In preparing this post I am selectively looking at commentaries by Gordon Wenham (1979) NICOT and S.H. Kellogg (1891). I would also recommend Tremper Longman III’s Immanuel in Our Place: Seeing Christ in Israel’s Worship in The Gospel according to the Old Testament series and Vern Poythress’ The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses.
Of the Old Testament Gospels, Leviticus is the most neglected book. The Torah are Old Testament Gospels and give us at least two different perspectives on the teaching ministry of Moses (Gen-Num compared to Deuteronomy, which means ‘second law’) just as the NT gives us four perspectives on the teaching ministry of Jesus. We have seen that the structure of the Pentateuch follows a narrative, poetry, epilogue pattern. Genesis does this. Exodus through Numbers, read together, do this. And Deuteronomy follows this pattern (with an additional poem and epilogue telling us about the death of Moses). But the point for Leviticus is that these laws are part of the narrative begun in Exodus and finished in Numbers (where a poem and epilogue follow). Therefore, the laws of Leviticus are set within a narrative framework.
Specifically, the narrative continues the story of Exodus because at the end of Exodus (Exo 40:34-38) we are told that the cloud covered the tent of meeting and the glory of YHWH filled the tabernacle. Lev 1:1 begins with the same setting saying, YHWH called Moses from the tent of meeting. It is important that the word is “called” rather than “said” or something similar. The book is about the calling of Israel to be set apart as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exo 19:6). And the laws set forth in the book set Israel apart as different from the world so that they might fulfill their calling to reach the world.
It is also worth noting that the order of the priest’s section in Lev 6-7 (in the Hebrew verse numbering, in English Bibles this begins with Lev 6:8) reflects the order of the offerings done in Exo 29. Moreover, Lev 1-5 was revealed in the tabernacle, Exo 29 and Lev 6-7 are revealed on Sinai. We will see that Lev 1-5 is arranged theologically and thematically, but Lev 6-7 is arranged by order of frequency. In any case, the whole of Lev 1-7 continues to show us that God is very concerned with the way we worship and we know that the way is ultimately Jesus Christ who fulfills these sacrifices and is our priest.
I think that the reason reading Leviticus is so difficult is that we do not try to outline it. Lev 1-7 is about sacrifice laws with Lev 1-5 (Eng. 6:7) giving instructions for common worshipers and Lev 6-7 (Eng 6:8ff) giving instructions for the priests. Using English verse numbers: the order of the offerings in Lev 1-6:7 is the burnt offering (1), the cereal offering (2), the peace offering (3), the purification offering (4:1-5:13), and the reparation offering (5:14-6:7). The order of the offerings in the instructions for the priests is the burnt offering (Lev 6:8-13), the cereal offering (Lev 6:14-18), the priest’s cereal offering (Lev 6:19-23), the purification offering (Lev 6:24-30), the reparation offering (Lev 7:1-10), and the peace offering (Lev 7:11-36). This is followed in Wenham’s outline, which this paragraph borrows, by two verses of summary (Lev 7:37-38). The order of the priest’s instructions is by frequency performed with the peace offering last because it was an optional sacrifice done least often.
Looking at the common worshiper’s instructions, it also makes sense to begin with the burnt offering because it was the most common offering, even if it was not first when you are doing more than one kind of offering. For example, you would do a purification offering before the burnt offering (Lev 9). It appears that the order of these offerings is to make them easier to learn/teach and it keeps Moses from being too repetitive because earlier portions are assumed later. The cereal and peace offerings were also food offerings with a pleasing aroma to YHWH, which is why these three are next to each other.
In the first chapter, after two introductory verses, each section on the burnt offering ends “a food offering with a pleasing aroma to YHWH” (Lev 1:9, 13, 17): the first section (Lev 1:3-9) deals with burnt offerings of cattle, the second (Lev 1:10-13) with burnt offerings of sheep or goats and the third section (Lev 1:14-17) with burnt offerings of birds. Cattle are more valuable than sheep or goats, and those herd animals more than birds. This is the reason for the order. For the sake of brevity, the second and third situations assume material included in the first (the longest description).
Burnt offerings had been offered at key times already in the Torah including right after the flood and the Ram instead of Isaac. And Jesus’ death, as the new Isaac, was likened to the burnt offering (Eph 5:2, 1 Pet 1:18-19), though once for all (Heb 7:27). All of these offerings under the laity section are those brought by the people. For the burnt offering of cattle or sheep or goats the text required a male without blemish. The laying on of hands (Lev 1:4) conveyed a transfer from the worshipper to that animal being sacrificed. And the burnt offering “shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him” (Lev 1:4). The offering up of the one with whom the Father was “well pleased” was thus the fulfillment of the burnt offering with a pleasing aroma to the LORD (Lev 1:9, 13, 17).
