Leviticus 1 – The Burnt Offering
A. Introduction: the idea of sacrifice in ancient Israel.
1. (1) God speaks to Moses from the tabernacle.
Now the LORD called to Moses, and spoke to him from the tabernacle of meeting, saying,
a. Now the LORD called to Moses: The story of Leviticus picks up where Exodus left off. The people of Israel, the covenant descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, were still camped at the foot of Mount Sinai. They remained at Sinai throughout the time period covered by the book of Leviticus.
b. From the tabernacle of meeting: This indicates that the tabernacle was now completed. The last several chapters of Exodus described the construction of the tabernacle (Exodus 35-40). With the tabernacle of meeting complete, the sacrificial system could now be put into operation.
i. In John 1:14 there is a deliberate link between this tabernacle of meeting and the incarnate Jesus Christ (the Word became flesh and dwelt [tabernacled] among us. As the tabernacle of meeting was a symbol of God’s presence among His people, Jesus Christ was God present on earth.
2. (2) What to do when you bring an offering to LORD.
“Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘When any one of you brings an offering to the LORD, you shall bring your offering of the livestock—of the herd and of the flock.
a. When any one of you brings an offering: In the covenant God made with Israel at Mount Sinai, there were three major parts. The covenant included the law Israel had to obey, sacrifice to provide for breaking the law, and the choice of blessing or curse that would become Israel’s destiny throughout history.
i. The sacrificial system was an essential element of the Mosaic covenant because it was impossible to live up to the requirements of the law. No one could perfectly obey the law, and sin had to be dealt with through sacrifice. Each commanded sacrifice was significant, and they all pointed toward the perfect sacrifice Jesus would offer by His crucifixion (Hebrews 7:27, 9:11-28).
ii. This was not the beginning of God’s sacrificial system. Adam knew of sacrifice (Genesis 3:21), as did Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:3-4), and Noah (Genesis 8:20-21). Israel offered sacrifice at the Passover (Exodus 12). Job 1:5 and Exodus 10:25 also mention burnt sacrifices before the book of Leviticus.
iii. The idea of sacrifice to the gods was not unique to Israel. Other nations and cultures practiced sacrifice, often ultimately involving human sacrifice. The universality of sacrifice is evidence that this concept was known to man before the flood and was carried to different cultures from the survivors of the flood in Noah’s day.
b. Brings an offering to the LORD: Because sacrifice was already known to Israel, these instructions to the priests were not particularly new – they were mostly a clarification of a foundation that was already known to Israel through the traditions of their fathers.
i. God planned wisely in bringing the law of the sacrifices at this time. Before the tabernacle of meeting was built, there was no one place of sacrifice, and the procedures for sacrifice couldn’t really be settled and regulated. But now with the completion of the tabernacle, Israel could bring their sacrifice to one place and follow the same procedures for each sacrifice.
ii. The first seven chapters of Leviticus deal with personal, voluntary offerings. Chapters one through five are mostly instructions to the people who bring the offering, and chapters six and seven are mostly instructions to the priests concerning offerings.
iii. Matthew Poole explained why there were so many different kinds of sacrifices: “To represent as well the several perfections of Christ, be true sacrifice, and the various benefits of his death, as the several duties which men owe to their Creator and Redeemer, all which could not be so well expressed by one sort of sacrifices.”
iv. The fact that God gave so much instruction on how to specifically offer sacrifices shows that this was not a matter God left up to the creativity of the individual Israelite. They were not free to offer sacrifices any way they pleased, even if they did it with sincerity. God demanded the humility and obedience of His people in the sacrificial system. It had to be carried out in a way that was God-centered, not man-centered.
c. You shall bring an offering of the livestock—of the herd and of the flock: This meant that an Israelite worshipper could not offer a “wild” or non-domesticated animal. They could only bring domesticated livestock from the herd or from the flock. Each animal was part of the Israelite’s inventory of animals for fabric, milk and all its products, and meat. Giving to God of the herd and of the flock meant that sacrifice cost something.
i. “In Numbers and Ezekiel as well as Leviticus, the Hebrew word for offering is a very general term used to designate anything given as a sacrifice to God. In Nehemiah 10:35 and 13:31 it is even used of non-sacrificial offerings made to God.” (Peter-Contesse)
B. The procedure for the burnt offering.
1. (3) Bringing the animal for the burnt offering.
