The book Holiness to the Lord: A Guide to the Exposition of the Book of Leviticus by Allen P. Ross (Baker Academic, 2002) has an excellent, concise summary of the book of Leviticus. Professor Ross says, “Leviticus is more than a manual for the priests. It includes instructions for the whole nation…:
1. The rituals of the sacrifices explained how the people, in spite of sin and defilement, could maintain their relationship with the holy LORD (Lev. 1 – 7).
2. The laws of the consecrated priesthood clarified the way all approaches to God could be mediated (Lev. 8-10).
3. The instructions on purity taught how the holiness of God required cleansing and purification from the contamination of this life (Lev. 11 – 16).
4. The exhortations to holiness showed how every aspect of the life of the covenant people had to be set apart to God (Lev. 17 – 27). (Ross, Holiness, 20-21, author’s emphasis)
We can divide these four basic sections even further to clarify our reading of Leviticus. For example, Leviticus 1 – 7 describes the sacrifices, and we can see that Leviticus 1:1 – 6:7 describes them from the perspective of the person giving the offering while 6:8 – 7:38 repeats the same sacrifices from the perspective of the priest.
With this organization in mind, we begin reading in Leviticus 1 of the burnt offering, the sacrifice of a whole animal for the atonement of sin (Leviticus 1:4). This will be the most basic sacrifice of Israelite worship. Notice some of its main features:
- The selection of an unblemished animal (Leviticus 1:2-3);
- The laying of the hand on the animal to recognize it as a substitute, possibly seeing this action as a “transfer” of sin to the animal (Leviticus 1:4);
- The one who offers the animal is to slaughter it before the Presence of Yahweh, and the priests collect the blood and sprinkle it on all sides of the altar as evidence that the substitute gave its life for the one who offered it (Leviticus 1:5);
- The one bringing the offering skins and cuts up the animal, and the priests burn everything (except the hide) on the altar (Leviticus 1:6-9).
The grain offering in Leviticus 2 is an offering without blood. The person who offers it is in good standing with Yahweh because he already has offered a sacrifice for the atonement of sin. Now the believer gives back a part of Yahweh’s provision, recognizing that everything he has comes from Him.
The priest takes a handful of fine flour and oil and lets it burn on the altar with all of the incense (representing the joy of the one who gives the offering). All the rest is a most holy provision for the priests (Leviticus 2:2-3). There are other grain offerings that don’t require incense; these allow the participation of the poor who don’t have the means to buy such an expensive item.
The grain offering has neither leaven nor honey (Leviticus 2:11); since corruption and fermentation act quickly in these, for the most part they have no place on the altar of the God of life, purity and holiness. On the other hand, it must always include salt (Leviticus 2:13), the mineral that preserves food from corruption, just as the believer should persevere in the covenant without allowing corruption into his life. Next, the last three verses of the chapter give directions for the offering of the firstfruits that we will see in more detail when we read Deuteronomy 26.
Leviticus 3 gives the instructions for the peace offering. Notice that it is very similar to the whole burnt offering but only a relatively small part of the animal is burned on the altar: the fatty sheath around some of the internal organs, the kidneys and part of the liver. We will learn more about this sacrifice in Leviticus 7 where it explains that the breast and the right thigh of the sacrifice are given to the priests as their provision and the rest of the meat is returned to the believer to joyfully celebrate a meal in communion with Yahweh, the priests, all the believer’s family and his invitees.
Notice that in only three sacrifices (without including the rest that we are going to study), we already have an ample view of a living relationship between a believer and Yahweh. In the tabernacle, before Yahweh’s Presence, the believer finds atonement for sins through the blood of a substitute sprinkled and poured on and around the altar; Yahweh’s just wrath against the sinner is propitiated, and he may now express his complete surrender to God (through the burnt offering). The believer can declare that Yahweh is the Provider of all that he has, and he can confirm his commitment to walk with Him according to His covenant (through the grain offering). He even can celebrate peace with Yahweh by eating with Him, with His priests, with his whole family and his invited friends in thankfulness and in joy for God’s blessings (through the peace offering). If he is wealthy enough, he can express his joy by sacrificing more expensive animals or including incense in his grain offering. If he is poor or has limited resources, he can enjoy the same forgiveness, surrender to God and thanksgiving for provision as a rich man. No doubt the tabernacle gave many opportunities of Yahweh’s people to walk in a living relationship with Him.