Leviticus, Chapter 6:8-13 – The Law of the Burnt Offering

This beautiful glass piece was uploaded to Haggadot.com by Jennifer Labin. There is no mention of where the glass is displayed or whether Ms. Labin is the glass artist who made it.  If you have more information about this piece of art, please let me know.

I’m So Glad To Be Back!
I took several days after my last post to rest my eyes from the desktop monitor, and while I was doing that, our area of San Diego County experienced and confirmed its first locally-transmitted cases of the COVID-19 viral infection.  My daughter’s school was shut down.  My scheduled church activities (including my part-time position in the office and my Tuesday Ladies meetings) were cancelled.  Every roll of toilet paper, can of beans, and bag of flour in the San Diego metro area (which stretches from the Mexico-US border all the way to the southern ‘burbs of Los Angeles) totally evaporated.  Later the same week, we were put under a shelter in place order.  Figuring out our new normal came with serious stress and anxiety, which is a huge depression cycle trigger with me.  I had to address the anxiety to prevent that from happening, and a huge part of that was pulling back from activities that keep me “in my own head” too much.  Writing is one of those activities, so it had to be put on pause.

I spent the time working out, making sure we had staples in the house, cleaning things, checking in with relatives, and spending time with my now-at-home-all-day teenager.  The anxiety has come down a significant notch, and we’re all finding a groove.  I have missed the writing very much, and every day that I went to bed without writing felt really awful.  I am thrilled to finally be back in the work.

As I continue writing this series, I know that all of us will be dealing with new circumstances that aren’t what we would have chosen. Our schedules have been totally destroyed.  We’re not gathering on Sundays, and we won’t be together on Good Friday or Easter.  Our kids are not in school. Some of us are losing our incomes.  Some of us have at-risk relatives and friends to worry about.  Some of you might be at-risk, yourselves.  Some of us have corona-positive loved ones.  Some of us have already lost people to this disease.  Wherever we fit on that list, we’re all in an uncertain place right now.  It’s scary, sad, and unsettling.  Let’s all remember to pray for each other as we navigate the coming months as followers of Jesus.  It’s really gonna be rough some days, but we know that God can redeem our struggle and our grief.  Remember who he is, and remember that he sees it all.  He sees it.  He sees you.  He knows, and he cares, and he is with you.

Welcome Back to Leviticus
This post is one of the final installments in the “Blood and Guts” section of Leviticus.  Rather than introducing a new offering, as previous chapters have done, chapters 6 & 7 deal with what I think of as, “the addenda.” An addendum is simply a supplement or addition, and these two chapters contain additional laws for each of the offerings we’ve already studied.  In today’s parlance, we might call them the “further instructions” section of Leviticus.

As we go through chapters 6 & 7, you should keep in mind that all of these are instructions for the priests, and they were most likely added to Leviticus at some point after Solomon’s Temple was built.  We can feel pretty confident about this because they bring up some considerations that were not relevant prior to the Temple (as opposed to the Tabernacle/tent).  Many scholars go back and forth, some saying they were added during the Persian Era (c.500 BC) while others believe they are older, from as far back as the time of Solomon (c.950 BC).  Whenever these chapters were actually written, they are an important part of Leviticus because they bring up some very interesting things.

Before we start going through the text, let’s take a minute to review the memory information for each of the offerings we’ve already studied through.  We’ll be adding one more offering in chapter 23, the Drink Offering, but our list is now otherwise complete.

I recommend making index cards or some other tool that works for you to memorize these. My hope is that by the time you finish studying Leviticus, you’ll know what these offerings represent by heart and be able to keep them in your memory for the rest of your life.  Having that firmly cemented in your understanding of the Bible will illuminate so many other parts of Scripture for you.

Storing Up Treasure
The Purpose & Message of Each Offering

The Burnt Offering (Cover)
Purpose: to cover the offerer’s unholiness and make him acceptable in God’s presence
Message: Lord, I want to spend some time with you, in your presence, and I pray that you will find me acceptable.

