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A Field Guide to Leviticus and Worship in the Old Testament

Reading Time: 12 mins

Many people have struggled to understand Leviticus and Old Testament worship in general. Here is a handbook or map to navigate these subjects, and to see their relationship to Christ and his saving work.

If you've ever attempted to read the Bible from cover to cover, chances are you made it through Genesis and maybe Exodus. Somewhere in Leviticus, however, your head began to spin. All this stuff about sacrifices, priests, blood, and fat makes it sound like a ritualistic butcher's guide.

But it's not. Believe it or not, Leviticus is packed with the Good News of a God who loves his people and who provides them with the means whereby they can receive him and his gifts. Leviticus, far from being an esoteric relic from Israel's past, is a Gospel book of the church. It teaches of God's holiness, his love, his healing, his grace, his worship. It is a book we desperately need to recover.

Consider this a kind of Handbook or Field Guide to Leviticus and Worship in the Old Testament that can help to navigate these rich subjects.

What is sacrifice?

In the worship of Israel, sacrifice was the divinely ordained means whereby which God gave blessings to his people through the things of creation. The sacrifice belonged to God. He graciously gave it to his people so that they, by faith, might receive divine gifts. Some sacrifices were also the means whereby Israel gave thanks to God for his gifts to them.

When did sacrifice begin?

Sacrifice began after humanity's fall into sin (Genesis 3). “The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them,” (Genesis 3:21). Although the killing of these animals to provide coverings for Adam and Eve is not specifically called a sacrifice, it did require the death of animals. Sinners were covered only by the death of another who was killed in their place. The first explicit reference to sacrifice is in Genesis 4, where Cain “brought an offering to the LORD of the fruit of the ground” and Abel “on his part brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions” (4:3-4).

What kinds of things were sacrificed?

One can divide the various kinds of sacrifices into two main categories: bloody and unbloody. Bloody sacrifices were the offerings of animals that were ritually slaughtered. This ritual slaughter ordinarily took place near an altar, upon which a portion of the animal’s blood would be sprinkled, poured out, or smeared. Not every animal could be sacrificed, but only those ordained for slaughter by the Word of God (see question #3). These animals – which were always domesticated animals – included the following:

Bovine: bulls, cows, heifers, calves, and oxen.

Sheep/Goats: he-goats, she-goats, ewes, rams, lambs

Birds: turtledoves and pigeons

Unbloody sacrifices were offerings from the agricultural produce of the people of God. These offering included the following: wheat, barley, olive oil, and wine. The unbloody sacrifices were ordinarily offered in conjunction with the bloody sacrifices.

Why could only certain animals be sacrificed?

There were three groupings of animals in the OT: unclean, clean, and clean plus “sacrifice-able”.

  1. Unclean animals were to be avoided. They were not to be sacrificed, eaten, domesticated, or their carcasses touched. These animals are listed in Leviticus 11.
  2. Clean animals could be eaten.
  3. Clean plus “sacrifice-able” animals could not only be domesticated and eaten; they were also ordained by God as sacrificial victims.

Various reasons have been put forward to explain these three classifications. Some of the more common theories are:

  1. ARBITRARY: The lists, though given by God, are arbitrary. The classes of animals, and the individual species placed therein, are listed as such by God, but there is no definite and ascertainable reason(s) for why some animals are clean and others unclean.
  2. PAGAN CONNECTION: The animals deemed unclean represented deities in pagan cultures or were used in pagan sacrifice. To avoid confusion and possible syncretism, these animals were to be avoided by the Israelites.
  3. ANTI-LIFE: The animals classified as unclean inhabited locations that were inimical to life, or they were predators or carcass eaters. Because of the symbolism of death attached to them, they were to be avoided.
  4. HYGIENIC: The animals were unclean which were common carriers of disease.
  5. ALLEGORICAL: Positive and negative traits of animals were allegorically applied to people. Animals whose ways do not exemplify proper conduct were unclean, whereas animals whose ways corresponded to the proper conduct of man were clean. For example, a cud-chewing animal was clean because the clean and holy man should ruminate on the word of God.
  6. SEPARATION OF ISRAEL: Just as God chose Israel from all the nations to be a holy people to him, so he chose certain animals from all the beasts of the earth to be clean animals. The unclean animals thus represented the Gentiles whose ways, if adopted, would have defiled the people of God.

