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Notes on the Bible, by Albert Barnes, [1834], at

Leviticus Introduction


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Introduction to Leviticus

1. Leviticus, that is, the Levitical Book, is the name by which this portion of the Law of Moses has always been called by the Hellenistic Jews and the Christian Church.

Leviticus is closely connected with Exodus at its commencement, and with the Book of Numbers at its conclusion; but differs from those books in its general exclusion of historical narrative. The only historical portions are the accounts of the Consecration of the priests, with the deaths of Nadab and Abihu Lev. 8-10, and of the punishment of the blasphemer Lev 24:10-23. A large portion of it is occupied with instructions for the service of the Sanctuary.

2. The authorship of Leviticus is ascribed in the main to Moses.

The book has no pretension to systematic arrangement as a whole, nor does it appear to have been originally written all at one time. There are pre-Mosaic fragments, together with passages probably written by Moses on previous occasions and inserted in the places they now occupy when the Pentateuch was put together; insertions also occur of a later date which were written, or sanctioned, by the prophets and holy men who, after the captivity, arranged and edited the Scriptures of the Old Testament.

3. The instructions respecting the offerings for the altar contained in Leviticus were recorded with a view to the guidance of those who were practically conversant with the service of the tabernacle. They do not furnish a methodical statement for the information of those who are strangers to the subject. A short sketch of the ritual of the altar, may therefore well form part of an introduction to the study of this book.

The whole sacrificial system of the Hebrew law was intended for a people already brought into covenant with the living God, and every sacrifice was assumed to have a vital connection with the spirit of the worshipper. A Hebrew sacrifice, like a Christian sacrament, possessed the inward and spiritual grace, as well as the outward and visible sign; and may have borne to each man a very different amount of meaning, according to the religious conditions of the mind. One may have come in devout obedience to the voice of the Law, with little more than a vague sense that his offering in some way expressed his own spiritual wants, and that the fact that he was permitted to offer it, was a sacramental pledge of God's good will and favor toward him. But to another, with clearer spiritual insight, the lessons conveyed in the symbols of the altar must have all converged with more or less distinctness toward the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, Who was to come in the fullness of times that He might fullfil all righteousness, and realize in the eyes of men the true sin-offering, burnt-offering, and peace-offering. The general name for what was formally given up to the service of God was קרבן qorbân, which exactly answers to the English words, offering and oblation. Whatever offerings were brought to be sacrificed on the altar, may be thus classed:

Offerings for the Altar Animal Vegetable 1. Burnt-offerings 1. Meat and drink-offerings for the Altar in the Court 2. Peace-offerings 2. Incense and meat-offerings for the Holy Place within the Tabernacle. 3. Sin-offerings

The offerings for the altar were:

(1) public

(2) private sacrifices; the mode of conducting which was nearly the same. The first three chapters of Leviticus relate entirely to private voluntary offerings.

The external distinction between the three classes of animal sacrifices may be thus broadly stated: The burnt-offering was wholly burned upon the altar; the sin-offering was in part burned on the altar, and in part, either given to the priests or burned outside the camp; and the peace-offering was shared between the altar, the priests, and the sacrificer. This formal difference is immediately connected with the distinctive meaning of each kind of sacrifice.

Five animals are named in the Law as suitable for sacrifice, the ox, the sheep, the goat, the dove and the pigeon. It is worthy of notice that these were all offered by Abraham in the great sacrifice of the covenant.

Three conditions met in the sacrificial quadrupeds; (1) they were clean according to the Law; (2) they were commonly used as food; and, being domesticated, (3) they formed a part of the home wealth of the sacrificers.

Every animal offered in sacrifice was to be perfect, without spot or blemish; and might vary in age between not less than a week and three years.

The man who offered a private sacrifice led with his own hands the victim into the court of the sanctuary, and formally presented it to the priest in front of the tabernacle. The sacrificer then laid, or rather pressed, his hand upon its head, and according to Jewish traditions, always uttered a prayer or confession of some sort while his hand rested on the head of the victim, except in the case of peace-offerings.

The regular place for slaughtering the animals for burnt-offerings, sin-offerings and trespass-offerings, was the north side of the altar. Tradition tells us that before the sacrificer laid his hand upon the head of the victim, it was bound by a cord to one of the rings fixed for the purpose on the north side of the altar, and that at the very instant when the words of the prayer, or confession, were ended, the fatal stroke was given. The peace-offerings and the paschal lambs, might, it would seem, be slain in any part of the court.

