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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible


- Leviticus

by Peter Pett

Commentary on Leviticus

By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons.London) DD

Publisher Bluebox Publishing

This commentary is now available in print from Amazon and all good booksellers ISBN No. 978-0-9566477-6-4


The Book of Leviticus takes up from where Exodus left off and deals with the covenant life of Israel. It follows a basic chiastic pattern centred around the Day of Atonement. It may be briefly summarised as follows:

1). The laws relating to sacrifice (Leviticus 1-7).

2). The consecration of the priests (Leviticus 8-10).

3). The laws relating to cleanness and uncleanness (Leviticus 11-15).

4). The Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:0).

5). The laws relating to ritual and moral holiness (Leviticus 17-20).

6). The maintenance of the holiness of the priests (Leviticus 21-22 ).

7). The laws relating to times and seasons (Leviticus 23-25).

Interspersed with these are two practical examples stressing the holiness of God; in the first part the case of offering false fire in the sanctuary (Leviticus 10:1-7), a sin of the priests, and in the second part the case of the blasphemy against the Name, a sin of the people (Leviticus 24:10-23).

Leviticus 26:0 then closes off with the blessings and curses which were a normal ending to covenants around the time of Moses in 2nd millennium BC, with briefer blessings and extended curses in accordance with the usual pattern, and Leviticus 27:0 is a postscript in respect of vows.

As can be seen the whole is built on a logical pattern. However the book itself also claims to be built up from a variety of revelations made by God to Moses over a long period of time (note the constant ‘and Yahweh spoke to Moses saying’ or the equivalent), so that it was not originally one work but a patchwork of revelations brought together in one, which makes its unity all the more remarkable.

In order to prepare for the first section which deals in depth with offerings and sacrifices we will commence with a brief general introduction concerning offerings and sacrifices prior to the time of the Aaronic Priesthood.

Brief Introduction To Offerings and Sacrifices Prior To Aaron.

The Beginnings of Offerings and Sacrifices Up To The Giving of the Sinai Covenant.

In the Book of Genesis we see the beginning of all things and the primeval history of man. This is followed by God’s call of Abraham and the lives of Isaac, Jacob and Joseph which finished up with the children of Israel in Egypt. It is in Genesis that we are introduced to men’s first attempts to approach God.

Some see the beginnings of sacrifice in the clothing of Adam and Eve by God in coats of skins (Genesis 3:21), but there is no mention of blood there, no indication of sacrifice. It is doubtful therefore whether it was seen in that way by the writer. All we can say is that the writer recognised that their being clothed was connected with death, the first death indicated in Scripture, and that, because of that death, man’s nakedness was covered before God.

What might be called ritual offerings began with Abel bringing the firstlings of the sheep and goats of his flock, together with their fat, and offering them as a ‘Gift’ (minchah) to Yahweh (Genesis 4:4), and with Cain’s bringing of his grain offering, ‘the fruit of the ground’ (Genesis 4:3), which was also a ‘Gift’ (minchah) to Yahweh. We can be almost sure that Abel offered them by either using a rock or erecting a primitive offering place (later called an altar - ‘a place of sacrifice/slaughter’), slaying the offerings on it and burning up the whole as an offering.

We can see how with the the rising smoke, and the only remains being ashes, it would give the impression of it going up to God, as it simply leaves earthly traces behind. He was giving thanks for the ‘harvest’ of lambs and kids that he had received and acknowledging God’s goodness, possibly having in mind that their skins would cover his family in the presence of God (Genesis 3:21). It was probably an act of worship incorporating both tribute and gratitude, an acknowledgement of God’s Lordship and provision. Notice the emphasis on the fact that he especially offered up the fat, that which was seen as the choicest part of the animals. This rather than the mentioning of the blood suggests that the primary purpose of the gift was worship and thanksgiving and tribute.

