This week, our portion is Tzav (Lev 6:8-8), meaning “command.” As mentioned in the last entry, I’m going to be writing about the chief offerings of the Mosaic sacrificial system here, of which there’re 5 (the first 3 voluntary, the last 2 required). … More specifically, I’ll be looking at them in light of Romans 12:1,
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.
As a trained Pharisee who continued to observe the Biblical feasts and sacrifices after believing in Yeshua (see, for example, Acts 18:20-21, Acts 21:26), and who found great respect and acceptance among other Jewish believers who were zealous for the law, I believe Paul had a whole world of meaning in mind when he wrote that line… a meaning that would’ve been clear to any Jew who’d been taught to cherish and perform the sacrifices at the Temple (and who’d, especially, had their eyes further opened with understanding in the Messiah).
As I’ve written before, a physical action or object given in the law is often a means of opening up a greater vision and understanding of spiritual things, because God chose to ground His people in the truth via the concrete media of visual, tactile worship. He helps us apprehend the heavenly by rooting us in the earthly because He made us, and He knows how we tick. And as corrupted as the practices of pagan idolatry are, I believe they’re actually based on the same principles of sacramental worship towards God that are found in Genesis, and which culminate in Leviticus – even though they’ve been co-opted and counterfeited by the enemy for his own ends.
Accordingly, when I read about the sacrifices, I can’t help looking at them as a person who used to offer such things herself, albeit to lesser and undeserving gods. And when I do that, I find myself appreciating/understanding them with the eyes of a worshipper… except now, these eyes see through the correction of a Biblical lens.
So in writing this, I’m basically summing up the things which stand out most to me about the sacrifices. It is by no means perfect or comprehensive an understanding; I expect to grow and learn ever more about this subject in the future… but for now, this is what I see.
The Olah (עֹלָה)
Also referred to as the whole burnt offering in Scripture. In Hebrew, the root עלה connotes going up, so one could call this the elevation/ascension offering as well. The sages give various explanations for why it’s named thus. Some say it’s because the offering is completely burned, i.e. it goes up in flames to God; others say it’s because it raises the offerer to a state of spiritual elevation; while still others say that it’s because the olah is superior to the other sacrifices, being brought out of the individual’s free will and offered in its entirety on the altar.
Whatever the case, this offering had a couple of things in common with the other sacrifices, in that the offerer had to lay hands on the sacrificial animal in order to identify himself with it, then slaughter it with his own hands (Jewish Christian scholar Alfred Edersheim, in fact, reported that the rabbis mention 5 acts as belonging to the offerer of a sacrifice: laying on hands, slaughtering, skinning, cutting up into pieces, and the washing of the innards; while another 5 belonged to the priests: catching up the blood, sprinkling it, lighting the altar fire, laying on the wood, and bringing up the pieces, as well as anything else that was done at the altar itself).
So whatever else transpired, the responsibility to take the life of the sacrificial animal was the offerer’s, and the offerer’s alone. I think this is because God wanted the worshipper to feel the weight of what he was doing – that he was truly and personally responsible for the offering of another life in place of his own. … In short, He was grounding the Israelites in the truth and necessity of substitutionary atonement so it would become a part of their spiritual psyche.
In light of that, the most interesting thing about this sacrifice, to me, is the way it’s offered: whether it was a bull, goat or sheep, the animal had to be burned whole – head, fat, pieces, entrails and legs. And when one thinks about the fact that the person was supposed to be identified with the sacrifice, one can almost see God teaching the Hebrews what it means to offer oneself to Him in worship through the picture of the olah – i.e. it has to be done completely out of the person’s free will, and in a total capacity, just as every part of the animal was placed on the altar. Additionally, the insides and feet had to be washed clean first… a statement not only about the need for personal purity and integrity in the believer, but a vivid pointer forward, I think, to the night when the Lord washed His disciples’ feet and declared them clean (John 13:3-11).
So when you study the olah, you can see a portrait of what it means to worship God wholeheartedly: to be a living olah is to be a vessel of complete commitment, where no part of you is left out and your insides and walk are clean and acceptable to Him.
