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Chapter Eleven
Israelite Sacrificial System: “A Pleasing Odor to the LORD”
Chapter Overview: Although animal sacrifices were quite common in the ancient Near
East, collecting blood and burning animal parts on an altar is foreign to the experience of
most people today. Interpreting sacrificial laws in the Bible requires that we understand
something about the significance given to blood offerings during biblical times. This
chapter summarizes the five basic kinds of Israelite sacrifices, offers tips for interpreting
the passages specifying rules for these sacrifices, provides an example of how to interpret
a particular sacrificial law, and gives specific laws to interpret from Leviticus 1–7. It also
explains the concepts of holiness, clean, and unclean, which are important for
understanding Leviticus.
Get your fingers out of my nose!!
Students stared quizzically as I strode into the classroom with a
prayer shawl over my head, a knife and a bowl in one hand, and a
Lamb Chop hand puppet on the other. As they watched me convert the
desk in the front of the room into an altar for burnt offerings, they
began to exhibit some signs of unease. And when I asked for a
volunteer to assist me in offering sacrifice, they squirmed in their
chairs. But when I gave the student volunteer the knife and asked him
to slit Lamb Chop’s throat so that I could catch the blood in the bowl,
sounds of disgust arose from the class. “You’re not going to kill Lamb
Chop! No way!!” Ignoring their comments, I explained ancient
Israelite sacrificial technique to the volunteer. “An animal’s nose is
tender,” I said, “so if you put your fingers into its nose and pull
upward, its head will come up. You can then slit its throat, which is
necessary to bleed the animal properly.” So he stuck his fingers into Lamb Chop’s nose and bent
her head upward and sliced. I simulated collecting blood in the bowl and splashing it against the
altar. Some students laughed nervously; others made protesting comments.
I sometimes wonder what would happen if I
actually sacrificed a real animal in a classroom. The sights,
smell and sounds would nauseate many students, and I am
fairly sure that I would be breaking several laws and would
get into trouble with various animal rights groups—not to
mention the probability that my students would revolt
against such an exhibit. Urban people today are far
removed from the sacrificial system that seemed natural
and good to ancient Israelites. In our day, a small
percentage of people live on farms, so most have no
Scene of Romans sacrificing a bull. contact with killing and butchering animals for food—
From Pompei. meat is something that comes wrapped in plastic at the
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grocery store. Experiences common for ancient Israelites seem quite foreign to most folks today.
Israelite animal sacrifices, far from seeming unusual to them, mostly accompanied times of
family celebration. Slaughtering animals and offering their blood to God meant a big meal—a
happy time.
Only a minority of Israelite sacrifices were offered as atonement for sin and therefore
accompanied somber occasions. The majority were celebratory in nature: thanksgiving and
freewill offerings. This detail often surprises Christians. Christians associate animal sacrifices
with the offering of a male lamb as atonement for sin, because several New Testament passages
use this imagery to describe Jesus’ sacrificial death. For example, the Gospel of John Gospel
says concerning John the Baptist, “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared,
‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’” (John 1:29). Similarly, 1 Peter
1:18–19 states “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your
ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ,
like that of a lamb without defect or blemish” (see also 1 Corinthians 5:7 and Revelation 5:6,
12). And because Christians predominantly link Jesus’ death with the Passover instructions in
Exodus 12 to slaughter a year-old lamb without blemish, they are surprised to discover that the
sacrificial offering specified to atone for the sin of a common person was a female sheep or goat
(Leviticus 4:27–35).
In this chapter we will focus on the specific instructions in Leviticus 1–7 for how to
conduct various kinds of sacrifices. These passages stipulate correct sacrificial procedures on
where to kill the animal for different sacrifices, what to do with its blood, which portions of the
offerings to burn on the altar for God, which portions to give to the priests, and which parts the
sacrificers take to eat with their families.
