I’m squeamish about blood, so it’s a mercy I didn’t live in Old Testament times.
The centre of Israel’s worship, the Tabernacle, was, according to Leviticus, a religious
abattoir. There was blood everywhere as the priests slaughtered animals, dissected
them, disembowelled them and burnt them. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, the prescribed
rituals required a great deal of the blood to be poured, thrown, sprinkled and smeared
all over the place. A nice smell of roast meat no doubt drifted around the camp of
Israel, but personally I would never have been a comfortable worshipper at the Tabernacle
Even the book of Leviticus puts many readers off. Exodus isn’t so bad—it has a fascinating
storyline, ending with the setting up of the Tabernacle and the establishment of
the Aaronic priesthood to officiate in it. But Leviticus takes the storyline no further.
It just gives endless lists of sacrifices and offerings, and details of the religious
festivals that Israel was to observe—with blood seemingly a major ingredient in everything.
Here’s where many Bible-readers drop out. ‘What on earth has all this stuff to do
with me and living the Christian life today?’ they ask. It’s a fair question, so
let’s try and answer it.
In this book God is showing us how much he longs to draw close to his people and
speak to them. Back in Genesis he had spoken from heaven. In Exodus he had spoken
from the heights of Mount Sinai—getting closer. But here in Leviticus he speaks from
the Tabernacle, right in the middle of the camp of Israel. That’s in fact how the
book starts: ‘The LORD called to Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting.’
But while we warm to God’s desire to be close to his people, there’s no escaping
the fact that he remains a frighteningly holy God. Just to touch Mount Sinai had
meant instant death, so how were the sinful Israelites, whose tents surrounded the
Tabernacle, ever to approach this one whose awesome presence now dwelt right there
among them? The answer is: through the blood-sacrifices prescribed in the first seven
chapters of Leviticus. Significantly, these chapters come between two contrasting
statements. The first is at the end of Exodus, where ‘Moses could not enter the tent
of meeting’ because of the blinding glory of God’s presence. The other is in Leviticus
chapter nine, where ‘Moses and Aaron…went into the tent of meeting.’ So how come
they couldn’t approach God before, but now they could? What made the difference?
It’s what comes in between: all that blood.
Here we must note that the use of ‘types’ so prominent in Genesis and Exodus evidently
continues here in Leviticus, for the blood of the sacrificial animals clearly points
forward to the blood of Christ—the blood that enables believers today to approach
God’s holy presence. You can read all about that in the New Testament’s very own
commentary on Leviticus, which is the book of Hebrews.
But let’s stick with Leviticus for now and brace ourselves for a closer look at the
blood-soaked sacrificial business. There were five types of offerings. Two were voluntary:
the burnt offering and the accompanying bloodless grain offering. The other three
were mandatory: the fellowship offering, the sin offering and the guilt offering.
Let’s content ourselves with examining just the first of these, the burnt offering,
as described in chapter one.
People brought this type of offering to express their devotion to God and, at the
same time, to secure atonement for any unintentional sins they may have committed.
Here’s how it operated. The Israelite could bring to the priests at the Tabernacle
a bullock or ox, a sheep or goat, or a dove or young pigeon, depending on his means.
He laid his hands on the creature’s head, thus associating himself and his sin with
it, then it was killed. The priests caught the blood and sprinkled it on the sides
of the altar, then they flayed and cut up the carcass for burning on the altar as
‘an aroma pleasing to the LORD’.
Today we can appreciate all this is as a picture of Christ in his sufferings. Did
Jesus himself, one wonders, refer to it when he talked with the two disciples on
the road to Emmaus and ‘beginning with Moses and all the prophets…explained to them
what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself’? Leviticus is, after
all, one of the books of Moses. I’d love to have heard Jesus’ exposition of it! Our
own exposition must be a bit more tentative, but we can say with some assurance that
the burnt offering portrayed Christ as the ultimate sacrificial victim, consumed
by the fire of God’s judgment.
Let’s zoom in on some of the details. The animal had to be ‘a male without defect’,
pointing to Jesus in his maleness as the second Adam, and to his perfect life as
the one who ‘offered himself unblemished to God’. The skinning of the animal perhaps
points to exposure—that Jesus was fully exposed to the Father’s wrath—while the cutting
into pieces may suggest the completeness and finality of God’s judgment. Notice also
that, when the priests arranged the pieces on the altar, particular mention is made
of ‘the head and the fat’. Why would these be singled out? Maybe as representing
the outer and inner parts of the animal respectively and teaching us that ‘Christ’s
whole manhood, body and soul, was placed on the altar, in the fire, and endured the
wrath of God’. We need to tread carefully here and resist the temptation to read
too much into the particulars, but Hebrews encourages us to believe that there are
pointers to Christ even in such Old Testament details.
