ABSTRACT: How can the living and holy God dwell with his sinful people in a world of death? The book of Leviticus answers that question, but understanding its message requires patiently learning the language of the sacrificial system. Like any language, Leviticus has a basic grammar consisting of nouns, adjectives, and verbs, each of which contributes to the book’s overall message. In the five offerings in particular, we see how God draws sinful and contaminated people near to himself, and we catch hints of the once-for-all offering to which every sacrifice pointed. The holy God desires to dwell with, meet with, and dine with his people, and Leviticus gives us a deeper knowledge of how he does so.
Comedian Brian Regan tells a funny story about his struggles in school as a kid. He talks about the public humiliation of the spelling bee and his difficulty with the i-before-e rule. A particularly funny portion describes the teacher’s questions to him and Erwin (the smart kid in class) about how to make a plural.
Teacher: “Brian, how do you make a word plural?”
Brian: “You put an s at the end of it.”
Teacher: “Erwin, what’s the plural for ox?”
Erwin: “Oxen. The farmer used his oxen.”
Teacher: “Brian, what’s the plural for box?”
Brian: “Boxen. I bought two boxen of doughnuts.”
Teacher: “No, Brian. Erwin, what’s the plural for goose?”
Erwin: “Geese. I saw a flock of geese.”
Teacher: “Brian, what’s the plural for moose?”
Brian: “Moosen. I saw a flock of moosen. . . . There were many of them . . . many, much moosen . . . out in the woods, in the wood-es, in the wood-es-en . . .”
Superficially, the joke is about Brian’s ignorance. But it actually demonstrates the complexity and difficulty of the English language (to which anyone who has learned English as a second language can attest). As native English speakers, we don’t always think about this difficulty and complexity because we’re so familiar with it. We inhabit the language, we use the language, and therefore, it feels (mostly) comprehensible to us.
For many of us, the book of Leviticus mystifies us. We find the sacrifices, rules, and regulations to be complex and confusing. To us, Leviticus is like a foreign language. It mystifies because we’re unfamiliar with it. Like Brian Regan and making plural words, the intricacies elude and confuse us.1
Thinking of Leviticus as a language can help demystify it. Consider what goes into a language. First, we have an alphabet. We arrange the letters of the alphabet to form words. There are different kinds of words — nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions, adverbs. We arrange the words into sentences with meaning and purpose. We modify words by adding letters at the beginning or end in order to make plurals or speak about the past or future or communicate ongoing versus completed action.
What’s more, in English, in order to make sense, we must arrange the words in a certain order. “Bill throws the ball” means something very different from “The ball throws Bill.” Arranging the words rightly is necessary in order to communicate clearly.
The sacrificial system is similar. Instead of nouns, verbs, and adjectives, we have people, places, sins, animals, animal body parts, and actions, and they are arranged and combined in various ways in order to say something, in order to communicate.
The sacrificial system resembles language learning in another way. In truth, we don’t actually learn our native language by first learning the alphabet, then learning words, and then arranging words into sentences. In other words, we don’t move from the smallest parts up to the larger parts.
Instead, as children, we first learn nouns — like “Mommy” and “Daddy” and “milk” — and sentences — simple ones like “Yes” and “No” and “Help, please.” Then as we mature, we learn more nouns and more complex sentences. At a certain age, we’re taught to read, and we learn to break words down into letters and then to break sentences down into subjects, verbs, and direct objects so we can grasp the rules of spelling and grammar.
The Bible teaches us the sacrificial system in the same way. We get glimpses of it early on: God provides Adam and Eve with animal skins after their sin in the garden (Genesis 3:21). Cain and Abel offer tribute to God (Genesis 4:3–4). Noah offers whole burnt offerings of clean animals after the flood (Genesis 8:20). Abraham prepares to offer Isaac as a burnt offering, and God substitutes a ram at the last minute (Genesis 22:1–19). Moses makes burnt offerings and peace offerings and sprinkles blood on the people at Sinai (Exodus 24:4–8).
Then finally, in Leviticus, it’s like we pick up a grammar textbook that sets forth more detailed rules for how all of these sacrifices work in the covenantal arrangement established by God with his people after the exodus. Leviticus, along with Numbers, provides the basic spelling, grammar, and syntax of the sacrificial system, and in learning the language, we can better understand what God is saying to us.
To grasp the symbolic system of Leviticus, we begin with three images. Leviticus builds on the book of Genesis, especially the early chapters. Recall the basic story. God made the world and everything in it in six days. The crown of his creation is man, made on the sixth day, male and female, in God’s own image, as his representatives and stewards. He gives the first man and woman a commission — be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, subdue it, and have dominion over its inhabitants. He places them in a garden to work and keep it, and gives them one prohibition: “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17).