The mode of killing appears not to have differed from that of slaughtering animals for food. The throat was cut while a priest or assistant held a bowl under the neck to receive the blood. The sacrificer, or his assistant, then flayed the victim and cut it into pieces, probably while the priest was engaged in disposing of the blood.

In sacrificing the burnt-offerings, the peace-offerings and the trespass-offerings, the priests "sprinkled" or rather cast the blood about, so that the blood should be diffused over the sides of the altar. In the sin-offerings, the priest had to take some of the blood with his finger and put it upon the horns of the altar of burnt-offering, and to pour out what remained at the bottom of the altar, if the sin-offering was for one of the common people, or for a ruler: if the sin-offering was for the congregation or for the high priest, in addition to these two processes, the high priest himself had to bring a portion of the blood into the sanctuary, to sprinkle it with his finger seven times before the vail, and to put some of it upon the horns of the altar of Incense.

The great altar of the temple was furnished with two holes at its southwest corner through which the blood ran into a drain which conveyed it to the Cedron. There was probably some arrangement of this kind for taking the blood away from the altar in the wilderness.

When the blood was disposed of, the skin removed, and the animal cut into pieces, the sacrificer, or his assistant, washed the entrails and feet. In the case of a burnt-offering, all the pieces were then taken to the altar and salted. Next, the priest piled the pieces on the altar, the hind limbs being probably put at the base of the pile, then the entrails and other viscera with the fat, then the fore limbs, with the head at the top.

The parts burned upon the altar of the peace-offering, the sin-offering and the trespass-offering, were the same in each case; and consisted of the fat, and the kidneys, and the caul above the liver.

The parts of the victims which regularly fell to the priests were:

Of the burnt-offerings, only the hide, the whole of the flesh being consigned to the altar: of the peace-offerings, the breast and the right shoulder (or leg), which might be eaten by the priests and their families in any unpolluted place. The hide appears to have been retained by the sacrificer: of the sin-offerings and the trespass-offerings, the whole of the flesh (except the fat portions burned on the altar), and probably the hide. The flesh could only be eaten within the precinct of the Tabernacle. It was distinguished from the "holy" flesh of the peace-offerings as being "most holy."

Connected with the priests' breast and shoulder is the inquiry as to the two ceremonies called waving and heaving. The shoulder, which belonged to the officiating priest, was heaved, and the breast, which was for the common stock of the priests in general, was waved before the Lord. Each process appears to have been a solemn form of dedicating a thing to the use of the sanctuary. The term strictly rendered heave-offering appears to be used in as wide a sense as קרבן qorbân, for offerings in general. That rendered wave-offering is not so broadly applied. The rabbis say that heaving was a moving up and down, waving a moving to and fro. But, as waving appears to have been the more solemn process of the two, it was probably, in accordance with its derivation, a movement several times repeated, while heaving was simply a lifting up once.

Every burnt-offering and peace-offering was accompanied by a meat-offering (rather vegetable-offering, see Lev. 2 with the notes) and a drink-offering Exo 29:43. There is no mention of this in Leviticus. The quantities of flour, oil and wine were proportioned to the importance of the victims.

The whole of the meat-offerings and drink-offerings, with the exception of what was burned, or poured, on the altar, fell to the lot of the priests. See Lev 2:3,

The sin-offering and the trespass-offering were sacrificed without either meat-offering or drink-offering.

4. In the earliest record of sacrifice Gen 4:3-5 the name given in common to the animal and vegetable offerings is מנחה mı̂nchāh (i. e. a gift), which the Law afterwards restricted to the vegetable-offerings (Lev 2:1 note).

The sacrifices of Noah after the flood consisted of burnt-offerings of clean beasts and birds offered upon an altar.

The covenant sacrifice of Abraham consisted of one of each of the five animals which the Law afterward recognized as fit for sacrifice. But the cutting in twain of the four-footed victims appears to mark it as a peculiar rite belonging to a personal covenant, and to distinguish it from the classes of sacrifices ordained by the Law.