‘If his offering is a burnt sacrifice of the herd, let him offer a male without blemish; he shall offer it of his own free will at the door of the tabernacle of meeting before the LORD.
a. If his offering is a burnt sacrifice: The burnt offering, as its name implies, was completely burnt before the LORD. It was a total sacrifice. The burnt sacrifice was a general offering intended to make one right with God through the atonement of sin (propitiation) or to demonstrate special devotion to God (consecration).
i. “Its name literally means ‘that which ascends,’ and refers, no doubt, to the ascent of the transformed substance of the sacrifice in fire and smoke, as to God. The central idea of this sacrifice, then, as gathered from its name and confirmed by its manner, is that of the yielding of the whole being in self-surrender, and borne up by the flame of intense consecration to God.” (Maclaren)
b. Let him offer a male: The animal offered had to be a male because male animals were thought to be stronger and usually considered to be more valuable.
c. Without blemish: The animal must not have any obvious defect. God would not accept a defective sacrifice. A priest of Israel would examine each animal brought for sacrifice and affirm that it had no obvious blemish or defect.
i. This demonstrates the principle that to atone for the sin of another, the sacrifice must be perfect. An imperfect sacrifice could neither atone for its own sin nor for the sins of another.
ii. This wonderfully points toward the perfect, ultimate sacrifice and atonement of Jesus Christ. Jesus fulfilled this standard perfectly, being a sinless and pure sacrifice without blemish (John 8:29, 8:46, 14:30, and 15:10).
iii. “The LXX [Septuagint] translated the adjective tamim [without blemish] with the word amomos. Peter employed this Greek adjective to refer to the death of Christ as the offering of a lamb ‘unblemished’ (1 Pet 1:19).” (Rooker)
iv. This demonstrates the principle that God wants and deserves our best. A farmer in ancient Israel might be happy to give God a diseased and useless animal because it would cost him little. There are many anecdotes and funny stories illustrating this tendency to give God lesser things. These include the story of the farmer whose cow gave birth to twins, and he swore he would give one of the calves to God. He didn’t decide which one to give to God until one day one of the calves died. He said to his wife: “Guess what? God’s calf died today.” In contrast, “Our best is but poor, but that which we do give, must be our best.” (Morgan)
v. “The first, dealt with in this chapter, was the burnt offering, suggesting the need of personal dedication to God. Those who are admitted to the place of worship are such as have utterly failed to render their life to God thus perfectly. Therefore the offering they bring must be slain and burned.” (Morgan)
vi. Israel did not always live up to this standard, and much later the prophet Malachi rebuked Israel for offering God sub-standard sacrifices: And when you offer the blind as a sacrifice, is it not evil? And when you offer the lame and sick, is it not evil? Offer it then to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you favorably? (Malachi 1:8)
d. He shall offer it of his own free will: God did not want the offering of the burnt sacrifice to be forced. Each animal had to be freely offered. This illustrates the principle that God wants our hearts, freely given to Him.
e. At the door of the tabernacle of meeting: The sacrifices were not to be made at the home of each individual Israelite, or at the places they later called the high places. God had an appointed place and order for sacrifice.
i. Some think that the burnt sacrifice was the most commonly offered in ancient Israel, therefore it is listed first.
2. (4) The transference of guilt.