The Grain Offering (Remember)
Purpose: to remember the covenant made between God and his people Israel
Message: Lord, I remember your promises to us and our promises to you. I take our covenant relationship seriously.

The Peace Offering (Fellowship)
Purpose: to eat a covenant meal in fellowship with God
Message: Lord, I enjoy being in your presence, and I enjoy the peaceful fellowship between us.  Thank you for being our God and making us your people.

The Purification Offering (Decontamination)
Purpose: to remove unholy/unclean corruption from sacred space
Message: Lord, I recognize that my unholiness has contaminated the holy space that you so graciously inhabit to dwell among us. I pray that this offering will cleanse the corruption from the Tabernacle and atone for the offense.

The Guilt Offering (Restitution)
Purpose: to repay debts caused by sin against a neighbor or the community
Message: Lord, I am guilty of sinning against you and my fellow man, and my debt must be paid. I pray that this offering will make full restitution to restore my relationships with both you and my neighbor.

Six Little Verses…So Much to Cover

Leviticus 5-6 in my personal Bible.  I’ve included this photo so you can see my highlighting system. It might look chaotic to others, but for my brain…it divides the page quite nicely. I use color; you might use something totally different.  Use whatever methods work for you to pull out the structure, repetition, & important phrases.

Open your Bible and read Leviticus 6 & 7.  

We’re only going to cover six verses today, because this got very long, very quickly.  We won’t need a separate post for each addendum, but this first one is full of things we should dig down into.  Even though we’re only looking at the first portion of this Scripture in detail, I want you to read both chapters today as one solid block, and you’ll see why as you go through it.  They’re completely related, and it all belongs together.

Notice how many times you see “The Lord spoke to Moses” and “This is the law of the __ offering” as you read along.  Mark them as you go, but don’t get distracted by this; there’s no quiz at the end.  I just want you to see how often it appears in these chapters.

You’ll remember from the last post that we said “and the Lord spoke to Moses” marks a pause in the conversation.  When we see it, it means we’re changing subjects or changing tone.  I highlight these in my Bible so I can visually see where each section begins and ends.  In the photo of my Chapter 6 page above, you can see I’ve used blue to mark every instance of “the Lord spoke to Moses.”  I have used green to mark every instance of “this is the law of the offering.”  Use whatever method works for you to note these phrases because they will help you divide chapters 6 & 7 into logical passages.

Okay, so let’s dig in for today’s text.

Verses 8-13: The Law of the Burnt Offering

The Lord spoke to Moses“Command Aaron and his sons: This is the law of the burnt offering; the burnt offering itself must remain on the altar’s hearth all night until morning, while the fire of the altar is kept burning on it. 10 The priest is to put on his linen robe and linen undergarments. He is to remove the ashes of the burnt offering the fire has consumed on the altar, and place them beside the altar. 11 Then he will take off his garments, put on other clothes, and bring the ashes outside the camp to a ceremonially clean place12 The fire on the altar is to be kept burning; it must not go out. Every morning the priest will burn wood on the fire. He is to arrange the burnt offering on the fire and burn the fat portions from the fellowship offerings on it. 13 Fire must be kept burning on the altar continually; it must not go out.
Leviticus 6:8-13, CSB, emphasis added

In these verses, we’re going to look in closely at several things, and I’ll list them here as questions, because that’s how they typically hit us the first time we see it, right?

  • Why is the priest putting on special underwear to shovel ashes?
  • Why is the ash heap in a ceremonially clean (holy) place & what’s the big deal with the ashes, anyway?
  • Why is the fire under the altar important, and why are we told twice, with great emphasis, to never let it go out?