Under the influence of the crafty serpent, Adam and Eve rebel against God, eat the fruit, and are confronted in their rebellion. God judges them for their rebellion, cursing the ground, multiplying pain and hardship in their relationship, and dooming them to die and return to dust. But he mingles mercy with his justice, promising them descendants, and especially a redeemer who will crush the serpent’s head. He then clothes them with animal skins and exiles them from the garden.
Now, here’s the important image: in order to prevent Adam and Eve from eating from the tree of life in the midst of the garden, God “drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life” (Genesis 3:24).
This is crucial. The holy presence of God is in the garden. Life is in the garden. And there is an angelic bouncer with a sword of fire separating man from divine life. There’s no way to draw near to God without losing your head and being burned up.
The second image comes from the book of Exodus. Yahweh has just delivered his people from bondage and gathered them at the holy mountain. God descends in a thick cloud of smoke and lightning, and he says to the people through Moses,
You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 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 19:4–6)
There is a profound tension between this image and the one in Genesis. In Genesis 3, we see life and glory in the garden, with an angel guarding the way with a flaming sword. In Exodus 19, we see life and glory on the mountain, with the words “you are my treasured possession; I have brought you to myself and intend to dwell with you.”
The tension between these two biblical scenes yields a third image. Imagine if the sun — the giant ball of flaming gas in the sky — wanted to come live in your neighborhood. What would happen? There is no atmosphere to protect you, no sunscreen strong enough, no covering to shield you: just the blazing inferno of the sun and your weak, frail, human self. How would that work out for you? Can you handle that heat?
The answer is obvious. We can’t handle that heat. The scene at Sinai confirms it. Yahweh invites the people to draw near, but he also commands them to consecrate and prepare themselves; they are to wash their garments and abstain from sexual relations for three days prior (Exodus 19:10–11, 15). What’s more, he sets limits around the mountain, a boundary that they are not to cross, on pain of death (verses 12–13). It seems we have not left the angelic guardian entirely behind. To cross the boundary, to touch the holy mountain, is to court death. And the passage couldn’t be clearer: the real danger is that the Lord will break out against them (verses 21–24). The danger is that they would get too close to the sun. And they can’t handle that heat.
“The living and holy God desires to dwell with his sinful people in this world of death.”
We can summarize the basic problem in this way. The living God is holy. We are a sinful people in a world of death. But the living and holy God desires to dwell with his sinful people in this world of death. How is that possible? If we’re going to return to the garden of life, if we’re going to draw near to the holy God, how do we get past the angel and his flaming sword?
Basics of the Grammar
God’s answer to this problem is the whole Levitical system. It’s an entire symbolic system — a language — that testifies both to God’s holiness and life and to our sinfulness and death. And at the center of that system is atonement — the God-given covering that enables us to remarkably, miraculously, mercifully draw near to God and handle the heat.
So what are the basics of the grammar of this Levitical language? Let’s think in terms of nouns, adjectives, and verbs.
Back in elementary school, we learned that there are three basic categories of nouns: people, places, and things. These categories offer a good way to approach the grammar of Leviticus as well.
Start with people. First, we have men and women. The book opens with a call-back to Genesis: “When an adam brings an offering . . .” (Leviticus 1:2). The word adam reminds us that we are sons of earth, since adam was taken from the dust of the adamah. But we aren’t merely “earth-men”; we are men and women, ish and ishshah (Genesis 2:23).
In the Levitical system, we can break God’s people down even more. First, we have the congregation as a whole. Within the congregation, we have the Levites, the priests, and especially the high priest. Beyond them, we have the leaders or rulers of the people. Then we have individual Israelites, some of them rich, and some of them poor. So the Levitical system recognizes distinctions in terms of people.
What about places? Here we need to connect sacred geography and sacred architecture. Leviticus is built on Genesis, especially the early chapters. And there, we remember the garden, in the land of Eden, and the world beyond (unsubdued and unfilled): garden, land, world (Genesis 2:8). The garden was on a mountain, and a river flowed down to water the garden, and then from there it split into four rivers spreading out over the earth (Genesis 2:10). So in terms of geography, think of a summit, a mountain, the land around it, and then the waters/ocean at the edge.
This sacred geography is repeated at Sinai, with the cloud and fire at the summit (into which Moses ascends), and then the mountain (where the elders wait), and then the base of the mountain (where the people gather), and then the wilderness surrounding them (Exodus 19:20–24; 24:9–18).