Laws of Sacrifice in Leviticus 1–7
The Hebrew name for Leviticus is “And he called” (or “And he summoned”) from the
first word of the book in the Hebrew text. The title in the Septuagint is Leuiticon, which means
“The Levitical Book.” The Vulgate converts this Greek heading into the Latin Liber Leviticus,
“The Book of Leviticus,” which provides the basis for the English title. The title “Leviticus,”
however, seems a bit strange; because the book is written for priests and only uses the term
“Levite” in 25:32–34 when referring to property in certain cities. Leviticus gives instructions for
priests, the sons of Aaron. And although Aaron was from the tribe of Levi, one of the twelve
sons of Jacob, only his direct descendents were to function as priests. Perhaps when the
Septuagint translation of Leviticus was made in the third century BCE, the word Levite was
synonymous with “priest.” We do not know for sure.
A major theme in Leviticus is the holiness of God and how Israelites can remain in the
good graces of this holy God who is jealous for their absolute loyalty. An important part of
fidelity to God was the bringing of sacrificial offerings for various events in the life of the
people, and Leviticus provides guidelines for how to accomplish these sacrifices correctly. It also
gives instructions on many other matters pertaining to purity. In summary form, the overall
content of the book is as follows. Leviticus 1–7 provides instructions for proper procedures to
follow when offering sacrifices. Chapters 8–10 deal with ordination of priests. Chapters 11–16
specify laws of cleanness: which animals are clean and can be eaten, how women are purified
after childbirth, how to diagnose and deal with different kinds of leprosy, and how to deal with
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bodily discharges. Chapter 17 warns against improper sacrifice. Chapters 18–19 give laws
regarding sexual relationships (specifically which are illegal), and chapters 20–27 stipulate
further regulations for such matters as maintaining loyalty to God, insuring holiness among the
priests, celebrating specific feast days, and implementing the year of jubilee in which rural land
reverts back to its original owners.
We will focus on Leviticus 1–7, analyzing the way in which the priests were to offer five
different kinds of sacrifices. Leviticus 1–5 teaches how to offer the sacrifices, and chapters 6–7
deal with the same sacrifices but give further details on how to administer them. Here is a brief
summary of the sacrificial categories.
Five Types of Sacrifices
1. Whole Burnt Offering. This sacrifice was unusual in that the entire animal (except for
the skin) was burnt to ashes instead of only burning token portions on the altar (Leviticus
1:3–17; 6:8–13). The Hebrew word for this sacrifice indicates an “ascending offering”
and reflects the belief that the smoke ascended toward heaven as a “pleasing odor” to
God (1:9, 13, 17; 2:2, 9 and so on; remember in Genesis 8:20–21 where God smells the
smoke of the sacrifice offered by Noah). The Septuagint translates it with the Greek word
“holocaust” (“whole burnt offering”). But because “holocaust” currently describes the
Nazi extermination of Jews, use of this word in English translation is no longer a good
choice.
2. Peace Offerings. These sacrifices were associated with celebrations in response to
blessings received from God (Leviticus 3:1–17; 7:11–21, 28–36). There were three basic
types: (1) Thanksgiving Offerings—made to thank God for blessings; (2) Vow
Offerings—made to fulfill vows to God; (3) Freewill Offerings—made to express
gladness in the LORD.
3. Unintentional Sin Offering. These sacrifices dealt with purification following specific,
unintentional sins. The animals required for these offerings differed according to the
importance in society of the person who sinned (Leviticus 4:1–5:3; 6:24–30).
4. Guilt Offering. These sacrifices were the same as purification for unintentional sin
offerings, except they also required that restitution be paid (Leviticus 5:14–6:7).
5. Grain Offering. These sacrifices were offered to God as a means of securing good will
(Leviticus 2:1–16; 6:14–18).
Tips for Interpreting Sacrificial Laws
1. Consider Context. The sacrificial laws in Leviticus are connected to the larger context of
the Exodus narrative. The concluding paragraph of Exodus describes God descending in
glory on the tabernacle (portable shrine described in detail in Exodus), and Leviticus
continues this story with God speaking to Moses from the “tent of meeting.”