And some time later men ‘began to call on the name of Yahweh’ (Genesis 4:26 compare Genesis 13:4), that is, they instituted an official cultus through which they could worship Him. Perhaps they too offered both sheep and grain as a minchah (this would make even more pointed the description of Abel’s offerings as a minchah (a Gift)). But that this gradually began to include ‘whole burnt offerings’ ( ‘olah - literally ‘that which is offered up’), with all that they symbolised of worship and atonement, is suggested in Genesis 8:20 onwards, where Noah built an altar (mizbeach - place of zebech (sacrifice/slaughter)) and offered to Yahweh ‘whole burnt offerings’ (‘olah - that which ascends or is offered up) made up of various domestic animals and birds. And these were burned on the altar so that the ‘pleasing odour’ of the offerings might ascend to God, like perfume to sweeten the nose of princes. This was certainly an act of dedication and thanksgiving, but also probably included within it an indication of sorrow for sin and desire for atonement, a desire for appeasement following the judgment that had visited the earth. (There is nowhere any thought of God partaking of the sacrifices in contrast with polytheistic ideas).

We note that even at this stage there is the distinction between ‘clean’ (offerable - Leviticus 8:20) and ‘unclean’ (non-offerable) animals (Genesis 7:2) and birds (Genesis 8:20). Men could only offer what was seen as belonging to them (Psalms 50:9 compared with Psalms 50:10), and wild animals and birds did not belong to them. They belonged to God (Psalms 50:9-11). But not all domestic animals were offerable, for example the ass, and later the camel. It was in general those that were reared for the provision of food and clothing that were offered.

We must not read too much into the use of mizbeach (place of zebach - ‘sacrifice/slaughter’) as by the time Genesis was written it had become the regular word for an ‘altar’. It did not necessarily indicate that such had originally been used for the offering of what were later to be called ‘sacrifices’ (zebach = slaughter) in contrast with ‘offerings’ (‘olah). It does, however, warn us against being too dogmatic. Lack of mention of them does not necessarily indicate that they did not exist even at this stage. Indeed it must be seen as probable that sacrifices which were partaken of by the tribe were offered by the patriarchs. The emphasis with an ‘olah was on its ‘ascending’ to God. The emphasis with a zebach (sacrifice/slaughter) was that it was slaughtered. (See Deuteronomy 12:27). But the terms were not always used technically, and the ideas clearly interconnected and intermingled. A general word used of both was qorban (offering).

Noah’s pattern was followed by Abraham and the other patriarchs. Compare for example Genesis 12:8; Genesis 13:4; Genesis 13:18; Genesis 21:33; Genesis 26:25, Exodus 17:15, ‘there he built an altar to Yahweh Who appeared to Him --- and called on the name of Yahweh’. But all would know that the purpose of an altar was in order to make whole burnt offerings and/or sacrifices. It is probable that these were communal altars where all the family tribe gathered, and the aim of the statement is to demonstrate that he established there the worship of Yahweh. We note also that the place where the altar was erected, although not necessarily the altar itself, was intended to become semi-permanent (Genesis 13:4). Indeed such places would become looked on as sacred places and may well partly have been chosen for that reason, a taking over of sacred places for Yahweh. But we note that Abraham is never described as using the altars of the land. God must be worshipped on an altar built for Him. An interesting example of a covenant ceremony is found in Genesis 15:9-10 where both domestic animals and birds are slain, as with Noah, and both are connected with the sealing of a covenant. But in this example they were ‘cut in two’, not offered/sacrificed on an altar.

By Genesis 22:2 it is clear that the ‘offering of a whole burnt offering’ (‘olah) was of such general practise that God is portrayed as assuming that Abraham will fully understand what it is. In the end it is a ram that is ‘offered up as a whole burnt offering’ instead of his son. In this case an individual altar is built, but it was in a place allotted by Yahweh.