The Israelite camp reflects this sacred geography. The tabernacle is a mobile Mount Sinai. At the edges, you have “outside the camp,” which corresponds to the waters of death and chaos. Then you have the camp itself, with the tribes arranged around the tabernacle. Then you have a courtyard, where there is a bronze basin for washing vessels and the altar for burning sacrifices. In the middle of the courtyard, you have the tent. Inside the tent, you have the Holy Place, with a lampstand (like the tree of life), the altar of incense, and the table with the bread of the presence. And then at the heart of the tabernacle (or at the top of the mountain), there is the Most Holy Place, God’s throne room, holding the ark of the covenant with the cherubim on top.
So the Israelite camp is a mini-cosmos, a horizontal mountain. As you move in, you move up. As you move from outside the camp inward (or upward), you move closer to the sun. And in order to be close to the sun, you have to be sun-like, acclimated to the sun. Or to use the language of the Bible, you have to be holy, because the sun (Yahweh) is holy. The further up and further in you move, the greater the holiness required. At each stage, there is a boundary with a gate. And in order to pass through the gate, you must have the necessary qualifications, the right status and covering. The Levitical system recognizes these distinctions in terms of place.
Finally, we have things. We might first think in terms of the various objects involved in Israel’s worship: clothing, vessels, bowls, instruments, and the like. But we can also think in terms of animals and their body parts, as well as grain. Leviticus distinguishes between a number of different types of animals. There is a basic distinction between animals of the herd (cows and oxen) and animals of the flock (sheep and goats). Leviticus then distinguishes these different animals based on sex (male and female) and age (lambs versus mature adults). Beyond that, there are birds (doves and pigeons), and beyond that there are grains (flour and such). And then there are various other elements, some forbidden (such as leaven and honey) and others required (such as salt). All of these have symbolic value. They mean something in this system.
More than that, the body parts of the animals have meaning in the system. The animals are dismembered into the head, the fat portions (the heart, kidney, liver, and more), and then the entrails and legs. These parts are frequently burned up in the sacrifice. Then you have other parts of the animal: skin, bones, meat, and so forth. And again, all of these have symbolic value. So the Levitical system makes distinctions in terms of things.
Next, we move from nouns to adjectives. Here we need to think in terms of interlocking distinctions. One basic distinction is life and death (living and dead). Life is tied to blood (Leviticus 17:14). A related distinction is clean and unclean. Another set of distinctions relates to holiness. On the one hand, holy can be the opposite of sinful. On the other hand, holy can be the opposite of common.
In the first case, unholiness or impurity involves moral contamination. Think of sinfulness as a kind of moral state, something that we just are. We are sinful people in a world of death. In the second case, when holy is distinguished from common, being common isn’t a problem in itself. Common things are perfectly fine. But common things can be made into holy things through rituals of consecration. God establishes rituals that move people and objects from common to holy, from ordinary to set apart. And they are set apart or consecrated in order to make it possible for the living and holy God to dwell with his sinful people in a world of death.
Imagine a common bowl, made out of clay. Through a process of washings, this bowl could be moved from common to holy, so that it could be used in the offerings. Or a robe could be consecrated so that it could be worn inside the courtyard or inside the Holy Place.
We can see some of these nouns and adjectives woven together in Leviticus 6:9–11:
Command Aaron and his sons, saying, This is the law of the burnt offering. The burnt offering shall be on the hearth on the altar all night until the morning, and the fire of the altar shall be kept burning on it. And the priest shall put on his linen garment and put his linen undergarment on his body [these are holy or consecrated clothes], and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering on the altar and put them beside the altar. Then he shall take off his garments and put on other garments and carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place.
This is a simple task: dispensing with the ashes from the altar. But a consecrated and holy person (a priest) has to put on consecrated and holy clothes to approach the altar (to pass through the gate up the mountain). Then to take the ashes outside, he has to pass through the gate going the other way, and so he needs to change into common clothes before he takes the ashes to a clean place outside the camp (not an unclean place, such as the latrine).
What is the symbolic significance of these rituals and movements? Earlier we noted the idea that, for God to dwell with his people, they have to be acclimated to the sun. Think about acclimation. In Minnesota, it’s not uncommon for it to be 45 degrees in both October and in March. But we respond to the same temperature very differently at the different times of year.
In October, when the temperature dips to 45, we bundle up — puffy jackets, gloves, beanies. In March, when the temperature rises to 45, we break out the T-shirts and shorts. Why? Because of how we’re acclimated. In October, we’re acclimated to warm weather, so 45 feels cold. In March, we’re acclimated to cold weather, so 45 feels warm.