2. Find background information. Determine what knowledge the passage assumes that
readers already possess and then obtain this background information from Bible
dictionaries or other resources. For example, the instructions on sacrifice in Leviticus 1–7
presuppose knowledge of the layout of the tabernacle (or “tent of meeting”) described at
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length in Exodus. Consequently, having a mental picture of this sacrificial center
enhances your understanding of the sacrificial laws in Leviticus. Examine the adjoining
reconstructions of the Tabernacle and keep them in mind as you read the laws that
explain sacrificial procedures.
Drawing of the
tabernacle,
showing the
sacrificial altar
near the entrance,
the laver (basin
for priests to use
for washing), and
the holy place
(tent within the
courtyard).
Modern reconstruction of the
Tabernacle, showing the
inside of the courtyard. The
altar is in the foreground,
and the laver is behind it to
the left. The tent in the
background is the holy place
where only priests could
enter. Try to imagine a hot
fire on the altar, men
butchering animals, and
priests burning portions of
animals on the altar.
3. Decide which people the law addresses. For example, Leviticus 1:2 speaks to the
general population of Israelites, providing a broad statement on bringing sacrificial
animals to the sacred enclosure/tent. Verses 3–9 then give a specific example—an animal
from the herd (bull) or from the flock (sheep).
4. Note the kind of sacrifice described. For example, Leviticus 1:3–9 gives instructions for
a “whole burnt offering”—the incineration of nearly the entire animal.
5. Determine sacrificial specifications. Observe the qualifications specified for the
sacrifice (animal species and gender—or if it is a grain offering, what kind of grain is
used and how it is prepared). Leviticus 1:3 states that the animal must be a male without
blemish. It cannot be a wild animal—it must be a domestic animal belonging to the
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sacrificer. In this case a bull is
Whole Burnt Offering—Leviticus 1:1–9
offered—an extremely expensive
sacrifice that only a wealthy person The LORD summoned Moses and spoke to him
could afford to bring. from the tent of meeting, saying: 2 Speak to
the people of Israel and say to them: When
6. Reconstruct the procedure used for
any of you bring an offering of livestock to
the particular sacrifice. Leviticus 1:3–
the LORD, you shall bring your offering from
9 gives a fairly complete set of
the herd or from the flock.
instructions for a whole burnt offering.
3
If the offering is a burnt offering from the
a) Sacrificer brings the animal to the
herd, you shall offer a male without blemish;
entrance of the tabernacle;
[a] you shall bring it to the entrance of the tent
b) Sacrificer places one hand on the of meeting, for acceptance in your behalf
head of the animal, probably as a before the LORD. 4 [b] You shall lay your hand
way of signifying that the animal on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall
belongs to that person; be acceptable in your behalf as atonement
c) Sacrificer kills the animal near the for you. 5 [c] The bull shall be slaughtered
entrance of the tabernacle; before the LORD; and [d] Aaron’s sons the
priests shall offer the blood, dashing the blood
d) Priest collects the animal’s blood against all sides of the altar that is at the
and splashes it on all four sides of entrance of the tent of meeting. 6 [e] The burnt
the altar of sacrifice; offering shall be flayed and cut up into its
e) Sacrificer cuts up the animal into parts. 7 [f] The sons of the priest Aaron shall
smaller pieces; put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the
fire. 8 Aaron’s sons the priests shall arrange
f) Priest arranges wood on the altar the parts, with the head and the suet, on the
and places the pieces of the animal wood that is on the fire on the altar; 9 but its
on the fire—also washes the entrails entrails and its legs shall be washed with
and legs in the laver near the altar; water. Then the [g] priest shall turn the whole
g) Priest burns the whole as an offering into smoke on the altar as a burnt offering, an
to God. offering by fire of pleasing odor to the LORD.
In this division of labor, the
sacrificers are responsible to bring their own animals to the sanctuary and to kill them
there. The priests are responsible to perform actions related to the handling of the blood
and anything pertaining to the altar of sacrifice.