‘Then he shall put his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him.
a. Then he shall put his hand on the head of the burnt offering: This was a clear picture of identification with the animal to be the sacrificial victim. Through this symbol, the guilty person transferred his guilt to the sacrificial victim that would die and be completely consumed for the sin of the one bringing the offering.
i. It was not enough that the victim merely died. The one receiving atonement had to actively identify himself with the sacrifice. In the same way, it is not enough to know that Jesus died for the sins of the world. The one who would receive His atonement must “reach out” and identify himself with Jesus.
ii. Maclaren on the laying of the hands on the head: “Did not the offerer say in effect, by that act, ‘This is I? This animal life shall die, as I ought to die. It shall go up as a sweet savour to Jehovah, as my being should.’”
iii. “By means of this gesture the person offering the sacrifice identifies himself as the one who is offering the animal, and in a sense he offers himself to God through the sacrificial animal.” (Peter-Contesse)
iv. “Usage of the verb samak [shall put] suggests that the act of laying on hands implied the exertion of some pressure and should perhaps be rendered ‘lean upon.’” (Rooker)
v. “In Leviticus 16:21 in the Day of Atonement ritual laying hands on an offering is associated with the confession of sins, and we should assume that confession accompanied the laying on of hands as the worshiper identified his purpose in bringing an offering.” (Rooker)
vi. “His hand, i.e. both his hands, Leviticus 8:14,18 16:21; a common enallage [grammatic form using the singular for the plural].” (Poole)
b. To make atonement for him: The idea behind the Hebrew word for atonement (kophar) is to cover. The idea was that an individual’s sin and guilt were covered over by the blood of the sacrificial victim.
i. Leviticus is a book all about atonement. “The word kipper (“to make atonement”) is used almost fifty times in Leviticus…. It is used about fifty times more in the rest of the OT.” (Harris)
ii. But there is a difference between the Old Testament idea of atonement and the New Testament idea. In the Old Testament, sin is “covered over” until redemption was completed by Jesus on the cross. In the New Testament, sin is done away with – and a true “at-one-ment” was accomplished by Jesus’ sacrifice. The believer is therefore right with God on the basis of what Jesus has done at the cross, not on the basis of what the believer does. “There are two ruling religions around us at this day, and they mainly differ in tense. The general religion of mankind is ‘Do,’ but the religion of a true Christian is ‘Done.’” (Spurgeon)
iii. Significantly, the burnt offering was more about total surrender to God than about sin. Yet this shows that when we come to God with the greatest surrender possible for us, we are still marked by sin and in great need of atonement. Efforts of greater devotion and surrender to God should, if done properly, drive us to greater dependence on God’s perfect sacrifice of atonement in and through Jesus Christ.
iv. “Our only right to offer anything to God, in any form, is created by the one Offering through which we must be sanctified. Every offering is a symbol still of the One.” (Morgan)
3. (5-9) The procedure for offering a bull as a burnt offering.
‘He shall kill the bull before the LORD; and the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall bring the blood and sprinkle the blood all around on the altar that is by the door of the tabernacle of meeting. And he shall skin the burnt offering and cut it into its pieces. The sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire on the altar, and lay the wood in order on the fire. Then the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall lay the parts, the head, and the fat in order on the wood that is on the fire upon the altar; but he shall wash its entrails and its legs with water. And the priest shall burn all on the altar as a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, a sweet aroma to the LORD.
a. He shall kill the bull: It seems as though the one who brought the offering – who laid his hands on the head of the bull – was the same one expected to actually kill the animal.
i. In each place the laying of hands on the sacrificial victim is mentioned (Leviticus 1:4-5, 3:2, 3:8, 4:4, 4:15, and 4:24), the killing of the sacrifice – by the one who put his hand on the head – is mentioned also.
ii. He shall kill the bull: The sacrifice had to die. The animal was without blemish, but that in itself did not atone for sin. It wasn’t enough that it was dedicated to God. It may have been a hard-working or kind or wise animal (as animals go); none of that mattered. It had to die to atone for sin.
