As a 21st Century Christian woman, it is really hard for me to understand what it would be like to be an Israelite, camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai, getting the instructions from God about how offerings should be made.
I don't have a good grasp on what level of participation I would be allowed to have as a woman. The thought of animal sacrifice as a means of worship makes me pretty squeamish, and I can't even get a good picture in my mind of what it would be like to be there. Even the way I default to think as an individual instead of thinking as a community is different from the way the Israelites would have thought. Yet, this is included in the Bible and I believe that the whole Bible inspired by God, teaches us what is true, shows us what is wrong in our lives, corrects us when we need correction and shows us how to live (2 Timothy 3:16). I also believe that the whole Bible is the story in which God is the hero and he unfolds his plan to rescue His children who were lost through the work of Jesus the Messiah. I want to find and understand God as a hero in these regulations and laws that seem so foreign to me. Right now I have so many more questions than I have answers and that feels uncomfortable for me.
Here is where I am starting to look for answers. (You can find my list of sources here)
- I have been reading slowly through Leviticus 1 paying attention to all of the footnotes in the NLT Study Bible.
- I have also read through Leviticus 1 a few different translations (The Message, ESV, NIV and NLT). Sometimes reading the same passage in a few translations helps me understand more but I'm not sure that I found much difference between translations in Leviticus 1.
- I have been praying that God will help me understand more about Him through this book.
- I have been reading through the Introductions of the New American Commentary as well as Holiness to the Lord and now I am working on the commentary on Leviticus 1 in both books.
- I have been listening to a sermon series on Leviticus.
- I have also asked a friend who has been to seminary as well as a mentor some of my questions, and they are going to help me try and find sources that would be helpful.
Using these steps I have come up with a few observations.
This first offering is the Burnt Offering. It is an atoning sacrifice, or simply put a sacrifice that cleaned the worshiper and brought them into fellowship with God. It was made at the entrance to the Tabernacle and wasn't related to any specific known sin. Instead it was made to allow the worshiper to be in the presence of God. This sacrifice could be made with a variety of different animals but needed to be a male with no defect (except gender isn't specified for birds). This entire offering was burnt with the exception of the skin of the animal which was given to the priest, and the aroma pleased the Lord.
- God begins his instructions in Leviticus 1 with the assumption being made that offerings would be brought. Sacrificial offerings had been going on before this, and God is giving instructions for how offerings should be made to please Him. I think that God was working through a system that was already in place for both the Israelites as well as for the nations around them. God was speaking a language they already understood. I am really curious how this was different from what they experienced in Egypt, or what they will be experiencing once they reach the promised land and I'm planning on researching to see what I can learn through this comparison.
- As a Christian I can also see how God is teaching and preparing the Israelites for the future ultimate sacrifice that Jesus would make as the Messiah. In Leviticus 1:4 the worshiper is instructed to place their hand on the head of the bull that is being sacrificed so that "the Lord would accept its death in your place to purify you, making your right with him." For me it is one of the first glimpses that Jesus is intricately woven into this book of the Bible.
- God set up a system so that everyone could participate. God includes instructions for the offering of bulls, goat, sheep, doves, and pigeons. Through a little research I was able to discover that the cost of some of these animals would have been so expensive that it would have kept some members of the community from being able to make an offering. If you were wealthy, a bull was an appropriate offering, but if you were poor a dove or pigeon was appropriate. Offerings were expected to be costly, but God demonstrates that coming into His presence was not only for the wealthy.
- Making offerings was physical. It involved all the senses of the worshipers. It was noisy, messy, had unique smells, and involved physical effort. Making offerings also took the extended preparation and effort of raising an animal, not just a financial cost.
As I was listening to the sermon series on Leviticus (you can find it here) and I heard Daniel Harrell describe sacrifice in a way that had really changed my understanding. He says that most of us understand the idea of sacrifice as something that we are giving up. His example is someone giving up or "sacrificing" chocolate for lent. They think about how much they are giving up, and withholding from themselves, and it can easily become a burden to participate. He then goes on to say that the idea of sacrifice should really be more like a gift. A better picture would be if he gave his wife a really expensive box of chocolates. There would be a financial cost, he wouldn't be eating the chocolate, but it would be more about giving his wife an amazing gift than it would be about his own self-sacrifice. I am trying to let this new idea saturate my understanding of Leviticus. I think that as I sit with this longer it will not only change how I understand the sacrificial system, but also how I see the sacrifice that Jesus made for us.