7. Locate where the animal is to be sacrificed. The sacrificial animal in Leviticus 1:3–9 is
sacrificed at the entrance to the tent of meeting (1:3–4).
8. Determine what is done with the various parts of the sacrifice. Which portions of the
animal or grain offering are burned, and which are eaten? Who eats what? Where it is
eaten?
9. Find out what the sacrifice is designed to accomplish. Leviticus 1:4 stipulates that the
whole burnt offering provides atonement for the sacrificer. The Hebrew word for
“atonement” indicates the removal of pollution from the sacrificer and a canceling of that
person’s sin. The animal’s life provides a means by which the person makes amends with
God and does not suffer God’s anger for the sinful act.
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Examining Different Sacrifices
Significance of Blood
The procedure given in Leviticus 1:10–13 for
Leviticus 17:11 provides greater
sacrificing a sheep or a goat as a whole burnt offering
clarity on the significance of
resembles the more detailed explanation given for offering
blood in sacrificial offerings:
a bull in 1:3–9. The bird sacrifice in 1:14–17 differs,
“For the life of the flesh is in the
however, with the priest wringing off the head and tearing
blood; and I have given it to you
it open by the wings. The offering of birds was a provision
for making atonement for your
for poor Israelites who could not afford to bring a goat or a
lives on the altar; for, as life, it is
sheep. For example, Leviticus 5:7 states, “But if you
the blood that makes
cannot afford a sheep, you shall bring to the LORD, as your
atonement.” The important
penalty for the sin that you have committed, two
Jewish holiday Yom Kippur
turtledoves or two pigeons.”
means “Day of Atonement,” and
Leviticus specifies sacrificial offerings for various on this day a special sacrifice
occasions in the life of the people. For example, 12:1–7 was offered for all the people in
gives instructions for the purification of women following order to avert God’s anger and
childbirth, specifying that the woman needs to bring a keep them in God’s favor (see
lamb and a pigeon for sacrifice. Then 12:8 adds “If she Leviticus 16 for details).
cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two
pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make
atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean.”
In the following pages we will look more closely at the various kinds of sacrifices,
beginning with the very common freewill offerings.
Freewill Offerings/Offerings of Well Being (3:1–17; 7:11–21, 28–36)
These sacrifices have nothing to do with repentance and atonement but are offerings
involving joy and celebration. Most of the meat was eaten outside the “tent of meeting” by the
sacrificer’s family, so the animal was killed at the tabernacle entrance, not inside the holy area.
The kidneys and the appendage of the liver, however, were burned on the altar by a priest (3:4).
To understand the background for this type of offering, it helps to know that ancient Israelites
considered the kidneys and liver to be delicacies. They also believed that these organs were the
center of a person’s emotions—somewhat like we
refer to the heart. We say “Follow your heart,” not
“Follow your kidneys.” We do not say “I love you
with all my kidneys.” Consequently, in biblical
passages that use the kidneys to speak of emotions
(for example, Psalms 16:7; 73:21; and Jeremiah
11:20), translators substitute the word “heart” so
that the text makes more sense to English speakers.
For us to say “You broke my kidneys” would sound
very odd.
Many people in Israel’s neighboring
cultures believed that their priests could discern the
will of a god by examining the liver of a sacrificial
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animal. The adjoining picture shows a clay model of a sheep’s liver found in Mesopotamia.
Notice that the model divides the liver into numerous zones. It was probably a teaching device
used to instruct new priests how to interpret divine messages by examining the sacrificial
animal’s liver. The Babylonian priests considered the lobe of the liver to be particularly
important in their analysis, so perhaps the burning of the lobe specified in Leviticus 3:4, 10, 15;
4:9 and 7:4 was a way of distancing Israelites from the practices of polytheistic priests in
Mesopotamia.
Questions regarding Freewill Offerings
1. According to 3:1–17, there were no restrictions regarding the gender of the sacrificial
animal used for freewill offerings. Which species of animals could be used?
2. How does the sacrificial procedure in 3:1–17 compare with the one used for whole burnt
offerings in 1:3–9?
