Sacrifices and Offering in the Bible

LEVITICUS 1 Mosaic Law prescribed five categories of sacrifices and other offerings:

    • Burnt offerings effected atonement and emphasized total devotion to the Lord.

    • Grain offerings expressed an individual's petition for God's bestowal of covenantal blessings, as well as the dedication of the fruit of his or her labor to God.

    • Fellowship offerings (sometimes referred to as "peace" offerings) accompanied expressions of thanksgiving or were offered in fulfillment of vows. As the occasion for a communal meal, such an offering emphasized covenantal fellowship.

    • Sin/purification offerings effected expiation for unintentional sins, such as those committed from negligence, as well as for ritual impurity.

    • Guilt/reparation offerings provided atonement for unintentional sins against God's "holy things" and commandments. The aspect of restitution was intrinsic to these mandatory offerings.

In addition to the above, the Israelites were required to bring tithes and other offerings (e.g., Dt 14:22). Different types of offerings were presented in diverse combinations on various occasions,such as during the ordination of priests and the sanctifying of sacred objects (Lev 8-9; Nu 7), during the daily sacrifices (Lev 6:8-13) and annual feasts and at milestone moments in the life of a family (ch. 12).

It is difficult to uncover the full significance of each offering, especially since the regulations in Leviticus 1-7 were directed to the priests (in some sense the religious"professionals") and are therefore somewhat terse, without a great deal of amplification in terms of their meaning. Leviticus 17:11 indicates clearly enough, however,that the costly blood of the animal sacrifice was God's provision to atone for the offender, whose offerings were most likely accompanied by psalm singing, confession of sin and/or special petitions. Viewed in this light, it is clear that the laws governing the presentation of Israel's offerings were not heavy burdens but rather the welcomed means by which God's people could officially recognize their sins, experience God's forgiveness and remain secure within his covenant. At the same time, portions of every offering (except for the whole burnt offering) provided food for the priests and their families.

Although Leviticus 1-7 is unparalleled among ancient Near Eastern texts in its degree of detail,the sacrifice of animals (as well as offerings and libations—"poured" offer-ings---of other foods and drinks) was by no means peculiar to Israel. A wide range of technical, sacrificial terms (several of which are nearly identical to Israel's) is found in texts from Late Bronze and Early Iron Age Canaanite areas, including Ugarit, Phoenicia, Syria, Ammon and Moab. They demonstrate that Israel's neighbors also had elaborate sacrificial systems., In Ugarit and Phoenicia, for example, burnt offerings, fruit and grain offerings and libations were specified, but certain animals (pigs in particular) were forbidden for use as sacrifices to Baal. Ugarit practiced both whole burnt offerings (that fed a deity) and peace offerings (that nourished the people). The great religious centers of Egypt and Mesopotamia also stipulated highly ordered and meticulous sacrificial practices.

But despite any commonalities Israel's sacrificial system was unique by virtue of its covenantal context. Its complex sacrificial laws made sense within the bounds of the story of God's redemption of his people from Egyptian bondage.The sacrificial system was not magical. Its efficacy depended not upon the offering of a particular animal (although following the prescribed rules was essential because it taught the Israelites that they were to approach God only on his terms) but rather on God himself, who had ordained these sacrifices. Fully as important, without an attitude of repentance, perfunctory observance of sacrificial rituals was meaningless—and denounced repeatedly by God's prophets (e.g., 1Sa 15:22; Am 5:21-24; Mic 6:6-8; cf. Ps 51:14-19).

Ritual Purity in Israel and the Ancient Near East

LEVITICUS 10 Before entering the Lord's presence priests were required to attain a state of ritual purity—they needed to be "clean." In fact, if the"holy" were to come into contact with the"unclean," the results would be devastating (Lev 10:8-11; 15:31). Uncleanness in a holy space (especially in the tabernacle, but by extension anywhere in the Holy Land) defiled that space and, if the situation were to have been left unresolved, would have constituted justification for God to withdraw his Presence (cf. Eze 8-11).

