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Bible Commentaries
Leviticus 1

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes



Leviticus continues revelation concerning the second of three elements necessary for any nation to exist, namely, a people (Genesis 12:10 - Exodus 19), their law (Exodus 20 - Numbers 10:10), and their land (Numbers 10:11 - Joshua 24). The first major section of Leviticus deals with how the Israelites were to conduct their public life as an expression of worship to God.

"The fact that the covenant between Yahweh and Israel was modeled after those of the ancient Near East in both form and function allows one to understand the myriad of cultic detail in the Pentateuch with unusual clarity. The sacrifices and offerings were designed to demonstrate the subservience of Israel, to atone for her offenses against her Sovereign, Yahweh, and to reflect the harmoniousness and peaceableness of the relationship thus established or reestablished." [Note: Merrill, p. 57. Cf. Wenham, pp. 25-26.]

"Put differently, the main concern of Leviticus 1-16 is the continuance of the presence of God in the midst of the sinful nation, while Leviticus 17-27 records the effect of the presence of God upon the congregation. Consequently the abiding presence of God in the midst of the nation spans the entire contents of the Book of Leviticus." [Note: Rooker, p. 42. ]

Thus the movement in Leviticus is from doctrine (chs. 1-16) to practice (chs. 17-27), as in Romans 1-11, 12-16 and in Ephesians 1-3, 4-6. Similarly the content of Leviticus reflects that of the Ten Commandments, where the first four commandments deal with the believer’s relationship to God and the last six his or her relationship to other people.

A. The laws of sacrifice chs. 1-7

God designed these offerings to teach the Israelites as well as to enable them to worship Him; they had both a revelatory and a regulatory purpose. They taught the people what was necessary to maintain and restore the believers’ communion with God in view of their sin and defilement.

"The servant, therefore, had to approach his Sovereign at His dwelling place by presenting an appropriate token of his obedient submission." [Note: Merrill, p. 57.]

"Sacrifice is at the heart of all true worship. It serves as the consecrating ritual for participation in the holy rites, it forms the appropriate tribute due to the LORD, and it represents the proper spiritual attitude of the worshiper." [Note: Ross, p. 73.]

"The examination of individual sacrifices that follows leads to a covenantal interpretation of sacrifice in Israel. Covenant refers to the relationship that exists between God and his people Israel. This covenant relationship is related to sacrifice in three ways. First, sacrifice is a gift on the part of the worshiper to his covenant Lord. Second, a number of sacrifices include a notion of communion or fellowship between covenant partners. Last, and perhaps most important, sacrifice plays a major role in healing rifts in the covenant relationship. This function is frequently described by the technical theological term expiation." [Note: Longman and Dillard, p. 85.]

The regulations that follow do not contain all the detail that we would need to duplicate these sacrifices. Only information that helps the reader understand and appreciate future references to the offerings appears. In this respect the present section of text is similar to the instructions concerning the tabernacle. Neither section gives us all the information we could want, but both tell us all that we need to know.

"They [chapters 1-7] may be compared to the genealogies in Genesis and those at the beginning of 1 Chronicles, whose purpose is to introduce the main characters of the subsequent narratives." [Note: Sailhamer, pp. 323-24.]

Each offering involved three objects:

1. The offerer (the person bringing the offering)

2. The offering (the animal or other object being offered)

3. The mediator (the priest).

There were important differences between the offerings. [Note: For charts of these differences in more detail, see The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, pp. 168-71.]

1. Each offering was different from the other offerings.

2. Within each offering there were different options of what the offerer could present and how he could offer them.

The first three offerings were "soothing aroma" offerings. The last two also go together because they were not soothing aromas. The first three were offerings of worship that were a sweet aroma to God because they were made in communion and to celebrate communion with the Lord. Each of these offerings reveals what is essential for or what results from a relationship between a redeemed sinner and a holy God. The last two were offerings of expiation for sin and were therefore not a sweet savor to God. These two offerings reveal how to restore a broken relationship between a redeemed Israelite sinner and a holy God.

"This is not the order in which the sacrifices were usually offered, but is rather a logical or didactic order, grouping the sacrifices by conceptual associations . . . ." [Note: F. Duane Lindsey, "Leviticus," in ibid., p. 172.]

In the revelation of the first three offerings, each chapter contains three paragraphs. In each chapter God described the most valuable (costly) sacrifice first and then the less valuable. The rules about these sacrifices may have been arranged in logical order to make them easier to memorize. [Note: A. F. Rainey, "The Order of Sacrifices in OT Ritual Texts," Biblica 51 (1970):487.]

