There are so many interesting aspects to the sacrificial system of the Torah. I have often recommended to Messianic Jewish Musings readers the seminal and masterful commentary in three volumes on Leviticus by Jacob Milgrom in the Anchor series (note: don’t be tempted to buy his short, one-volume commentary in the Continental set unless you have the Anchor volumes too — the one-volume is too short). I also have benefited from the IVP Dictionary of the Old Testament Pentateuch and its articles on the sacrifices and offerings. If you can’t see yourself buying three volumes on Leviticus, at least get volume one of Milgrom’s Anchor series.
There are many topics of interest in the sacrificial system of Torah. A few basic points include the fact that offerings were gifts, costly and brought in worship to God, making a statement of devotion and commitment. A sacrifice is korban, a gift that draws one near to God (from the root karav, to draw near). The offerer literally was as near to God’s presence in the sanctuary s he would ever get (the Presence was in the inner room and the offerer was at the altar in front of the outer room).
Probably the most interesting and least known fact about sacrifices, one that especially tends not to be reflected in Christian writings, is that in the Tabernacle/Temple, their main purpose was keeping the sanctuary clean. The sins and impurities of the people were like pollution which defiled the sanctuary (Milgrom compares defilement of the sanctuary to the novel Dorian Grey, in which the crimes of the immortal Grey caused his portrait, hidden away in his mansion, to grow more and more evil). To put it simply: the sacrifices cleaned the Temple, not the worshipper, so that God’s holy Presence could remain. This realization is very important in understanding how Paul and other Yeshua-followers continued to offer sacrifices and did not see them as irrelevant after Messiah’s sacrifice (and why when sacrifices are resumed in the kingdom they will continue to have value).
But in this post, I wish to focus on another aspect of the offerings of Torah: the division between the older and newer kinds. There are three offerings which were ancient, preceding the construction of the Tabernacle/Temple: the whole (burnt) offering, the grain offering, and the well-being (peace, fellowship) offering.
Leviticus brackets these three older types of offering off from the newer ones, the purification (sin) offering, the graduated purification offering, and the reparation (guilt) offering. Thus, Leviticus 1-3 get’s one introduction to the whole section (1:1-2) and the purification and reparation get their own introduction (4:1-2).
To put it simply, the whole (burnt), grain, and well-being (peace, fellowship) offerings are older and the purification (sin) and reparation (guilt) offerings are newer.
Until Leviticus, whole and well-being offerings are the only kind mentioned. The Patriarchs generally offered whole offerings. The Passover was a well-being offering. Whole offerings were burnt completely on the altar (except for the hide of larger animal which went to the priest) while well-being offerings were mostly eaten by the offerer (except the blood and organ fat burned to God and a portion set aside for the priest). The whole offering was completely a gift. The well-being offering was a covenant meal eaten in God’s presence.
The big question concerns the relationship between the newer and older offerings, with the older kind being offered at solitary altars such as described in Exodus 20:24-26 and the newer kind being offered only in the sanctuary as per Deuteronomy 12.
There are a number of things hard to understand. In places it can seem as if Torah and Hebrew Bible texts on this matter involve contradiction, or a later ideal imposed on an earlier practice. That is, the laws requiring offerings to be made only at the sanctuary (Deut 12:5-14 and other places) seem to have been violated repeatedly, and even by people one would expect to follow them.
Moses built a special altar in Exodus 24:3-8 and in Deuteronomy 27:5-7. Joshua built a solitary altar in Joshua 8:30-35. There are many other examples including Samuel and Elijah.
One explanation is that the commandment for centralized offerings only is very late and was unknown to earlier generations. This is the explanation that has dominated. Once you start assuming that the Torah has layers and that most of its contents are very late, this can be a solution to every problem of harmonization.
But another explanation is possible. In the IVP Dicitonary of the Old Testament Pentateuch, R.E. Averbeck suggests that solitary altars continued to play a valid role after the construction of the sanctuary. The ideal of a centralized system of offerings depended on there being “rest in the land” (Deut 12:10). In times of journeying and in times of war, solitary altars were necessary.
The solitary altars of Moses and Joshua were in times of journeying. Samuel and Elijah offered sacrifices at solitary altars in times of war and when the tribes were separated.
The interesting thing to note is that at solitary altars, only the older offerings were made. The purification (sin) and reparation (guilt) offerings were only for the sanctuary. But at solitary altars, the more basic kinds of offerings were made. The whole offering and the well-being offering encompass the primary offering needs of the worshipper (and the grain offerings and accompanying drink offerings complete the meal, as it were). The purification and reparation offerings encompass the primary needs of the sanctuary and the desire of Israel to have the Presence dwell among them.