iii. Of course, the priest would assist as necessary, and the priests would do the heavy work of skinning and cutting the animal up. But the one who brought the offering delivered the deathblow. The individual Israelite cut the jugular vein of the bull, in the presence of the priests at the tabernacle of meeting. This was a solemn testimony to the need for sacrifice, a confession of the fact, I need atonement for my sin.
b. He shall kill the bull before the LORD: This is the second occurrence of the phrase before the LORD in Leviticus; it occurs more than 60 times – more than any other book in the Bible. What happens in Leviticus happens before the LORD, and every sacrifice that was made was to be made before the LORD.
i. For the Christian, it is appropriate to live our entire life in the conscious presence of God (Colossians 3:17). Yet this is especially true of our spiritual exercises, our acts of worship, prayer, and receiving God’s word. It would transform those acts to consciously do them before the LORD. For who is this who pledged his heart to approach Me?’ says the LORD. (Jeremiah 30:21)
c. Bring the blood and sprinkle the blood all around: The blood of the animal – representing the life of the animal (Leviticus 17:11) – was sprinkled on the altar of sacrifice.
i. The altar: “The Hebrew word for altar comes from the verb ‘to slaughter.’ Eventually, however, it took on a more general meaning that included any place where any kind of sacrifice was offered to God.” (Peter-Contesse)
ii. “The head is mentioned separately because it would have been detached from the body in the process of skinning.” (Harrison)
iii. And the fat: “All the fat, which was to be separated from the flesh, and to be put together, to increase the flame, and to consume the other parts of the sacrifice more quickly.” (Poole)
iv. In order on the wood: “It seems to indicate that the priests could not be satisfied with simply piling wood or pieces of meat in bulk on the altar; they had to be arranged in the proper manner, although we do not know precisely how this was done.” (Peter-Contesse)
d. And the priest shall burn all on the altar as a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire: The rest of the animal, having been washed from excrement or impurity, was burnt on the altar. The complete offering (shall burn all on the altar), burnt before God, was a sweet aroma before God’s throne.
i. This reflects the heart behind the burnt offering. It was a desire to give everything to God, an “I surrender all” attitude. When everything was burnt before the LORD on the altar, there was nothing held back.
ii. “What a scene it must have been when, as on some great occasions, hundreds of burnt offerings were offered in succession! The place and the attendants would look to us liker shambles and butchers than God’s house and worshippers.” (Maclaren)
e. A sweet aroma to the LORD: This is stated for all aspects of the burnt sacrifice. The atoning for sin and the giving of all, in obedience to God’s instruction, pleased God as a sweet aroma pleases the senses. The Bible specifically tells us that Jesus Christ fulfilled this sacrifice with His own offering, perfectly pleasing God in laying down His life at the cross: As Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma. (Ephesians 5:2)
i. The burning carcass of a dead animal may not, in itself, smell good. This was noted by Matthew Poole (“it rather caused a stink”) and by John Trapp: “The burning and broiling of the beasts could yield no sweet savour; but thereto was added wine, oil, and incense, by God’s appointment, and then there was a savour of rest in it.”
4. (10-13) The procedure for offering a sheep or a goat as a burnt offering.
‘If his offering is of the flocks—of the sheep or of the goats—as a burnt sacrifice, he shall bring a male without blemish. He shall kill it on the north side of the altar before the LORD; and the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall sprinkle its blood all around on the altar. And he shall cut it into its pieces, with its head and its fat; and the priest shall lay them in order on the wood that is on the fire upon the altar; but he shall wash the entrails and the legs with water. Then the priest shall bring it all and burn it on the altar; it is a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, a sweet aroma to the LORD.
a. If his offering is of the flocks; of the sheep or of the goats: The procedure here was essentially the same as that for offering a bull, except that a sheep or a goat was not skinned. A bull presented as a burnt offering had to be skinned (Leviticus 1:6), but not a sheep or a goat.
i. Peter-Contesse on the lack of mention of placing the hands on the head of the sheep: “The absence of any mention of the gesture does not necessarily indicate that it was omitted in the sacrifice of sheep or goats. It is possible that the author simply decided not to repeat all the mechanical details of the ritual.”