The last of these theories has OT and NT support to recommend it. We may first take note of Leviticus 20:24-25, which closely connects Israel’s separation from her pagan neighbors with Israel’s separation of unclean from clean animals: "I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples. You shall therefore separate the clean beast from the unclean, and the unclean bird from the clean." 

Secondly, when the Lord gives St. Peter the vision of unclean animals and commands him to kill and eat them, the primary message is that Peter is to receive Cornelius and the Gentiles into the church (Acts 10:1-48). The Gentiles (formerly regarded as unclean) are not to be regarded as unclean or common for “what God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy,” (Acts 10:15).

Only domesticated animals which were both clean and “sacrifice-able” were to be offered up on the altar. They alone were ordained by God to be in the holy space and to be placed upon the holy altar. Like the priests, they were separated from all other animals by God for this holy purpose and this holy place. Thus the three categories of animals closely correspond to the three groups of people in the world: Gentiles, Israelites, and Israelite priests.

  1. Gentiles = Unclean animals
  2. Israelites = Clean animals not used for sacrifice
  3. Priests = Smaller group of clean animals used for sacrifice

What were the primary sacrifices in Israel’s worship?

The primary sacrifices in Israel’s worship were the whole burnt offering (olah), the sin offering (chattat), the guilt/reparation offering (asham), the peace offering (shelamim), and the meal offering (minchah).

What was the whole burnt offering (olah)?

The whole burnt offering was the foundational sacrifice of Israel (Leviticus 1; 6:8-13). Every morning and every evening, a whole burnt offering of a one-year-old lamb was sacrificed at the tabernacle and temple (Exodus 29:38-42). This was the continual burnt offering. Similar whole burnt offerings were also sacrificed at other times. What distinguished this sacrifice is indicated by the name: the whole burnt offering. All the parts of the animal which were ritually acceptable for sacrifice were wholly burnt upon the altar. Its smoke “went up” (olah) to God from the altar.

What was the sin offering (chattat)?

The sin offering was sacrificed by individuals or the whole congregation when they broke the law of God (Leviticus 4-5:13; 6:24-30). The type of animal offered (bull, he-goat, she-goat, lamb, dove or pigeon) depended upon the social rank of the individual. The blood of the victim was smeared on the horns of the main altar and poured out at its base. If it was offered for a priest or for the whole congregation, some blood was also taken into the Holy Place to be sprinkled on the veil and smeared on the horns of the altar of incense. The flesh of the animal was cooked and eaten by the priests (if offered for a layman’s sin) or burned outside the camp (if offered for a priest or for the whole congregation).

What was the guilt/reparation offering (asham)?

The guilt/reparation offering was similar to the sin offering, though this sacrifice was offered for those sins in which reparation could be made to the offended party (Leviticus 5:14-6:7; 7:1-10). A ram was the designated victim for the guilt offering. In addition, if applicable, property was to be restored, plus 20% of its value, to the offended party. The blood was poured out on the main altar and the cooked flesh of the victim was eaten by the priests in the court of the tabernacle or temple.

What was the peace offering (shelamim)?

The peace offering was the sacrifice in which the worshiper received back a portion of the sacrificial meat to be cooked and eaten in a ritual meal (Leviticus 3; 7:11-36). A male or female animal from the flock or herd was sacrificed, its blood was poured onto the main altar, its breast and right leg were given to the priest and his family (as part of his income), and the rest of the animal was consumed in a communal meal. The Israelite(s) thus consumed the very animal who died for his atonement. It was a preview of the Lord’s Supper, in which we eat the very body of the Lamb of God, who was sacrificed for us on the altar of the cross. Peace offerings were sacrificed to give thanks to God (praise), to fulfill a vow (votive), or as free-will offerings.

What was the meal offering (minchah)?

The meal offering was a bloodless sacrifice. It consisted of wheat or barley and was ordinarily accompanied by olive oil, incense, and wine. It was part of every morning and evening whole burnt offering (Exodus 29:40-41).

Why was blood so significant?

In the sacrificial liturgy, blood was of vast more importance than any other part of the animal. For example, no part of the animal was ever taken into the Holy Place, much less into the Holy of Holies. Indeed, no part of the animal – with the sole exception of the blood – was ever taken any closer to the inner sanctum than the altar in front of the tabernacle or temple. In certain sacrifices, however, the blood was taken into the Holy Place and even into the Holy of Holies.