Burnt offerings (ch. 1)Meal offerings (ch. 2)Peace offerings (ch. 3)
cattle (Leviticus 1:3-9)uncooked (Leviticus 1:1-3)cattle (Leviticus 1:1-5)
sheep or goats (Leviticus 1:10-13)cooked (Leviticus 1:4-10)sheep (Leviticus 1:6-11)
birds (Leviticus 1:14-17)miscellaneous (Leviticus 1:11-16)goats (Leviticus 1:12-17)

These laws concerning offerings appear here in the text because they explain the sacrifices and ceremonies that took place at the ordination of Aaron and his sons, which Moses recorded in chapters 8 and 9. Thus this legal material prepares the reader to understand that narrative material.

Verses 1-17

[See the Chapter Comments for Leviticus Chapter 1 for introductory information]

1. The burnt offering ch. 1

The burnt offering (in Greek, holokautoma, from which we get the English word "holocaust") expressed the offerer’s complete consecration to Yahweh (cf. Matthew 22:37; Romans 12:1-2) and God’s complete acceptance of the worshiper. However it also made atonement for the offerer. Some rabbis believed the burnt offering atoned for all sins not covered under the sin offering. [Note: Rooker, p. 85.] Peace with God was the goal of all the sacrifices. The reasons for listing this offering first are that it was the most common and therefore the most important one, in this sense, and because it belonged completely to God. The priests offered a burnt offering every morning and every evening, and more frequently on holy days.

"The first case is dealt with in the most detail. The two subsequent ones are explained more briefly. But in all three the law makes clear exactly what the worshipper does and what the priest does. The worshipper brings the animal, kills it, skins it or guts it, and chops it up. The priest sprinkles the blood on the altar and places the dismembered carcass on the fire." [Note: Wenham, p. 49.]

"The sense of God’s presence, which permeates the entire book, is indicated forty-two times by the expression ’before the LORD [Leviticus 1:3, passim].’" [Note: Schultz, p. 30.]

With this offering the worshiper was seeking to please the Lord and find acceptance into his presence. Leviticus thus begins with the good news of the way for redeemed Israelites, who were still sinners, to find acceptance with God.

"As we will observe, sacrifice often, but not always, focuses on the blood of the victim. Some critical scholars speak of this as a magical understanding of sacrifice, and some evangelical readers of the Old Testament seem to have this idea also when they insist on the translation ’blood’ rather than its symbolical referent, death. It is the death of the sacrificial victim that renders the rite effective, and the manipulation of the blood highlights the death that stands in the place of the sinner who offers it." [Note: Longman and Dillard, p. 86.]

Note several distinctives of this offering.

1. It was a soothing aroma (or sweet savor; Leviticus 1:9; Leviticus 1:13; Leviticus 1:17). God was happy to receive this sacrifice because it was an offering of worship as well as payment for sin. It gave Him pleasure. The priests presented all three soothing aroma offerings on the brazen altar in the tabernacle courtyard. God saw the offerer as a worshiper as well as a guilty sinner. The offering was to be without any blemish, which was also true of the sin and trespass offerings. This indicated that the offerer was presenting the best to God who is worthy of nothing less (Leviticus 1:3; Leviticus 1:10).

2. It was for acceptance (i.e., so that God would accept the offerer, Leviticus 1:3-4). This offering satisfied God’s desire for the love of His redeemed creatures as well as His offended justice. This offering satisfied God by its wholeness quantitatively and qualitatively. The Israelite worshiper offered a whole spotless animal in place of himself.

3. The offerer gave up a life on the altar (Leviticus 1:5). God has always claimed life as His own. In slaying this animal the offerer was symbolically saying that he was giving the life that God had given him back to God, its rightful owner. Giving one’s life to God is not an act of great sacrifice. It is simply giving back to God what already belongs to Him. It is only "reasonable service" (Romans 12:1).

4. The animal perished completely, consumed in the fire on the altar (Leviticus 1:9), except for the skin, which went to the priest (Leviticus 1:6; Leviticus 7:8). This symbolized the comprehensive nature of the offerer’s consecration to God. Perhaps God excluded the skin to focus attention on the internal elements, the real person. God deserves the surrender of the entire person, not just a part.

"In the overfed West we can easily fail to realize what was involved in offering an unblemished animal in sacrifice. Meat was a rare luxury in OT times for all but the very rich (cf. Nathan’s parable, 2 Samuel 12:1-6). [Note: Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, 1975 ed., s.v. "Food," by Ralph E. Powell.] Yet even we might blanch if we saw a whole lamb or bull go up in smoke as a burnt offering. How much greater pangs must a poor Israelite have felt." [Note: Wenham, p. 51.]

