The Torah: Leviticus: Living a Holy Life


The Five Sacrifices: chapters 1-7

Prelude: chapter 1:1-2

As he had promised, God met with Moses in the tabernacle to reveal his will to the Israelites (verse 1). The first of these revelations related to the sacrifices. The patriarchs, when sojourning in Canaan, had already worshiped God with burnt offerings and sin offerings. Consequently, the sacrificial laws of these chapters presuppose the presentation of burnt offerings, grain offerings and sin offerings as a custom well known to the people.

However, during the time of Moses, God organized the nation of Israel and its worship into more formal patterns. Instead of each individual or family building an altar wherever convenient, there was to be a central tabernacle where all would worship.

Not only did God stipulate where sacrifices were to be offered, he prescribed specific types of sacrifices for the people and for the priests. These God-ordained changes represented a profound break with tradition. No longer would the father of a family act as the family’s priest. Now the worship and instruction of such a large nation called for additional order and regulation.

As you read through this section of Leviticus, remember that the New Testament makes clear that the sacrifices of Israel were symbolic of Christ’s sacrifice and atonement for us.

Hebrews 5 through 10 is a New Testament commentary on Leviticus, emphasizing the priesthood of Christ and his atoning death. The sacrificial system of Leviticus foreshadows this essential truth. This is the implication of Hebrews 9:26-28: “Now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.”

Laws of the sacrifices: chapters 1:3-7:38

These laws describe the technical aspects of the sacrificial rituals. But bear in mind that the “various sacrifices always belonged to larger contexts of worship in which prayer, hymns, and other forms of liturgy were integral parts” (Harper’s Bible Commentary, p. 158).

1) Burnt offering (Leviticus 1; 6:8-13)

Sons of Aaron
“The sons of Aaron the priest are to put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire. Then Aaron’s sons the priests shall arrange the pieces, including the head and the fat, on the burning wood that is on the altar” (Leviticus 1:7-8).

In the burnt offering the sacrificial animal was completely incinerated on the altar. “The offering represents the desire of the offerer to be in complete harmony with God” (Keith Schoville, Exodus and Leviticus, p. 75). The offering symbolized the entire surrender to God of the individual or the congregation. The burnt offering was to be “without defect” (Leviticus 1:3, 10), foreshadowing the perfect sacrifice of Christ, “a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Peter 1:19).

2) Grain offering (Leviticus 2; 6:14-23)

The grain offering was also known as the meal or cereal offering. It was the only offering without blood, and was called a gift. This offering demonstrated Israel’s dependence on God, as shown by the presentation of the produce of the earth. Although it accompanied the burnt offering, the grain offering was a separate offering. The former symbolized a life devoted to God; the latter presented fruits of labor dedicated to him. The grain offering had several significant features.

Features of the Grain Offering

  • Oil: a symbol of the Holy Spirit.
  • Incense: symbolic of the sacrifice of prayer.
  • Absence of yeast (or leaven) and honey: spiritual purity.
  • Salt: preservation and permanence.
  • Fire: symbolic of God’s acceptance.
  • Pleasing aroma: God’s approval and pleasure.

3) Peace or fellowship offering (Leviticus 3; 7:11-36)

The peace offering symbolized reconciliation, as shown in the fellowship of eating. This offering is also symbolic of Christ. He is our peace offering, having made reconciliation for us: “For he himself is our peace” (Ephesians 2:14-18). When we are beneficiaries of his atoning work, peace becomes ours (Romans 5:1). Fellowship with Christ becomes the highest point of Christian privilege (John 17:3; 1 John 1:3).

Features of the Peace Offering

  • One portion was consumed by fire, indicating God’s acceptance and participation.
  • Another portion was eaten by the offerer. Since eating is part of a covenant, unity between God and offerer is implied.
  • A third portion was eaten by the priest.

4) Sin offering (Leviticus 4:1–5:13; 6:24-30)

The sin offering was made by those who had sinned unintentionally (sins of personal weakness as opposed to sins committed in defiant rebellion against God). Jesus was our sin offering: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

5) Guilt offering (Leviticus 5:14–6:7; 7:1-10)

The offering for committing a violation against the Lord (Leviticus 5:14-19) was always an unblemished ram (verses 15, 18; 6:6). No sin could be overlooked. Even for ignorance, or inadvertence, sacrifice was necessary (Leviticus 5:15).

Restitution had to be made for any wrong committed against God or against one’s neighbor, along with an additional 20 percent. For wrong done to the Lord (such as failing to pay tithes, eating the priest’s portion of the sacrifice, or failing to redeem the firstborn), the 20 percent was given to the priest; for wrong done to a neighbor, it was given to the victim. “The major altar offerings…followed a stereotyped ritual pattern of six acts, of which the worshipper executed three and the priest performed three” (R.K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 599).

