Leviticus Chapter 1 – The Burnt Offering

Leviticus Window Burnt Offering
Memorial window in Lanercost Parish Church, 1864. Brampton, Northern England.  The scene depicts a levitical burnt offering and references Christ as the ultimate burnt offering.

If you have not read the Introduction to this series, please go and have a look at it, first.  There are foundational points outlined in that post about the book of Leviticus as a whole:  who wrote it, when, why, etc.  All of that is really important for understanding the original context and purpose for Leviticus.

There isn’t a whole lot of narrative (story) in Leviticus, and the few events it does describe take place over a short period of about 30 days.  The focus of this book is not the story but the processes and images of the Tabernacle system.

Open your Bible to Leviticus 1, and just read the whole chapter.  Don’t stop. Don’t highlight or underline stuff.  Just read it.  The whole chunk.

The Burnt Offering
Then the Lord summoned Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting: “Speak to the Israelites and tell them: When any of you brings an offering to the Lord from the livestock, you may bring your offering from the herd or the flock.

“If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he is to bring an unblemished male. He will bring it to the entrance to the tent of meeting so that he may be accepted by the LordHe is to lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering so it can be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him. He is to slaughter the bull before the Lord; Aaron’s sons the priests are to present the blood and splatter it on all sides of the altar that is at the entrance to the tent of meeting. Then he is to skin the burnt offering and cut it into pieces.The sons of Aaron the priest will prepare a fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire. Aaron’s sons the priests are to arrange the pieces, the head, and the fat on top of the burning wood on the altar. The offerer is to wash its entrails and legs with water. Then the priest will burn all of it on the altar as a burnt offering, a fire offering of a pleasing aroma to the Lord.

10 “But if his offering for a burnt offering is from the flock, from sheep or goats, he is to present an unblemished male. 11 He will slaughter it on the north side of the altar before the Lord. Aaron’s sons the priests will splatter its blood against the altar on all sides. 12 He will cut the animal into pieces with its head and its fat, and the priest will arrange them on top of the burning wood on the altar. 13 But he is to wash the entrails and legs with water. The priest will then present all of it and burn it on the altar; it is a burnt offering, a fire offering of a pleasing aroma to the Lord.

14 “If his offering to the Lord is a burnt offering of birds, he is to present his offering from the turtledoves or young pigeons. 15 Then the priest is to bring it to the altar, and will twist off its head and burn it on the altar; its blood should be drained at the side of the altar. 16 He will remove its digestive tract, cutting off the tail feathers, and throw it on the east side of the altar at the place for ashes. 17 He will tear it open by its wings without dividing the bird. Then the priest is to burn it on the altar on top of the burning wood. It is a burnt offering, a fire offering of a pleasing aroma to the Lord.

~Leviticus 1, CSB

Getting Cozy With Confusion
Okay, so chapter one begins what I call “the blood and guts” section of Leviticus.  I will freely confess to you that my initial response to chapters 1-7 of Leviticus was revulsion.  Nothing about these offerings and sacrifices made any sense to me at all.  In fact, as I read through it, I recoiled from it because it looked to me like violent pagan practices of old.  I’d been told all of my life to avoid this kind of imagery.  My actual words back in 2017–and I muttered them aloud–were, “This is like some kind of violent pagan freak show.”  I actually wrote those words down.  As I mentioned in the Introduction post, pagans around Ancient Israel did sacrifice animals, and if they had seen Israel performing these ritual offerings, they would have recognized–in part–what they were seeing.

So.  If you have icky feelings about these first few chapters, that’s okay.  You’re not alone.  Just stick with it, because God uses these sacrifices with Israel and attaches them to specific imagery and themes.  He uses the familiar religious forms to illustrate some truths and demonstrate how He is distinct and superior to all the other elohim (gods) worshiped in Canaan.  I hope that by the time you finish working through this post on Chapter 1, you’ll have seen enough of what God is doing in the burnt offering to move past some of that initial “nope” and be able to accept the imagery we’re being given of God’s love and holiness.

Just get cozy with that feeling of, “I have no idea what any of this means.”  I promise it will all come into focus.

As we go through this verse-by-verse, now is the time to make note of any differences that stick out between your translation and mine, if you like.  I find that kind of comparison helpful.  Get a highlighter and get a pen/pencil, and mark anything that sticks out to you as you read it.

If it sticks out as familiar, offensive, or especially confusing, mark it.  Does it make you ask a question?  Write that question down. When you make note of repeated phrases, mark those.  Let the text show you what’s important, and when it taps you on the shoulder (metaphorically speaking, of course)…mark it.

Dig in on this one.  It’s a short chapter, and it’s a kind of template for the chapters that follow.  The structure will be very similar in chapters 2-7, so really set up camp and get ready to think.