There were also some variations within this offering.

1. The animals acceptable for this offering varied. Bullocks (oxen), lambs, goats, turtledoves, and pigeons were acceptable. Some commentators suggest that each type of animal bore characteristics shared by man that made it an appropriate substitute (e.g., strong, foolish, flighty, etc.). Generally the higher the individual Israelite’s responsibility before God (e.g., priests, rulers, common people, etc.) the larger and more expensive was the animal that he had to offer. People with greater responsibility would also have had more money and therefore more ability to bring the more expensive sacrifices.

2. The butchering of the animals also varied. The offerers cut the bullocks, lambs, and goats into four parts, but they did not do so with the birds. This difference at least reflects the practical need to divide larger animals into more easily manageable pieces. Moreover they washed the entrails and legs of the animals in water (Leviticus 1:9; Leviticus 1:13). This washing probably symbolized the need for internal purity. They did not wash the birds. Perhaps they were regarded as clean already. The offerer pressed (Heb. samek) his hand on the animals but not on the birds (cf. Isaiah 59:16; Ezekiel 24:2; Ezekiel 30:6; Amos 5:19). [Note: See M. C. Sansom, "Laying on of Hands in the Old Testament," The Expository Times 94:11 (August 1983):323-26.] Laying on hands often accompanied prayer (cf. Leviticus 16:21; Deuteronomy 21:6-9) suggesting that prayer accompanied sacrifice. The offerer personally slew the animals, but the priest slew the birds (Leviticus 1:5; Leviticus 1:15). In later periods, the priests slew all the animals.

"The bird . . . offerings were, by and large, concessions to the poor (cf., e.g., Leviticus 5:7-10; Leviticus 12:8; Leviticus 14:21-32) and, therefore, not considered to be one of the primary categories of animal offerings." [Note: The NET Bible note on 1:2.]

In summary, the burnt offering was an act of worship in which the Israelite offered to God a whole animal. The fire on the altar completely consumed it as a substitute for the offerer and as a symbol of his total personal consecration to God. These sacrifices were voluntary on the Israelite’s part, as is self-sacrifice for the Christian (Romans 6:12-13; Romans 12:1-2).

"The burnt offering was the commonest of all the OT sacrifices. Its main function was to atone for man’s sin by propitiating God’s wrath. In the immolation [burning] of the animal, most commonly a lamb, God’s judgment against human sin was symbolized and the animal suffered in man’s place. The worshiper acknowledged his guilt and responsibility for his sins by pressing his hand on the animal’s head and confessing his sin. The lamb was accepted as the ransom price for the guilty man [cf. Mark 10:45; Ephesians 2:5; Hebrews 7:27; 1 Peter 1:18-19]. The daily use of the sacrifice in the worship of the temple and tabernacle was a constant reminder of man’s sinfulness and God’s holiness. So were its occasional usages after sickness, childbirth, and vows. In bringing a sacrifice a man acknowledged his sinfulness and guilt. He also publicly confessed his faith in the Lord, his thankfulness for past blessing, and his resolve to live according to God’s holy will all the days of his life." [Note: Wenham, p. 63.]

"It [the burnt offering] could serve as a votive [connected with a vow] or freewill offering (e.g., Leviticus 22:18-20), an accompaniment of prayer and supplication (e.g., 1 Samuel 7:9-10), part of the regular daily, weekly, monthly, and festival cultic pattern (e.g., Numbers 28-29), or to make atonement either alone (e.g., Leviticus 1:4; Leviticus 16:24) or in combination with the grain offering (e.g., Leviticus 14:20) or sin offering (e.g., Leviticus 5:7; Leviticus 9:7)." [Note: The NET Bible note on 1:3.]

"The clearly stated purpose of the whole burnt offering was for atonement (lekapper in Leviticus 1:4). But the way that this offering made atonement or expiation was in a slightly different way than the purification [sin] and reparation [trespass] offerings. It was a more general offering than either of them; it did not emphasize the removal of sin or guilt or change the worshiper’s nature; but it made fellowship between sinful people and God possible . . ." [Note: Ross, pp. 92-93.]

Christians, too, need to remember our need for daily forgiveness, confess our sins, and purpose to walk in God’s ways (cf. 1 John 1:7-9).

"The LORD accepts with pleasure whoever comes into his presence by substitutionary atonement through the shedding of blood." [Note: Ibid., p. 95.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Leviticus 1". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/leviticus-1.html. 2012.
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