The first specific mention of ‘sacrificing a sacrifice’ (zebach), as opposed to ‘offering an offering’, is in Genesis 31:54 where it is linked with a sacrificial meal, and is connected with the making of a covenant. This is followed by a more general ‘sacrificing sacrifices’ (zebach) in Genesis 46:1. Thus until the time of Jacob, apart from Abel’s primitive ‘Gift’ (minchah), we learn only of the offering of ‘whole burnt offerings’ (‘olah). But Jacob sacrifices ‘sacrifices’ (zebach), and these appear, at least in the first case, to be partaken of by the worshippers. (Note the distinction between ‘offering offerings’ and ‘sacrificing sacrifices’). Here then we have a distinction between offerings which are wholly offered up, and sacrifices of which part is offered up and part can be eaten by the worshippers. However, offerings and sacrifices are so rarely mentioned up to this point, although assumed in the building of altars, that we cannot conclude that it was necessarily an innovation. What does seem clear was that overall patriarchal worship was of a comparatively simple kind.

One mention of a whole burnt offering in the time of Noah, one in the time of Abraham, and two of sacrifices in the time of Jacob are not a solid basis in which to build a theory. It reminds us that historical writings were not concerned with defining ways of worship and would on the whole ignore all such where they simply involved personal and even tribal worship. They are only mentioned when strictly vital to the history, which is not very often. ‘Purification for sin’ offerings may well have occurred at this time, but as they were personal they were not mentioned, for they did not affect the history. On the other hand they may have become prominent once there was a Sanctuary which required people to be purified in order to approach it.

In the Book of Exodus we see the deliverance of Israel from Egypt, the making of the covenant at Sinai, and then the construction of the Tabernacle and its furnishings. But even before the construction of the Tabernacle we find Israel intending to ‘sacrifice’ (zabach) to God in the wilderness (Exodus 3:18; Exodus 5:3; Exodus 5:8; Exodus 5:17; Exodus 8:8; Exodus 8:25-29). In view of the aim in mind this is probably to be connected with the intention to partake in a sacrificial meal. This is the first indication of God commanding sacrifices, and even then it is indirectly. But it does bring out His acceptance of and pleasure in sacrifices when rightly offered from the heart, which the incidents with Abel and Abraham had already indicated.

In Exodus 10:25 the request is extended to whole burnt offerings (‘olah’) as well as sacrifices (zebach). Both are to be ‘done’ or ‘made’ (‘asah). Thus offerings are ‘offered’ (‘olah), sacrifices are ‘sacrificed’ (zabach) and both are ‘made’, using a more general term (‘asah). But note that in Exodus 20:24 offerings (‘olah) and peace offerings (shelem) can both be said to be ‘sacrificed’ (zabach), while in Exodus 24:5 the distinctions are maintained and whole burnt offerings (‘olah) are offered and peace sacrifices (zebach shelem) are sacrificed. So Exodus 20:24 demonstrates that, while usually maintained, the verbal distinction between ‘offering up’ and ‘sacrificing’ is not regarded as absolute, although the offerings and sacrifices are themselves distinct.

Yahweh’s Passover is a sacrifice (zebach) which is partaken of (Exodus 12:27) and attention is drawn to ‘the blood of my sacrifice’ in relation to it (Exodus 23:18; Exodus 34:25). By this time the shedding of the blood was clearly seen as important. All the firstborn males of domestic animals, apart from the ass (which must be redeemed or slain), are to be ‘sacrificed’ (zabach) to Yahweh (Exodus 13:15).

In Exodus 18:12 Jethro ‘took’ a whole burnt offering (‘olah) and sacrifices (zebach) and all the leaders ate a sacrificial meal before God. But to sacrifice (zabach) to any other god would be to reap destruction (Exodus 22:20). By now the two, offerings and sacrifices, are offered alongside each other.

It would appear then that prior to the making of the Sinai covenant Israel ‘offered’ whole burnt offerings, and ‘sacrificed’ sacrifices and/or peace sacrifices, the whole burnt offerings probably being wholly offered up and the sacrifices partaken of in sacrificial meals. And it would appear that apart from the Passover they did this on altars erected for the purpose as they went from place to place, and that these were usually communal altars. We do not really know what they did in Egypt, whether they had a central altar and/or whether they had smaller local altars in their local districts. The use of a central altar would help to explain how they on the whole remained together as one people under ‘the elders’ (Exodus 3:16). But if they had a central altar it was clearly not sacrosanct as they could also erect an altar in the wilderness, although presumably in a place indicated by Yahweh Who initiated the idea.