Okay, so with these three questions in mind, let’s start with the first one…the special linen underwear the priest must wear to deal with the ashes.  For the necessary context on this, you’ll need to mark your page in Leviticus 6 and then open your Bible to Exodus 28.  You may recall from a previous post that I said these are the “boring chapters” of Exodus that most people just skip over.  I also said they were important chapters because they give us information about everything in the Tabernacle system.  Once you’re in Exodus 28, you’ll notice that you’re in a chapter about priestly raiment, which is just a fancy word for “clothes.”  Exodus 28 talks about each item of clothing the priests will wear, what they will look like, and what they’ll be made from.  In Exodus 28:39, we get to the linen robe and undergarment section.  Let’s look at the verses that apply:

39 “You are to weave the tunic from fine linen, make a turban of fine linen, and make an embroidered sash. 40 Make tunics, sashes, and headbands for Aaron’s sons to give them glory and beauty. 41 Put these on your brother Aaron and his sons; then anoint, ordain, and consecrate them, so that they may serve me as priests. 42 Make them linen undergarments to cover their naked bodies; they must extend from the waist to the thighs. 43 These must be worn by Aaron and his sons whenever they enter the tent of meeting or approach the altar to minister in the sanctuary area, so that they do not incur guilt and die. This is to be a permanent statute for Aaron and for his future descendants.
Exodus 28:39-43, emphasis added

Okay, so in this passage, we see the command to make these linen garments, and we’re given their function…and we’re told why.  Very handy, this passage.  Let’s flip back over to Leviticus 6, now.

Priestly Underwear
The linen garments, which look like a linen tunic and linen boxer briefs, more or less, are to be used whenever a priest works inside the tent of meeting AND whenever a priest approaches the altar of the sanctuary.  The reason given is: to cover their naked bodies so the priests do not incur guilt and die.  This should immediately put you in mind of the burnt offering, right?  These linen garments are providing a cover for the priest’s nakedness.  That’s the purpose of the burnt offering for everyone in Israel, but clearly there’s something special going on with these linen clothes above and beyond that.

Why would the priests incur guilt by not wearing boxer briefs and an undershirt?  That’s the question we have to solve here.  Commentaries disagree on the answer, and that’s no surprise because scholarly interpretations always diverge in the weird passages.  Be that as it may, there are usually overlaps of agreement, and that is where we start.

What most seem to agree on is that the priestly linen clothes were about covering the priest’s nudity in public to keep him ceremonially clean (just like the burnt offering).  From there, opinions start to separate, but the following is what made most sense to me:

The gathering and removal of ashes takes place daily, and as anyone who’s ever cleaned a barbecue grill knows, it is dirty work.  Plus, these are the remains of dead animals, which Israelites are not supposed to touch (more on that in later chapters). The priest would not want to soil his regular clothing with this job.  We also know, from art and religious practice in the Ancient Near East (ANE), it was extremely common for priests to do a lot of their work in the nude.  Leviticus, however, says, “No. God doesn’t want Israel to do it that way.”

Ancient Israel was not put off by naked bodies. They were not squeamish about nudity, sex, and genitals in the same way that we are in the USA or the UK.  They were very Scandinavian about the whole thing, if I had to find a good modern comparison.  Nudity did not necessarily equal sexual immodesty for the Israelites, and that’s how the Scandinavian nations tend to view it, too.  If you’ve ever been there, you’ll have noticed that our brothers and sisters in those nations are very casual about physical nakedness, and it has nothing to do with immorality.  I had a Swedish friend who was totally confused about American notions of body modesty, and I’ll never forget how her nose crinkled in amusement after I explained that Americans are typically uncomfortable in communal showers or bathing areas.  “Why?” she asked, and it truly made no sense to her.  Ancient Israel was somewhat/sort of like my Swedish friend in this regard.

Anyway, covering nakedness in the Bible is not about covering up skin; it’s about covering sin.  So…this linen underwear rule is not about being “appropriate” or “modest.”  This is about being holy.

In Leviticus…it is always about being HOLY.

If you’ll remember back to the Introduction post, I mentioned that ANE religion was comprised of several practices that Israel was forbidden to use.  One of the most prominent forms of worship in Canaan was ritualistic sex.  The belief was essentially that fertility on earth required fertility in the divine realm.  The gods and goddesses needed to be having sex together for the crops to come in and for women to have babies.  In practice, this meant going to the temple or an idol and emulating what you wanted the gods to do.  Lots of pagan priests spent a lot of time naked in the exercise of their duties, and ritual sex was a part of their role.  God didn’t like that at all, which gets expressed much more explicitly later in Leviticus, and he wanted Israel to take no part in it.

