Leviticus 1-4: Animal sacrifices

Introduction: Leviticus is named after the Levites, the priestly class in Israel.  It is focused on rituals and holiness.  Starting off with rules on sacrifices, it describes the consecration of the priesthood, dedication of the Tabernacle, permitted and forbidden foods, purification procedures following physical defilement, sexual crimes, festivals, laws against blasphemy, laws of slavery, and a few other topics.  Modern scholars agree that all of Leviticus belongs to the P source, but its dating is very controversial.

Leviticus 1-4: When you make a burnt offering, if the offering is cattle or sheep, bring it to the Tent of Meeting.  The priest shall slaughter it, dash the blood against all sides of the altar at the entrance, wash the entrails and legs with water, and burn the whole animal into smoke on the altar for a pleasing odor to the LORD.  If the offering is of birds, it shall be a turtledove or a pigeon, and the priest shall pinch off its head.  Meal offerings shall be of choice flour, mixed with oil and frankincense; the priest shall scoop out a portion to be burnt.  No meal offering shall be made with leaven; all meal offering shall be with salt.  For sacrifices of well-being, the priest shall dash the blood against all sides of the altar and burn the fat; the offering can be cattle, sheep, or goat.

When a person unwittingly breaks the LORD’s commandments, he shall make a purification offering.  This shall be a bull if the anointed priest or the whole community incurred guilt, a male goat for a chieftain, or a female goat for an ordinary person.  After slaughtering the animal, the priest must sprinkle some of the blood 7 times before the LORD in front of the curtain of the Holy of Holies and burn the fat on the altar.  He shall smear some blood on the horns of the altar–the altar of incense for the priest or whole community, the altar of burnt offering for the chieftain or ordinary person.

Commentary:

  • Before many offerings, the offerer is required to “lay his hand” upon the head of the animal.  This symbolically transfers ownership from the owner to the deity.
  • A burnt offering is where the entire animal is burnt, while in a well-being offering, only the blood and fat are burnt; the other portions can be eaten in a festive meal.  Both types are mostly voluntary, and can be done to give thanks, to beg for deliverance, or simply to pay homage to God.
  • During purification offerings, the blood is smeared on different altars for different offerers.  This is because transgressions by priests or the whole community are more serious than transgressions by chieftains or ordinary people.  Hence, in the former case, the blood must be smeared on the altar inside the Holy Place, whereas in the latter case, it is to be smeared on the outside altar.
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