In accordance with his promise to Abraham, God had brought the people of Israel out of Egypt and set them on their way to Canaan. After three months they arrived at Mount Sinai, where they remained for about a year while they organized themselves for the new life that lay ahead (Exod 19:1; Num 10:11).
The book of Leviticus contains some of the teaching God gave to his people during the year they were camped at Sinai.
Religious system for a covenant people
The people of Israel knew that God had freely chosen them to be his people and in his grace had freed them from slavery in Egypt. They therefore responded fittingly by promising to do whatever he required of them (Gen 12:2; 15:7-21; Exod 2:24; 4:22; 6:6-8; 19:4-9; 20:2). God then joined himself to Israel in a covenant ceremony in which he laid down certain basic principles and detailed commandments, and the people in reply promised unconditional obedience (Exod 20:1-24:18).
God went on to show his people the plans he had for the religious life of the nation. He would provide them with a central place of worship, a priesthood to officiate in religious matters, and a sacrificial system by which they could demonstrate their faith towards him (Exod 25:1-Lev 7:38). To this he added a body of laws to ensure that priests and people alike were holy and pure in their relations with him and with one another (Lev 8:1-27:34).
This brief summary of the contents of Exodus and Leviticus shows that there is no break between the two books (cf. Exod 40:17; Lev 1:1; 27:34). It shows also that readers need to be familiar with the tabernacle and the priesthood in the second half of Exodus in order to understand the sacrificial system in the opening chapters of Leviticus. (Concerning the artificial division that produced the first five books of the Bible, see the introductory notes to Genesis, sub-heading ‘The Pentateuch’.)
Although the book is entitled Leviticus, it contains little instruction for the Levites as a whole. (This instruction is given mainly in the next book, Numbers.) Almost the whole of the instruction in Leviticus is for the priests, who were only one family (the family of Aaron) within the tribe of Levi (Exod 29:9; Num 3:9-10). However, Israel’s religious system in general is commonly called the Levitical system, and the Aaronic priesthood is sometimes called the Levitical priesthood.
Christianity is not part of the Israelite religious system, and Christians are not under Israel’s law (Rom 6:14; Gal 5:1-4). But Christians can learn much from Leviticus as they understand those universal and timeless principles that underlie the specific laws given to one nation for a particular period (Rom 8:3-4; Gal 5:14,18). Also, since the Bible repeatedly refers to the sacrifices, festivals, rituals and ceremonies of the Levitical system, an understanding of Leviticus will help readers understand the rest of the Bible better.
ISRAEL’S SACRIFICIAL SYSTEM
Offerers and their attitudes
From earliest times, offerings and sacrifices were a means by which people expressed their devotion to God. Some sacrifices were like gifts, the worshippers offering the best of their crops or animals to God in thanks for his goodness (Gen 4:4; 8:20). Other sacrifices emphasized fellowship, the offerers eating part of the sacrifice in a meal with their relatives and friends in the presence of God (Gen 31:54). Others were for the forgiveness of sins, where a slaughtered animal bore the penalty that the offerers, because of
their sins, should have borne (Job 42:8). Features of these early sacrifices were later developed in the sacrificial system of Israel.
In any era or nation, the heart attitude of the worshippers was more important than their gifts. Abel offered the best of his flock in humble faith and God accepted his offering. Cain’s attitude was arrogant and his life ungodly, and therefore God rejected his offering (Gen 4:2-5; Heb 11:4; 1 John 3:12). The Bible does not say that Abel’s offering was more acceptable than Cain’s because it involved the shedding of blood. Not till the time of Noah did God reveal the special significance of blood (Gen 9:3-6), and not till the time of Moses did he show clearly the value of blood for atonement (Lev 17:11).
God progressively revealed his ways as people were able to understand them, but the acceptance of offerings always depended on the spiritual condition of the offerers. The sacrificial system developed under Moses in no way ignored this principle; on the contrary, it had this principle as its basis. But troubles arose when people carried out the rituals mechanically, without genuine faith and uprightness. The prophets of God condemned such religion, not because of any fault in the sacrificial system, but because of the way people misused it (Isa 1:13-20; Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6:6-8).
Significance of blood
The Passover was an important event in the development of Israel’s sacrificial system, for there the people saw the significance of blood more clearly. Since blood was a symbol of life, shed blood was a symbol of death – not death through natural causes but death through killing (Gen 9:3-6; Num 35:19,33). The blood of the Passover lamb was important not because of any special quality in the blood itself, but because it represented the animal’s death, by which the firstborn was saved from judgment. The animal’s death was the important thing; the blood sprinkled around the door was but a visible sign that the animal’s life had been taken instead of the life of a person (Exod 12:13).
In Israel’s sacrificial system God gave this shed blood of animals to guilty sinners to make atonement for their sin (Lev 17:11). All were guilty before God, and the penalty was death. They were cut off from God and had no way of bringing themselves back to God. Sinners who sought God’s forgiveness realized there could be no forgiveness for sin, no releasing them from its consequences, apart from death. God therefore gave the blood of a guiltless substitute to bring cleansing and release from sin. Pardon was not something people had to squeeze from an unwilling God, but was the merciful gift of a God who wanted to forgive. The escaping of God’s punishment was not something they brought about, but was due to God himself.
