You will find an introduction and outline to Leviticus, here.\
A prayer for your use before reading by Origen (c. 185 – c. 254) was an early church father from Alexandria.
Lord, inspire us to read your Scriptures and meditate upon them day and night. We beg you to give us real understanding of what we need, that we in turn may put its precepts into practice. Yet we know that understanding and good intentions are worthless, unless rooted in your graceful love. So we ask that the words of Scriptures may also be not just signs on a page, but channels of grace into our hearts. Amen.
A word (or two) about sacrifices. We think differently today about sacrifices than people in the ancient world did. For us sacrifices often connote loss or deprivation of suffering. In ancient times a sacrifice was a gift, the joyful giving of something valuable to God.
In the ancient world, scholars think, followers of various religions sacrificed for four main purposes. To provide food for the god, to assimilate the life force of the sacrificed animal, to cause union with the god, and to persuade the god to help the person offering the sacrifice. Scholars think that the first three reasons were not practiced in Israel and the fourth was more common in other cultures than Israelite. Not all cultures burned all or part of the sacrifice. Israelites and Canaanites did, but other people did not. While Israel’s practices were probably influenced by surrounding cultures, Israel also developed its own ideas about sacrifices meant and how to offer sacrifices.
In some ancient cultures, humans were created to offer sacrifices to the gods. The gods were too busy or too lazy to get their own food- that was the job of humans. This sort of relationship between God and people was not Israel’s understanding of why humans were created. ( re read Gen 1-2:4a)
Scholars think there are several aspects to a sacrifice. It is a gift to God. Is is a way to achieve union with God. It is a way to expiate sin. It is also motivated by a desire to obey God. And yet a sacrifice is also more.
The prophets have harsh words about sacrifice. But their criticism seems not to be about the sacrifices per se but rather they were concerned with proper motivation. They were upset with proper external actions without proper, honest internal motivation.
There are four basic “movements” in a sacrifice, the presentation, the slaughter and flaying, blood manipulation, and ritual “removal” of the animal remains. “Sacrificial rites reflect a wide range of human emotions generated by everyday experiences of the world and the divine. The cult provides one means for responding to the important realities of daily existence. The joy, sorrow, thankfulness, wonder, guilt, relief, and hope of the common Israelite are given concrete expression in the sacrificial cult. The Israelites are provided the opportunity to bring into the context of the sacred their experiences of and responses to the world. The everyday joy of a bountiful harvest, for example,is sacralized when the first fruits are offered. The anguish of guilt is provided a means of concrete expression and resolution in the presentation of the reparation offerings. The sacrificial cult provides a means and context for transforming the experience of guilt into an experience of divine forgiveness.”(Gorman, 146-147).
A burnt offering was entirely given to God, where a well-being offering was consumed by people.
I. Leviticus 1:1-7:38 The Laws of Sacrifice” These chapters give the instructions for the basic types of sacrifices, 1:3-6:7 are for the entire community the second set, 6:8-7:36 are for priests.
A. 1:1-6:7 The Laws of the Five Major Offerings: Chapters 1-3 tell about spontaneously motivated sacrifices (burnt, grain, and peace). Chapters 4-5 area about sacrifices required for expiation of sin (sin and guilt). Chapters 6-7 are the same five sacrifices with directions for the priests.
1:1-17 The Whole Burnt Offering: Notice how Leviticus begins where Exodus ends, Moses and the Tent of Meeting. Notice that an animal from the herd, or the flock or a bird may be offered. The worshiper is to offer the best. The entire animal ( except the hide) is offered. Other parts of Torah tell us why burnt offerings were done. It could be a votive offering,or a freewill offering. It was to make atonement. A burnt offering was required of a new mother, a person recovered from a skin condition or an unclean discharge. It was a consecration ritual for Nazirites. Burnt offerings were required every morning and evening as part of the normal sanctuary ritual. It was required for the ritual consecration of the tabernacle and the priesthood. And this listing is not exhaustive. The burnt offering was not concerned with sin as much as a ritual marking of peace, rest and joy.
The Hebrew word for “Pleasing” as in “an aroma pleasing to the Lord” comes from the same root as the word “rest”. This implies that the sacrifice brings peace between God and the worshiper.
The laying on of hands probably had to do with establishing ownership. It indicated the person offering the sacrifice was giving their own property.
Notice that domesticated animals, not wild animals are offered and that a person’s economic status does not impede one’s ability to offer a sacrifice. For those who have cattle, cattle are offered. But poor people can offer a bird. Recall that Mary, the mother of Jesus offers a bird (Luke 2:22-24).
2:1-16 The Grain Offering. Grain offerings, like the burnt offering and the peace offering produce an aroma pleasing to the Lord. The grain that is offered is the product of cultivation and then further human labor in grinding and perhaps cooking. Human effort is required. Some think that the descriptions of the various implements- oven, baking pan, frying pan, etc is a reflection of various economic means. Once again, poverty does not keep one from being able to offer a sacrifice. Part of the grain offerings were burned and part were eaten by the priests.
The oil that is added to the offering also required human labor.Yeast is prohibited, perhaps in memory of the Passover. Honey is also not allowed. Some believe this is because honey was used in pagan cults. Salt was added, perhaps symbolizing preservation from corruption. Covenants were sealed with a meal and the parties involved partook of salt as part of the ceremony.
3:1-17 The Peace Offering: Later in Leviticus we learn that there are three kinds of peace offerings- sacrifices of thanksgiving, of vows and of freewill offerings. Sometimes “peace offering” is translated as “well-being offering”, or the “shared offering” or the “fellowship offering”. All these various names suggest peace in the broad biblical sense of wholeness and wellbeing. Lev 3:5 tells us the Peace offering was placed on top of the burnt offering. 1 Samuel 9 describes a peace offering. It was a meal for the worshipers and part of the sacrifice was offered to God. Notice that the sacrifice was eaten before the Lord not with the Lord. The worshipers are not befriending God by their actions. This is different than other ancient Near East practices. In pagan practices, humans gave a feast for the gods. But for Israel, God was the host. The sacrifice was given to God. It was not any longer the property of the worshiper. The meal was eaten in God’s dwelling, not the persons.
Read More About It.
The following are several good general reference works to aid your reading of the Torah.
Anderson, Bernhard W. “Leviticus” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books Metzger, Bruce M., Roland E. Murphy, eds.(New York: Oxford University Press) 1994.
Anderson, Bernhard W., Katheryn Pfister Darr, Understanding the Old Testament Abridged fourth Edition. (Upper Saddle River,New Jersey: Prentice Hall) 1998.
Bamberger, Bernard J. “Leviticus” in The Torah: A Modern Commentary Plaut, W. Gunther, ed. (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations) 1981.
Gorman, Frank H. Jr. “Leviticus” in HarperCollins Bible Commentary Mays, James L. ed.(San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco) 2000.
Hallo, William W. “Leviticus and Ancient Near Eastern Literature” in The Torah: A Modern Commentary Plaut, W. Gunther, ed. (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations) 1981.
Kaiser, Walter C., Jr, “The Book of Leviticus” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1 Keck, Leander E., ed. (Nashville”Abingdon Press) 1994.