March 2024

Someone I know is on a journey to read through the Bible this year and they’ve arrived in Leviticus, the book where all good intentions to read through the Bible often die. They have been struck by all the bloody, gory sacrifices and have wondered why it was all necessary. Maybe you’re on a similar journey or have attempted one only to get bogged down in the same place. I’ve been asked to share my answer here in the hope that it may be a help to those who have wrestled with this issue. The answer will likely raise more questions but hopefully it gets us heading in the right direction.

To start on a practical note, all the business of sacrifice only seems gory to us modern folk who get our meat in nice, neat, refrigerated packages. Up until about 100 years ago no one would have thought it was gory at all. We moderns have forgotten what it was like to raise and slaughter our own animals. The animals used in the sacrifices were probably treated more humanely than the animals that provide our food today. A second thing we should notice about the sacrifices is all the side notes we find about what portion the priests and Levites were supposed to get. We also see that for several of the sacrifices there is the implication that the meat was to be shared with the community. So in a very practical way the sacrifices provided regular protein for the community. But that is not their main purpose.

The sacrifices have their origin all the way back in Genesis 3. Adam and Eve’s sin revealed their nakedness (their guilt and shame due to their rebellion) and so the Lord slaughtered an innocent animal (likely a sheep) in order to atone (cover) their nakedness/sin. They died spiritually in that moment and deserved to die physically as well but the Lord deferred their physical death by providing a covering for them. Their sin went far beyond eating a piece of fruit. It was a refusal to trust their Creator and their willful attempt to put themselves in His place for which they rightly deserved to die. That’s why the atonement was necessary.

So the sacrifices in Leviticus were required so that justice could continue to be deferred. The Lord is not only compassionate and caring but He is also just, holy and righteous. In every attribute He is absolutely perfect and thus we can’t draw near to Him without a covering/atonement for our sin. So all those sacrifices made it possible for the Israelites to draw near to the Lord and experience His presence in a limited way. In addition they were regular reminders of all that the Lord had done to redeem them and make them His people. They were also to be a reminder to them of the terrible nature of sin, in a sense their thought process should have been something like, “What has happened to this animal should have happened to me because of my sin, but the Lord has been merciful to me and allowed this animal to take my place.”

This is what Jesus is getting at when He says in John 6:53-54 that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you….” He did not expect anyone to eat His flesh literally but rather to identify with His sacrifice in the same way I mentioned earlier: “What happened to Jesus should have happened to me, but God has been merciful to me and allowed Jesus to take my place.” So we see that all those sacrifices were pointing to Jesus, giving them and us a picture of the atoning work of Jesus. And as it says in Hebrews 10:1-14, His was the once and for all sacrifice, so that, praise the Lord, we don’t have to keep them up any longer. Now, by faith in the work of Jesus, we can draw near to God without fear because He has done away with our sin once and for all. (Hebrews 10:19-22) As we approach the time of the year when we remember Jesus’ death and celebrate His resurrection may we remember the great and necessary cost that was paid to make atonement for us.