As a sinful people in a world of death, we are tempted to become acclimated to sin and death. The Levitical system was designed to press against this worldly acclimation, against the felt sense that sin and death are normal. It was designed instead to acclimate Israel to life and holiness, to the presence of the living and holy God.
“Holiness is contagious, and you don’t want to catch it unless you’ve been properly consecrated.”
So when you move from the cold and death outside the camp toward the sun at the top of the mountain, you have to put on the right clothes and the right gloves — holy ones. When you move back down the mountain, away from the sun, you have to take off your holy clothes and put on your common clothes. For the common to come into contact with the holy is to contaminate the holy, rendering it unclean. More than that, it is to make the common holy in an inappropriate way. In the Bible, holiness is contagious, and you don’t want to catch it — you don’t want to get holy on you — unless you’ve been properly consecrated, properly covered. Because unless you’ve been consecrated and covered, you can’t handle the heat.
This brings us to the verbs of the Levitical system. We call these sacrifices or offerings. The more basic meaning of the term is “near-bringing.” “When a man brings near his near-bringing . . .” (Leviticus 1:2). The basic goal of offerings is to draw near to God.
There are five basic types of offerings identified in the early chapters of Leviticus: burnt offering, grain offering, peace offering, sin offering, guilt offering. But rather than using these names, many commentators prefer to highlight the basic function or action of each offering.
The (whole) burnt offering is the ascension offering. The grain offering is called the tribute offering. The peace offering is still the peace offering, provided we recognize that peace relates to communion with God. The sin offering is called the purification offering. Finally, the guilt or trespass offering is called the reparations offering. The first three offerings form the basics of the Levitical system; they maintain it. The last two repair breaches in the system in particular circumstances. The first three are like food; they maintain health in an ongoing way. The purification and reparations offerings are like medicine; they are used when you’re sick with a particular illness.
The offerings often involve some of the same basic elements. The worshiper brings the animal to the courtyard and lays his hands on it. The worshiper kills the animal, and the blood is drained out. The blood is then used in various ways in the sacrificial rite: sprinkled on the horns/corners of the altar, or at the base of the altar, or on the altar of incense in the Holy Place. Then the priest dismembers the animal and arranges certain parts in a certain order on the altar to be burned up. Other parts are taken and burned outside the camp. And in some cases, some parts are eaten, either by the priest or by the worshiper.
This is the basic progression: lay hands, kill the animal, sprinkle the blood, arrange and burn certain key parts, dispense with and/or eat other parts. All of these steps are designed in one way or another to make atonement, to provide a covering so that we can handle the heat.
PURIFICATION AND REPARATIONS
Let’s consider more deeply the medicinal offerings — the purification and the reparations offering. All of the offerings assume that we are a sinful people in a world of death. But we aren’t just sinful; we also are sinning. That is, we commit concrete acts of sin and become contaminated. We become impure. And when we do, we need to be purified before we can draw near to God. The purification offering deals with these sorts of sins and errors.
The Bible distinguishes between high-handed sins and “unintentional sins” or sins of error (Numbers 15:30–31). High-handed sins are brazen, defiant, and unrepentant. There is no sacrifice for such sins, because there is no repentance. You can’t be purified from sins that you don’t repent of.
Sins of error include real sins, but the key difference is that the sinner “realizes his guilt” (Leviticus 4:22, 27; 5:2). That is, he’s convicted of sin and wants to be restored to fellowship with God. He’s repentant. Sins of error includes sins of omission (neglect or forgetfulness, when you don’t do the do’s) as well as sins of commission (when you do do the don’ts). The key is that the worshiper has become contaminated and impure somehow, whether through willful action or inaction, or through neglect and ignorance, and then has realized his guilt and is repentant.
This is where people, places, and animals become important. Different people are linked to different animals within the system. If the congregation sins, or if the high priest sins, they (and he) are represented by a bull of the herd (Leviticus 4:13–21). If a leader of the people sins, he is represented by a male goat of the flock (4:22–27). If a commoner sins, he or she is represented by a female goat or a lamb (4:27–35). If the person is poor and can’t afford livestock, he or she can use two birds (5:7–10) — or, if that’s too much, flour or grain (5:11–13). The important point is that different people are represented by different animals in the symbolic language of Leviticus.
Moreover, the purification offering has a special focus on the blood of the animal. If the congregation sins, the blood is sprinkled not only on the altar in the courtyard, but also on the altar of incense in the Holy Place. If a commoner sins, the blood is sprinkled only on the altar in the courtyard. Congregational sin (or high-priestly sin) is more grievous than mere individual sin.
