Sacrifice, Atonement, and Holiness in Leviticus

Externally, Israel’s sacrifices have much in common with sacrifices all over the world, but Israel’s sacrifices are sacraments. From God’s side they belong to the realm of justification: God used them to hallow His people and declare them just or righteous. One major evidence of this is the fact that no sacrifices were valid for willful, deliberate sins (committed “with a high hand”); these, if repented of, were apparently covered only by the comprehensive offering on the Day of Atonement.

Three sacrificial motifs may be helpfully distinguished: (1) gift (of thanksgiving); (2) communion; and (3) atonement and/or satisfaction. Conspicuous by its absence is a sacrifice that usually prevailed in surrounding paganism: feeding of the gods. Sometimes the Bible even explicitly polemicizes against such notions (Ps 50; Mi 6). Each of the three biblical motifs is especially prominent in certain sacrifices: gift in the whole burnt and grain offerings; communion in the peace offerings, and forgiveness in the sin and guilt offerings. All three motifs, however, also interpenetrate one another— all of the concepts seem to be present in all sacrifices.

Two Teachings in Leviticus

Two teachings also dominate the last half of Leviticus: atonement (kaphar) and satisfaction (qodesh). In both we meet the same holism of the physical and the spiritual, the ritual and the ethical, which we encountered in connection with “uncleanness,” and which the modern mind finds so difficult. Possibly the term sacramental is the best term for describing the unity of internal and external aspects found in gift, communion, and atonement/ satisfaction.

Atonement (expiation) is not simply the same as “forgiveness,” but implies a decontamination, a cleansing of a physical as well as a spiritual order. Sin here is not only in the mind or will, but a negative force (a miasma) that invades all parts of the material world as well. Something as physical as blood is necessary to effect atonement, as though the physical heat of the sacrificial blood was removing the icy deadliness of divine wrath, so that God and man might endure one another’s presence in peace.

Sacrifices, Grace, and Holiness

We must give full weight to the biblical emphasis that the true God Himself graciously provides the means by which His righteous wrath may be allayed. In a way, this was the point of the entire covenant, old as well as new. When seen this way, atonement and satisfaction become virtual synonyms, but both are likely to be misunderstood without the corrective emphasis supplied by the other.

The situation is similar with holiness. Our common definition of the term, “without sin,” is acceptable only if accompanied by a comprehensive, despiritualizing definition of “sin.” Objects and bodies are “holy” or “unholy” in the Bible as well as minds and wills. God is “wholly other,” separated from the “common” or “secular.” Holiness certainly is not merely one of His attributes. Sometimes the Bible reserves the idea of holiness entirely for God and describes its gracious communication to mankind under the rubric of His “glory.” An old saying summarizes it aptly: “God’s glory is His holiness revealed, His holiness is His glory concealed.”

Reading through the ritual complexities of Leviticus is not an act of penance, but it may lead to repentance. It should drum into modern ears the inviolability of God’s laws within every detail, within every area of one’s relationship to Him and to other people. Leviticus teaches what Jesus taught: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). People today, too, are unholy unless they love their neighbor as themselves (Lv 19:18; cf Mt 22:39 and parallel passages). In a day that has lost the sense of the holy, the Book of Leviticus should be read. St. Paul wrote:

Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin [sacrificed] still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Rm 6:1–4)

This famous New Testament passage is replete with themes from Leviticus, reminding us of how central the book’s teaching is to Christian doctrine.

Post adapted from Lutheran Bible Companion, Volume 1: Introduction and Old Testament, copyright © 2014 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.

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