There are some hints of the gospel here, too. The offerer’s hand of faith on the
animal’s head suggests the vital truth that we can do nothing to obtain salvation
but believe in the atoning death of another. Then there was the blood sprinkled on
and all around the altar, evidence to absolutely everyone that death had taken place.
Maybe we have here a pointer to the universal offer of the gospel through Christ
crucified; his shed blood is valid for all who will believe.
The burnt offering was different from the others in one vital respect. In the others,
only part of the animal was burnt; the rest was set aside as food for the priests
and their families. But every bit of the burnt offering was burnt up as an offering
to God; none of it was kept back. The ‘to God’ aspect is central here. In fact the
Hebrew word for this offering is olah, which means ‘that which ascends’—ascends,
that is, to God. So here we have a reminder that Christ’s sacrifice, while it brought
immense blessing to us who believe, was at the same time, and perhaps more importantly,
an offering of himself to the Father. As the animal burnt up on the altar and the
smoke ascended it was ‘an aroma pleasing to the LORD.’ In the same way, notes Paul,
‘Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice
to God.’The Father had to be satisfied by Christ’s sacrifice, and he was!
There is imagery, too, in the variety of sacrificial animals used for the burnt offering.
Each in its own way portrays some aspect of Christ, especially when we let Scripture
itself provide the keys. The bullock or ox, for example, was the burden-bearer in
Old Testament society, and that’s exactly what Christ is to us. He invites us to
get yoked up to him, for ‘my yoke is easy and my burden is light’—light for us
because he takes all the weight. What’s more, his work of salvation has produced
a worldwide harvest of souls, reflecting the truth that ‘from the strength of an
ox come abundant harvests.’
A less wealthy Israelite could bring a sheep or goat. The sheep in Scripture represents
meekness, patience and unresisting surrender to death, and Jesus exemplified each
facet: ‘He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers
is silent, so he did not open his mouth.’ As for goats, people in Bible times
viewed them quite differently from us. They particularly admired the stateliness
of their walk and their sure-footedness in difficult terrain: they were regarded
as ‘stately in their stride’ or, as the Good News Bible puts it, ‘impressive
to watch as they walk’. No-one was more impressive in his moral walk than our Lord
That just leaves the offering of the poorest Israelites, a dove or young pigeon,
and these also point to him. The dove in the Bible symbolises sorrow and innocence,
and the innocent Christ was indeed ‘a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering’. It also symbolises love: ‘My dove in the clefts of the rock…let me hear your voice;
for your voice is sweet.’ Certainly our Lord’s self-sacrificial love has won
our hearts completely. That just leaves the pigeon. The pigeon was at the bottom
of the scale, the offering brought by the very poorest, and as such it speaks of
poverty. Here we recall the words of Paul, ‘You know the grace of our Lord Jesus
Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through
his poverty might become rich.’
What a comprehensive picture we have of Christ, then, in the burnt offering of Leviticus.
Did the people of Old Testament times have any idea at all of its significance in
this respect? Almost certainly not. But we, guided by the New Testament writers,
are privileged to examine its details in the light of the revelation brought by Christ,
and how wonderful they are!
The God who desired to draw close to his people in Moses’ day still longs to draw
near to us, and shed blood is still the only way. He was pleased, through Christ,
‘to reconcile to himself all things…by making peace through his blood, shed on the
cross.’ How do we approach a holy God? Through the blood shed by Jesus. It’s
all about him!
A hymn that I used to sing as a boy when breaking bread with the Brethren pulls all
this together far better than I myself could ever express it. Here it is:
Not all the blood of beasts On Jewish altars slain Could give the guilty conscience
peace Or wash away one stain.
But Christ, the heavenly Lamb, Took all our sins away, A sacrifice of nobler name And
richer blood than they.
By faith we lay our hand On that dear head of thine. With broken, contrite hearts we
stand And there confess our sin.
We now look back to see The burden thou didst bear When hanging on the accursed tree, And
know our guilt was there.
Believing, we rejoice To see the curse remove. We bless the Lamb with cheerful voice And
sing his endless love! 
This is one essay in the Windows On The Word series. Click the Next and Previous
buttons to move through the series, and Up to go to the list. Footnotes appear in
the right-hand column. Hover over Bible references to see the text.
3. Leviticus 9:23
4. It would be helpful to pause here and read the passage, Leviticus 1:1-17
5. Luke 24:27
6. Hebrews 9:14
7. Andrew Bonar, Leviticus, Banner of Truth Trust, 1966 (1846)
Leviticus chapters 1-7 detail the many blood-sacrifices that God required the Israelites
to make. It was a messy business, with blood everywhere. The blood, of course, prefigured
the blood of Christ by which we as believers draw near to God.