From Victor P. Hamilton’s Handbook on the Pentateuch about the book of Leviticus:
The first 7 chapters are devoted to a description of the sacrifices ordained by God that bear on the perpetuation of the relationship of humankind and God. Worship without sacrifice is inconceivable. Wherever sin has driven a wedge between God and humankind, both sacrifice (the outer act) and penitence (the inner attitude) become incumbent upon the sinner.
But as we will see, some sacrifices have nothing to do with sin and atonement. And we should note that the sacrifices described in chapters 1-7 are not an exhaustive listing. For example, there is nothing in these seven chapters on the incense offering (Exod. 30:7-8) or the drink offering (Exod. 29:38-41). The emphasis in these opening chapters of Leviticus is on private offerings/sacrifices versus public ones — that is, the sacrifices that the common Israelite would have offered to God most repeatedly.
The five sacrifices are:
The whole burnt offering (Lev. 1): called in Hebrew the OLA, “that which goes up.”
The cereal offering (Lev. 2): involving here exclusively cereal products.
The peace/fellowship/well-being offering (Lev. 3): perhaps a covenant meal.
The sin offering (Lev. 4-5:13): a sacrifice of repentance for sins.
The guilt/reparation offering (Lev. 5:14-6:7): also a sacrifice of repentance for sins, but additionally underscoring the need of restitution; thus, a special kind of sin offering.
The difference between these five categories can be seen with the use of the phrase, “a pleasing odor to the Lord”:
1:9, 13, 17 (whole burnt)
2:2, 9, 12; 6:15, 21 (cereal)
3:5, 16 (peace)
This phrase, “a pleasing odor to the Lord,” only occurs one time in 4:31 for the last two categories of sacrifices.
By contrast, the unique phrase “the priest shall make atonement for him/them and he/they shall be forgiven” occurs nine times in the last two types of sacrifices:
4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:10, 13 (sin)
5:16, 18; 6:7 (guilt)
The first three sacrifices move to their climax in indicating their result on God: to him it is a pleasing odor. The Hebrew word for “pleasing” comes from the verb “nuah” (“rest, be at ease, experience comfort/pleasure” [the same verb behind the name Noah in Genesis 5:29]). In receiving these offerings God experiences pleasure.
The last two sacrifices move to their climax in indicating their result on the one who gives the offering: that person is forgiven.
None of the first 3 categories is connected to any occasion that prompts the sacrifice or a particular violation that elicits it. They are spontaneous acts; sacrifices to God in praise and thanksgiving.
The last 2 categories are identified with a specific occasion; namely when someone sins. These categories covers sins of commission and sins of omission. Quite clearly, then, these latter two categories are expiatory or propitiatory in nature.
In the first three categories, the blood is sprinkled or splashed on the altar.
In the last two categories, the blood is brought into the tent of meeting or poured out at the base of the altar.
The vocabulary of the first three sacrifices emphasizes “bringing, presenting,” and “offering”.
The preponderant use of this verb/noun (“bring near”) in the sacrifices that fall into the category of gift to God as an act of devotion and thanksgiving rather than the category of gift to God as prelude to asking for forgiveness may indicate that the primary purpose of sacrifice is not atonement. Rather, it is a means of expressing the reality and dynamics of one’s relationship with God via a gift as a part of entering God’s presence.
Surely it is not unintentional that Lev. 1:1-6:7 begins not with offerings whose explicit purpose is forgiveness of sin, but with offerings whose explicit purpose is expressing one’s devotion to God. Leviticus does not begin with restoration to God and then move on to celebration; rather, it starts with celebration and then moves on to the possibility of restoration to God, if and when needed.
This is hugely important in our understanding of God’s grace and our obedience. God’s people are chosen and brought into his family by grace (even in the OT, when they are redeemed from Egypt) and they are asked to live by faith (by faith Abraham was righteous). So Leviticus starts with the assumption that you are already in a covenant relationship with God. You are already his child. So the first three types of sacrifices are voluntary gifts to God to show your devotion. They assume you are already in the family. Then the last two categories of sacrifices deal with atoning for your sins when you mess up. But your status in the People of God is never in question.
But (contra Difference #4 above), in many situations (such as the Nazarite) the order in which the sacrifices are brought to the priest tend to begin with the sin offering (sometimes called a “purification” offering when it doesn’t deal with actual trespass) and then move to burnt offering and lastly the freewill offerings noted above.
In these instances, the purity of the worshipper is important. It is vital that they be pure and ready to bring their gift of devotion to God.
Maybe the best parallel for us is the act of confession before supplication?
Common Elements Among the Sacrifices
The Worshipper Brings a Gift
The worshipper never comes into the presence of God empty-handed. Worshippers come either with their gifts or God’s gifts.
The Meaning of the Gift
The word “offering” (qorbān) is primarily used in Leviticus and Numbers, and it is best translated as “a thing brought near.” Sacrifices are thus concerned with the issue of how one can live in nearness to God. Leviticus is answering the question, “Can there be proximity and propinquity between God and humankind?