3. Which portions of the animal were burned on the altar for God?
4. What kind of bread was to be eaten with the thanksgiving offering (7:11–15)? What
restrictions were placed on when the meat must be eaten?
5. If the sacrifice was a votive offering (given to fulfill a vow) or a freewill offering (given
to ask God for something), when must the meat be eaten (7:16–21)?
6. According to 7:28–36, which portions of the offerings of well being were eaten by the
priests?
Fill in the following table to show how parts of the offering of well being were distributed.
God’s portion Priest’s portion Sacrificer’s portion
Because offerings of well being were strictly voluntary, no allowance was made for poor
people to bring birds instead of larger animals. The festive meals that accompanied these
sacrifices fed a number of people, so a few small birds would not be adequate for such
celebrations.
Sacrifices for Unintentional Sins (4:1–5:13; 6:24–30)
Leviticus 4:1–5:13; 6:24–30 specify particular sacrifices were for unintentional sins, not
for intentional sins. Although you will notice many procedural similarities between these
sacrifices and the whole burnt offerings, you will also see some differences.
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Questions regarding Sacrifices for Unintentional Sins
1. What types of sacrifices were specified for people at various levels of society?
Species of animal or Gender (if from Place where animal
type of flour herd or flock) was slaughtered
Anointed Priest
Whole Congregation
Ruler
Common Person 1. 1.
2. 2.
3.
4.
2. How did the way in which the priests handled of the blood of these sacrifices differ from
the way they handled blood for the whole burnt offering?
3. Which parts of the animal were burned on the altar?
What was done with the rest of the animal? Penalty for Deliberate Sin
The sacrifice for the “anointed priest” (another title “But whoever acts high-
for “high priest”) was larger than that required for a ruler of handedly, whether a native or an
the people because the potential for contaminating the holy alien, affronts the LORD, and
place was greater if the anointed priest sinned. The high shall be cut off from among the
priest represented the people before God, so if he was defiled people. Because of having
it affected the entire congregation. And because he despised the word of the LORD
ministered in the holy place, his uncleanness would affect and broken his commandment,
the holiness of the tabernacle. such a person shall be utterly cut
off and bear the guilt.”
(Numbers 15:30–31)
Holy, Clean and Unclean in Leviticus
Leviticus 6:24–30 exhibits concern with the holiness of the sacrifice for sin. Only priests
could eat portions of it; and, according to the New Revised Standard Version translation,
“whatever touches its flesh shall became holy” (some scholars argue that the correct translation
is “whoever touches it must be holy”). Although many modern readers connect the concept of
“holiness” with moral and ethical behavior, this understanding does not match the meaning in
Leviticus. In Leviticus 1–7, holiness describes a person or object that was set aside or
consecrated for God. For example, Israelite priests conducted a ritual involving blood to purify
the altar of sacrifice: “Also you shall offer a sin offering for the altar, when you make atonement
for it, and shall anoint it, to consecrate it. Seven days you shall make atonement for the altar, and
consecrate it, and the altar shall be most holy; whatever touches the altar shall become holy”
(Exodus 29:36–37). Similarly, when Aaron and his sons were consecrated for priestly service,
blood was used: “Then you shall take some of the blood that is on the altar, and some of the
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anointing oil, and sprinkle it on Aaron and his vestments and on his sons and his sons’ vestments
with him; then he and his vestments shall be holy, as well as his sons and his sons’ vestments”
(Exodus 29:21). Once consecrated, however, the priests needed to avoid touching anything that
was unclean, because uncleanness was transferred through touch. Unclean people touching a
holy object or person contaminated the object or person (Leviticus 5:2–3). Therefore, extreme
care was taken to avoid contaminating holy objects and
holy people.
There were also degrees of holiness, with the
areas closest to God considered most holy. The “holy
of holies” (the innermost shrine of the tabernacle
containing the ark of the covenant) was most holy, and
only the high priest could enter it—once a year on the
day of atonement—and then only after an extensive
purification ritual. The “holy place” outside the holy of
holies was limited to priests. Outside the holy place,
Levites could serve around the altar of burnt offering.
