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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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