The reparations or guilt offering is similar to the purification offering, but the difference is that the sin committed is related to the desecration of God’s holy things or robbery of others. In both cases, the idea is that the sinner has stolen something and needs not only to be purified, but also to make restitution somehow (often 20 percent more than what was stolen).
In both cases, the purpose of these offerings is to fix a breach in the system based on a concrete action (or inaction).
ASCENSION, TRIBUTE, PEACE
This brings us to the three basic offerings at the core of the system. The ascension offering is the most basic offering. In it, the worshiper lays his hands on an unblemished animal, so that the spotless animal now represents the sinful worshiper. The animal is then killed, and its blood (which is its life) is sprinkled on the altar. The animal is then dismembered and arranged on the altar, with particular focus on the head and the fat portions (which are closely tied to the emotions in the Bible). In this sense, the altar is like a mini-mountain, rising from altar to fire, wood, head, and fat portions — all of it burned up and ascending to God in the smoke as a pleasing aroma.2
This offering signifies the total surrender of the worshiper, the heartfelt desire to draw near to the living and holy God despite our sinfulness and death. There is both death and resurrection in this offering, as the animal dies and then is transformed through fire in order to rise into God’s presence. By faith, the worshiper ascends to the presence of God in the smoke, and God is pleased with the faith of the sinner who comes to God represented by the life and death of an unblemished animal.
The ascension offering is the core offering, in which the worshiper offers himself. But then, in addition to offering himself, the worshiper can also offer tribute to Yahweh. He can bring a representative portion of his wealth in the form of the grain or tribute offering. This offering is not offered by itself, but always accompanies the ascension offering. As one commentator puts it, the ascension offering is like a hamburger, and the tribute offering is like a side of fries.3 (And in fact, the book of Numbers describes drink offerings that accompany the other offerings as well.)
So the worshiper offers purification and reparations offerings in order to repair breaches in the relationship caused by sinful and impure actions. Then the worshiper offers himself in total surrender to Yahweh, drawing near to him as a pleasing aroma in the ascension offering. And he may offer a tribute to Yahweh for all of his kindness to him. But even these aren’t the end.
“God doesn’t just want to meet with his people; he wants to dine with his people.”
All of these offerings — purification, reparation, total surrender, and tribute — are meant to lead to communion. There are two different terms for the tabernacle in Leviticus: “tabernacle” (or “dwelling”) and “tent of meeting.” Both terms are important. God doesn’t merely want to dwell with his people; he wants to meet with his people. And he doesn’t just want to meet with his people; he wants to dine with his people.
The peace offering is the culmination and climax of Israelite worship. Parts of it resemble the ascension offering, with the fat portions and guts burned and offered to God as a pleasing aroma. Parts of it resemble the tribute offering, consisting of unleavened loaves of bread. But what sets the peace offering apart is that the worshiper is invited to eat with God. Whether giving thanks for a particular blessing, or giving thanks because God has enabled him to fulfill a vow, or just giving a general thanksgiving to God as a freewill offering, the worshiper recognizes that God has made provision so that his people can draw near to him and fellowship with him in peace.
Dining in a World of Death
This is the message of Leviticus. It is what the nouns, adjectives, and verbs communicated to Israel, and what they can still communicate to us today. For though we do not inhabit the same world as Israel, Leviticus was still written for our instruction, that “through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). Leviticus enables us to see Christ and his work on our behalf in a deeper and richer light. In learning the language of Leviticus, we come to a deeper knowledge that the living and holy God truly does desire to dwell with, meet with, and dine with his sinful people in a world of death. Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
For this article, I am drawing on and condensing material from a number of biblical scholars who have thought deeply about the book of Leviticus. Readers who would like to explore these matters more deeply should consider Alastair Roberts, “Leviticus: Chapter-by-Chapter Commentary,” May 1, 2022, YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UZJl8RxLkEw; Peter Leithart, “Theopolis Course: Leviticus,” lecture series, Theopolis Institute, 2015, https://www.wordmp3.com/product-group.aspx?id=503; James Jordan, “Book of Leviticus,” lecture series, Biblical Horizons, https://www.wordmp3.com/product-group.aspx?id=133; Jason DeRouchie, What the Old Testament Authors Really Cared About: A Survey of Jesus’s Bible (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2013); and Michael Morales, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? A Biblical Theology of Leviticus (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015). ↩
See Leithart, “Theopolis Course: Leviticus”; Jordan, “Book of Leviticus.” ↩
See Roberts, “Leviticus.” ↩