Misunderstanding and Disagreement
If one subject is misunderstood in Christianity and Judaism, it would be the five Levitical sacrifices. It is typical for the Jews of the Reform or Conservative movements to say, "The sacrificial system of the Torah is an ancient practice that is no longer relevant in this day and age." Now the "sacrifice of the heart" through prayer, giving alms, and service reveals the intentions of our hearts. Orthodox Jews would not disagree with the importance of prayer and giving, yet they would take a different stance on the relevance of the sacrifices. Orthodox Jews still mourn, yearn, and pray for the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem, and for the sacrificial system to be reinstated.
Christians tend to say, "The law of the Levitical sacrifices was fulfilled when Jesus died on the cross." Therefore, the sacrificial system of the Old Testament was obsolete even before the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 AD.
Model of Herod's Temple, photo by Terry Harman in Jerusalem, 2000
I have a different opinion. Studying the original intention in offering the sacrifices reveals the purpose of the offering and the condition of the heart of the one making the sacrifice. The misunderstanding is compounded by the English word "sacrifice." As we will learn, the Hebrew word often translated as sacrifice, would be better understood as an offering or gift. When the five Levitical sacrifices are understood in the context each was offered, a practical and relevant principle for today may be understood.
For instance, the Christian understanding the entire sacrificial system is irrelevant and was "fulfilled by Jesus" presents a problem - not all of the levitical sacrifices were meant to atone for sin. Three of the five were voluntary and two were mandatory and were directed to atone for sin. One of the offerings was simply a way of offering thanks to the Lord. Surely, it remains relevant to offer thanks to the Lord for being good to us and providing for our needs.
Photo taken by Adam Hershman, 2008
There are biblical principles that apply to our lives today when we understand the intention behind each offering. The intention here is to present and basic overview of the sacrificial system of ancient Judaism. In upcoming blogs, each of the five offerings will be explored in depth.
Ancient Expression of Faith
In Harvey J. Fields' Modern Commentary on Leviticus, he provides an excellent foundation for understanding this ancient expression of faith.
“The drama and beauty of the sacrificial service, along with the music, prayers, and strong odors of incense, created an atmosphere of awe. In presenting a sacrifice, one was giving something important of oneself to God. For the ancients, the smoke of a burning sacrifice on the altar was proof of a person’s love and reverence for God and God’s commandments.
Those who misused the ritual sacrifices, however, were severely criticized. When the prophet Isaiah, for example, saw people ignore the poor and sick, cheat, and deal dishonestly with one another but take their offerings to the Jerusalem Temple, he scorned and denounced them. He told them that God did not want their sacrifices because their “hands were stained with crime” (Is. 1:11, 15). Among the ancient Jews, hypocrisy was ridiculed."
Offering to the Lord, photo by Terry Harman, 2018
Key Concepts in Understanding Levitical Sacrifices
1.) The Book of Leviticus is the biblical equivalent of the modern-day Rabbi’s or Minister’s manual.
a. These modern manuals are primarily concerned with the religious ceremonies clergy are required to perform such as weddings, funerals, baby naming, conversion rituals, baptisms, Eucharist, and other essential rituals connected with the particular faith group.
b. Modern lay members of the congregation generally do not read these manuals or are even interested in these rites unless the particular ritual will directly apply to them such as the wedding or conversion ceremony.
c. The book of Leviticus is the Levitical manual or ritual instructions regarding the duties of the priest as it pertains to the sacrificial system of the biblical period.
2.) The Problem with the English word “sacrifice.”
a. The English word sacrifice is used dozens of times throughout the book of Leviticus.
b. Sacrifice often conjures up a negative image of primitive societies and generally means “to give up something of value or worth for some greater good,” which conveys the meaning of loss or surrender. Often the implication is that this surrender is done due to some sort of punishment.
c. The English word is a poor translation of the concept in Leviticus.
3.) Korban - the biblical word used has a different meaning.
a. The Hebrew word for “sacrifice” is korban קרבן which means “coming closer”.
b. Korban derives from the root karev קרב which means “to draw near”.
c. The purpose of the koban or offering was to provide the offerer a tangible means to draw closer to God to gain a sense of intimacy or connection with the divine through the act of bringing a cherished gift to the altar of burnt sacrifice.
d. The gift or offering was culled from your finest flour or the best of your flock and was without blemish or defect.
4.) Sacrifices were never considered a means of removing guilt, forgiving sin, or even an expression of thankfulness if the person was not sincere.
The Offering of Fine Flour by Adam Hershman, 2018
5.) One particular name is most used to address God in the book of Leviticus.
"And THE LORD called unto Moses and spoke unto him out of the tent of meeting, saying:
“Hashem,” “The Lord” = YHWH. This name of God is used in the following manner.
a. YHWH is used 83x in Leviticus
b. YHWH is used in connection with each of the five offerings
c. The Name of God that conveys His mercy & tenderness
d. So sacred only spoken by the High Priest one time a year, in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur
e. YHWH is used in a personal call to approach the Lord in this manner.
Vayikra - “He called unto Moses” - the title of the book in Hebrew and this portion
Not a “Hey Moses” but a loving call and a personal call to Moses by name
6.) Each time God was going to reveal something new: “He Called” Moses and the name used was YHWH.
a. Burning Bush
b. Mt. Sinai
c. Leviticus 1
7.) Offerings had specific intentions in mind.
Leviticus 1-5 focuses on the actions and the gift of the offerer while chapters 6-7 primarily concentrate on the specific duties of the priest associated with the offerings.
Altar of Burnt Sacrifice, photo by Terry Harman, 2008
The olah or "burnt offering" was a voluntary sacrifice that had a high degree of sanctity and was regarded as the "standard" offering. The entire animal, except for its hide, was burned on the altar. (1:1-17)
The minchah or "meal offering" was a voluntary sacrifice made of flour, oil, salt, and frankincense that was partly burned on the altar and partly given to the priests to eat. (2:1-16)
The zevach sh'lamim or "sacrifice of well-being" was a voluntary animal offering from one's herd, sometimes brought to fulfill a vow. (3:1-17)
The chatat or "sin offering" was an obligatory sacrifice that was offered to expiate unintentional sins. This offering differs from the others in the special treatment of the blood of the animal. (4:1-5:13)
The asham or "penalty offering" was an obligatory sacrifice of a ram that was required chiefly of one who had misappropriated property. (5:1-26)
In future blogs, each offering will be examined in depth to reveal its original intention and purpose. We will learn practical applications for our lives today. The word offering better conveys the biblical meaning of the Hebrew word Korban. The five Levitical sacrifices were offerings used as a means to assist the giver in drawing closer to the Lord. As they drew closer to the Lord He drew closer to them.
The Lord did not need the gift or offering because He was lacking or hungry for food. If the Lord was famished, it was for His people to draw closer to him. The prophets challenged and confronted the people of God to be careful that their intentions were pure for bringing offerings. Otherwise, the offering was of no use and would not bring them closer to the Lord. The offerings were a means to help human beings present a tangible offering that revealed the intention and condition of their heart.
Here is a video offering an introduction to the Five Levitical Offerings.