The Language of Sacrifice
The Liturgical World 02
Leviticus is a book which many Christians seem to dread reading. The language of offering and sacrifice is foreign to us. Once the concepts are understood though much of the scariness passes away. Lets take a look at the language of sacrifice given in Leviticus 1.
Lev 1:2 “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When any one of you brings an offering to the LORD, you shall bring your offering of livestock from the herd or from the flock.”
What is an offering? An offering is a Qorban, which means “that which is brought near” or “Nearbringing”. The noun is surrounded by the verb Qarab which means “to draw near, to approach, to bring near.” A very wooden but faithful translation of Lev 1:2 would be;
Lev. 1:2, “when a man from among you draws near [qrb] with a Nearbringing [qorban] to Yahweh, from the livestock, from the herd, and from the flock you shall draw near [qrb] with your Nearbringing [qorban].2
The language of ‘offering’ seems very distant to us today, but the language of ‘drawing near’ to God is not. Bringing offerings to God is about drawing near to Him. This is especially highlighted in the burnt offering, or better translated ‘ascension offering’ of Leviticus 1.3 This ‘nearbringing’ is entirely consumed and goes up in the flame of the altar to God expressing the ascent of the soul in worship.4
Steps of Drawing Near
How does some one draw near to God? Peter Leithart highlights five common elements among the different offerings.
1. The worshipper lays his hand on the head of the animal.
2. The worshipper slays the animal.
3. The priest displays the blood before Yahweh.
4. The priest turns it to smoke on the altar.
5. Normally, there is a meal.5
The first step appoints the animal as the worshipper’s substitute. Second, the animal passes through the knife dying in the worshippers place. Third, the blood is shown which turns God’s wrath away as in the passover, granting access into God’s presence. Fourth, the animal is turned to smoke on the altar. This is not judgment, this is transformation and ascension. As smoke the animal ascends into God’s glory cloud/presence. Fifth there is a meal.
The sin offering, ascension (burnt) offering, and peace offering all follow these basic steps with different emphasis. The sin offering highlights the first 3 steps and the meal is shared between God and the priest (Lev 6:26), that is, part of the animal is turned to smoke ascending to God, while part of the animal is given to the priest to eat. The ascension offering highlights the 4th step and as such the meal is received completely by God alone. The peace offering though highlights the 5th step and here the meal is shared between God and the worshipper (Lev 7:15).
To understand the flow of these steps it is helpful to take a moment and remember what would have happened if Adam had tried to reenter the garden. First Adam would have to pass through the angel with the flaming sword. In other words he would be cut to pieces (steps 1-3) and burned (step 4). If he came back to life somehow afterwards, he would then need to ascend the mountain (step 4). After that he would be able to eat of the trees in the garden again in God’s presence (step 5). The animal that is sacrificed and turned to smoke is making the journey Adam was unable to make. It is passing under the fiery knife and ascending into God’s presence. Symbolically the worshipper through the animal is drawing near to God, entering back into the garden, into the holy of holies, eating a meal in restored fellowship.
All of this is very helpful when we think about Jesus’ death, resurrection, ascension to God’s right hand, sending of the Spirit and act of leaving a meal for the church to celebrate in it’s worship. Many of us have a good answer for why Jesus died on the cross but when it comes to the resurrection and ascension many of us are a bit fuzzy. When we remember that sacrificial worship had at it’s goal not only the death of the animal but it’s ascension into God’s presence on our behalf and the establishment of fellowship therein things begin to make sense. Jesus as our peace offering has fulfilled the goal of the sacrificial system. He has passed under the knife, raised by the fiery Spirit and ascended into the presence of God on our behalf. He has opened the way for us to come into God’s presence through Him and given us a meal to celebrate. We now eat in restored fellowship with God through Jesus Christ.
In our next post we will explore David’s role of introducing music into the worship service.
As I don’t have every point footnoted I recommend reading more on the subject through their books and sermons, especially The Lord’s Service (Meyers), Theopolitan Liturgy (Leithart), and Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord (Morales).
Jeff Meyer’s notes on the ascension offering.
Meyers, Leithart, and Morales will point out the word ‘olah means ‘ascension’ not ‘whole burnt offering.’
BDB Lexicon will say ‘whole burnt-offering (that which goes up to heaven)’ and continue ‘the whole burnt-offering (beast or fowl) is entirely consumed and goes up in the flame of the altar to God expressing the ascent of the soul in worship.’
See his ‘Theopolitan Liturgy’, Chapter 3, Sacrifice