Perhaps no book of scripture appears less interesting to the modern reader than Leviticus. Full of temple statutes and ordinances that seem no longer relevant, the book seems to be more of a historical vignette than a work which helps us understand God. But that assessment would be both superficial and untrue.
“Leviticus is therefore more than a description of past historical events and more than a collection of dated laws. It tells us about God’s character and will, which found expression in his dealings with Israel and in the laws he gave them. Those who believe that God the Lord ‘is the same yesterday and today and for ever’ may look to the book’s theology for insights that are still valid and relevant.” (The Book of Leviticus, Gordon J. Wenham [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979] 16)
“Leviticus is an ancient priesthood handbook in three parts: (1) offerings, (2) laws, and (3) feasts.” (Edward J. Brandt, Ensign, Jan. 1990, 36)
Leviticus 1:1-2 The Lord called unto Moses, and spake unto him out of the tabernacle
Let’s see. How relevant is the idea that God spake unto his prophet in the temple? That he gave laws to his people through his chosen servant? Moses becomes the great prototype for the lawgiving prophet of the Old Testament. By the time of Jesus, he was viewed as an icon, a religious superhero. Part of the reason is because he was so clearly the recipient of the Law from Jehovah.
When the children of Israel were chosen with Moses at their head, they were to be a peculiar people, among whom God should place His name; their motto was: "The Lord is our lawgiver; the Lord is our Judge; the Lord is our King, and He shall reign over us." While in this state they might truly say, "Happy is that people, whose God is the Lord." Their government was a theocracy; they had God to make their laws, and men chosen by Him to administer them; He was their God, and they were His people. Moses received the word of the Lord from God Himself; he was the mouth of God to Aaron, and Aaron taught the people, in both civil and ecclesiastical affairs; they were both one, there was no distinction; so will it be when the purposes of God shall be accomplished: when "the Lord shall be King over the whole earth," and "Jerusalem His throne." "The law shall go forth from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem." (History of the Church, 5:64)
Leviticus 1:2 If any man of you bring an offering unto the Lord
God doesn’t want us to make offerings because He needs them. He isn’t trying to increase numbers of spirit cattle in the spirit world. The offering isn’t about God. It’s about the man who makes it. Sacrificing anything to God shows reverence and deference to him as Maker, Creator, and Benefactor. It is an outward expression of an inner commitment to the Holy One. Any sacrifice sanctifies the giver more than the receiver. Although it takes on a different form today, the Law of Sacrifice is in as important now as it ever was.
Leviticus 1:3 let him offer a male without blemish: he shall offer it of his own voluntary will
Obviously, the male without blemish foreshadows the perfection of the Son of God who was offered for the sins of the world. That the offering be voluntary is more evidence that the practice was to foster the willing sanctification of the individual. Any gift given to the Lord under duress is not counted to him for righteousness.
For behold, God hath said a man being evil cannot do that which is good; for if he offereth a gift, or prayeth unto God, except he shall do it with real intent it profiteth him nothing.
For behold, it is not counted unto him for righteousness.
For behold, if a man being evil giveth a gift, he doeth it grudgingly; wherefore it is counted unto him the same as if he had retained the gift; wherefore he is counted evil before God. (Moroni 7:6-8)
Leviticus 1:4 I shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him
Can the blood of beasts make atonement for the sins of a man? No, but the sacrifice of the Son of God, which had not yet been offered, would have power to make atonement. Interestingly, the word atonement occurs in the New Testament only once (Romans 5:11), but it is all over the pages of the Old Testament. Think of a man bringing his sacrifice to the temple, offering the beast, and then turning the carcass over to the priests. For him, this was the sacrament; it was his ordinance to remember the sacrifice of the Son of God and receive forgiveness of sins. Enos’ interchange with the Lord captures the idea perfectly:
There came a voice unto me, saying: Enos, thy sins are forgiven thee, and thou shalt be blessed.
And I, Enos, knew that God cold not lie; wherefore, my guilt was swept away.
And I said: Lord, how is it done?
And he said unto me: Because of thy faith in Christ, whom thou hast never before heard nor seen. And many years pass away before he shall manifest himself in the flesh; wherefore, go to, thy faith hath made thee whole. (Enos 1:5-8)
Leviticus 1:4-6 he shall put his hand upon the head of the burnt offering… and he shall kill the bullock before the Lord
Until preparing this commentary, the author assumed that the priest was the one who killed and prepared the sacrifice. No, it was the man who made the offering. Well, Adam had to kill his own sacrifice. Noah had to do the same. Abraham didn’t have a priest to offer Isaac for him. It places the man who offers sacrifice in the position to understand that it is because of his sins, not the priests, that the Son of Man came to redeem. It’s not just giving up the animal to God, giving back to the Creator to whom we are always indebted; it’s understanding that the only reason the animal needs to die is because fallen man commits sin—that a redemptive sacrifice is necessary for us to become one with (or be atoned to) God.