Common people who were in a state of ritual cleanness
could enter the outer court of the tabernacle. The camp
outside the tabernacle was for common Israelites and
resident aliens. Outside of the camp was a place for
those people who were temporarily unclean. Separated
entirely from the camp was the place where those
with terminal uncleanness, such as leprosy, lived. Reconstruction of the Ark of the
And the wilderness was considered a haunt of Covenant located in the “holy of holies.”
unclean animals and demons. Viewing wilderness
areas as places for recreation enjoyed by outdoor enthusiasts is a modern concept.
Sacrificial offerings also had differing levels of holiness. The sin offering, for example,
was “most holy” (6:25), and only the priest who offered it could eat the meat; and he had to eat it
in the “holy place” (6:26). By contrast, the common people ate their portion of the sacrifices of
well being outside the tent of meeting courtyard (the priests got the breast and right thigh; 7:30–
36).
Approaching holy objects in a condition of ritual impurity involved danger: “Thus you
shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, so that they do not die in their
uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst” (15:31). Handling holy objects in a
way contrary to instructions also involved great risk. Two of Aaron’s sons died after they used
fire that was not taken from the holy altar of sacrifice and they performed some sort of banned
ritual. “Now Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his censer, put fire in it, and laid incense
on it; and they offered unholy fire before the LORD, such as he had not commanded them. And
fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the
LORD” (10:1–2).
Obviously care was needed. Priests must be clear on their tasks and not have their
judgment clouded by alcohol. Although drinking wine was a common part of Israelite society,
priests were forbidden to drink while on duty. “Drink no wine or strong drink, neither you nor
your sons, when you enter the tent of meeting, that you may not die; it is a statute forever
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throughout your generations. You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and
between the unclean and the clean” (15:9–10).
Priests were to maintain strict rules to keep them in a state of ritual purity. They also
had to meet certain specifications with respect to their physical condition in order not to degrade
the holy place. As sacrificial animals needed to be without blemish (22:17–25), so the priests
who offered them in sacrifice could not be deformed.
No one of your [Aaron] offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may
approach to offer the food of his God. 18 For no one who has a blemish shall draw near,
one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, 19 or one
who has a broken foot or a broken hand, 20 or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a
blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles. 21 No descendant of
Aaron the priest who has a blemish shall come near to offer the LORD’s offerings by fire;
since he has a blemish, he shall not come near to offer the food of his God. 22 He may eat
the food of his God, of the most holy as well as of the holy. 23 But he shall not come near
the curtain or approach the altar, because he has a blemish, that he may not profane my
sanctuaries; for I am the LORD; I sanctify them. (Leviticus 21:17–23)
And, as we saw in the previous chapter on law codes, certain physical conditions also exempted
the common worshipers. “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be
admitted to the assembly of the LORD. Those born of an illicit union shall not be admitted to the
assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted
to the assembly of the LORD” (Deuteronomy 23:1–2).
To appear before God in the tabernacle required Israelites to be clean, which does not
simply mean washed in a bath. They must be in a condition of ritual purity. This condition
required constant vigilance—being aware of what caused uncleanness and the consequences
regarding worship. Some common events in life rendered people temporarily unclean, although
the events in themselves were not bad. Giving birth to children, for example, was highly prized
in Israelite society; and a woman’s monthly period is entirely natural. Yet because of the blood
loss involved in these normal events, a menstruating woman or a new mother was considered
ceremonially unclean and could not approach holy objects for a set amount of time.
If a woman conceives and bears a male child, she shall be ceremonially unclean
seven days; as at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. 3 On the eighth day
the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. 4 Her time of blood purification shall be
thirty-three days; she shall not touch any holy thing, or come into the sanctuary, until the
days of her purification are completed. 5 If she bears a female child, she shall be unclean
two weeks, as in her menstruation; her time of blood purification shall be sixty-six days.