From what has gone before it seems reasonable to see the whole burnt offerings as being ideally acts of gratitude, dedication, tribute and atonement, bringing a pleasing odour to God, and wholly offered up to God and consumed on the altar in complete dedication and trust, and the peace sacrifices as sacrifices enabling His people to worship before Him, being sacrifices which they could eat in His presence, an act indicating that they sought to be at peace with God, were being accepted, and as a result were offering worship. We need not doubt that there is also an element of atonement indicated wherever there is the shedding of blood, for the blood is never said to be partaken of, and is later declared to be forbidden because the blood is the life of the animal (Leviticus 17:14). It is the shedding of the blood that makes atonement for that reason (Leviticus 17:11). There is to be no attempt to partake of its ‘life force’. This was also true of the fat, which is always said later to be offered on the altar, in the same way as it was by Abel, being a token of tribute to God, as a giving to Him of the best, and an acknowledgement of His Lordship in returning to Him that which contained the essence of the animal’s life, the inner organs.

It will be noted that all offerings and sacrifices mentioned, without exception, apart possibly from the birds which would, however, also be seen as God’s provision, have been of what man has produced through his own efforts in order to feed and clothe himself and his family. It contains within it therefore an aspect of gratitude and tribute, as well as of dedication, atonement and worship. Some see in this the idea that wild beasts could not be offered because they already belonged to God, whereas man could offer what belonged to himself. But certainly Abraham offered a wild ram (Genesis 22:13), and it was equally certainly not his own. Although in that particular case he may have seen it as given to him by God for the purpose, and it was of the type of domestic animals.

Offerings and Sacrifices in Exodus After The Giving of the Sinai Covenant.

In Exodus 20:0 the making of all images of gods that are in the likeness of anything in creation are banned, nor is worship to be offered to such (Exodus 4-5, Exodus 4:23). Rather in every place where God ‘records His name’ (calls for sacrifice there or makes a special revelation) an altar of earth or of unhewn stones is to be built, without steps. Man must not ascend the altar so that his uncovered parts are exposed to the altar (later the priests would wear breeches for this reason). It is to be made of totally natural materials which are not in any way cut or decorated by man. This referred to altars for special occasions (Joshua 8:30-31; Judges 6:24-26; 2 Samuel 24:18-25; 1 Kings 18:0), altars other than the bronze altar later to be erected in the tabernacle courtyard. But even that altar had to have built within it a means which would make it fire resistant, thus something involving stones and earth,which also presumably must be natural, uncut stones.

However, after the giving of the Sinai covenant it is clear that, once Aaron and his sons were to be instituted as priests, with Aaron as ‘the Priest’ (the High Priest), the system of worship and sacrifices immediately became more complicated. Some of the ideas on which these offerings and sacrifices are based had probably been observed by them as in practise in Egypt, where there were a diversity of gods both home based and foreign, for example, the Canaanite Baal ritual which was certainly practised in Northern Egypt (where Israel mainly were). But they are refined under God to cover their own special outlook. Having similar offerings does not necessarily indicate having the same beliefs. Indeed Israel stood out in that it never sought to represent God in physical form.

In Exodus 29 a complicated ritual for the hallowing of the priests in the priest’s office is described. It includes;

1). ‘Sin offerings’ (chatta’ah ), where Aaron and his sons have to lay their hands on it in order to identify themselves with it, and of which, after it had been slain by Moses, some of the blood is to be applied to the horns of the altar and what remains cast at the base of the altar, the fat and vital parts are to be burned on the altar, and the remainder burned outside the camp (Exodus 1:12-14) because it is an offering for priests.