The animal that died in sacrifice suffered the penalty of sin so that sinners could be forgiven; for without such shedding of blood there could be no forgiveness (Heb 9:22). The blood of these animal sacrifices did not take away sins (Heb 10:4), but it did provide a way whereby people could see that God was acting justly in dealing with their sins. The only blood able to cleanse sins is the blood of Jesus Christ
– his death on the cross – and in view of his death God could ‘pass over’, temporarily, the sins of believers in former ages. They were forgiven, one might say, on credit, because sin could not be actually removed till Christ died (Rom 3:25-26; Heb 9:15).
Sacrifice and salvation
It should always be remembered that the law, or the old covenant (to which the law belonged), was never meant to be permanent. Its purpose was to prepare the way for Jesus Christ, whose death did all that the Israelite sacrifices could not do. If, then, these sacrifices could not bring salvation, how, it may be asked, could those who lived under the old covenant be saved?
The answer is that people living under the old covenant were saved the same way as people are today
– by the grace of God; and they received that salvation by faith (Eph 2:8). No people have ever been able to boast that they have achieved God’s salvation by their own works (Eph 2:9).
Abraham lived hundreds of years before the introduction of the old covenant at Sinai, but he was saved by faith (Rom 4:13,16,22; Gal 3:17-18). The law was given at Sinai not as a means of saving people, but as a means of showing them the sort of life that a holy God required of them. In itself it was good, and it was intended to benefit those who were under it (Lev 18:5; Rom 7:10,12). But sinful human nature stirs people up to rebel against God, with the result that the law, though intended for people’s good, in reality showed up their sin (Rom 7:7-13).
The benefit of the law in relation to salvation was that it showed people their sinfulness, so that they could then turn in faith to God and ask for his mercy and forgiveness (Rom 3:19-20; Gal 3:19). The law could teach, but it could not save. It could train, but it could not bring perfection. It could only prepare the way for Christ, who did all that the law could not do (Rom 8:3-4; Gal 3:23-25).
Although God in his grace forgave those who in faith turned to him, the sacrificial system and other religious practices detailed in the law were a God-given way by which people could express that faith. The instructions for the rituals provided a way by which they could demonstrate their obedience. The entire sacrificial system was a means by which God taught people what atonement involved. It was a further stage in the development of his plan of salvation, a plan that reached its fulfilment in Jesus Christ (Rom 3:21; Heb 9:23-26).
Whether people in Old Testament times knew it or not, Jesus Christ was the means by which God forgave those who turned to him in faith (Rom 3:25-26). The basis of salvation was always faith, not knowledge, and certainly not works (Rom 4:1-8).
Content of the sacrifices
The details of the sacrificial rituals taught the people that though God forgave sin freely, he did not treat sin lightly. He was a just God, and the sacrifices helped to teach people the meaning of atonement.
Whatever animal a person offered, it had to be without defects, symbolizing perfection. It was not, so to speak, under condemnation itself and so was fit to be the guiltless substitute for the guilty sinner (Lev 1:3,10). Normally the offerings, whether animal sacrifices such as bulls, goats, sheep, doves and pigeons, or food offerings such as cereals, flour, oil and wine, had to be the property of those who offered them.
They were things that people had worked for and were in some way identified with personally. Wild animals and fish, though they could be eaten, could not be offered as sacrifices. Whatever people offered had to cost them something; they were things people sacrificed. They were offerings, things people gave (cf. 2 Sam 24:24). God did not want to drive anyone into poverty, nor did he delight in the death of animals; but he had to impress upon people that sin was a serious matter, and its removal was costly.
God’s consideration for the people is seen in the alternatives he provided. People could offer the kinds of animals that they could afford and that were in keeping with their status in the community (Lev 1:3,10,14; 5:7-13).
No matter what status people enjoyed or what kinds of sacrifices they offered, the offerings always had to be the best available. Animals usually had to be males, which were more costly than females. To ensure that offerings were as near perfect as possible, salt was added to preserve them, and leaven (yeast) was forbidden to avoid spoiling (Lev 2:11,13).
The procedure followed
Much detail is given concerning the preparation and offering of the sacrifices, again emphasizing the orderly thoroughness that God required. The overall pattern was similar for most of the offerings. When the offerer brought the animal he laid his hands on its head, indicating that it was bearing his guilt and that he desired God to accept it on his behalf (Lev 1:4). He then killed it. He had to do this himself, an action that impressed upon him the horror that had resulted from his sin (Lev 1:11).
The animal was killed not on the altar but in the court of the tabernacle on the north side of the altar. The priest collected the blood in a basin to apply in various places, as a visible sign that a life had been taken to bear the penalty of sin. In some cases the priest splashed the blood against the sides of the altar of sacrifice; in others he took the blood into the tent to apply to the altar of incense or the mercy seat, then returned and poured out the remainder on the ground beside the altar (Lev 1:11; 4:7; 16:14). In the case of bird offerings, the amount of blood was not sufficient for all this ritual, and was usually drained out beside the altar (Lev 1:15; cf. 14:15).
With each kind of sacrifice, some of it was burnt, though the amount that was burnt and the place in which it was burnt varied. The portions that were not burnt were eaten, sometimes by the priests and worshippers, sometimes by the priests and their families, and sometimes by the priests alone.
There were five main offerings. Directions concerning those who brought the offerings are given in Leviticus 1:1-6:7, and further details of procedure for the priests are given in Leviticus 6:8-7:38. The
following notes combine details from the two sections to help towards a clearer understanding of the five different offerings.