Procedure for Animal Sacrifice

  1. The worshiper chose a physically perfect animal from his herd.
  2. The worshiper brought the animal to the courtyard of the tabernacle.
  3. The worshiper laid his hand on the animal, implying that it represented him, and slaughtered it.
  4. The priest took the basin of blood and poured it at the base of the altar.
  5. The priest then burned specified fat portions (or the entire animal in the burnt offering).
  6. The rest of the animal was then eaten by the priests, or by their families. (In the case of the peace offering, priests and worshipers ate together.)

The Consecration of Aaron: chapters 8-10

The investiture: chapter 8

Chapter 8 describes the investiture — the elaborate ritual in which Aaron and his sons were instituted as a priesthood. They were anointed with a special perfumed oil (verse 10-13, 33; see also Exodus 30:23-25).

The dedication of the whole person to God’s service was indicated by the blood on Aaron’s ear, hand and toe (verse 23). “The ear, because the priest was always to [obey] the word and commandment of God; the hand, because he was to discharge the priestly functions properly; and the foot, because he was to walk correctly in the sanctuary” (C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary of the Old Testament, Vol. 1, p. 341).

Aaron begins service: chapter 9

The priests were to make atonement for themselves with special offerings before they could serve. Aaron and his sons then began their priestly service. The order of these sacrifices showed how a relationship with God could be restored.

The sin of Aaron’s sons: chapter 10

Aaron's sons
“Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, contrary to his command [Exodus 30:9]. So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord” (Leviticus 10:1-2).

It did not take long for the priestly image to become tarnished. Aaron’s sons decided to do things their own way. The “unauthorized” fire suggests that they lit their censers from an ordinary fire instead of from the fire of the burnt offering. Perhaps they were under the influence of alcohol, since a prohibition against drinking immediately follows their punishment (verse 9).

Whatever explanation is correct, the point is that Nadab and Abihu abused their office as priests in a flagrant act of disrespect to God, who had just reviewed with them precisely how they were to conduct worship. As leaders, they had special responsibility to obey God. In their position, they could easily lead many people astray. (Life Application Bible, NIV, commentary on Leviticus 10:1)

Various Laws: Leviticus 11-20

Clean and unclean meats: chapter 11

Some of the rules of cleanness reflect sound guidelines for diet and hygiene. Others have no known purpose. The Bible does not make any claims about the health value of these rules — their function in Leviticus is for ritual purity. (For further information, see “Are Some Meats Unclean?”)

Clean and Unclean Meats

Meats that are clean:

  • Animals that have split or cloven hooves and that chew the cud.
  • Sea creatures with both fins and scales.
  • Birds that are not listed as unclean and that do not have any specific traits of those listed as unclean.
  • Insects belonging to four classes of the locust (grasshopper) family.

Meats that are unclean:

  • All mammals not listed as clean.
  • Vermin and predatory birds.
  • Shellfish.

Postnatal purification: chapter 12

In Canaan, worship was often connected with prostitution and fertility rites. However, for Israel, anything suggesting the sexual or sensual was strictly banned from the worship of God. This does not mean that this aspect of life is “unclean.” The purpose is to ensure its separation from the worship of God. The rule of strict cleanliness in all sexual matters would also contribute to health. For a New Testament example of the law concerning postnatal purification (Leviticus 12:1-8), see Luke 2:22-24.

The law of circumcision (verse 3) was given to Abraham in Genesis 17:12-14. The spiritual significance of this law is touched on in the law of Moses (Deuteronomy 30:6), the prophets (Jeremiah 4:4) and the writings of Paul (Colossians 2:11-12; Philippians 3:3). (For further information, see our article about circumcision.)

Skin diseases: chapters 13-14

Health regulations pertaining to “infectious skin diseases” (“leprosy,” NKJV) were also included in God’s laws. Such guidelines enabled the priests, who were responsible for the health of the camp, to distinguish between serious and chronic forms of these various diseases. Some of these diseases — unlike the diseases we call “leprosy” or “Hansen’s disease” today — were very contagious. Regulations regarding certain forms of mildew (greenish or reddish) in fabrics or houses are also described (Leviticus 13:49; 14:37).

Bodily discharges: chapter 15

Regulations are given for seminal and menstrual discharges, as well as malignant discharges. Washing is prescribed, which would promote hygiene.

The Day of Atonement: chapter 16

This chapter is central to the book of Leviticus. The 10th day of the seventh month (September-October) was to be the annual Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur.

Only on this occasion was Aaron allowed into the innermost part of the tabernacle, the Most Holy Place, where the ark of the covenant was housed. He first needed to obtain atonement and cleansing for his own sins and those of his household. Only then was he able to cleanse the tabernacle and make an offering on behalf of the people.

Two goats were chosen. One was sacrificed for the sins of the people; the other was sent into the wilderness, carrying the sins of Israel. (For a New Testament look at the Day of Atonement, see Hebrews 9 and 10.)