56E04AFD-62CF-46AE-AEF3-EE8D84FFD68C_1_201_a
My notes on Leviticus 1:1 from late 2017.

Verse 1 – The Invitation to Draw Near

“Then the Lord summoned Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting.”
-Leviticus 1:1, CSB

In the book of Exodus, Israel arrives at Mount Sinai.  For the remainder of Exodus, Moses has to go up onto the mountain to receive communication from God.  Out of all Israel, only Moses gets invited to stand in God’s presence, and he has to travel up to God each time to receive God’s messages and commands.

In Exodus 40, which is the final chapter of the book, we see something extraordinary happen.  Man will no longer have to “ascend the mountain” to be in God’s presence.  Instead, we see God come down to dwell in the Tabernacle.

The cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.  Moses was unable to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud rested on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle.

–Exodus 40:34-35, CSB

In Exodus, there are huge sections that most people routinely skip over.  I call these the “boring chapters” of Exodus (25-30, 35-40).  They discuss the planning and building of the Tabernacle, its furniture and tools, the Ark of the Covenant, and the ordination of priests.  It is a slog to get through all these chapters because it gets down into measurements, materials, and lists of supplies.  It also discusses regulation for handling, assembling, and moving all of the various pieces.  Exodus 25-30 & 35-40 are not scintillating reading, and I feel totally comfortable calling them boring.  Be that as it may, these are very important chapters, as well.  They show us what all of these various pieces of the Tabernacle looked like, what they were made from, what they were to be used for, and all of the appropriate ways they were to be handled.

In Leviticus, God no longer has Moses climb up to him, and God no longer appears with earthquakes and lightning.  God’s presence no longer causes the people to tremble and fear they will be immediately smitten or killed.  In Exodus 40, God comes down to the people, and he fills the Tabernacle with his presence.  We turn to the next page of our Bible, and in Leviticus 1:1, God calls out to Moses from inside the Tabernacle.

God has come down to live among humanity, just like he did in Eden at the beginning, and just as he will do as Jesus in the end, coming down to earth and dwelling among us.

Leviticus 1:1 is an image of God reconciling man to himself, and its first words are an invitation.  God is calling for man to approach.  No longer is man expelled from God’s presence.  Man is being invited back in.

F0986351-3868-4735-9D8A-1B195B218815_1_201_a
My notes on Leviticus 1:2 from late 2017.

 

Verse 2 – What to Bring

“Speak to the Israelites and tell them: When any of you brings an offering to the Lord from the livestock, you may bring your offering from the herd or the flock.”
-Leviticus 1:2, CSB

The Hebrew word for “offering” here is qorbān (kor-BAHN), and it comes from a root, “qrb” that means “draw near.”

Offerings, and especially this first one–the Burnt Offering–is something the people would bring in order to draw near to God.  That is the entire purpose of the Burnt Offering.  It was an introduction.  It was a request for acceptance.  As Michael Heiser teaches of the Burnt Offering, it is a way to approach God and say, “I want to spend a little time with the Lord.”

Verse 2 also talks to us about which animals are appropriate for the sacrifice.  Animals from the herd or animals from the flock.  Cattle, goats, sheep, and birds are in view here.

These are all domesticated animals.  They are animals kept as property.  It costs the offerant something to bring a cow or a sheep or a goat or a bird.  The person will have purchased this animal or raised it from babyhood.  The offerant will have fed this animal, housed it, cared for it, and generally invested both time and financial resources into it.  To give this animal to God at the Tabernacle is a true sacrifice, whereas going out into the brush to trap a rabbit or squirrel costs the offerant almost nothing.  The acceptable animals for a burnt offering are the ones that mean something to their owners and, therefore, mean something to God.

E4B881B2-FB68-4144-8760-511ADBBBAFA2_1_201_a
My notes on Leviticus 1:3 from late 2017

Verse 3 – A Male Without Blemish

“If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he is to bring an unblemished male. He will bring it to the entrance to the tent of meeting so that he may be accepted by the Lord.”
-Leviticus 1:3, CSB

The burnt offering from the herd (bovine/cow) must be an unblemished male.  If you look at the photograph I’ve included of my notes on this verse above, and direct your attention to the very bottom of the page, the meaning of this verse is summarized there.

The offering is to be male, it is to be a perfect example of its breed, it is to be offered in public, and it is to be given so that the offerant will be accepted into God’s presence without dying.

Look at my notes and then think on this for a minute.  Not every verse in Leviticus is about Jesus, and if you’ve been taught to search for Christ in every verse, please set that notion aside.  Right here, however, we are being shown a distinct image of the Messiah.  We’re being shown an image of being made “right with God” through a willingly-sacrificed intermediary.