Leviticus 17:11 explains the importance of blood in the sacrificial liturgy: "For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life."

This passage has several noteworthy features.

  1. The life of the flesh is in the blood. The very life of the animal is located precisely in its blood. To have the blood is to have the life. To be touched by the blood is to be touched by the life. Life is not an abstraction; it is a visible, tangible fluid. Life is blood and blood is life. Where there is no blood, there is no life.
  2. I have given it to you. Blood is a divine gift from the Lord and Giver of life. This is his institution. He has given it to his people that they might have the life that is located in the blood. Thus the blood not only has life; it conveys life for the Lord has given it for that very purpose.
  3. On the altar. God gives his people the life of the blood on the altar. The altar is not just a place of death but of life for here the life-giving blood is placed. The life-blood is drained from the victim and placed on the altar. Because the altar is most holy (Exodus 29:37), the blood, when it touches the altar, becomes most holy. Therefore, by the Word of God, the blood of the sacrifice is living and holy and bestows life and holiness. It is life in the animal; it becomes holy on the altar; and it is life-giving and holy-giving to the people of God.
  4. To make atonement for your souls. The life-blood of the victim atones for sinner. This is its purpose: it removes sin, it removes death, it removes unholiness. This happens not just in the killing of the victim, but in the placing of the victim’s blood upon the altar. No blood is atoning blood unless it touches the holy things of God. It is sprinkled, poured out, or smeared on God’s altar, God’s priest, or God’s tabernacle. It is then atoning blood for it has become holy blood by contact with God’s holy thing. Atoning blood is therefore holy blood, life-giving blood. It is given for the removal of sin and the bestowal of holiness.

Why was fat so significant?

In addition to the blood of the sacrificial victim, the fat also belonged exclusively to God. “All fat is the LORD's. It is a perpetual statute throughout your generations in all your dwellings: you shall not eat any fat or any blood,” (Leviticus 3:16-17). The fat to be removed were the layers of fat beneath the surface of the animal’s skin and around its organs – which can be removed – as opposed to the fat which is inextricably part of the muscle. No explicit reason is given for the God’s exclusive use of the fat. Presumably, however, the fat was considered to be the best part of the animal and was therefore reserved for God. The Hebrew word for fat (cheleb) is often used metaphorically to denote “the best”. For example, “the cheleb of the land” (Genesis 45:18) and the “cheleb of the wheat” (Deuteronomy 32:14) refers to the best of the land and the best of the wheat. In the Messianic banquet, the Lord promises to make a feast of fats on His holy mountain (Isaiah 25:6ff).

Who performed the sacrifices?

Leviticus 1:3-5 describes “who does what” in the liturgy of sacrifice. The Israelite who brought the animal for sacrifice would kill it near the altar in front of the tabernacle or temple. The sinner for whom this animal’s blood would be shed – he was the slayer. The killing, however, was God’s institution and gift for by it the sinner was accepted before the Lord (Leviticus 1:3). After the victim was killed, the priests assumed responsibility for the liturgical actions involving the blood (i.e., sprinkling the blood on the altar).

The body of the victim (e.g., in the whole burnt offering) was then skinned and cut into its various pieces by the Israelite who brought the sacrifice. After the skinning and quartering were completed, the priests would place the sacrificial flesh and fat on the altar to be wholly consumed by the fire of Yahweh in his altar.

There were thus specific responsibilities assigned both to the layman and the priest. Any contact with the altar, however, was reserved exclusively for the priest.

Where were they performed?

Sacrifices were performed near an altar. The victim was killed near the altar (not on it or over it [except in the case of birds]) and its blood was placed on the altar or smeared on the horns of the altar. After the institution of the Sinai covenant (Exodus 20), almost every sacrifice was performed at the altar in front of the tabernacle or temple (for an exception, see Numbers 19:1-22). When an Israelite brought a bovine for sacrifice, it would be killed on the east side of the altar, in the forecourt (Leviticus 1:5; 4:4,15). The slaughter of a sheep or goat took place on the north side of the altar (Leviticus 1:11; 4:24,29,33). Doves and pigeons were killed over the altar (as exceptional cases) by the removal of the bird’s head, after which its blood was drained on the side of the altar (Leviticus 1:15).

How were the animals sacrificed?

