The Beauty of the Burnt Offering in Leviticus

People’s Bible reading plans turn to Leviticus, and things frequently go downhill. But it need not be this way. Ministers have a duty to seek the Spirit’s guidance in finding the goodness of God’s word not only in Ex. 11–15 but also in Lev. 11–15 (perhaps the most difficult portion of Leviticus to understand, sit in, and apply) and to lead believers in all of Scripture. As God’s people we all are called to seek prayerfully and diligently to understand all of His word. And we are definitely doing ourselves a disservice when we even jokingly say how “boring” Leviticus is.

There are actually lots of great resources on Leviticus, including but not limited to Michael Morales’s book Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord?, Gordon Wenham’s commentary, BibleProject’s podcast and online materials, and the BibleTalk podcast by 9Marks. Even without those, a close reading of the text in light of the rest of the Pentateuch can yield great fruit (in understanding and application).

The first nine verses provide us with so much depth for the rest of the book that it is almost unbelievable. The book, like Exodus, begins with “and” in the Hebrew, although in this case there is a verb attachment, like “and-Yahweh-called.” Thus we know it’s in direct continuity from the previous material and is part of one big story. The Lord speaks from the tent of meeting, which calls us back to the end of Exodus. In Exodus 40:34–35 Moses (of all people!) cannot enter the tabernacle. This means that Exodus ends with God in His dwelling place but without the place being a meeting place for Him and His people. As a side note, this is why Leviticus 9 is so significant and thus severely overlooked; it’s the first time they enter the tent and is accompanied by a theophany at the grand moment. Back to the main point here, in sum we can say that we begin Leviticus with the new Eden (the tabernacle) but without the new Adam (specifically the priests). The issue shown in Exodus 40:34–35 depicts the central theme of Leviticus: how can a holy God dwell amongst a sinful Israel? Different commentators phrase this in various ways, but there seems to be strong agreement on this theme.

The second verse of the book provides insight into the topic of the upcoming chapters by speaking of how the people will bring offerings to the Lord. “Offering” comes from a Hebrew root that means “to draw near.” Drawing near is key to Leviticus if the goal is for the tabernacle to be the meeting place for Yahweh and Israel.

The first seven chapters of Leviticus describe five types of offerings brought by the people and the priests. The instructions for the people’s offerings are described in 1:1–6:7 and then are repeated for the priests through the end of chapter seven. The first offering is labeled the “burnt offering” in English, beginning in verse three. The “burnt offering” translation comes from a word that means “ascend” or “to go up.” The offering is “ascending” up to God through the smoke.

What’s interesting at this point is that it isn’t the first time we’ve heard of a burnt offering. Noah offers a burnt offering (Gen. 8:20), which seems to appease God’s wrath. God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering (22:2). Moses wants the people to be free to go offer burnt offerings (Ex. 10:25). After hearing how God brought Israel out of Egypt, Jethro brings a burnt offering (18:12). And the people offer burnt offerings to the Lord at the ratification of the Sinai Covenant (24:5).

The sacrificed animal must be without blemish, which isn’t described in depth until 22:21–24. This concept is frequent in Leviticus; some of the weirdest parts of the entire book (such as, in my opinion, 11:1–8) deal with even acceptable animals representing God, One who is of unmixed purity. The offeror then lays (or presses, which might be a more accurate understanding) their hands on the animal. This action definitely depicts one’s ownership of the animal; you are identifying with the animal. Beyond this, there are some disagreements. It would fit with many of our atonement ideas if this were also a transfer of sin. I used to think that this is true, but I’m not so sure anymore—the animal must be without blemish (or blameless) to go into God’s presence. If your sin is transferred to the animal, it is just like you: sinful, unclean, and unable to draw nearer to Yahweh. So maybe instead we should understand it in terms of a vicarious relationship. You’re meant to live “through” the animal and “ascend” into the divine presence.

