Studies in Leviticus: Sacrifice

LeviticusThe sacrificial system of the Old Testament is a strange and foreign concept to the modern reader. It’s not easy to understand why God instituted sacrifices, what they accomplished, and how we should relate to this institution today. It’s helpful if we recognize that sacrifices are all about the covenant relationships.

Leviticus demonstrates the relationship between the Covenant and sacrifices in three particular ways. We see that sacrifices are a gift to the Lord, sacrifices are communion with the Lord, and sacrifices are healing between sinners and the Lord. An exploration of each characteristic will help us better understand the role and nature of sacrifices, and their relationship to contemporary believers.

First, sacrifices are a gift to the Lord. Leviticus 2 details the Grain or Cereal offering, which was a tribute to the Lord. It was an expression of thankfulness to Him for His provisions, and a dedication to Him of all of life. Other sacrifices describe the burning or cooking of the offering as creating a “pleasing aroma” to the Lord. They offer up to the Lord something sweet-smelling. They are a gift giving to an overlord, a Sovereign. The offerings were made by those in submission to one who has authority over them. This same idea was found among the ancient peoples in the suzerain/vassal treaty arrangement. Sacrifice was a gift worshippers gave to God, not because He needed anything, but as a testimony to their dependence upon Him and submission to Him.

Second, sacrifices served as a means of communion between the people and God. Sacrifices and meals were often a sign of communion between covenant partners. Eating together was an act of affirming a covenant, establishing a bonding relationship. So, we see in Leviticus the Fellowship Offering or Meal offering does this very thing. Leviticus 3 and 7 describe an offering which also contains a corporate meal. Raymond Dillard and Tremper Longman describe this “Fellowship (or Peace) Offering,” saying:

The term “peace” has a definite covenant significance in the Scriptures, denoting the “whole” relationship that exists between covenant partners. The corporate meal that is the outcome of this sacrifice is a celebration of that relationship. Everyone gets a piece of this offering – the Lord (3:3-4), the priest (7:28), and the worshipers. (Introduction to the Old Testament, 79)

The communal meal is a sign of fellowship, of communion with God. Worship was not about placating some distant deity, it was not merely about duty and obligation, it was about genuine fellowship with the Holy God. This is why often the sacrifices are discussed in relationship to the heart of the worshipper. Because it is not merely duty, but communion, the state of the heart matters.

Finally, we may speak of sacrifices as a means of healing rifts in the relationship between sinners and a holy God. The Burnt Offering of Leviticus 1 is all about establishing a means by which sinners can even relate to this God. Guilt offerings, Sin offerings, and Purification offerings are all means by which man can maintain a relationship with this God. Dillard and Longman state:

When the covenant relationship was broken through certain types of offenses, repentant Israelites could seek God’s forgiveness by offering a substitute to take the penalty for their sin. In this way, sacrifices served as the divinely sanctioned means for restoring covenant relationship. (77)

This helps to explain the practice of placing a hand on the head of a goat or bull to be sacrificed. The idea is that the worshipper is either identifying with the substitute or transferring guilt to the substitute. The animal is making payment for their sin before God, allowing the worshipper to maintain a relationship with the Lord.

It’s important that modern readers not misunderstand the nature of blood in these sacrifices. The shedding of blood is not owing to something magical within the blood. Blood itself does not do or accomplish anything. Rather, blood is a symbolic referent to death. The sacrifice is effective not because of the blood itself, but because of the death of the victim symbolized by the blood. The manipulation of the blood by the priest “highlights the death that stands in the place of the sinner who offers it” (77). The same may be said of Jesus’ death. His blood does not have magical powers; rather the blood of Christ represents the death of Christ as our substitute in our place for our sins.

There, of course, however, is the connection between the modern worshipper and the Old Testament sacrificial system. Jesus’ death is that which heals our relationship to God and makes it possible for sinners to come into the presence of the holy God. Jesus is the true, perfect, spotless Lamb who makes atonement for sin (John 1:29). In the same way we may point to Jesus as the offering that establishes communion with this God. It is Jesus who invites us to eat His flesh and drink His blood, and through the Lord’s Supper we commune with God. In this we commune not just with God, but with God’s people as well, in a fashion similar to the Fellowship Offering – this is why Paul gives so many instructions about relationships when he addresses the Lord’s Supper with the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 11:23-34).

The idea of sacrifice as a gift to the Lord has a slightly nuanced relationship to the contemporary believer. The New Testament speaks of the Christian offering a sacrifice of dedication to the Lord, but that sacrifice is his own body. So, Paul writes:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. (Romans 12:1)

Peter says the same thing, when he describes the believer as a holy temple where spiritual sacrifices are made (1 Peter 2:5). Having been made right with God through the atoning work of Jesus we dedicate ourselves to the Lord.

The sacrificial system is not always easy to understand and comprehend. Reading through Leviticus can feel like a daunting list of detailed sacrificial procedures, and as such can feel irrelevant to us. But, though the sacrifices themselves do not have specific meaning to us, as symbols they have spiritual relevance to us. The Levitical theology of sacrifice, then, is worthy of the Christian’s study for it communicates hope, peace, and joy in the Lord, and it challenges us to follow the true Lamb of God. When we understand that sacrifices point to Israel’s covenant relationship with God, we can find some parallels for our own relationship with Him.

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