Which brings me to the final point I want to emphasize for verse 3.  There is an implication of free will in this offering.  The offering is not demanded here.  The offering is to be willingly brought.  In some translations, you will see the English words, “of his own voluntary will” added to this verse, and that is, according to commentaries I read, an accurate inference from the Hebrew underneath.  God is inviting the people to bring these offerings, and Israelites are meant to participate willingly, from the heart.  No one is meant to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to the Tabernacle.  This is to be done voluntarily.

56C6C9F8-66A1-4E3F-BBCA-2BB90355DF55_1_201_a

Verse 4 – The Laying of a Hand (singular)

“He is to lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering so it can be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him.”
-Leviticus 1:4, CSB

The offerant brings the cow to the entrance of the tent.  He puts one hand on the animal, and this is not a symbol of transferring sin to the animal.  Very few commentators take the view that this “laying on of one hand” is a sign of transferring sin.  Sin is not being siphoned out of the sinner and placed into the animal.  That isn’t what we’re looking at with the burnt offering.

Instead, what we’re seeing is the sinner asking that the animal be an acceptable cover–that the animal’s death be accepted instead of the offerant’s death as atonement.  It’s a subtle difference, perhaps, but it matters.  The sinner isn’t being ritualistically forgiven here.  He’s being covered in a clean cloak.  The sinner is asking that the death of the animal serve to cover his unholiness as he enters sacred space so that he won’t be killed by the intensity of God’s holiness.

After Adam and Eve sinned, they became unholy and incompatible with the presence of God.  That’s why they were hiding from God in the garden.  God’s presence has become dangerous to them.  That’s what their “nakedness” means.  There is no cover to keep their unholiness hidden in the midst of holiness.

Unholy humans cannot be in God’s holy presence without dying.  God covered Adam and Eve’s nakedness (sin and shame) with animal skins so that they could be in his presence after the Fall.  That’s what’s happening here in the burnt offering.  The animal is offered humbly, and God is being asked to accept the cow as a covering for the sinner.

We’re asking that the animal be accepted as cover for our nakedness.  We are not asking that the animal be exchanged for eternal salvation and forgiveness.  Is that tracking for you?

In the Tabernacle system, we do this so that walking into God’s presence won’t kill us.  We’re not under the impression that killing this cow will magically grant us eternal forgiveness and salvation.  We just want to spend a little time with God, but we’re too dirty and naked to sit in his presence.  The innocent, unblemished, and valuable cow’s death will substitute/atone for the death we would receive if we just waltzed into God’s space without it.  It’s a cloak, a cover, like the skins God put over Adam and Eve.

We get covered; we get cleaned up; we get acceptable for God’s presence.

stained glass cow
“Highland Cow,” by Radiance Stained Glass, UK

Verses 5-9 – How to Carve a Sacred Cow

He is to slaughter the bull before the Lord; Aaron’s sons the priests are to present the blood and splatter it on all sides of the altar that is at the entrance to the tent of meeting. Then he is to skin the burnt offering and cut it into pieces.The sons of Aaron the priest will prepare a fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire. Aaron’s sons the priests are to arrange the pieces, the head, and the fat on top of the burning wood on the altar. The offerer is to wash its entrails and legs with water. Then the priest will burn all of it on the altar as a burnt offering, a fire offering of a pleasing aroma to the Lord.
-Leviticus 1:5-9

These verses describe in detail the process for presenting the burnt offering.  We’ve brought our cow to the entrance for the tent.  We’ve waited our turn.  The priests are now helping us with all of this, and these verses show the corporate nature of how the offering will work.  The offerant has jobs in this and the priests have jobs in it, too.  The offerant must kill the animal himself.  He must skin and carve the animal himself.  He must wash the pieces himself.  The priests arrange the wood, tend the fires, and bring the pieces of the animal to the altar for burning.

No part of the burnt offering is set aside for eating by people.  There is no covenant meal or sacrificial meal going on here.  The entire offering is for God and God, alone.

Imagine the weight of this.  In order to sit in the presence of God, you must take an expensive animal from your herd.  You must walk it through the streets to the Tabernacle.  You wait in line with it.  You walk up to the entrance with it, and when it is your turn, you must kill this animal yourself.  You must do the physical labor of skinning it, gutting it, and carving off the various pieces.  You must go to the water (called the laver – where we get the word lavatory from) and wash off the parts of the cow that contain or are contaminated by excrement (poop).  All of this…just to walk into God’s presence.

The priests are there to guide you, make sure you do everything correctly, and then offer the cow up for you as intercessors between you (not yet covered) and God.  God will cover you with this cow, and then you can proceed with your visit to him.

This is profound if you really sit with it and imagine what this is like.  The labor that must be performed in order to be with God is overwhelming.