Given all of that, separation from pagan practices and separation from the image of a pagan priest is probably the main thing in view here.  The priests of Israel are to be different. They are to be ceremonially clean, morally clean, and totally set apart from religious leaders of the outside world.  Those with allegiance to the God of Israel must be holy.  That is likely the main image we’re acting out with the linen covering.

Plus, it’s just the explanation that makes the most sense.

The priests of Israel were always on display.  From dawn until dusk, people were coming to the entrance of the tent of meeting.  The open air courtyard was full of people bringing offerings, seeking help from the priests, washing sacrifices at the laver, or eating together.  This place was a constant buzz of activity, so a priest had to be mindful.  Whether he was cleaning the ashes, climbing up to the altar, spreading blood to preserve sacred space, eating a meal, or interacting with the people, a priest of God’s Tabernacle/Temple was never to be confused with a pagan priest.  His sexuality could never be brought into his role or his duties, and his ceremonial cleanliness had to be meticulously maintained.

Once Solomon’s Temple was built, the altar for burnt offerings was raised up, and the priest had to climb stairs to reach it.  If he wasn’t wearing anything under his robe, everyone gathered below him would see…well, everything.

The Ash Heap
Now, let’s deal with our second question, which is “what’s the deal with the ashes?”  Well, the ashes are from dead animals.  Touching dead animals would make you unclean because death cannot abide in God’s presence.  It’s unholy, and if you touch unholiness, it rubs off on you.  Once you’re soiled by unholiness, it has to be dealt with before you can go back into sacred space.  So…all of that to say this:  the ashes could not stay in the Tabernacle.

On the other hand, these ashes are the remains of offerings sent up to God as a pleasing aroma.  We can’t chuck them out just anywhere, but they can’t stay here.  The ash heap was the solution to this problem.  The ash heap was a consecrated holy place, kept ceremonially clean but outside of the camp.  It was created and maintained specifically for the disposal of these offering remains.

Now that you’ve learned about all of the offerings, does this level of concern for such details make more sense than it would have before?

The priest could not contaminate his fine robes of office with the ashes of unclean death, so he removes that robe and wears only the linen undergarments to sweep them up and collect them for transport.  He goes back to change into proper clothes once this is done, and one can presume he followed the rules for bathing after touching death (we’ll get there) before putting his regular clothes back on.  Now, he’s ready to walk through the camp among the people with these ashes.  They go on the heap, carefully and respectfully, safely outside of God’s sacred space.

It sounds like a whole lot of hassle, and I’m sure it was, but the point was to consistently preserve a circle of inviolable and sterile holiness for God’s dwelling place.  It’s all about holiness and the preservation of sacred space.  All of it.

Eternal Flame, Eternal Covenant, & Eternal Cover
Okay, so let’s get to the third question, which is the flame never going out.  Personally, this was one of the pieces of Leviticus that made my heart flutter and gave me a smile, even the very first time I read it.

We’re all familiar with the concept of an eternal flame, right?  We see it in the Olympic torch, and anyone who’s read mythology or fantasy novels will have run across the idea.  In Leviticus, however, it’s so much more meaningful.

The burnt offerings were given in the morning and in the evening, twice per day, so that a pleasing aroma was constantly going up to the Lord.  Constant praise, constant worship, and constant cover for the people.

This is a complex image of eternity.  The eternal nature of God.  The eternal nature of the covenant.  The eternal need for cover in God’s holy presence.  It’s a gorgeous picture, isn’t it?  The flame must never go out.

Margin note from January 2020.

I’m sorry I was gone for so long, but I’m back now, and I’ll see you in the next one.  I’m hoping to cover everything through the end of chapter 7 in the next post.  We’ll see how it comes out as I write it.



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