I just mentioned atonement, which explicitly comes up in the fourth verse. It’s hard to read this word without thinking of a multitude of outside conceptions that we have about atonement. Those conceptions might be great, but we don’t want to read something into the text that isn’t there, either. It’s clear in Leviticus (and the rest of the Bible, particularly in Jesus’s atoning work) that a significant aspect of atonement is being ransomed from death. Of course, this is incredible news, that God’s people can draw nearer to Him and meet with Him because the sacrifice that He has ultimately provided has ransomed us from the penalty that we deserve. We aren’t blameless. And second, we also aren’t clean or pure. Purification is also central to atonement in Leviticus. Later in the book, Moses “purified the altar and poured out the blood at the base of the altar and consecrated it to make atonement for it” (8:15). Obviously the altar doesn’t need to be ransomed from death. But it does need to be purified. And we agree with this aspect of atonement for ourselves when we sing that Jesus “washed [our crimson stain] white as snow.”

The picture of sacrifice in this chapter is beautiful when we understand its depth, but it’s not necessarily pretty: in verse five the animal is killed. There’s lots of blood. And remember, we’re living through this animal. I love what Morales says here: “The act thus demonstrates a willingness to die to oneself, along with an acknowledgment and submission to the judgment of God that ‘the soul that sins shall surely die’ (Ezek. 18:20). Once more it is not that the worshipper’s sins have been transferred to the animal, making it worthy of death, but rather that the blameless one (with which the Israelite has identified himself) must die—life for life.” The priests throw the blood against the sides of the altar to re-consecrate it (cleansing it), and Morales writes that “The blood therefore symbolically conveys the offering up of one’s (blameless) life to God. Probably, that blood served as a purging agent as well, a detergent, purifying the sacred objects from the pollution of the Israelite worshipper’s sin, and expiating that sin from God’s sight.”

The last focus is verse nine and the fact that here we’re specifically discussing the burnt offering (or “ascension offering”). The whole animal is burned up; this is the only type of offering where this occurs. The burned animal is “transformed” into smoke, about which I must provide my final quote from Morales: “Since the altar’s fire is linked intimately with the glory of God’s Presence (Lev. 9:24), this transformation should probably be understood theologically in terms of sanctification, what the New Testament will reveal as the Holy Spirit’s fire of purgation.” The text says this creates a pleasing aroma to the Lord, meaning it “comes into” His presence, to phrase it as we can best understand.

The weird thing is that a few days later in a reading plan, you get to Leviticus 9, where the offering liturgy is put into action. The burnt offering isn’t first. The sin offering (also known as the purification offering) is first, despite the burnt offering being the one that kicks off the entire book. This is likely because the meaning of the burnt offering—total surrender and devotion to God, as explained above—demonstrates the meaning of the entire system of sacrifices and laws. The people of God are called to completely surrender to Him.

I recently had a conversation with a friend about how it can be difficult for us to imagine giving these sacrifices in Leviticus and living in a time with “harsher” penalties for covenant disobedience such as what we see in Numbers. Especially when we are newer to the books it can feel as though grace was less apparent or works were more central than they are to Christians now. But grace is the foundation of every story and law we read in the first few books of the Bible (think of God speaking in redemptive language in Exodus 19 before giving the Ten Words in Exodus 20 or the emphasis on God’s electing love in Deuteronomy). Believers in both “testaments” of Scripture and in today’s age are all saved by faith. Israel had to believe that Yahweh was in the tabernacle and actually spoke through his mediator (Moses) and that covenant obedience was worth it in all of life. Faith is always central to God’s saving work and His commandments. And Paul picks up these themes in Romans 12 after expounding God’s grace for eleven chapters, telling Christians to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (12:1). Commentators on Romans agree that “sacrifice” and “worship” are cultic words that echo or refer to the laws and priestly activity in the Old Testament. But Paul democratizes the words to all Christians for every aspect of life. So, in other words, your entire life is meant to be a burnt offering.

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close