2). A whole burnt offering (‘olah - a ‘going up’), where Aaron and his sons have to identify themselves with it by laying their hands on it, after which it was to be slain by Moses and its blood sprinkled round about the altar. It was then to be cut in pieces, its inward parts (its ‘innards’), legs and head washed, and the whole to be burned on the altar. It is a pleasing odour, an offering made by fire to Yahweh.

3). A peace sacrifice (Exo 1:28) of which the blood would be applied to the altar, the fat and the innards burnt up along with a grain offering after being waved before Yahweh, and the breast given to Moses, and the remainder to be partaken of by Aaron and his sons, again after waving before Yahweh.

In Exodus 29:41 we have mention for the first time of the grain offering (but not by name - see Exodus 30:9) and the drink offering, which are to be offered with the daily morning and evening whole burnt offerings. Thus the full sacrificial picture is beginning to be built up in parallel with the establishment of the Aaronic priesthood. Prior to this offerings and sacrifices have been relatively simple. Now they become more sophisticated, which is why ‘priests’ are now required to ensure their correct presentation.

In Exodus 30:9 there is the mention of the whole burnt offering (‘olah) and the grain offering (minchah) as items which must not be offered on the altar of incense (which is also attended to daily). This latter (the minchah) reminds us of Cain’s offering. These were clearly well recognised offerings. And it was these offerings that were offered at the dedicating of the tabernacle (Exodus 40:29).

So we began with animal offerings and grain offerings offered as ‘gifts’ (minchah), this expanded into ‘whole burnt offerings’ (‘olah) which were wholly consumed on the altar and ‘went up’ to God. And finally we arrived at, along with whole burnt offerings, ‘sacrifices’ (that which is slaughtered) which were at least sometimes partly partaken of by the offerers, which were similar to those of neighbours in Egypt and Canaan (Exodus 34:15).

In fact we know from Ugarit that in Canaanite religion around this time the sacrificial system was quite complicated including the equivalent of burnt offerings (srp), slain offerings (dbh), peace offerings (slm), and sin offerings (stm), among others.

One warning must be given here. There are so many examples of different sacrifices around the ancient world whose significance must be obtained mainly by educated guesswork that examples can be discovered which will prove anything. People can see what they want to see, and we can read into people what we want to read. To a certain extent they become as primitive, or otherwise, as we decide to make them.

It is of course legitimate and right to study them as background, but none of their religions survived in any recognisable form. In the end the significance of their offerings and sacrifices comes from interpretation of their limited literature, and is very much a matter of interpretation. (And I would not want to be judged on the basis of some people’s primitive views on the bread and wine of Communion). The same is true for Israel. The true significance of their offerings and sacrifices to Israel can only be discovered by comparison in Scripture, our only genuine source for knowledge about them. For a similar sacrifice did not necessarily signify a similar significance. Each community would develop a differing significance depending on the beliefs of the group. The whole point about Israel was that they had received a unique view of God, both from their past and at Sinai, something that endured through the ages. And they received them through a man who uniquely knew God as no other did. This must not be ignored when looking at the significance of their offerings.

Introduction To Leviticus.

In this book we will now learn what happened in the Tabernacle that made it so important to the life of Israel, and we will also discover some of the lessons that it has for us. God had given them the tabernacle so that their lives might centre around Him, and it was necessary for there to be a means by which their response to Him might be developed and applied to their lives.

To a man who approaches God, and to a nation that approaches God, there is no question more important than, ‘How can we get right and keep right with God so that we can walk with Him and know Him daily? How can we approach Him in worship in a way that He will accept?’ How can we offer Him worship that is pleasing to Him? Those were the questions that the Tabernacle sought to solve, for it was seen to be His earthly ‘dwellingplace’, and that required a firmly established cultus, which Leviticus describes to us.

Central to Leviticus, as is central to the mind of the man who would seek God, is how to worship God and how to deal with all that offends God, and to Israel that included dealing with offences against the requirements of the Law in all its aspects, firstly as given at Sinai in the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 20-23), secondly as previously revealed and customised prior to Sinai (Exodus 15:25; Exodus 18:13-16), and thirdly as expanded by Moses at different times through the next forty years, as he sought to lead and prepare for the future this large band of disparate people, the nucleus of which was composed of descendants of Jacob. For many of these people had worshipped different gods, and now he was calling them to follow their Deliverer, Yahweh, the God of Israel.

