It may not be evident, but in all honesty I love to eat. Food is a hobby for me, as I love to try new things, revisit old favorites, and enjoy unique combinations of flavors. Some of the best meals I have ever had, however, are not remembered centrally for the food, but rather for the company. Meals have this amazing potential to be beautiful times of celebration. That’s the way it was in the ancient world, and particularly what God had in mind with the Peace Offering of Leviticus 3. The Peace Offering was designed to be a celebratory meal between the people and their God.
In the ancient world eating a meal with someone was a way of expressing acceptance, friendship, and communion. This is abundantly evident with Jesus and the crowds of sinners he ate with, which is also why the religious leaders had such a problem with Jesus’ dinning habits. This same principle applies in the Old Testament when we consider the Peace Offering – which was a communal meal that worshippers ate with God. Allen Ross observes:
The identification of this offering as a meal is only hinted at in Lev. 3 but fully developed in Lev. 7. But the peace offering is not just the way the people ate meat; rather this was a holy meal, eaten in the presence of God in celebration of various benefits received from God. Thus the major biblical theme of eating as evidence of a communal relationship is introduced here. (Holiness to the Lord, 112)
The communal aspect is more fully developed in Leviticus 7, so here we should focus on the main theme of Leviticus 3 and the idea of peace with God. Three characteristics of the sacrifice guide our understanding of it.
First, the offering is based on the assumption of atonement. The peace offering did not deal with sin. It was not that kind of offering, but it was offered in conjunction with the Burnt Offering (v. 5), even placed on top of it (see Ross, 115). Peace with God is contingent upon the sacrifice for atonement. Derek Tidball writes:
The peace offering was not an atonement sacrifice; it could fulfil its part in enabling people to celebrate God’s goodness only in conjunction with the atonement already made by the burnt offering. Without atonement, people were not in a position to draw near to God and offer this sacrifice, which would not have been acceptable had they done so. (The Message of Leviticus, 61)
Despite not being an atonement sacrifice the shedding of blood is still an essential part of the offering. The theme of substitution and blood are littered across the book of Leviticus. The life of a substitute must be offered for any man to stand in the presence of God – in this case the life of an appropriate animal, whose blood was poured out as evidence of the sacrifice. Ross adds:
The point was that the shed blood of the sacrifice was both the basis and the means of celebrating what it meant to have peace with God. To enter the sanctuary and celebrate with a communal meal still required that blood be applied to the altar. (117)
Celebrating peace only happens if peace is established in a sacrificial and substitutionary sacrifice.
Second, the offering is characterized by surrender. Like many of the other offerings, this sacrifice required surrendering the best that a worshipper had to offer. God allows for some flexibility in the type of sacrifice: bull, sheep or goat, but no substitute of bird may be granted in order to ease the economic cost for the poor. The sacrifice was meant to be costly.
Derek Tidball lists two reasons for this high demand. First, it was not a mandatory sacrifice, but a voluntary offering and therefore “no-one was compelled to bring the sacrifice.” Second, A bird would not have sufficient blood and/or meat to meet the expectations of the sacrifice. This is especially true considering the communal meal aspect that is further delineated in Leviticus 7; the lack of blood and meat would have been an embarrassment to the celebration. Finally, I might add, that the cost to the worshipper is appropriate considering what they are celebrating: the peace they have attained with God. The sacrifices offered to God are always of the best, no animal with blemish or defect is ever appropriate. And here the costly animals are required because of the voluntary nature of the sacrifice. The idea is that the worshipper would be so overjoyed in celebration that he freely gives the best he has to offer.
The burning of the “choice parts” also points to this surrendering. It may seem strange to us that the choice parts are fat. “The fat covering the entrails and all the fat that is on the entrails, 4 and the two kidneys with the fat that is on them at the loins, and the long lobe of the liver that he shall remove with the kidneys” (v. 3-4; see also 9-10; and 14-15). The point, however, is not nutritional value but cultic value. “Fatness” in the Old Testament reflected abundance and prosperity, and the liver and kidneys reflected the seat of the emotions/will. In offering these to the Lord, then, the worshipper is offering the best parts of the animal, but is also likely symbolically offering themselves. Fully surrender to God means giving him both our prosperity and our desires. Tidball says:
In offering these parts of the anatomy to God, then, those who drew near with a peace offering were not only offering god the best, but also offering up their greatest strengths and deepest emotions of gratitude to the Lord in submissive worship. (61)
The whole sacrifice is characterized by personal surrender.
Finally, the offering is received with pleasure. Verse 17 clues us into the reality that will be further unpacked in chapter 7 – this is a communal meal. There is eating on the part of the worshipper. God receives the offering and returns a portion of it back to the worshippers to enjoy in communion with Him and with each other. Ross writes:
All of this ritual was one of the greatest expressions of communion with God. That the communal meal was received from the sacrifice is striking. In almost all other sacrifices it was the offerer giving to God; but here it is as if God was returning a portion of the sacrifice for the faithful to eat in his presence. This indicates the Lord’s gracious bounty to his people and the peaceful relationship that existed within the covenant. (119)
God delights to commune with His people and they delight to commune with Him. The offering itself is received by God as a “pleasing aroma” (v. 5, 16). God does not need food, He doesn’t get hungry. But the sacrifice of the choice parts is pleasing to Him – He delights in it because of what it symbolizes.
Christians too can rejoice in the peace with God that the sacrifice of Jesus has secured for them. We celebrate this peace every Sunday that we join together for communion. The Lord’s Supper is a communal meal that celebrates the peace we have with God because of the shed blood of His Son. Christians have peace with God. So, the apostle Paul writes to the Romans saying: Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:1). We rejoice in this, Paul goes on to say in verse 2. It is what we celebrate together in Communion, the death, resurrection, and eventual return of the true sacrificial lamb. And then one day we will eat this meal again, in His very presence, at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:6-9). All this eating makes me both hungry and really excited. Not just because I like food, but because you can ask for no greater company that God and His people.