The Minha (מִנְחָה)
This was the grain/meal offering. The 19th century German rabbi, Samson R. Hirsch, commented that the word מִנְחָה, which means gift, implies a tribute to a superior; that grain, as a staple of the human diet, represents our very existence – that oil symbolises comfort, and frankincense represents joy and satisfaction – and that by offering these together, the offerer acknowledges that life, joy and comfort are from God alone.
Personally, I see it a little differently. Because of the 3 sacrificial principles outlined in the previous entry – communion, atonement and substitutionary identification – I believe that the offerings are all, in some way, a pictorial lesson of how we’re to offer ourselves to God. So like the olah, I think the minha offers another source of insight.
If you read Leviticus 2, you’ll notice that the grain offering has several particular instructions as to its presentation before God: if the offering took the form of raw flour, it had to be finely ground; if the flour was cooked, it was to be baked or fried; and if the offering was of the firstfruits and consisted of whole grain heads, they had to be beaten and roasted in the fire first. In short, in all its various forms, the minha had to be prepared through a process of applying hard pressure, sifting, and heat. Moreover, the offering had to be salted, and on no account was it to be offered with honey or leaven (unless it was in the form of the 2 loaves of Pentecost, which were leavened and waved before the Lord, but not offered on the altar to be burned).
To me, all these details point toward a truth of which Charles Spurgeon wrote:
God’s people have their trials. It was never designed by God, when He chose His people, that they should be an untried people. They were chosen in the furnace of affliction; they were never chosen to worldly peace and earthly joy.
If you think about it, believers are referred to using the imagery of wheat throughout the Scriptures, and Yeshua even likened Himself to a grain of wheat. To my mind, there’s a correlation. Even the oil that accompanied the minha was made through the crushing/pressing of olives, while frankincense was obtained by bleeding trees; the entire offering is thus a picture of a wholesome, fine, rich and fragrant sacrifice prepared through processes of effort and patience (of course, on a symbolic level, oil and frankincense are also, respectively, used to represent the Holy Spirit and prayer, so one could construe the offering as an indication that believers become acceptable offerings to God through trial and suffering, but with the oil of the Spirit to anoint and saturate them, and the comfort of prayer as well).
Salt, on the other hand, is a purifier and preserver… even being used in Yeshua’s teachings to allude to the essential savour which believers must possess if they are to be effective agents for God in a corrupt world; while the prohibition of leaven, I think, doesn’t need further explanation… leaven being a symbol of pride and corruption directly antithetical to the message of salt. And while I’m as yet unsure of the exact reasons for barring honey, it is taught in Jewish tradition that the sweetness of honey symbolises the pursuit of pleasure – and this fits with the overall picture which the minha seems to illustrate, that believers are to be tried and not given to the delectations of the world.
The Shelamim (שְׁלָמִים)
This is the peace offering, from the root word שָׁלֵם (shaleim), meaning complete, whole, perfect, safe, at peace. It’s the same root from which the word “shalom” is derived, as well as the word for whole, שְׁלֵמוֹת (sheleimoth).
There’s a reason, I believe, the shelamim is placed right in the centre of the 5 offerings. The first 2 sacrifices are about man approaching God, while the last 2 are about man seeking pardon from God; and like the olah and minha, the shelamim is a freewill offering – the last one, in fact – but I think it’s about more than just man approaching God. I believe the shelamim is about man fellowshipping, or having peace, with God… and therefore, it’s the closest equivalent to Communion in the Mosaic covenant.
I’ve several reasons for this line of thinking. First, when the Hebrew text talks about offering the peace offering, it uses the word זֶבַח (zevah), which literally means slaughter. But the word has a secondary meaning: where context demands it, according to the great French rabbi Rashi, it can also mean feast. And Rabbi Hirsch noted that the shelamim is the only offering with which the word זֶבַח appears, which is relevant to the manner in which the peace offering was eaten: because “during the eating of the peace-offering’s flesh, the owner would invite his family, friends, and acquaintances to partake of his feast, and in the assembly of friends he would praise God and tell them of His kindness.”