Among the different aspects under which the offering up of Isaac Gen. 22 may be viewed, there is perhaps one which most directly connects it with the history of sacrifice. - Abraham had still one great lesson to learn. He did not clearly perceive that Jehovah did not require his gifts. The Law had not yet been given which would have suggested this truth to him by the single victim appointed for the burnt-offering and for the sin-offering, and by the sparing handful of the meat-offering. To correct and enlighten him, the Lord "tempted" him to offer up, as a burnt-offering, his most cherished possession, the center of his hopes. The offering, had it been completed, would have been an actual gift to Jehovah, not a ceremonial act of worship: it would have been not an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, but a stern reality in itself. Isaac was not, as regards his father's purpose, in any proper sense a symbol or representative. Nor is there any hint that would justify us in making the voluntary submission of Isaac a significant part of the transaction. The act of the patriarch in giving up his own flesh and blood was an analogue rather than a type of the sacrifice of the Great High Priest who gave up Himself as a victim. In order to instruct Abraham that the service of the altar fulfilled its purpose in being the expression of the spiritual condition of the worshipper, the Lord Himself provided a ram which was accepted instead of the beloved son. Abraham had already made the offering of himself in his ready faith and obedience; the acceptable means for expressing this fact was appointed in the "ram caught in a thicket by his horns."

Isaac and Jacob built altars: and the sacrifices offered by Jacob at Mizpah appear to have been strictly peace-offerings.

Sacrificial worship was familiarly known to the Israelites in Egypt: and the history of Jethro seems to show that it was common to the two great branches of the Semitic stock.

We thus see that if we take the narrative of Scripture for our guide, the most ancient sacrifices were burnt-offerings: and that the radical idea of sacrifice is to be sought in the burnt-offering rather than in the peace-offering, or in the sin-offering. Assuming that the animal brought to the altar represented the person of him who offered it, and noting that the flesh was spoken of not as destroyed by burning, but as sent up in the fire like incense toward heaven; the act of sacrifice intimated that the believer confessed the obligation of surrendering himself, body, soul, and spirit, to the Lord of heaven and earth who had been revealed to him. The truth expressed then in the whole burnt-offering is the unqualified self-sacrifice of the person.

In the peace-offerings of the patriarchal age, before the institution of a national priesthood, there is no reason to doubt that, as in the peace-offerings of the Law, certain portions of the victim were burned upon the altar, and that the remainder of the flesh was eaten by the offerer and those who were associated with him by participation in the spirit of the sacrifice.

In the scriptural records there is no trace either of the sin-offering, or of any special treatment of the blood of victims, before the time of Moses. Not that we need imagine a single act of sacrifice to have been performed since the first transgression, without a consciousness of sin in the mind of the worshipper. Earnest devotion to a Holy God in a fallen creature must necessarily include a sense of sin and unworthiness. But the feeling which most prominently found its expression in the burnt-offerings of Noah (for example), must have been rather, the sense of present deliverance, of thankfulness deeper than words, of complete self-surrender to the solemn bond now laid upon him in the Covenant.

The first instance of the blood of a sacrifice being noticed in any way occurs in the account of the institution of the Passover; the next is in connection with the burnt-offerings and peace-offerings of the covenant of Sinai.

We are left in no doubt as to the sacrificial meaning of the blood. As the material vehicle of the life of the victim, it was the symbol of the life of the offerer. In contrast with the flesh and bones it expressed in a distinct manner the immaterial principle which survives death. This is distinctly assigned as the reason for its appointed use in the rites of atonement.

The sin-offering is to be regarded as a creation of the Law. It was the voice of the Law that awakened the distinct consciousness of sin in the individual mind.

In the perfected sacrificial system, the three classes of offerings are to be regarded as representing distinct aspects of divine truth connected with man's relation to Jehovah. But it is important to observe that in no sacrifice was the idea of the burnt-offering left out.

The natural order of victims in the sacrificial service of the Law was, first the sin-offering, then the burnt-offering, and last the peace-offering. This answers to the spiritual process through which the worshipper had to pass. He had transgressed the Law, and he needed the atonement signified by the sin-offering: if his offering had been made in truth and sincerity, he could then offer himself to the Lord as an accepted person, as a sweet savor, in the burnt-offering, and in virtue of this acceptance, he could enjoy communion with the Lord and with his brethren in the peace-offering.

The main additions made to the ritual of sacrifice by the Levitical law consisted in the establishment of one national altar, the institution of the national Priesthood, and all those particulars that were peculiar to the sin-offerings and the trespass-offerings. In these particulars, which in spite of prophetic teaching must have been difficult and obscure to the Israelite, we can now clearly trace the forecast shadows of the spotless Saviour who was to come, to stand for the sinful race as its head, to make the offering of Himself as both priest and victim, to perfect the work of redemption by Himself, and so to enter into the presence of God for us as a sweet savor.

Next: Leviticus Chapter 1