Israel's purity laws (Lev 11-15), the details of which are unparalleled in any other ancient Near Eastern literature, reminded the Israelites of the gaping divide between themselves and their holy God (cf. 10:3) and of God's burning desire for them to become like him in purity (11:44 —45; 19:1-2; cf. Jesus' words in Mt 5:48).These laws also taught the Israelites that their uncleanness resulted not from demonic powers, as was widely believed in the broader world around them, but from disobedience to God's law. Even more fundamentally, uncleanness or ritual impurity (the condition that barred an individual from God's Presence in the sanctuary) was a state that occurred in all people from time to time, simply by virtue of their human nature (cf. Lev 12;15).

The major threat,then, was not unclean-ness per se but protracted, disregarded uncleanness. God prescribed regular purification rituals through which uncleanness was removed, the threat of judgment lifted and entry into the Lord's Presence once again permitted. Essential to this process was the Lord's acceptance of a blood sacrifice, especially the one offered annually by the high priest on the Day of Atonement (ch. 16; cf. 17:11).1 Non-sacrificial regulations, such as washing with water, are also detailed in chapters 11-15. Even so, true holiness was not—and still is not—attainable without justice, love of neighbor and a heart wholly committed to the Lord and to his covenant (19:2; cf. Am 5:21-23).

Clean and Unclean Foods in the Bible

LEVITICUS 11 The rationale behind the designation of certain creatures as "clean" and others as"unclean" for dietary purposes (Lev 11; cf. Dt 14:3-21) has perplexed Bible readers throughout the ages. Possible explanations include:

    • hygienic reasons (e.g., the fact that pork, especially if not thoroughly cooked, could prove unhealthful and carry disease);

    • allegorical explanations (the notion that the character of certain animals determined whether or not they were clean—e.g., pigs were thought to exemplify lazy, gluttonous, uncouth behavior and thus were deemed unclean);

    • arbitrary testing (the idea that God randomly designated some animals as unclean in order to test his people's obedience); 4' pagan association (the suggestion that animals labeled"unclean"were those used in non-Israelite rituals—e.g., certain pagan rites entailed the sacrifice of pigs);

    • conformity to an ideal (the supposition that only those animals conforming to what was considered "normal" for their species were "clean"—e.g., sea creatures without fins and/or scales were abnormal and therefore unclean); and

    • heavenly analogy (the notion that"clean" animals constituted God's own "diet").

Some of these explanations are plainly far-fetched; indeed, the suggestion that certain foods comprise God's diet lacks any merit. It is important to note, however, that all of them are hypothetical, unsupported by any specific Biblical teaching. Also, none fully accounts for the distinctions detailed in Leviticus 11. Regardless of which hypothetical rationale, if any, historians may offer for the diet of the ancient Israelites, clearly the distinction between clean and unclean foods ensured them a healthful diet and enabled them to maintain their identity as God's covenantal people (Da 1). Adherence to these food laws consecrated the Israelites, setting them apart as holy, just as Yahweh, their God, is holy (Lev 11:44-47).

Although outside ancient Israel there is no known system as comprehensive in differentiating between permitted and prohibited foods, dietary restrictions of one kind or another are attested in the ancient Near East from Egypt to Babylonia. Inscriptions in Egyptian temples include lists of foods (mostly animal products) certain groups of people were not to eat.The cow, for example, was off limits in Dendera, where the goddess Hathor was said to be manifested in bovine form, In Mesopotamia, eating certain animals was prohibited on special occasions, such as rituals in which pigs were sacrificed (otherwise, pork was widely eaten). Numerous ancient cults also had specific taboos regarding food consumption (cf. Col 2:20-21).

Clean and Unclean Animals

Skin Diseases in the Ancient World

LEVITICUS 13 The Bible describes various categories of skin-related problems:

    • festering or running sores (Lev 21:20; 22:22);

    • itches (Dt 28:27), including those caused by fungal infestations (e.g., ringworm), eczema and parasitic diseases (e.g., scabies);

    • boils and/or inflamed swellings and rashes (Ex 9:9-10; Lev 13:2; Job 2:7; Isa 38:21);

    • warts (Lev 22:22); and

    • a disease traditionally rendered as "leprosy" (Nu 12:10; 2Ch 26:19).

Although some researchers do identify this last condition with modern leprosy (Hansen's disease), this diagnosis is almost certainly incorrect for several reasons:

    • The hair in the affected spots is sometimes described as turning white (Lev 13:13,25), an effect rarely seen in Hansen's disease.

