So today, we start the book of Leviticus. The opening portion is titled Vayyiqra (Lev 1-6:7), meaning, “and he called.” We have a lot of ground to cover because it’s about the chief offerings of the sacrificial system, and due to lack of time again, I’m not going to be able to do what I want for this entry, which is to delve into the offerings themselves.
However, I looked at next week’s portion and saw that the two are quite closely connected; Vayyiqra focuses on what the sacrifices consist of and who they’re for, whereas Tzav is more about how they’re to be executed and consumed. They’re really 2 parts of the same subject. So what I thought I’d do, is lay out a few things which I think are foundational to understanding the sacrificial system here, then write up the sacrifices more fully and post it next week.
Many people think Leviticus is basically an antiquated manual of strange (even barbaric) rituals that no longer hold any meaning for us today. But the truth is, it forms the very heart of God’s law. The sacrificial system, especially, is indispensable to a properly rooted understanding of the Gospel message and some of Paul’s teachings. It forms the cornerstone of a truly Biblical soteriology, and when viewed correctly, radically deepens other related concepts in Scripture.
What’s more, the beauty of it is that even though these foundational concepts are really important, they’re actually incredibly simple. Which, to me, is a marker of divine wisdom – when something’s rich enough in profundity to inspire, stimulate and occupy students, philosophers and theologians down through the ages… yet simple enough for a child or unlearned person to grasp in a moment.
So the first thing I want to make note of is the word that’s often translated as sacrifice in the Bible: קָרְבָּן (qorban). In Hebrew, this is actually a rather generic term for an offering or gift; it doesn’t carry the same connotations of victimisation, violence or bloodshed which the English “sacrifice” tends to. Moreover, the verb from which this noun is derived refers to a drawing near, coming close, approaching or embracing, e.g. in Exodus 16:9 and Deuteronomy 5:27:
Then Moses spoke to Aaron, “Say to all the congregation of the children of Israel, ‘Come near (קִרְבוּ) before the Lord, for He has heard your complaints.’”
“You go near (קְרַב) and hear all that the Lord our God may say, and tell us all that the Lord our God says to you, and we will hear and do it.”
Which means that in the Bible, the main purpose of a sacrifice was not simply to spill the blood of an animal. Rather, one offered a קָרְבָּן in order to draw near to God (and in the process, allow God to draw near to one) – in other words, it was a form of communion.
… Granted, this communion was often only made possible by the shedding of blood, but that brings us to the next concept: atonement.
In English, the word “atone” typically means to make amends for a wrong done. It carries the implication that you can, in a sense, reverse what happened by doing something equivalent, or more, to make up for it. But this is not what the Hebrew root כפר (k’p’r) – which is the basis for words that’re often translated as atone – means.
In Hebrew, the root שׁלם (sh’l’m), which is often translated as restitution, is much closer to the English concept of atonement; it carries the connotation of restoration or completion, of making whole again. But according to the Scriptures, this is a separate, entirely different issue to כפר (k’p’r). Restitution means that it’s possible for you to make up for what you did (e.g. paying back something you stole), and has more to do with wrongs committed against your fellow man. But כפר, on the other hand, literally means to smear, or cover – it’s not to do with making amends at all, but rather to hide a sin so that God no longer imputes it to the sinner.
The concept of כפר teaches us that unlike sins against men, for which reparation is possible in many cases, there is no reversing a sin against God: His justice, moral perfection and holiness are absolute… such that to sin against Him is to be deserving of a permanent severance from His presence (i.e. death), and the only way to be spared this fate is to have your wrong covered over in an act of substitutionary punishment, so that it’s wiped from His sight and His justice ceases to pursue a penalty. This is why Leviticus 17:11 says,
כִּי נֶפֶשׁ הַבָּשָׂר בַּדָּם הִוא וַאֲנִי נְתַתִּיו לָכֶם עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ לְכַפֵּר עַל-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם כִּי-הַדָּם הוּא בַּנֶּפֶשׁ יְכַפֵּר
“For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar for a covering for your souls; for it is the blood that, in the place of the soul, makes a covering.”
From the beginning, the Scriptures testify that the punishment for sin against a holy God is death, and if a sinner is to be spared, then life must be given for life. There is no other remedy. In God’s justice system, you can never take back what you’ve done because God is absolutely righteous – as Creator, He is the Anchor and Guarantor of the universe, and as a perfectly good Being, He must take the final responsibility for what happens in His creation. He cannot fail to enforce His own standards on what He has created, and He cannot forget or overlook a wrong if it hasn’t been purged in a way that fully satisfies the demands of His absolute righteousness.
BUT, for the sake of mercy… another life can take on the punishment for you – one that is innocent of your sin, and therefore able to cover it – and He will accept it. Because the point is not to destroy His creation, which He loves, but to redress sins which offend His standards, and which spoil the moral order that He has instituted over all that He has made, so that relationship can be restored. And that brings us to the third concept in the sacrificial equation: the principle of substitutionary identification, or as it’s expressed in Hebrew, סְמִיכָה (semikha, meaning “leaning [of the hands]”).
This is described in Leviticus 1:4: “And he shall lay (וְסָמַךְ; “samakh”) his hand upon the head of the burnt-offering, and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him.” The idea is that because God wishes to fellowship with human beings, and doesn’t actually want them to die even though they’ve sinned against Him, He ordained certain means by which both communion and atonement could take place for Israel by means of proxy – hence the plant and animal-based offerings of the sacrificial system.
Of course, these offerings ultimately pointed toward the greatest, and final, sacrifice of them all – the Son of God Himself, who would shoulder and permanently wipe out the record of humanity’s sins for all of history via the shedding of His perfectly holy (and therefore all-sufficient) blood, to restore us to a full and unbroken relationship with God.
But that’s really the subject of the next post. For now, suffice it to say that because God wanted to fellowship with us, and because He didn’t want to just put people to death for their sins, He instructed Israel to present certain offerings at His altar and to lay their hands on said offerings so that they would, in essence, be identified with the offering in a substitutionary capacity. So when an Israelite offered an animal on the altar, it was as if they were offering themselves: if they needed a covering for their sin, the blood of the animal would stand in for their own life, and serve as their expiation; if they wished to serve God and worship Him, their offering would act as a physical expression of that desire to draw near to Him, and facilitate His communing with them by functioning as a food offering (Leviticus 3:11, 16) – food being a symbol and means of fellowship in Biblical culture.
And because of this principle of sacrificial identification, we are able to be reconciled to God, in the same way, by laying hold of Yeshua and what He did for us at the cross. In both cases, it’s ultimately an act of identification through faith. Next week, I’ll be delving more into this.