What’s With All The Offerings?
What’s with all the offerings in Leviticus? The book is chock full of them, and it can get very confusing trying to tell them apart, or understand what they’re for. There are burnt offerings, grain offerings, fellowship offerings, sin offerings and guilt offerings. What were they? What is the difference between them? What were they trying to achieve?
I think the first thing I’d say is: don’t let these trip you up. It would be easy to gloss over these sections and carry on reading without really understanding them. It’d be even easier to give up reading the Bible altogether at this point, thinking it’s an alien world of gratuitous bloodshed and pointless sacrifice that’s got nothing to do with life today. Both those approaches are completely understandable, but what I want to try and do in this post is help you navigate these sections. I want to try and help translate the unfamiliar terms, explain the seeming repetition and in simple terms differentiate the different offerings and their purposes.
(PS. If you’re a new Christian, don’t get stuck here, skip to an easier part and come back later. That’s allowed!)
OK, ready? You want to stick with Leviticus? Good. Let’s give this a shot. If all this seems weird, the priests rummaging bloody-elbowed in animal carcasses, people offering endless sacrifices, a meticulous obsession with doing things the right way, that’s because it is. This is a long way from our modern lifestyle, both in time and space. But don’t worry, this isn’t as weird as it seems, and it wasn’t weird back then. In fact, in the ancient Middle East, this was completely normal. No matter what deity you acknowledged in which nation, people expected to have to approach the divine through designated priests and with sacrifices. It was done everywhere, mostly as a way to appease angry deities and curry favour. Blood, meat and spices were the currency of ancient religion. It was messy and smelly and noisy, but it was as normal then as Sunday services are today.
But Leviticus is very different. There’s only God, not many. He doesn’t demand human sacrifice, as some of the false gods in Canaan did, just animals. These offerings weren’t intended to bribe Him, fob Him off or earn His favour, they were the basis for relationship with Him. God had already rescued them, so this was about how humans were to live with God having been rescued. The Old Covenant dictated certain responsibilities on both sides of the relationship: God would be with His people, protect and provide for them; the people would stay faithful to God alone and obey all His commands.
What about all those different types of offering? They fall into two categories: voluntary and compulsory. The voluntary ones were the burnt offering, the grain offering and the fellowship offering. The compulsory ones were the sin and guilt offerings. The latter you had to make to atone for sin and to get right with God, whereas the former you made because you wanted to.
The burnt offering was an expression of devotion to God. It was a way of worshipping Him, of demonstrating thankfulness and commitment to Him. We know from Exodus (29:39-42) that they were supposed to be offered twice daily on behalf of the entire Israelite community – it was an on-going act of corporate worship. The altar would rarely have been out of action – there would have been constant smoke and the smell of burning meat would have wafted continually through the camp (apologies if you’re a vegetarian/vegan). Individuals could also offer burnt offerings in addition to the communal one. Again, as a sign of special devotion.
Similar to the burnt offering the grain offering was an act of worship. It expressed thankfulness to God for His blessings. It was a way of saying thank you for giving me grain in the first place. Granted, the Israelites didn’t grow many crops in the desert, but this was preparing them for the agricultural life they would lead in the Promised Land. It’s possible to eat a diet nowadays with very little bread, but back then grain, along with olives and grapes, was the backbone of the diet. It symbolised life and provision, and giving some back to God expressed gratitude for His bounty.
The fellowship offering is also called the ‘peace offering’, related to the Hebrew word ‘shalom’. This means wholeness and deep spiritual satisfaction as well as the absence of conflict, and so this offering reflected the peace between God and His people and the wholeness of their covenant relationship. It was an offering in which the worshipper could participate more fully and eat part of (unlike the other offerings, some of which were reserved for God alone, and some of which were divided between God’s share and the priests’ share). In a way it was like eating a meal with God, having first brought Him a gift of gratitude, and it was often a communal meal that reinforced community and fellowship.
So those were the voluntary offerings. They weren’t forced or obligatory, any more than our worship of God today. Think of all the ways in which you express gratitude today and think of them as the modern equivalent of these offerings. (If you’re struggling to think of how you express gratitude to God, take this as a challenge to be more thankful).
The compulsory offerings were different because they had to be made, there was no choice here. The offering itself might be similar in its content and process, but they were fundamentally different in motivation. Both the sin offering and guilt offering atoned for specific unintentional sins – the kind of sins we commit all the time without realising or intending to. The very act of coming forward to do it was a confession of sin and expressed a desire to get right with God. The blood provided cleansing from the defilement of sin and secured forgiveness for the person in question.
The guilt offering also added the concept of restitution, paying back 20% more than the original amount. This intentionally went beyond saying sorry to making good, leaving no room for bitterness. It was a kind of compensation in addition to the cleansing of the sin offering.
So I hope that helps at least differentiate all the different offerings, even though that’s just a whistle-stop tour. You could summarise them by saying that they were designed to set people right with God, to express gratitude and to bring the community together. Or, to use fancy words, for expiation, atonement, consecration and unified corporate worship.
Why does Leviticus go into so much detail? There are a few reasons that I can think of. First it was all new and so nothing could be taken for granted. The Levites were starting off with zero knowledge of how to do all these things God’s way.
Secondly, as a manual for regulating the life of the community it had to cover every conceivable circumstance. (Think how concise Leviticus is compared to the endless corpus of modern law). What should we do if x happens, how should we deal with y eventuality? Not all sections would be needed at all times, but they would all be needed for guidance at some point. In this way the book would be used like an encyclopaedia.
Thirdly, Leviticus didn’t use a one-size-fits-all approach that ignored people’s circumstances. Some sections are doubled in length by making provision for people of different budgets. Those who couldn’t afford large animals, which were expensive, could offer birds; those who couldn’t afford birds – the really poor – could offer grain or flour. This was a means-tested approach that made sure no one missed out. The details reveal God’s thoughtfulness and care for the poor.
Fourthly, there are bits of seeming repetition which apparently go over the same ground and make the book longer. For instance, you’d be forgiven for reaching chapters 6 & 7 and thinking you’d gone right back to the beginning, because it goes over all the different offerings again? Why? Because they have different purposes and come at it from different angles. The first few chapters prescribe who should bring what offering and why. After that the second section goes into more detail for how the sacrifices should actually be done, which is more practical and mostly for the priests’ benefit.
Finally, the most important reason, is that the level of detail reflects the level of care the people should take when approaching God. They had to approach God on His own terms, not their own. They couldn’t just waltz into God’s presence not taking it seriously, or offer any old thing. This was serious business – flawed and sinful human beings drawing near to a perfect and holy God. The tragic story of Nadab and Abihu (ch. 10) shows what happened to those who tried to do it their own way, approaching God with pride and disregard.
The stakes are not quite so high for us, but the same basic principle holds true: we approach God on His terms, not ours. His terms dictate that sin must be dealt with. In the Old Covenant sin was atoned for on a daily, ongoing basis by the blood of scapegoats; in the New Covenant sin was atoned for once and for all by the infinitely precious and effective blood of Christ. That’s wonderful because it frees us from both the mess and burdens of Leviticus and the impossibility of pleasing God on our own merits, but it still prescribes a single and unavoidable route to God: you must come through Jesus. There is no other way. He is the way, the truth and the life.
That leaves us with no compulsory offerings to make, just an awful lot of gratitude to express. How can we show God today how thankful we are? Considering what we’ve been spared and saved from should add depth and colour to our appreciation. The offerings we bring today we bring because we want to, not because we have to. They are the overflow of joyful and redeemed souls.
To take away
What offering can you bring to God today, not because of what you need to do but because of what He has already done for you?