    • Hansen's disease causes increasing numbness as it spreads, but the Bible never mentions this characteristic.

    • Biblical "leprosy" could clear up without treatment (14:3), while Hansen's disease can-not (barring a miraculous cure).

It is more likely then, that Biblical "leprosy" refers to a group of infectious conditions under the category of "scaly" skin diseases (cf. 14:54-57).

Affliction with a skin disease meant that an individual was ritually unclean,1 but the illness was not necessarily an indication of direct punishment from God or the unclean-ness a manifestation of a moral or character flaw. In certain instances, however, God did choose to inflict such diseases as consequences for specific sins (e.g., the pharaoh in Ex 9:8-12; Miriam in Nu 12:10; Uzziah in 2Ki 15:5).

The Day of Atonement

LEVITICUS 16 Once each year, on the tenth day of the seventh month, the high priest entered the Most Holy Place to make atonement for himself, the other priests, the tabernacle and altar and the entire population of Israel (Lev 16). The purification rites enacted during this most special of days presupposed that the ordinary means of atonement (chs. 1-7; 11— 15) were insufficient to purify the people completely and to make full satisfaction for all of their sins. This was in large part because of the Israelites' inevitable failure to follow perfectly all of the provisions God had made for them, but also because an innumerable accumulation of inadvertent sins had gone unrecognized and thus had not been expiated. Because God's wrath had not been appeased for these impurities and transgression, they had contaminated the Most Holy Place (16:16).

Two key issues concerning the Day of Atonement were the order and significance of the ritual and the meaning/identify of the scapegoat.

After bathing on this central day of the Israelite religious year, the high priest donned white undergarments and a white tunic. He was not upon this occasion to wear his traditional ceremonial insignia, communicating by the absence of this "status symbol" that no one can approach God with any pretense of special authority or prestige.

The high priest began the ritual observance by offering a bull for his own sins and those of his household, after which he took a censer with burning coals and incense into the Most Holy Place and sprinkled blood from the bull onto the ark of the covenant. This deliberate self-inclusion demonstrated that no one, including the high priest, could stand guiltless before God.

The high priest proceeded to cast lots over two goats; one would be sacrificed, while the other was to become the "scapegoat." The sacrificed goat represent propitiation, whereby the wrath of God against his people was turned aside. The scapegoat, on the other hand, represented expiation, whereby the guilt of the sinners was removed.

The priest sacrificed one goat for the sins of the people, sprinkling some of its blood on the ark, after which he emerged from the tent and cleansed the altar with the blood of the bull on the goat.

Placing his hands on the head of the scapegoat, the high priest confessed the people's sins over it. An individual appointed to lead the scapegoat out into the wilderness and release it was required afterward to wash his clothes and bathe before returning to the camp.

The high priest left his white clothing in the Tent of Meeting, bathed again and clothed himself in his regular priestly apparel. These actions communicated that the holiness of the sanctuary had to remain there; none of it could be carried out with the priest into the camp. The sacrificed bull and goat were to be burned up entirely.

Some argue that the Israelite viewed the scapegoat as the physical embodiment of a "goat-demon" of the desert. This interpretation, however, contradicts the teaching of Leviticus 17:7, which prohibited Israelites from making offerings to goat deities.

More likely, the Hebrew word translated "scapegoat" simply referred to a goat that was to be sent away. This is the interpretation suggested both in the Septuagint (early Greek translation of the OT) and the Vulgate (early Latin version of the Bible)

Goat-Demons and Desert Satyrs

LEVITICUS 17 God commanded that no Israelite was to sacrifice an ox, lamb or goat either within the confines of the camp or outside in the open country (Lev 17:1 —9). Instead, the animals were to be brought to the door of the Tent of Meeting. This practice effectively eliminated ambiguity as to the nature of any sacrifice.' As a case in point, no Israelite was to offer an illicit sacrifice to a pagan deity outside the view of the Lord's priests and, when discovered, claim to be offering it to the God of Israel. This law was important because Israelites had previously offered sacrifices to goats as objects of worship.