A Pleasing Aroma to the Lord

This is an important phrase.  I will do a whole “thing” on it when we’re done with the blood and guts section of Leviticus.  For now, start noticing this phrase whenever you see it.  Everyone learns differently, so do what you need to do with this, but I encourage you to just let it sit with you.  No commentary.  No sermons.  No internet searches.  No concordances.  Just notice when you see that phrase:  a pleasing aroma to the Lord.  Just let it float around with you for a few weeks without studying it to death.  It’s very important, and we’ll do a study post just for this phrase before we move from Chapter 7 to Chapter 8.

Stained Glass Doves
This beautiful glass, “Mourning Doves in Dogwood,” comes from Dawn Thompson of indeestudios.  See this and more of her art pieces on her Deviant Art gallery page.

Verses 10-17 – Animals That Are Not Cows

10 “But if his offering for a burnt offering is from the flock, from sheep or goats, he is to present an unblemished male. 11 He will slaughter it on the north side of the altar before the Lord. Aaron’s sons the priests will splatter its blood against the altar on all sides. 12 He will cut the animal into pieces with its head and its fat, and the priest will arrange them on top of the burning wood on the altar. 13 But he is to wash the entrails and legs with water. The priest will then present all of it and burn it on the altar; it is a burnt offering, a fire offering of a pleasing aroma to the Lord.

14 “If his offering to the Lord is a burnt offering of birds, he is to present his offering from the turtledoves or young pigeons. 15 Then the priest is to bring it to the altar, and will twist off its head and burn it on the altar; its blood should be drained at the side of the altar. 16 He will remove its digestive tract, cutting off the tail feathers, and throw it on the east side of the altar at the place for ashes. 17 He will tear it open by its wings without dividing the bird. Then the priest is to burn it on the altar on top of the burning wood. It is a burnt offering, a fire offering of a pleasing aroma to the Lord.
-Leviticus 1:10-17, CSB

These verses run through the same form as the outline of how to bring a bull from the herd for burnt offering.  These verses, however, show us the process for animals of the flock.  In the case of sheep and goats, they must also be male and without blemish, and the process is much the same.  For birds, however, it gets a little different.

The addition of birds to the list of acceptable animals is worth discussing separately for a couple of reasons, the first of which being that it indicates God had no preference for the rich over the poor.  The poorest people in Israel were able to participate fully in the Tabernacle system, just as the richest were able to do.  Families with means had a spare bull to sacrifice.  Families without means could offer birds, when that was all they could afford to part with.  The offering meant no more to God if it was a bull and no less to God if it was a bird.  They are under the same heading and no indignity is implied for those who offer birds.  There is no special blessing for those who could afford cows, and nothing is withheld from those who could not.

As with the cows, sheep, and goats, the offerant must kill the bird and prepare it for the offering.  The priests remove the head and “tear it open…without dividing it.”  This really grossed me out the first time I read it, but when I came back to it, I had to imagine that perhaps this was done to make sure the small bird both burned completely, but was not mangled.  Birds are very small, after all, and separating them into pieces is not necessary for burning them as with the larger animals.

The unused portions of the animals are tossed onto the east side of the altar.  I have long been fascinated by the mentions of West vs. East in the Bible.  West is frequently a return to Eden/a sign of going back toward God.  East is frequently a turning away from Eden/a sign of walking farther away from God.  I never found anyone discussing this in commentary, but it’s worth a mention, I think.  Adam and Eve left Eden through the eastern gate.  They walked away from Eden and God’s presence by going east.  The parts of an animal that are not worthy for the altar are thrown out toward the east.  Something?  Not something?  Not sure…but I like noticing these things.

In Summary
The burnt offering is the first offering listed in Leviticus, and it is the one we see discussed most often in Scripture.  This offering was the greeting, the opening act of entering God’s presence at the Tabernacle.  It was a way to say, “Lord, I’d like to spend some time with you, and I offer this to cover me and make me right with you for this meeting.”

No part of the burnt offering was consumed by the offerant or priest.  It was entirely sent up on the altar.  It is a “pleasing aroma” offering.  It demonstrates imagery of Christ, who will be the ultimate and complete burnt offering.

Chapter 1 of Leviticus issues the invitation to come back to intimate relationship with God, and it demonstrates the transition from man climbing up to see God to God descending to live among men.  His sovereignty and omnipresence are on display in the Tabernacle system, and his calling out to Moses–not from the mountain, but from the Tabernacle–is a demonstration of his desire for relationship with humanity.  Personal. Close. Intimate.

 

See you next time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


2 thoughts on “Leviticus Chapter 1 – The Burnt Offering

  1. Thanks so much for doing this series. I’m starting Leviticus in my Bible reading plan today. I look forward to your insights on this great book. Grace and peace to you 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s