3 “If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he shall offer a male without blemish. He shall bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the Lord. 4 He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him. 5 Then he shall kill the bull before the Lord, and Aaron’s sons the priests shall bring the blood and throw the blood against the sides of the altar that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting. 6 Then he shall flay the burnt offering and cut it into pieces, 7 and the sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire. 8 And Aaron’s sons the priests shall arrange the pieces, the head, and the fat, on the wood that is on the fire on the altar; 9 but its entrails and its legs he shall wash with water. And the priest shall burn all of it on the altar, as a burnt offering, a food offering with a pleasing aroma to the Lord.” – Leviticus 1:3-9 ESV
In his book, Holiness to the Lord, Allan P. Ross stated, “Sacrifice is at the heart of all true worship.” The book of Leviticus deals with the fine art of sacrifice that God ordained so that the Israelites might be able to enjoy His presence. This compilation of regulations regarding sacrifice was meant to dictate how the Israelites should express their gratitude for God’s goodness and their reverence for His holiness.
Yahweh was not some mindless, man-made idol that would accept any and all sacrifices offered on His behalf. He was holy and righteous and entrance into His divine presence required purification and proper protocol. Sin had long separated humanity from God. Ever since Adam and Eve had violated God’s command not to eat the fruit of the one prohibited tree in the garden, mankind had been on a downward moral trajectory, away from God deeper into a lifestyle marked by independence from Him. Once sin entered the world, Adam and Eve lost their direct access to God. They would no longer enjoy unbroken fellowship with God in the garden. Instead, they were ejected from the former home they shared with the Almighty and were forced to live outside the garden and apart from His presence. Yet, God didn’t destroy Adam and Eve for their disobedience. Instead, He covered their spiritual “nakedness” with garments of skin. As they stood before God, literally exposed by their sin, He showered them with grace, offering the first blood sacrifice by taking the life of an innocent animal in order to properly atone for their sins.
Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them. – Genesis 3:21 ESV
The Hebrew word for atonement is kāp̄ar and it means “to cover over.” Adam and Eve stood before God exposed by their sin and worthy of His condemnation. But rather than facing the penalty of death, they were spared and given a new lease on life. Yet, blood was spilled so that they might live.
Generations would come and go, and the sinful bent of humanity would display itself through a deepening love affair with sin and rebellion against God. While Adam and Eve had enjoyed God’s undeserved forgiveness, they went on to populate the earth with more of their kind – sin-prone human beings who chose to live in open rebellion to the will of their Creator. Things became so bad, that at one point, God looked down on the earth and determined to put an end to the rampant wickedness that had enveloped humankind, the apex of His creation.
The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” – Genesis 6:5-7 ESV
Things had gotten so bad that God prepared to destroy all that He had created and deemed to be good. Yet, there was one man who found favor with God. Genesis reveals that “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God” (Genesis 6:9 ESV). In all the unrighteousness that marked the world of his day, Noah stood out as a man who had remained faithful to God. He wasn’t perfect or sinless, but his life was characterized by obedience to God. Therefore, God determined to spare Noah’s life. But in doing so, God sacrificed the lives of the rest of humanity as well as all living creatures that did not end up on the ark. Once again, lives were sacrificed so that Noah and his family could live.
After the flood that destroyed all living things, God started over with Noah and his three sons. But even though Noah was a righteous man, it didn’t take long before mankind’s love affair with sin raised its ugly head again. Things picked up right where they left off. Humanity continued to move away from God and toward independence. Noah’s three sons produced offspring and filled the earth with more of their kind. Their progeny spread over the earth, producing nations that propagated further rebellion against God. And from one of these nations, God chose another man from which to begin again. This time, He chose Abram, a pagan idol-worshiper from the faraway land of Ur. God designated this undeserving Chaldean as the one through whom He would create a brand-new nation that would become a model of righteousness in a sea of sinfulness.
God revealed Himself to this undeserving and unsuspecting man from distant Ur and proffered the following command and promise.
“Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” – Genesis 12:1-3 NLT
And Abram obeyed. His first encounter with Yahweh produced in him a willingness to take God at His word and step out in faith. Moses records that “Abram departed as the Lord had instructed” (Genesis 12:4 NLT). And this tendency toward willful obedience would show up repeatedly in Abram’s life over the years. He would continue to live in obedience submission to the will of God, regardless of the circumstances. From this one man, God would produce an entire nation, the people of Israel. And it was the descendants of Abram whom God redeemed out of slavery in Egypt and led to the valley beneath Mount Sinai. He had spared their lives through the sacrifice of blood.
“Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month every man shall take a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household. And if the household is too small for a lamb, then he and his nearest neighbor shall take according to the number of persons; according to what each can eat you shall make your count for the lamb. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats, and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight.” – Exodus 12:3-6 NLT
Each Israelite household was instructed to take the blood of the lamb and spread it on the doorpost and lintel of the door to their home.
“The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.” – Exodus 12:13 NLT
The blood became a covering or source of atonement, causing the death angel to pass over those homes and sparing all the firstborns found inside. Once again, God used blood to produce life. The Israelites had been undeserving of God’s grace and mercy. They had done nothing to earn His favor or merit His salvation. But by obeying His command, they received His protection and enjoyed His unmerited favor in the form of life and freedom.
It was those same Israelites who stood outside the newly constructed Tabernacle and listened to the voice of God as He declared His rules and regulations concerning the sacrificial system. If they wanted to dwell in His holy presence and continue to enjoy His favor, they would have to make sacrifices. Obedience was a non-negotiable requirement if they wanted to enjoy their status as His chosen people.
“Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” – Exodus 19:5-6 ESV
Their status as His chosen people would require sacrifice. It would involve cost and commitment. And God provided them with exacting details concerning the nature of the investment He expected them to make. The first involved the offering of cattle, and God made it clear that He would not accept any animal as a sacrifice.
“If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he shall offer a male without blemish. He shall bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the Lord.” – Leviticus 1:3 ESV
The animal must be free from flaw or injury. God would not accept damaged goods. If an Israelite expected his offering to be accepted, it had to have come with a cost. He could not offer an injured or diseased animal and expect God to be pleased with his offering. This animal was intended to serve as a substitute for the sins of the individual and, therefore, it must be healthy and whole. The blood of the animal would serve as atonement, covering the sins of the one offering the sacrifice.
“He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him.” – Leviticus 1:4 ESV
The goal behind all the sacrifices was a restored relationship with Yahweh. Sin caused a break in the relationship between God and His people, and sacrifice was required to atone for those sins. For the sinner to be accepted as “a pleasing aroma to the Lord” (Leviticus 1:9 ESV), a payment had to be made. The author of Hebrews reminds us that blood sacrifice was essential if the sinner expected to receive forgiveness from God.
…under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. – Hebrews 9:22 ESV
Sin was inevitable and unavoidable for God’s people. They were chosen, yet still fallen and predisposed to disobedience. So, God provided the sacrificial systen as a means by which they might be restored to a right relationship with Him. Their sinfulness separated them from God. But sacrifice was the God-ordained means for being made right with Him. And it came with a cost and required total commitment.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.