Whether the reference in verse 7 is to live goats worshiped as manifestations of "goat spirits" or to man-made idols in the form of goats, we have no way of knowing for certain (the NIV translators chose to render the Hebrew term here as "goat idols"). It is also possible that the goats in question were thought to have been some kind of"demons" or "satyrs" (i.e., creatures that were part goat, part man).We have no certain grounds for suggesting that this is what the Biblical writer had in mind, but in light of analogies from ancient pagan religions the association is not impossible. It is true that the Hebrew word sometimes translated "goat idols" or "goat demons" more frequently refers simply to goats (e.g., lsa 34:14).

We are aware that goat images were worshiped many years later, during the reign of Jeroboam I (2Ch 11:15), who introduced a rival religious system into the northern kingdom (1 Ki 12:28-31), complete with priests, high places and images of calves and goats.2 Although the Israelites sometimes sacrificed goats (Lev 16), they were never to sacrifice to goats.

The Middle Assyrian Laws

LEVITICUS 18 German excavations at ancient Asshur in modern Iraq between 1903 and 1914 yielded a significant number of cuneiform tablets containing regulations now known as the Middle Assyrian laws. Although this cannot be established with certainty, the widely accepted view is that they date to the reign of Assyria's Tiglath-Pileser I (1114-1076 B.c.). It is notable, however, that these tablets are copies of even earlier laws that originated during the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries B.C.

Each tablet contains a separate law collection concerned with particular life issues such as theft, inheritance, marriage and family law, witchcraft, fornication, false accusation, irrigation, property rights, abortion, blasphemy, etc. These decrees, like many of those recorded in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, are "casuistic laws"; that is, they follow an "if ...then" pattern. For example:1f the wife of a man should go out of her own house, and go to another man where he resides, and should he fornicate with her knowing that she is the wife of a man, the man and the wife shall be killed."This particular law has direct Biblical parallels in Leviticus 18:20 and Deuteronomy 22:22. In other cases, however, the Middle Assyrian laws prescribed harsher punishments than Biblical commands; theft, for example, was punishable by death or mutilation of the ears and nose.

Many Middle Assyrian laws demonstrate that men had greater rights than women in that ancient society. For example, if a married man were to rape an unmarried woman, his own wife was turned over to be raped and the rapist was obligated to marry the woman he had violated. Acceptable means by which a man could punish his wife included beatings, whippings, plucking out her hair and mutilating her ears. Wherever the decrees of Leviticus and Deuteronomy differ from the Middle Assyrian laws, the Biblical commands demonstrate greater equality between the sexes and a higher level of respect for human life and moral purity)

Tattoos and Segi-Laceration in Ancient Religion

LEVITICUS 19 In ancient pagan religions, tattooing was often thought to protect the individual so marked from harmful magic. Some tattoos also indicated that a person belonged to a certain god or cult (analogous to the fact that slaves were often branded or tattooed).

The earliest evidence of tattooing in the ancient Near East comes from Neolithic fertility figurines discovered in Jordan. In Middle Kingdom Egypt, tattoos associated with Hathor (a fertility goddess) were discovered on the mummy of a priestess, as well as on figurines. These figurines, referred to as "Brides of the Dead," linked sexuality with rebirth as a means of ensuring the resurrection of the dead. People in New Kingdom Egypt sported tattoos depicting Bes, a god of childbirth and the home. In Mesopotamia, temple slaves were often branded or tattooed with the symbol of the respective temples to which they belonged.

Like tattooing, self-laceration in the ancient Near East was associated with death. Mesopotamian women slashed themselves as a sign of grief, and in the fertility cult of Baal self-laceration was also associated with mourning for a "deceased" deity. It seems likely that the Biblical prohibition against tattoos and self-laceration for the dead (Lev 19:28) was directed against specific idolatrous practices, particularly erotic religious rites associated with the dead. The Old Testament treats tattooing and bodily disfigurement as inherently pagan and depraved (cf. Dt 14:1; 1Ki 18:28).

Human Sacrifice in the Ancient Near East

LEVITICUS 20 Numerous archaeological discoveries and ancient (including several OT) texts record various examples of human sacrifice that took place throughout the ancient Near East. For example,

    • A relief on a tower in southern Spain, dating to approximately 500 B.C., gruesomely depicts a child, cradled in a bowl, about to be sacrificed as part of a banquet feast to a two-headed monster.