The second chapter of Leviticus covers the grain offerings. The first two sections end saying that the priest shall burn some of the food offering as its memorial portion on the altar, “a food offering with a pleasing aroma to YHWH. But the rest of the grain offering shall be for Aaron and his sons; it is a most holy part of YHWH’s food offerings” (Lev 2:2-3, 9-10). The first section deals with raw grain offerings and the second section with unleavened baked grain offerings. The third section deals with general rules about grain offerings and allows for those that are not for a pleasing aroma to YHWH (Lev 2:12) and other firstfruits grain offerings. The common theme in the third section is that they are firstfruits offerings and the section ends “it is a food offering to YHWH” (Lev 2:16). Usually it would follow the burnt offering. Therefore, the priest having pronounced your sins forgiven you would respond with a cereal offering of the produce of your land. The priests relied on these offerings for food and burned a portion as their offering to God.
The third chapter of Leviticus covers the peace offerings. Here again we have three sections. The first ends “it is a food offering with a pleasing aroma to YHWH” (Lev 3:5) and the second ends “a food offering to YHWH” (Lev 3:11) and the third has a longer ending (Lev 3:16-17). The first section covers cattle, the second sheep, and the third goats. Here the offering can be male or female but must still be without blemish. There is again a laying on of hands. Many of the things we said about the burnt offerings apply here, but the peace offering is less important than the burnt offering. One difference not noted here is that the worshiper could enjoy a portion of the offering so that it is a feast for YHWH, the priests, and the worshipers. This is implied because only certain parts of the animal are mentioned for burning on top of the burnt offering. We discover in the priest’s section on this offering that it could be for confession, vows, or free-will.
Leviticus 4 and 5, on the purification offering (4:1-5:13) and the reparation offering (5:14-6:7) have a similar structure to each other. Here the value of the animal offered is not important. As Wenham puts it, “Here the most important distinction is between inadvertent sins and sins of omission or deliberate sins. The status of the sinners who bring the offerings is also important” (87). This yields the following table: purification offerings for unintentional sins (Lev 4:1-35), purification offerings for sins of omission (Lev 5:1-13), reparation offerings for unintentional sins (Lev 5:14-19), reparation offerings for intentional sins (Lev 6:1-7). Each section begins, “If anyone sins…” and ends “And the priest shall make atonement for him…and he shall be forgiven….” These sections can be divided further by noting the “if” or in the case of Lev 4:22 “when” clauses. For unintentional sin, blood can be sprinkled in the holy place for the high priest and for the whole congregation, smeared on the main altar for the tribal leader, a worshiper offering a goat, a worshiper offering a lamb. For sins of omission, the offering can be a lamb or goat, birds, or flour. These offerings were less valuable and done less often than the burnt offering. Nevertheless, these offerings show us (1) the problem of unintentional sin, (2) that our sin (intentional or not) makes it impossible for God to be with us without confession of sin, restitution where appropriate (the NT gospels give examples), and a sacrifice, and (3) that the sins of leaders are more serious than the rest of the congregation.
Some notes on the priest’s instructions: the fire that they needed to keep going for the burnt offerings (Lev 6:13) was lit by God from heaven (Lev 9:24, cf. 2 Chronicles 7:1); these instructions are detailed as to what portions the priest could eat, if any, and what portions they tithed to God; detailed about how long they had to eat it; and most of this section (by contrast to Lev 1-6:7) is to be spoken to Aaron and his sons except the two asides about the peace offerings starting with Lev 7:22 and 7:28. Remember that portions of the peace offerings could be eaten by the common worshiper bringing it.
Of what use can the book of Leviticus be to believers now? We answer, first, that it is to us, just as much as to ancient Israel, a revelation of the character of God. It is even a clearer revelation of God’s character to us than to them ; for Christ has come as the Fulfiller, and thus the Interpreter, of the law. And God has not changed. He is still exactly what He was when He called to Moses out of the tent of meeting or spoke to him at Mount Sinai. He is just as holy as then ; just as intolerant of sin as then ; just as merciful to the penitent sinner who presents in faith the appointed blood of atonement, as He was then (24-25).