6
When the days of her purification are completed, whether for a son or for a
daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb in its
first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. 7 He shall
offer it before the LORD, and make atonement on her behalf; then she shall be clean from
her flow of blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, male or female. (Leviticus
12:2–7)
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The text does not explain why a woman was considered unclean for twice as long after giving
birth to a girl. Scholars are therefore left to speculate, and you can read a number of possible
explanations in commentaries on Leviticus.
Although uncleanness need not have anything at all to do with sin, it may result from
disobedience. Conditions of uncleanness vary from mild to more significant. People who become
unclean through minor reasons, like touching the carcass of an unclean animal, take a bath, wash
their clothes and are unclean until sunset (Leviticus 11:24–31; 22:6–7). Men who have a
discharge of semen require seven days before being considered clean again, as do women when
they have their monthly periods—yet anyone who touches an unclean man or woman is only
unclean until evening (see Leviticus 15:2–24).
Some illnesses resulted in permanent uncleanness. Leviticus 13–14, for example,
provides detailed directions for how priests were to diagnose leprosy. Today the term leprosy
refers to a chronic infectious disease resulting from Mycobacterium leprae, which disfigures the
skin and destroys peripheral nerves. In Leviticus, however, the term used for leprosy covers a
fairly wide array of conditions, ranging from the lethal disease to mere mildew in a house.
Prescriptions for treatment vary with the diagnosis. If the priest diagnosed a person’s skin
condition to be leprosy, the leper had to live at a distance from others.
The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head
be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall
remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his
dwelling shall be outside the camp.” (13:45–46)
Priests also examined clothing that had “leprosy”—in this case some sort of mildew—and
prescribed a range of treatments (13:47–59). If the owner of the garment could not get rid of the
problem, the garment was burned. Similarly, a house with “leprosy” (mildew) in the walls
necessitated a priest to inspect it. The “diseased” stones were removed and the walls scraped. If
the house recovered and the “leprosy” did not spread further, the priest did a purification ritual so
that the house would be clean again (14:48–53). But if they could not eliminate the “leprosy”
from the walls, they had to “have the house torn down, its stones and timber and all the plaster of
the house, and taken outside the city to an unclean place” (14:45).
Purity did not
just affect Israelite
entry into the
tabernacle. It also
defined their lives as
a people set aside for
God. As we have
already seen in
Deuteronomy 14,
some animals were
considered unclean
and therefore not to
be eaten. Leviticus 11 expands these
kosher food laws in the context of Sacrificial scene from Pompeii, showing Romans
explaining “clean” and “unclean.” preparing to sacrifice a bull, a ram and a pig.
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Interestingly, some animals that were unclean to eat were nevertheless valuable as work animals
(for example, the camel, 11:4, or the horse, neither of which has divided hoofs or chews the cud).
As time went on, Jewish people viewed the pig came as especially unclean, and their refusal to
eat pork distinguished them from other societies. In the ancient Near East, various cultures not
only considered pigs to be valuable for meat, but they also viewed them as good sacrificial
offerings for their gods.
The laws in the Pentateuch warned Israelites against copying the worship practices of
polytheistic peoples. For example, although sex is an important part of life, sexual acts were
banned from the holy place. Unlike people in the surrounding cultures who had temples devoted
to fertility in which men engaged in sexual intercourse with temple prostitutes, Israelites were to
shun such activities. Similarly, although death is a natural event, those who came in contact with
a corpse were not to enter the tabernacle for a prescribed time of purification. This stipulation
distinguished Israelite practice from the common Near Eastern custom of ancestor worship. So
although Israelite sacrificial practices were in many ways similar to the ways people in other
cultures sacrificed to their deities, there were also some fundamental differences.
Questions regarding Guilt Offering with Restitution (Leviticus 5:14–6:7)
1. From Leviticus 5:14–16, what kind of offense necessitated a guilt offering?
2. How do the requirements in 5:14–16 for the guilt offering differ from the other sacrifices
studied so far?
3. What was the intended result of the sacrifice


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