Symbolically, it is the priest who handles the blood and flesh of the sacrifice. We see this weekly as Aaronic Priesthood holders prepare, bless and present the sacrament. The priest acts as an intermediary between the holy sacrifice and the recipient. Whether the bread and the water of today’s sacramental service, or the flesh and blood of the burnt offering—the symbolism is the same. Hence, Christ offers the sacrament, but there are apostles, prophets, temple workers, high priests, elders, and priests which act as intermediaries in administering the saving ordinances.
Leviticus 1:9 an offering made by fire, of a sweet savour unto the Lord
The imagery here is that the smell of the burning sacrifice is pleasant to the Lord—that it arouses in God the pleasure of merciful forgiveness. Perhaps we forget the imagery of incense in Revelation, that the prayers of the saints rise like incense to please and appease God. There were golden vials full of incense, “which are the prayers of the saints.” “And another angel came… and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense… the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand.” (Rev. 5:8; 8:3-4; see also Ps 141:2)
Centuries later, the Israelites offended God because the only smell arising from Jerusalem was the smell of incense offered to Baal. It was not a “sweet savour unto the Lord.” “For according to the number of thy cities were thy gods, O Judah; and according to the number of streets of Jerusalem have ye set up altars to that shameful thing, even altars to burn incense unto Baal. Therefore pray not thou for this people… they have done against themselves to provoke me to anger in offering incense unto Baal.” (Jer. 11:13-17)
Leviticus 1:10, 14 of the sheep, or of the goats… of turtledoves, or of young pigeons
We have three different levels of sacrificial offering. The greatest was the bullock; next was sheep or goats of the flock; and lastly, we have the turtle doves or young pigeons. The three different levels represent the variety of offerings which an individual might make. Mary and Joseph’s offering for the young Jesus was of the third category because they were young and poor (Lu. 2:24). A rich man with many cattle, should of course offer a bullock. A man of medium means might offer a sheep or a goat. The principle is that every offering should be “every man according to his ability” (Acts 11:29) and not the lopsided scene the Savior criticized, when the rich gave little and the widow gave all (Lu. 21:1-4).
Leviticus 1:11 he shall kill it on the side of the altar northward before the Lord
God is our true north, our guiding star, and point of reference for all of mortality. Our offerings should be given with that fixed focus in mind.
Gordon B. Hinckley
When I was a boy, we lived on a farm in the summer. It was in the country, where the nights were dark. There were no streetlights or anything of the kind. My brother and I slept out-of-doors. On clear nights—and most of those nights were clear and the air was clean—we would lie on our backs and look at the myriads of stars in the heavens. We could identify some of the constellations and other stars as they were illustrated in our encyclopedia. Each night we would trace the Big Dipper, the handle and the cup, to find the North Star.
We came to know of the constancy of that star. As the earth turned, the others appeared to move through the night. But the North Star held its position in line with the axis of the earth. And so it had come to be known as the Polar Star, or the Polestar, or the Lodestar. Through centuries of time, mariners had used it to guide them in their journeys. They had reckoned their bearings by its constancy, thereby avoiding traveling in circles or in the wrong direction, as they moved across the wide, unmarked seas.
…Great beyond comprehension is the love of God. He is our loving Eternal Father. Out of His love for us, He has given an eternal plan which, when followed, leads to exaltation in His kingdom. Out of His love for us, He sent His Firstborn into the world, who, out of His own divine love, gave Himself as a sacrifice for each of us. His was an incomparable gift of love to a world that largely spurned Him. He is our great exemplar. We should let love become the lodestar of our lives, with the absolute assurance that, because of the love of God our Eternal Father and His own beloved Son, our salvation from the bonds of death is sure and our opportunity for eternal exaltation is certain. Let that divine love, shed on us, be reflected from our lives onto others of our Father’s children. (“Let Love Be the Lodestar of Your Life,” Ensign, May 1989, 66)
Leviticus 1:15 the priest shall bring it unto the altar, and wring off his head
Well, what a scene it must have been! The priest, in his white temple garments, wringing off the head of the poor little pigeon! Well, animal sacrifice was not for the faint of heart. Our kinder and gentler generation has attributed as much care for animals as for God’s supreme creation, but in the beginning, man was held in dominion. He could slaughter his animals. He could offer sacrifices without anyone worrying about the turtledove. Animal lovers should be careful not to judge God, for God is the judge. More of the earth’s existence has been under the law of sacrifice than under the law of the gospel. You can’t find fault with the law of sacrifice without, at some level, finding fault with the God who gave it.
Our perspective is so different. In Moses’ day, if you had chicken for dinner it was because you had cut off the head and plucked off the feathers earlier in the day. If you had beef for dinner, it was because you slaughtered the bullock. If you killed an animal and gave it to the Lord instead of consuming it yourself, it was a real sacrifice!
Finally, notice that in the case of a fowl offering, it is the priest who kills the turtledove whereas in the case of the bullock or sheep/goats, the sacrificial killing is done by the individual offering the animal. No reason is given for the difference, but it was probably a matter of practical convenience.