Rules for sacrifice: chapter 17

Sacrifices were to be offered only at the tabernacle, partly as a safeguard against sacrificing to idols. God can only be approached in the place and by the means of his own choosing (Deuteronomy 16:5-6). In the New Testament, the divinely chosen place points to Jesus Christ as the one and only way (John 14:6; Acts 4:12).

Sexual crimes: chapter 18

Many of these laws are directed against the practices of Israel’s neighbors. For example, marriage between those closely related by blood or by marriage was forbidden by God (verses 6-18). In Egypt, which had little marital regulation, such marriages were common.

Adultery, child sacrifice, homosexual relations and bestiality — all part of the debased religions of Canaan — were also forbidden (verses 20-30).

The heart of the law: chapter 19

Verse 2 is the heart of God’s moral law: “Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:15-16). Holiness is demonstrated by our concern for others, especially the underprivileged. For example, God’s instructions to “not reap to the very edges of your field” (Leviticus 19:9) taught the Israelites to reflect God’s generous nature. Jesus quoted part of verse 18 as the second-greatest commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39).

Crimes deserving the death penalty: chapter 20

To have so many crimes punishable by death may seem harsh today, but these offenses were in deliberate defiance of God’s holy law.

Israel was instructed not to imitate the nations around them, such as the Ammonites who offered children as a burnt sacrifice to Molech (Leviticus 18:21). God had separated Israel from the nations for the all-important reason of preserving the knowledge and worship of himself as the true God.

Rules for Worship: Leviticus 21-27

Rules for priests: chapters 21-22

Rules for ritual purity were particularly stringent for priests, especially for the high priest. For example, priests could not marry women defiled by prostitution (Leviticus 21:7). Studying these chapters makes it clear that God’s people must be holy.

The festivals: chapter 23

Various annual festivals and Holy Days were commanded for ancient Israel. They were holy convocations, memorials of God’s great acts of salvation in history, symbols of the power of God, and types of the anticipated future fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation. Paul describes them as “shadows” or pointers toward Christ, who fulfilled all the ritual symbolism (Colossians 2:16-17).

Although God commanded these festivals for Israel, he does not command them for Christians today. See our study paper at https://www.gci.org/articles/what-scripture-says-about-the-annual-festivals/. Do these festivals symbolize Christian truths? See our Bible study at https://www.gci.org/articles/what-the-festivals-picture/.

Lamps and sacred bread: chapter 24

This chapter discusses two important duties of the priests in the tabernacle: tending the ever-burning lamps and making the weekly offering of 12 loaves of bread (“shewbread,” NKJV). Unlike the pagan religions that offered food to the gods, God’s priests were to eat the bread themselves. This was to remind Israel of their total dependence upon God. The bread symbolizes Christ. He is the bread of God for our spiritual nourishment (John 6:32-51).

God also deals with blasphemy in this chapter (Leviticus 24:10-23). A member of the “mixed multitude” (Exodus 12:38, NKJV) was executed for blaspheming God’s name.

The land sabbath and the jubilee: chapter 25

More Articles from “Exploring the Word of God: The Books of Moses”

Every seventh year, the land was not to be cultivated. Not only did this practice teach respect for the land God would give the Israelites, it again emphasized their dependence on God.

God also instituted the Jubilee year, or 50th year (the year following the seventh seven-year cycle). At this time, property reverted to its original owner. The Jubilee was intended to rescue those who were living in poor economic conditions, and to restore to them the means of working their way back to prosperity. This lesson should not be lost on us today. God is a giving God who also wants to see a generous attitude in us (2 Corinthians 9:7).

Both the Sabbatical and Jubilee years were designed to remind Israel that it was God who really owned the land. He also owned their time and their lives. However, there is no evidence that the Israelites ever observed these institutions.

Blessings and curses: chapter 26

Pictured here are the rewards for obedience (verses 1-13) and the penalties for disobedience (verses 14-39). As you read through the chapter, you will notice that God describes the curses in more detail than the blessings. While these statements can be viewed prophetically, they must also be understood as laws of cause and effect.

God’s warning to ancient Israel remains in effect today. Disobedience will bring calamity to any nation. But God will always respond to genuine repentance. For an interesting spiritual parallel, read the story of the two kinds of people in Psalm 1.

Vows and tithes: chapter 27

God taught the Israelites that when they made a vow to him (verses 1-29), they must not go back on the promise even if it turned out to cost more than they expected.

Tithing (verses 30-33) is the practice of giving a tenth of one’s increase to God. Tithes and offerings were commanded in the Old Testament; the New Testament does not prescribe a percentage but calls for greater generosity. (For further information, see https://www.gci.org/articles/is-tithing-required-in-the-new-covenant/.) Tithing and giving reflect the believer’s worship, faith and love for God, the source of salvation and giver of all good things (Numbers 18:20-21; 2 Corinthians 9:7).

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