The Maze of Levitical Sacrifices – An Overview

Leviticus did not invent sacrifice. However, it does delineate the system of sacrifice that God had people using in Israel. The following article is intended as a basic introduction to the sacrificial system in Leviticus. The significance of these offerings will be explored more in depth in subsequent installments. 1

The first seven chapters of Leviticus are all about sacrifice. When someone reads these chapters for the first time, it can get a bit confusing. The number of people in today’s society who farm animals has been drastically reduced from ancient times. The few people left who keep flocks and herds probably don’t sacrifice those animals to appease God. Because of this huge cultural gap between now and then, we need to realize that the text actually makes a number of assumptions about our knowledge and experience that we don’t have.

 

Leviticus 1 – The Burnt Offering

What was it?

The burnt offering was the most commonly offered sacrifice in Israel. It could consist of a bull, a lamb, or a bird (turtledove or pigeon). The animal was killed, skinned, and burned on the altar. Compared to the other offerings, the burnt offering is unique in that it was wholly consumed on the altar. Other sacrifices in Israel would allow the priests, and sometimes the worshipper, to eat a portion of the meat from the sacrifice, but this was not permitted in the case of the burnt offering.

What was its purpose?

The burnt offering had a number of purposes. It’s expressly stated function is “to make atonement” on behalf of the worshipper (Leviticus 1:4). It was part of the process of cleansing from infections diseases (14:20). It was used to atone for unintentional sins (Numbers 15:22-26). It could even be used to intercede on behalf of the sins of others (Job 1:5; 42:7-8). The whole consumption of the animal likely symbolized total devotion to God.

 

Leviticus 2 – The Grain Offering

What was it?

The grain offering is the only “non-meat” offering described in Leviticus. (The KJV is strangely misleading by calling this a “meat” offering!) Grain offering could be offered in a number of forms. It could be presented simply as a handful of flour. It could also be presented as a baked cake, or a broken flatbread. It was not permitted to be offered with leaven (Leviticus 2:11), and it was always required to be offered with salt (2:13).

What was its purpose?

The grain offering’s primary purpose was to act as an accompaniment to the burnt offering and the peace offering. Numbers 15:1-10 explains in more detail that burnt offerings and peace offerings also required certain amounts of grain and wine to be offered alongside them. Leviticus does not explicitly give instructions for the drink offerings, and only mentions them in passing (Leviticus 23:13, 18, 37). They are discussed in more detail in the book of Numbers.

 

Leviticus 3 – The Peace Offering

What was it?

Peace offerings break into several different categories. Some peace offerings were “votive offerings,” which were designed to fulfill voluntary vows to the Lord. Other peace offerings were “thanksgiving offerings,” which were intended to express thanks to God for some good that he had done. Finally, some peace offerings were “freewill offerings,” which were “just because” gifts to God. Unlike the burnt offering, only certain pieces of the animal killed were offered on the altar (the fat, the tail, certain organs). The remainder of the offering was eaten.

What made it different?

The thing that made peace offerings unique, and that every peace offering had in common, was that they were the only offerings that the common worshipper was allowed to eat a portion of. The portion had to be eaten within a set time of the sacrifice (Leviticus 7:15-18). A person who was unclean was not allowed to eat it (7:19-21). The worshipper was also not allowed to eat any fat or blood from this offering (3:17; 7:25-27)

 

Leviticus 4:1-5:13 – The Sin Offering

What was it? 

The animal being offered in the sin offering would change in value, depending on who was offering it, and what their relative wealth was like. The priests (Leviticus 4:3-12) and the congregation (4:13-21), were required to offer bulls. Leaders were required to offer male goats (4:22-26). Commoners would offer female goats or female lambs (4:27-35). If they were too poor for this, they could also offer birds (5:7-10), or even just a grain offering (5:11-13).

What made it different?

There were two possible procedures for the sin offering. Most sin offerings were offered in part on the altar, and the priests ate the remainder. However, if it was a bull, the blood of the animal was taken into the holy place of the tabernacle and sprinkled on the altar. The priests could not eat a portion of this animal. Instead, they were required to take the leftovers of the animal outside the camp and burn them (4:12, 21). The main difference is spelled out in Leviticus 7:24-30.

What was it for?

The term “sin offering” is intended as a “literal” translation, but it is a misleading name, because it suggests that this was the only sacrifice intended to deal with sin. Additionally, they were sometimes offered for things that weren’t actually sins (like childbirth). The most consistent feature for this offering in the OT is not its connection with sin, but rather its role in “cleansing” or “purification” (Leviticus 8:14-15; 12:6; 14:19; 15:15; Numbers 8:5-10; etc.). For this reason, “purification offering” is sometimes proposed as a better translation for the Hebrew word for this sacrifice. The main purpose of this offering was to purify and cleanse the defilements that come as a direct or indirect result of sin.

 

Leviticus 5:14-6:7 – The Guilt Offering

What was it? 

The terms “guilt offering” and “sin offering” are sometimes used interchangeably (Leviticus 5:6), suggesting there is some overlap in the use of these terms. However, the guilt offering proper is described in 5:14-6:7. The primary animal used for a guilt offering was a ram, but this was not exclusively the case in the OT (Leviticus 14:10; Numbers 6:9-12). Like the sin offering, the priests were permitted to eat a portion of it (Leviticus 7:1-10).

What was its purpose?

The main thing that makes the guilt offering different from all other offerings is the payment of money. In addition to the sacrifice of the animal, every guilt offering was accompanied with a payment of silver equal to 20% of the value of the animal being sacrificed (5:16; 6:5). The priest would determine the value of the animal, and the worshipper would pay a 20% tax. This suggests that the main function of the guilt offering is make a repayment for the cost of sin. For lack of a better description, it is like God is “suing” for damages. Sometimes, “restitution offering” or “reparation offering” are proposed as better translations for this term.

 

Conclusion

A survey of these offerings shows how sin is multi-faceted in its consequences and demands. For instance, while the sin offering cleansed the pollution of sin, the guilt offering pays the debt of sin. However, these offerings all give insight into different facets of the work of Jesus on the cross. The Christian might ask, “Which of these offerings foreshadows Christ?” The short answer would be “all of them.” We will explore these in more detail in later articles.

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