prescribed previously; it gives the priests information on how to handle the elements of each of these sacrifices. The order here is slightly different, but the same five offerings are covered.

6:8-13 God told Moses to command Aaron and his sons (6:8-9). Already the people had been instructed in how to present their sacrifice to atone for a wrongdoing. But the priests were charged with actually handling the sacrifices as God prescribed. If they were negligent, there were consequences for them as well as for the offender who was counting on them to do things in the right way. As the teachers of the law in Israel, the priests were also responsible to instruct the Israelites in the proper offerings to bring so they could deal with sin and live as a holy people before the Lord.

The instructions to the priests in handling the burnt offering (6:9) are relatively brief since none of the sacrifice was allowed to be eaten—it was all consumed by fire on the altar as a sweet aroma to God. The priest’s main responsibilities were to make sure the fire on the altar was kept burning at all times, to slaughter and prepare the burnt offering the right way (see 1:1-17), and to properly remove its ashes (6:10-13).

6:14-23 Next came the priestly regulations for handling the grain offering (6:14). This section is longer both because part of the grain offering was to be eaten and because it includes a description of the priest’s own grain offering (6:19-23). Only a memorial portion (6:15) of the grain was burned; the rest was to be roasted and consumed by the priests in a specific way—without leaven (yeast) and in the courtyard of the tent of meeting (6:16). The entire offering was designated as especially holy (6:17).

Since the grain offering in 6:19-23 was brought by the priest himself and presented before the Lord, however, he was not allowed to eat any of it. The reference to the day that the priest is anointed (6:20) suggests that this was a praise offering for God’s mercy in providing a mediator between him and his people and ensuring the continuation of the priestly line through Aaron’s descendants. For New Testament believers, by virtue of his sinless life, atoning death, and resurrection, Jesus Christ is our ever-living, merciful high priest (see Heb 4:14-16).

6:24-30 The third section of priestly instructions concerns the sin offering (6:25). Whatever touches the flesh of the sin offering will become holy (6:27). Furthermore, the washing of clothing spattered with the sacrificial blood and the smashing or cleansing of a pot in which the meat was boiled were prescribed (6:27-28). The portion of the meat the priests were allowed to eat had to be consumed in the courtyard of the tent of meeting (6:26). The exception was a sin offering whose blood was brought into the tabernacle to make atonement in the holy place. This had to be completely burned (6:30).

7:1-6 The priests’ regulations for the guilt offering (7:1) include several new elements: the place where it was to be offered, the parts of the sacrificial animal to be burned, and the fact that any male among the priests could eat the remaining meat (7:3-6). The fact that the guilt offering is called especially holy twice is another reminder both of the purity of Israel’s God and of the holy behavior he expected from his covenant people (7:1, 6).

7:7-10 These verses work like a pause to summarize the parts of the offerings that went to the priests as their food, since they would not have lands and crops of their own given the way the promised land was to be distributed among the tribes. God’s provision for his servants is a biblical principle that can be traced from the law of Moses to the church today (see 1 Cor 9:1-12; 1 Tim 5:17-18).

7:11-21 The fellowship sacrifice (7:11) was unique as the only offering in which the person bringing it was allowed to eat a portion of the sacrifice—usually as part of a celebration meal with family and friends. This may help explain the additional verses (7:22-38) devoted to this offering, which include instructions not only to the priests but to the congregation as well. The name of this offering explains its purpose. The worshiper sought to draw near to God by making a sacrifice either in thanksgiving as a testimony to God’s goodness (7:12-15), or as an offering in fulfillment of a vow, or simply as a freewill offering (7:16-18).

The fellowship sacrifice also included various leavened and unleavened cakes and wafers (7:12). The meat of the thanksgiving sacrifice had to be eaten the same day it was offered (7:15), while the meat from the vow fulfillment and freewill offerings could be carried over to a second day (7:16). In no case was any meat to be eaten on the third day (7:17-18). A violation would result in the nullification of the sacrifice, and the offender would bear his iniquity (7:18). The same was true for anyone who ate the fellowship sacrifice while being unclean (7:19-21).

7:22-27 Next came the strict prohibition against eating either the fat or the blood of any animal (7:22-27). God had set aside the fat portion of the offerings, the choicest part of the animals, as his alone (see commentary on Lev 3:1-17), reminding the Israelites that their great God deserved their best. The prohibition against eating blood was in recognition that “the life of a creature is in the blood” (Lev 17:11). Since life itself is a creation of God, and since blood (the stuff of life) was used as the means of atonement for sin, it was not an appropriate source of nutrition for the Israelites. The complete absence of blood in any meat is still a requirement for observant Jews today, who will not eat meat unless it is certified as having been slaughtered in a kosher manner.

7:28-36 It’s clear that God wanted the nation to know he had made provision for the priests. Their portion of the fellowship sacrifice was the breast and the right thigh. The breast was presented as a presentation offering before the Lord (7:30), a ritual in which the offerer held the breast in his hands while the priest placed his own hands under those of the worshiper. Together they lifted the piece to symbolize that it belonged to the Lord, who then graciously gave it back to Aaron and his sons to eat (7:31). The right thigh was given to the officiating priest (7:33). The Lord meant this to be their permanent portion throughout their generations (7:36).

7:37-38 This long section of Leviticus wraps up with a summary statement about the various offerings. Connecting these instructions to the giving of the law on Mount Sinai firmly established their authority as coming from the Lord through Moses (7:38). These verses also set the stage for the next section, a narrative describing the anointing of Aaron and his sons to the priesthood.