The OT sacrificial liturgy does not explicitly state how the animal was to be killed (except birds, Leviticus 1:15). The verb used for the slaughter (shachat), however, does connote the slitting of the throat (cf. 2 Kings 10:7). This particular manner of slaughter would help in the collection of blood from the animal for placement upon the altar. The slitting of the throat is also supported by rabbinic tradition.

Why did the Israelite place his hand upon the head of the animal?

The man who brought a sacrificial animal placed his hand upon the head of the animal before he killed it (Lev. 1:4)

A similar action was performed by the high priest on Yom Kippur, the annual Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:21).

Various explanations for this rite have been given: (1) sin is transferred to the animal; (2) the man is identified with the sacrifice; (3) the man declares his purpose to sacrifice this animal; (4) and that the man owns this animal.

To understand the meaning of the laying on of hand(s), it is necessary to consider the following:

  1. The verb used for the “laying on” (samak) of the hand implies pressure. The hand is not merely placed on the head; the Israelite leans on the head of the victim, applying the pressure of his body onto the animal. The implication is that he is placing himself onto and into this animal.
  2. The laying on of hands is done so that the sacrifice “may be accepted for him to make atonement on his behalf,” (Leviticus 1:4). The sacrifice is “for him”; it will die in his place as the ram did for Isaac: “Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the place of his son,” (Genesis 22:13). There is an identification between the man and the animal for the animal is killed in the stead of the sinner.
  3. This killing takes places so that the animal might make “atonement on his behalf,” (Leviticus 1:4). His sin is covered by the blood of the one who dies in his place.
  4. The laying of hands (at times) took place in conjunction with the confession of sins. These two actions took place together on the Day of Atonement: “Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel, and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands in readiness,” (Leviticus 16:21; cf. 5:5). By means of the laying on of hands and verbal confession, the sins were transferred onto the animal. He thus became not only the bearer of the sins, but also the substitute for the sinner.

The four explanations (listed above) for the laying on of hands are thus not mutually exclusive. The owner of the animal (4) lays his hand on the head of the appointed sacrifice (3), leans on the animal to place himself onto and into this substitutionary victim (2), and confesses his sins to transfer them onto the sacrifice (1).

Did the Israelite confess his sin(s) over the animal?

As noted above, the Israelite did confess his sins in conjunction with some sacrifices. Confession was done, for example, in connection with the guilt offering (Lev. 5:5-6).

On the Day of Atonement, the high priest confessed over the scapegoat “all the iniquities of the sons of Israel, and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins,” (Leviticus 16:21). The likelihood is great that confession of sins was also a vital part of the ritual of other sacrifices.

Were the sacrifices for God or for people?

Various pagan cults in the ancient world offered sacrifices as food to their gods and goddesses. But God had no need of the sacrifices of Israel (see Ps. 50:8-15). Rather, Israel needed these sacrifices. God gave the sacrificial worship to Israel after giving them the Law so that they might have a divinely ordained means by which they could be cleansed of their transgressions of the Law. The sacrifices were thus not for God but for people. The Lord gave his people the tabernacle, the altar, and the sacrificial animals so that through these means he might dwell among his people, hear their prayers, grant them forgiveness, and be their good and gracious Father.

What Benefits Were Received from the Sacrifices?

Through the sacrifices, as through means, God gave the Israelites gifts such as the following:

(1) Forgiveness of sins

Leviticus 4:20, “So the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven.”

(2) Blessing and Righteousness

Psalm 24:5, “He shall receive a blessing from the Lord and righteousness from the God of his salvation.”

(3) Cleansing

Leviticus 12:7, “Then [the priest] shall offer it before the Lord and make atonement for her; and shall be cleansed from the flow of her blood.”

(4) Acceptance

Leviticus 1:3, “He shall offer it at the doorway of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the Lord.”

Above all else, however, the Lord gave the sacrifices as the chief means by which he directed his people to look for the coming sacrifice of the Messiah. Every bull, every goat, every lamb, every dove and pigeon was a preview of the Sacrifice to end all sacrifices (Hebrews 8-11).



As a one-stop-shop for all questions related to Leviticus, sacrifices, and OT worship, I highly recommend the Leviticus commentary by John Kleinig in the Concordia Commentary Series. See also my podcast, "40 Minutes in the Old Testament," where my cohost and I spent many episodes offering commentary and explanations on Leviticus.