This bears an unmistakable resemblance to the love feasts of the early church, where disciples of the Lord gathered to take Communion, eat, and praise God together. And interestingly, the shelamim is the only offering that is referred to as a food offering on the altar, or לֶחֶם אִשֶּׁה (lehem isheh, literally “bread that is burned” or “bread of fire”) – which, if you think about it, sounds strange because God is spirit and doesn’t eat human food. But when you also recall the fact that in Biblical culture, food was a symbol of fellowship and treaties/covenants were often made/ratified over the breaking of bread and shared food, the message becomes clear: when people offered this particular sacrifice to God, He accepted it as if it were His food. And by extension, therefore, He was at peace/in fellowship with His people as they ate their share of the offering… for apart from the designated portions that were meant for the altar and the priest, most of the shelamim was meant to be consumed by the offerer.
To me, all this points toward the ultimate shelamim for humankind – Yeshua Himself, the Prince of Peace, through whom we have reconciliation and fellowship with God – and His famous words in John 6:
“I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world. … Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me.”
Through faith, we partake of what Yeshua did for us at the cross; and He instituted Communion as a way for His followers to remember this, of which Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26:
The Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said,“Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.
To me, this is an indication that Communion, like the shelamim, is a freewill offering: it has no specified limit and may be partaken of as often as the believer feels to do, to avail themselves of the remembrance, thanksgiving and power which the sacrament affords… because it’s ultimately a celebration and commemoration of the Lord’s work, just as the peace offering was both a sign of the Israelite worshipper’s gratitude toward God, and a way of rejoicing in His goodness with Him, in the company of other people.
… In fact, this idea can still be discerned, today, in the way extant Aramaic-speaking churches continue to refer to Communion as “Qorbana Qadisha”, or Holy Offering – the language indicating that they understand the victuals of Communion to be an offering to God that will allow them to draw close to Him once again, when His Holy Spirit descends to imbue the bread and wine with sacramental power… man and God sharing sacred, intimate, life-changing company through the consumption of an offering of food.
As Edersheim wrote:
The most joyous of all sacrifices was the peace-offering, or, as from its derivation it might also be rendered, the offering of completion.
This was, indeed, a season of happy fellowship with the Covenant God, in which He condescended to become Israel’s Guest at the sacrificial meal, even as He was always their Host. Thus it symbolised the spiritual truth expressed in Revelation 3:20, ‘Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me.’ In peace-offerings the sacrificial meal was the point of main importance. Hence the name ‘Sevach,’ by which it is designated in the Pentateuch, and which means ‘slaying,’ in reference to a meal. It is this sacrifice which is so frequently referred to in the Book of Psalms as the grateful homage of a soul justified and accepted before God (Psa 51:17; 54:6; 56:12; 116:17-18). If, on the one hand, then, the ‘offering of completion’ indicated that there was complete peace with God, on the other, it was also literally the offering of completeness.
Now before I move on to the next sacrifice, there’re a couple of final things I’d like to note. Unlike the other offerings, which have the sex of the sacrificial animal explicitly stated in the instructions, the shelamim could be a male or female… which, to me, is an echo of Galatians 3:26-28:
For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
While there are discernible symbolic reasons for God to specify which sex of animal should be offered in the other sacrifices, here, it’s as if He’s saying that male and female are both acceptable to Him, without qualification. And secondly, Leviticus 3 says:
The fat that covers the entrails and all the fat that is on the entrails, the two kidneys and the fat that is on them by the flanks, and the fatty lobe attached to the liver above the kidneys, he shall remove; and Aaron’s sons shall burn it on the altar upon the burnt sacrifice, which is on the wood that is on the fire, as an offering made by fire, a sweet aroma to the Lord.
This means that when a peace offering was made, the flesh of the animal was consumed by humans, but the choice fat and innards were placed on the altar as the offering. To me, that echoes Psalm 51, where David writes that God desires truth in the inward parts. So when you look at the shelamim, it seems to speak on 2 levels: that the way to have peace with God is to give Him the best of your inward parts, and enjoy His blessings with thanksgiving in His presence; and to feed on the atoning, mediating work of His Son, the ultimate shelamim, as often as you see fit.
The Hattath (חַטָּאת)
This is the sin offering, from the word חָטָא (hata), which, literally, means to miss the mark. It was required to atone for unintentional transgression of negative commandments in the law (i.e. inadvertent violation of one of the “thou-shalt-nots”). More specifically, the sages say that the commandment in question had to be one for which the offender would incur the penalty of being cut off from the people if he/she had violated it intentionally (e.g. if they ate leaven during the Feast of Unleavened Bread). So the scope of atonement for this sacrifice is actually quite narrow and well defined.