b. He shall wash the entrails and the legs with water: Since the entire animal was to be burned, only the impurities of the entrails had to be washed before the sacrifice was burnt.
c. A sweet aroma to the LORD: This sacrifice, done the way God commanded, was pleasing to Him. It demonstrated the awareness of sin, the need for a substitute, the need for total dedication to God, and was a look forward to the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ to come. That ultimate sacrifice would be perfectly sweet and pleasing to God, and therefore be offered once-for-all (Hebrews 7:27, 9:12, 10:10).
i. “The burnt-offering was an imperfect type of His entire devotion to His Father’s will. When Jesus saw the inability of man to keep the holy law, and volunteered to magnify it, and make it honourable; when He laid aside His glory, and stepped down from His throne, saying, ‘I delight to do Thy will, O my God’; when He became obedient even to the death of the cross—it was as sweet to God as the fragrance of a garden of flowers to us.” (Meyer)
ii. Spurgeon said this about the perfect sacrifice of Jesus: “There must be an infinite merit about his death: a desert unutterable, immeasurable. Methinks if there had been a million worlds to redeem, their redemption could not have needed more than this ‘sacrifice of himself.’ If the whole universe, teeming with worlds as many as the sands on the seashore, had required to be ransomed, that one giving up of the ghost might have sufficed as a full price for them all.”
5. (14-17) The procedure for offering a bird as a burnt offering.
‘And if the burnt sacrifice of his offering to the LORD is of birds, then he shall bring his offering of turtledoves or young pigeons. The priest shall bring it to the altar, wring off its head, and burn it on the altar; its blood shall be drained out at the side of the altar. And he shall remove its crop with its feathers and cast it beside the altar on the east side, into the place for ashes. Then he shall split it at its wings, but shall not divide it completely; and the priest shall burn it on the altar, on the wood that is on the fire. It is a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, a sweet aroma to the LORD.
a. If the burnt sacrifice of his offering to the LORD is of birds: This procedure followed the same principles, adapted to the sacrifice of birds instead of bulls, sheep, or goats. The animal was killed, its blood was offered, the carcass was first prepared and then burnt before the LORD.
i. Trapp on wring off its head: “Or, Pinch it with his nail, that the blood might go out, without separating it from the rest of the body. This prefigured the death of Christ without either breaking a bone or dividing the Godhead from the manhood; as also the skill that should be in ministers, to cut or divide aright the word of truth.”
ii. Drained out at the side of the altar: “The body of the bird was squeezed against the side of the altar, since there would not have been enough blood to perform the complete ritual described earlier.” (Peter-Contesse)
iii. On the east side: “To wit, of the tabernacle. Here the filth was cast, because this was the remotest place from the holy of holies, which was in the west end; to teach us, that impure things and persons should not presume to approach to God, and that they should be banished from his presence.” (Poole)
b. He shall bring his offering of turtledoves or young pigeons: God would not accept any kind of bird, but He would accept turtledoves or young pigeons as sacrifices. The fact that God would accept a bull, a goat, a sheep, or a bird shows that God was more interested in the heart behind the sacrifice than in the actual animal being offered. If the sacrifice was made with the right heart, God accepted the poor man’s bird as much as the rich man’s bull; the simple sacrifice of a poor man could still be a sweet aroma to the LORD.
i. At the same time, the sacrifice had to correspond with what one could afford. It was wrong for a rich man to only offer a bird as a burnt offering. The greatness of the sacrifice had to correspond with the greatness of the one who brought the offering. Therefore, when God made His offering for sin, He gave the richest, most costly thing He could – Himself.
ii. “These birds were appointed for the relief of the poor who could not bring better. And these birds are preferred before others, partly because they were easily gotten, and partly because they are fit representations of Christ’s chastity, and meekness, and gentleness, for which these birds are remarkable.” (Poole)