We may possibly differentiate in the Book between the requirements given to Moses by God ‘out of the Tent of Meeting’ (Leviticus 1:1), and those given to Moses ‘in Mount Sinai’ (Leviticus 25:1 to Leviticus 26:46). But Leviticus 7:38 speaks of the basics at least of 1-7 as having been given ‘in Mount Sinai’. This may suggest a foundation laid in Mount Sinai and expanded on later. The task of building up instruction for the people must necessarily have taken many years, but the foundations had to be laid speedily due to the complicated nature of the make up of the people who had followed him from Egypt. Or it may be that the Tent of Meeting could be described as ‘by Mount Sinai’. Either way the requirements would later be written down as being part of God’s covenant with His people, as was common with religious codes at the time, and possibly expanded on by him in consultation with God.

“Out of the tent of meeting” could mean the tent which he had erected outside the camp of Israel where he could meet with God, which was overseen by Joshua (Exodus 33:7-11), or it could mean the tabernacle as set up after the giving of the covenant at Sinai. Both are called ‘the tent of meeting’ for they were the places where God met with His people.

In Mesopotamia such priestly practises and ideas as are described here were regularly written down (well before the time of Moses) and were passed down almost unchanged over hundreds of years. As Moses was leading out of Egypt a large group of people from many nations, although with its core made up of the children of Israel, and as he knew that when they reached Canaan they would be faced up with peoples with very sophisticated religious systems which God had strongly insisted that they must reject, he would undoubtedly have seen it as vital that ‘Israel’ should have their own well established cultus both to bind the people to Yahweh and to safeguard against their being caught up in Canaanite religious worship. It was therefore inevitable that he would write down Yahweh’s instructions concerning the new cultus. That was why God had chosen for himself an educated and highly trained administrator, and had made him well versed in tribal ways.

That they were seen as God’s revelation through Moses to His people comes out in the constant repetition of ‘and Yahweh said to Moses’. This does not necessarily mean that it was all spoken at the same time. Indeed the varied repetition might suggest more that it was at different times, although we must remember that repetition was very much a part of ancient religious literature in all nations as that literature was intended to be learned by heart and repeated to others. Repetition aided memory and enabled the listener to better think along with the reader.

In order for the Aaronic priesthood to operate at least the basics had to be laid down in some detail from the beginning, and as we have already seen in Exodus 29:0 considerable detail came into the investiture of the priest, suggesting that a pattern was already known, at least in embryo. Moses may well have studied the basics of Canaanite and other religions when he was being educated in preparation for being a leading administrator in Egypt, especially as he would be knowledgeable in the Canaanite and Hebrew languages which were very similar, and this would give him the basis on which God could build. And he would have been familiar with Midianite religion through his father in law, ‘the priest of Midian’. The whole is consistent with what results, and mainly what we would expect from what we know of the way in which God reveals Himself.

The first seven chapters of Leviticus deal with the ‘instruction’ (torah) concerning the whole burnt offering (‘olah), the grain offering (minchah), the sin offering (chatta’th ), the guilt offering (asham), the consecration (of the priests), and of the sacrifice (zebach) of peace offerings (shelem), most of which, apart from the guilt offering, have been met with in the introduction (Leviticus 7:37). These are basic types of offerings and sacrifices and might be used and/or combined both in public communal acts of worship and in private submission and worship. They are split basically into two sections, the Pleasing Odour Offerings of dedication, thanksgiving and worship, which have come from the past, and the Purification for Sin Offerings for the forgiveness of sins, which may be relatively new to Israel. The distinction must not be rigidly over-stressed. Part of a purification for sin offering can be a pleasing odour to Yahweh (Leviticus 4:31), and the whole burnt offering, the grain offering and the peace offerings all had an important atoning element, but the distinction nevertheless remains.