    • Excavators have uncovered a large, sacred cemetery, dating to 400-200 B.C., in the Phoenician city of Carthage in North Africa. They estimate that the Carthaginians buried more than 20,000 urns here, each holding the remains of one or two children, most of them aged four years or younger. Inscriptions on the urns indicate that all of these infants and toddlers were sacrificed to a Phoenician deity.

    • During times of national emergency,children were sacrificed in an attempt to placate various deities (e.g., by the king of Moab as recorded in 2Ki 3:26-27).

    • Royal tombs excavated in Ur (Mesopotamia) and Egypt contained the remains of ritually slain attendants intended to accompany the deceased into the afterlife.

    • Children were used in Mesopotamia as foundation sacrifices, a practice whereby a sacrificial victim was interred in the foundation of a building or gateway for the purpose of affording magical protection for the site.

    • Several authors who wrote during the thousand-year period from the fifth century B.C. to the fifth century A.D. attest that child sacrifice was a Phoenician custom.Tertullian, an early church father who lived in North Africa around A.D. 160-225, decried the continuing practice of child sacrifice.

Some Israelites also are known to have made human sacrifices. Ahaz (2Ki 16:3; 2Chr 28:3) and the people of Israel and Judah (210 17:17) sacrificed their children, a practice God condemned as"detestable"(Dt 12:31; Jer 32:35).

Israelites were known to sacrifice their sons or daughters"in the fire"to Molech in the Valley of Ben Hinnom (2Ki 23:10;Jer 32:35)."In the fire," rendered in the New American Standard Bible with the ambiguous phrase"passed through the fire," is clarified in Jeremiah 7:31, which records that the people"bum[ed] their sons and daughters in the fire" (both NIV and NASB) in the Valley of Ben Hinnom.

Considerable controversy surrounds the "Molech"offerings.Some scholars argue that Molech was not a deity at all but a type of sacrifice in which children were dedicated as temple prostitutes., But Biblical evidence clearly indicates that Molech was an Ammonite deity (1Ki 11:7).

Abraham was willing at God's command to sacrifice Isaac (Ge 22), but God at the last moment provided a substitute offering, highlighting both his own ability to provide and Abraham's faithfulness, as well as implicitly expressing his disapproval of human sacrifice. God condemned this practice not only because it was horrible (unthinkable from our twenty-first-century perspective!) but also because it defiled his sanctuary and profaned his holy name (Lev 18:21; 20:2-5). Because of this and other sins God had expelled the majority of the original pagan inhabitants of the promised land; the Israelites were required to keep his command. ments, lest the land "vomit" them out as well (20:22 —23)!

The Festivals of Israel

LEVITICUS 23 God summoned the Israelites to worship and to celebrate various feasts he had appointed (Lev 23:2-6). During these holy convocations the priests presented sacrifices and other offerings, while the common people rested from their daily labor, sometimes fasting and sometimes feasting, and celebrated the seasonal blessings of God and the great redemptive moments in the lives of his people. Following a sabbatical principle, pre-exilic Israel observed seven annual feasts (ch. 23; cf. Nu 28-29; Dt 16:1-17).

    • Passover was celebrated on the tenth day of the first month of the Hebrew calendar (our late March to early April). According to Exodus 12:26 —27, when subsequent generations inquired about the meaning of the Passover, they were to be told that it commemorated the manner in which the Lord had spared the Israelites the night he struck down the Egyptians' firstborn sons (Ex 12:29 —30). Jesus' Last Supper was a Passover meal) Jesus Christ is accordingly described in the New Testament as "our Passover lamb" (1Co 5:7) and as "the Lamb, who was slain" (Rev 5:12).

    • The Feast of Unleavened Bread immediately followed the Passover (Ex 12:15-20) and lasted for one week. In the context of the exodus, eating bread without yeast signified hasty preparation and a readiness to depart. Yeast, which was studiously avoided during this feast, became a symbol of the pervasive influence of evil (cf. Mk 8:15; 1Co 5:7-8).

    • The Offering of Firstfruits took place at the beginning of the harvest and signified Israel's gratitude to and dependence upon God (Lev 23:9-14). It occurred in conjunction with the Feast of Unleavened Bread and focused on the barley harvest, but there was also an offering of firstfruits associated with the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost (see below) in celebration of the wheat harvest (Nu 28:26-31).