The Description of the Gift
The offerings overwhelmingly are domesticated animals, unless one’s financial resources only allow a grain offering.
Yet it is that which is most costly, most valuable, that is given to God. And that is not all: the animal that is offered is to be without blemish.
The Hebrew word to describe the sacrificial animal, tātmîm, can describe Noah (Gen. 6:9), Abraham (Gen. 17:1), Job (Job 12:4), or any worshipper hoping to enter God’s presence (Ps. 15:2). The word, then, encompasses both physical purity and moral purity. A lamb was to be physical without defect and “young” and innocent.
The OT itself seems to shift its emphasis, in terms of sacrifice, from the sacrificial animal without physical impurities (Lev.) to the sacrificial servant, a person without moral impurities. This certainly is the message of Isaiah 53, the servant who bore our griefs, who was wounded for our transgressions and iniquities, yet who did not open his mouth, but went like a sheep to the slaughter. The scene for the NT message about Jesus could not be more beautifully and ideologically prepared (see 1 Peter 1:19).
It is well known that the prophets taught against the abuse of sacrifices. Their ire was raised whenever they saw the People of God being faithful in their observance of ritual but faithless in their lifestyles. Sacrifice must never be used as a smoke screen for ethical depravity. Outward conformity must be matched by inner holiness. Cf: Romans 12:1, “Present your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.”
The Gift Depends on One’s Resources
In most cases in Leviticus, that which is to be presented is graded according to the donor’s ability and resources. For example, the burnt offering may be a bull, goat, sheep, or bird. Some scholars believe that the grain offerings became the burnt offering for the poor.
Similar gradation occurs in the sacrifices of expiation, but they are in the spectrum of more serious perpetrators to less crucial perpetrators. Thus, the priests offered a young bull, rulers offered a male goat, and one of the common people offered a female goat, female lamb, or birds.
Nowhere is there any indication that God desires to deprive his followers. They are to give as has been given to them. The principle seems to be this: not equal offering, but equal sacrifice. The widow’s mite may be every bit as sacrificial as the philanthropist’s millions.
The Donor Participates in the Ritual
The person who brings the sacrifice is actively involved in the ritual and is not a passive spectator.
The donor presents the sacrificial victim and, in doing so, lays a hand on the animal’s head. The Hebrew word for “lay (the hand),” sāmak, is one that normally means to apply some pressure rather than merely to touch. The word is used of Samson pushing against the pillars.
Although sometimes the laying on of hands in a sacrifice does mean the transference of sins, as in the case of the Day of Atonement. But in this instance, the animal is not killed. It is sent out into the wilderness. So in these common cases where a hand is laid upon the head likely means more a signal of ownership and substitution.
The Worshipper’s Responsibilities
After the animal is brought to the place of worship, the worshipper, not the priest, kills the animal (by slitting the throat?). The worshipper is also responsible for skinning, dissecting, and cleaning of the entrails (Lev. 1:6-9, 12-13).
The Hebrew word for “killing” here is restricted mainly to ritual killings.
The significance of this ritual killing is that it makes the offering useless expect for consumption, and therefore the offering is an irrevocable gift, given to God, and therefore withdrawn from profane use.
The Priest’s Responsibilities
The animal’s blood is then drained and scattered around or on either the outer or the inner altar, depending on which sacrifice is involved. This is a priestly duty.
Leviticus 17:11 gives a rationale for the role of the blood: “For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.”
There is a clear sense of the substitutionary place of the animal. Blood shed to save the life of another.
The Sacrifice and Its Meaning
The animal was then put on the altar to be burned.
The Hebrew word used denotes a slower burning, where there would be lots of smoke and the smell of burning flesh would rise up.
This is where we get the wording, “a pleasing odor to the Lord.” Apparently God likes the smell of barbecued steak!
Disposing of the Sacrificial Victim
In most of the sacrifices, most of the animal was burned on the altar. Then the remains were burned outside the city as refuse.
But the peace offering is different (one of the free-will offerings of devotion to God). In this offering, part if consumed on the altar, another part is given to the priest, and a third part is also eaten by the worshipper. This is the only sacrifice where the worshipper is allowed to eat or consume any of the animal. In this one instance, God invites his people into his presence to share a meal with him and with one another. In other words, the fellowship hall is as much a part of worship as the sanctuary.
The Forgiveness of Sins
The emphasis of the sin and guilt offerings in Leviticus is on inadvertent or accidental sins. Here are the categories:
When we cross an unrecognized boundary (4:1-12)
When we run with the herd (following other sinners) (4:13-21)
When we think that our responsibilities exempt us (4:22-26)
When we think that our insignificance excuses us (4:27-35)
When we neglect doing something right (5:1-3)
When we act or speak on impulse (5:4-13)
When we thoughtlessly trivialize the sacred (5:14-16)