There are 2 things about the hattath that I find especially interesting. The first has to do with the animals that were supposed to be offered. In particular, both the High Priest and the entire assembly of Israel were required to bring bulls as sin offerings – which indicates that the life of the single individual of the High Priest was equivalent to the life of the entire nation, because both required the same level of atonement. … As a Christian, this is significant to me because here, we see that Moses is teaching us that the life of one Man can equal the life of the entire assembly of God. Thus while Yeshua didn’t need to bring a sin offering for Himself, as our sinless High Priest, His life was truly sufficient, by the measure of the Torah, to cover that of the entire people of God. Moreover, the blood of the sin offerings of both the High Priest and nation had to be brought into the Tabernacle and sprinkled before the curtain of the Holy of Holies and placed on the horns of the incense altar, on top of being offered at the altar of burnt offering – indicating a greater need and more significant level of atonement than that of an individual leader of the people, or a commoner, whose blood offerings were only made at the altar of burnt offering.
The second interesting thing has to do with the way the sin offering was offered. Leviticus 4 explicitly says that the fat and choice innards of the sacrificial animal were to be placed on the altar, just like the peace offering, while the hide, flesh, head, legs, entrails and waste were to be taken outside the camp and burned. To me, that’s a picture of what it means to repent from sin – again, as written in Psalm 51, we must offer the best of our inward parts to Him in truth, but destroy everything else to do with the flesh. This is the only way a believer can be cleansed of the effects of sin… and when we do this, God receives us with as much joy and condescension as if we were offering Him a peace offering – as if we were already reconciled to Him.
The Asham (אָשָׁם)
This is the last of the offerings, and the most explicit and serious of all. Unlike חָטָא (hata), which means to miss the mark, the word אָשָׁם (asham), according to Nahmanides, comes from the word שְׁמָמָה (“shemama”, meaning desolation), indicating a greater degree of guilt than the sin offering – for the sins listed under this offering (denying testimony, contaminating holy things through impurity, and false or unkept oaths) involve a certain degree of awareness/prior knowledge, as opposed to the inadvertent errors covered by the hattath.
But there is grace involved with the asham, for depending on the means of the offender, God decreed that a person may bring an animal, a pair of birds, or a meal offering to atone for their wrongdoing. And in my view, each of these options presents a bit of truth about what it means to repent when you’ve committed a deliberate sin:
- A female lamb or kid – unlike a male animal, which typically symbolised strength/authority, a female animal was a picture of humility and meekness, and it was fitting for a wealthy person to chasten themselves by identifying with such a creature after sinning deliberately against their fellow man and God
- A pair of turtledoves/pigeons – one bird was given first as a sin offering, then the other as a burnt offering, indicating that when one has sinned, one ought first to repent and seek forgiveness, but then rededicate and offer oneself wholeheartedly to God again, in acceptance and restoration
- 1/10 of an ephah of fine flour – this meal offering was given with no oil or frankincense, indicating that when one has sinned, it is fitting for one to be sober about what one has done… that repentance is not a time for pleasantness, but for coming before God bare and unadorned
Apart from this, there were 3 other categories of wrongdoing listed in Leviticus 5 for which an asham was supposed to be offered: sinning against the holy things of God (or more specifically, according to the sages, misappropriating Sanctuary property for personal use), being unsure of whether one has committed a wrong for which a hattath is required, and theft/robbery (other instances where an asham is required are found in Leviticus 14:13-14, Leviticus 19:20-21 and Numbers 6:12, but they will not be discussed here). These largely fall under the same categories of wrongdoing as the earlier asham sins, but are more severe, so for these, the sacrificial animal is uniform: a ram, with a restitution payment and 1/5 fine of silver added on top in case of robbery/theft and sinning against Sanctuary property.
Thus God shows that apart from His desire to have grace on lesser (though no less sinful) sins, He also takes their progression seriously, and will not accord the same kind of grace where it is clear that the sinner requires greater discipline.
So there you have it. The 5 sacrifices of Vayyiqra and Tzav. … Phew. I haven’t written a post this long in a while, but I hope you found some of it worth your time.
Next week, we read about strange fire, and the dietary laws.