    • The Feast of Weeks or Pentecost (Lev 23:15-21), occurring seven weeks after Passover, was a day of sacred assembly in which no work was allowed. Its primary focus was an expression of gratitude to God for the wheat harvest.Verses 17-20 and Numbers 28:27-30 delineate detailed lists of what the priests were to offer to God on behalf of the nation.

    • The Feast of Trumpets, celebrated on the first day of the seventh Hebrew month (Lev 23:23-25; Nu 29:1-6), marked the end of the agricultural year.The seventh month was important because it also included two major holy days—the Day of Atonement and the Feast of Booths. The blasting of trumpets announced the commencement of this special month.

The Israelites associated the sound of trumpets with the theophany (visible manifestation of God) on Mount Sinai (Ex 19:16 — 19). Priests had also sounded trumpets prior to the destruction of Jericho (Jos 6:16), and trumpets were regularly used in Israel as a military signal (2Sa 2:28). Thus, the blast of trumpets at the onset of the seventh month added to the solemnity of this sacred season.3 -5-,

    • The Day of Atonement (see Lev 16)7 focused exclusively on atonement for the sins of the people. This ceremony took place on the tenth day of the seventh month.The high priest made atonement first for himself and his family and finally for all the people.Coming at the end of the agricultural year, this feast symbolized a final reckoning before God.

    • The Feast of Booths (also called the Feast of Tabernacles or Sukkoth) took place five days after the Day of Atonement (Nu 29:12-40). The people "camped out" in small huts during this time in order to recall their temporary living quarters prior to taking the land of Canaan (Lev 23:43). This joyous week was a time of final celebration and thanksgiving for the year's harvest (Dt 16:14-15). As the seventh and last annual feast, the Feast of Booths also represented the Sabbath principle.

Sabbath, Sabbath Year and the Jubilee

LEVITICUS 25 The Sabbath day, a day of rest from labor, occurred every seventh day in ancient Israel. The Sabbath day was intricately connected to God's covenant with his people. According to Deuteronomy 5:12 - the purpose of the Sabbath was to remind God's people that they had been slaves in Egypt and that he had delivered them and brought them into the promised land, their 'resting place" (see Dt 12:9; Ps 95:11).

Exodus 20:11 roots the Sabbath in creation, when the Lord blessed the Sabbath and "made it holy'' (Ge 2:2-3). At the end of creation God's rest and his consecration of the seventh day as a Sabbath rest for humans became the sign of God's covenant with Israel. Failure to observe the Sabbath was tantamount to rejecting the covenant and thus resulted both in excommunication and divine punishment (cf.Ex 31:14; Ne 13:17-18;Eze 20:13).

According to Leviticus 25 the principle of the Sabbath day was extended to legislation of a "sabbatical year" every seven years and a "Jubilee"' every fifty years (that is, after seven seven years). Verse 4 stipulated that e‘,-." seventh year the Israelites were to give the land a"sabbath of rest"and to allow anyone, including slaves and sojourners (temporary residents), to gather the produce that had grown that year. Then, every fiftieth year, following "seven sabbaths of years," those who had acquired others' ancestral lands were obligated to return them to their original owners (vv. 8– 10). Israelite slaves were also to be released and allowed to return to their families (vv. 39-41). Had this been practiced (it appears that the laws regarding the sabbath and Jubilee years went largely unheeded prior to the exile), this sabbatical system would have helped to restore social equality by checking the mass accumulation of wealth by a few, providing less fortunate Israelites a way out of permanent servitude and offering a second chance to debtors at least once during their lifetimes.

It is significant that the Jubilee was proclaimed on the Day of Atonement (v. 9), when all people—free and slave, landowner and tenant, as well as the land itself—were purified from sin and uncleanness (16:29-30). The Day of Atonement reminded the Israelites of their own forgiveness and deliverance from the curse of sin, and the release of slaves was to be their response to the grace of God.2 Sabbath day, sabbath year and Jubilee each reaffirmed to the Israelites that their Creator and Redeemer owned the title to their land, as well as their very lives (25:23,55).