I’m squeamish about blood, so it’s a mercy I didn’t live in Old Testament times.

The centre of Israel’s worship, the Tabernacle, was, according to Leviticus, a religious abattoir. There was blood everywhere as the priests slaughtered animals, dissected them, disembowelled them and burnt them. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, the prescribed rituals required a great deal of the blood to be poured, thrown, sprinkled and smeared all over the place. A nice smell of roast meat no doubt drifted around the camp of Israel, but personally I would never have been a comfortable worshipper at the Tabernacle itself.

Even the book of Leviticus puts many readers off. Exodus isn’t so bad—it has a fascinating storyline, ending with the setting up of the Tabernacle and the establishment of the Aaronic priesthood to officiate in it. But Leviticus takes the storyline no further. It just gives endless lists of sacrifices and offerings, and details of the religious festivals that Israel was to observe—with blood seemingly a major ingredient in everything.

Here’s where many Bible-readers drop out. ‘What on earth has all this stuff to do with me and living the Christian life today?’ they ask. It’s a fair question, so let’s try and answer it.

In this book God is showing us how much he longs to draw close to his people and speak to them. Back in Genesis he had spoken from heaven. In Exodus he had spoken from the heights of Mount Sinai—getting closer. But here in Leviticus he speaks from the Tabernacle, right in the middle of the camp of Israel. That’s in fact how the book starts: ‘The LORD called to Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting.’[1]

But while we warm to God’s desire to be close to his people, there’s no escaping the fact that he remains a frighteningly holy God. Just to touch Mount Sinai had meant instant death, so how were the sinful Israelites, whose tents surrounded the Tabernacle, ever to approach this one whose awesome presence now dwelt right there among them? The answer is: through the blood-sacrifices prescribed in the first seven chapters of Leviticus. Significantly, these chapters come between two contrasting statements. The first is at the end of Exodus, where ‘Moses could not enter the tent of meeting’ because of the blinding glory of God’s presence.[2] The other is in Leviticus chapter nine, where ‘Moses and Aaron…went into the tent of meeting.’[3] So how come they couldn’t approach God before, but now they could? What made the difference? It’s what comes in between: all that blood.

Here we must note that the use of ‘types’ so prominent in Genesis and Exodus evidently continues here in Leviticus, for the blood of the sacrificial animals clearly points forward to the blood of Christ—the blood that enables believers today to approach God’s holy presence. You can read all about that in the New Testament’s very own commentary on Leviticus, which is the book of Hebrews.

But let’s stick with Leviticus for now and brace ourselves for a closer look at the blood-soaked sacrificial business. There were five types of offerings. Two were voluntary: the burnt offering and the accompanying bloodless grain offering. The other three were mandatory: the fellowship offering, the sin offering and the guilt offering. Let’s content ourselves with examining just the first of these, the burnt offering, as described in chapter one.[4]

People brought this type of offering to express their devotion to God and, at the same time, to secure atonement for any unintentional sins they may have committed. Here’s how it operated. The Israelite could bring to the priests at the Tabernacle a bullock or ox, a sheep or goat, or a dove or young pigeon, depending on his means. He laid his hands on the creature’s head, thus associating himself and his sin with it, then it was killed. The priests caught the blood and sprinkled it on the sides of the altar, then they flayed and cut up the carcass for burning on the altar as ‘an aroma pleasing to the LORD’.

Today we can appreciate all this is as a picture of Christ in his sufferings. Did Jesus himself, one wonders, refer to it when he talked with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus and ‘beginning with Moses and all the prophets…explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself’?[5]  Leviticus is, after all, one of the books of Moses. I’d love to have heard Jesus’ exposition of it! Our own exposition must be a bit more tentative, but we can say with some assurance that the burnt offering portrayed Christ as the ultimate sacrificial victim, consumed by the fire of God’s judgment.

Let’s zoom in on some of the details. The animal had to be ‘a male without defect’, pointing to Jesus in his maleness as the second Adam, and to his perfect life as the one who ‘offered himself unblemished to God’.[6] The skinning of the animal perhaps points to exposure—that Jesus was fully exposed to the Father’s wrath—while the cutting into pieces may suggest the completeness and finality of God’s judgment. Notice also that, when the priests arranged the pieces on the altar, particular mention is made of ‘the head and the fat’. Why would these be singled out? Maybe as representing the outer and inner parts of the animal respectively and teaching us that ‘Christ’s whole manhood, body and soul, was placed on the altar, in the fire, and endured the wrath of God’.[7] We need to tread carefully here and resist the temptation to read too much into the particulars, but Hebrews encourages us to believe that there are pointers to Christ even in such Old Testament details.[8]

There are some hints of the gospel here, too. The offerer’s hand of faith on the animal’s head suggests the vital truth that we can do nothing to obtain salvation but believe in the atoning death of another. Then there was the blood sprinkled on and all around the altar, evidence to absolutely everyone that death had taken place. Maybe we have here a pointer to the universal offer of the gospel through Christ crucified; his shed blood is valid for all who will believe.

The burnt offering was different from the others in one vital respect. In the others, only part of the animal was burnt; the rest was set aside as food for the priests and their families. But every bit of the burnt offering was burnt up as an offering to God; none of it was kept back. The ‘to God’ aspect is central here. In fact the Hebrew word for this offering is olah, which means ‘that which ascends’—ascends, that is, to God. So here we have a reminder that Christ’s sacrifice, while it brought immense blessing to us who believe, was at the same time, and perhaps more importantly, an offering of himself to the Father. As the animal burnt up on the altar and the smoke ascended it was ‘an aroma pleasing to the LORD.’ In the same way, notes Paul, ‘Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.’[9] The Father had to be satisfied by Christ’s sacrifice, and he was!

There is imagery, too, in the variety of sacrificial animals used for the burnt offering. Each in its own way portrays some aspect of Christ, especially when we let Scripture itself provide the keys. The bullock or ox, for example, was the burden-bearer in Old Testament society, and that’s exactly what Christ is to us. He invites us to get yoked up to him, for ‘my yoke is easy and my burden is light’[10]—light for us because he takes all the weight. What’s more, his work of salvation has produced a worldwide harvest of souls, reflecting the truth that ‘from the strength of an ox come abundant harvests.’[11]

A less wealthy Israelite could bring a sheep or goat. The sheep in Scripture represents meekness, patience and unresisting surrender to death, and Jesus exemplified each facet: ‘He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.’[12] As for goats, people in Bible times viewed them quite differently from us. They particularly admired the stateliness of their walk and their sure-footedness in difficult terrain: they were regarded as ‘stately in their stride’[13] or, as the Good News Bible puts it, ‘impressive to watch as they walk’. No-one was more impressive in his moral walk than our Lord Jesus.

That just leaves the offering of the poorest Israelites, a dove or young pigeon, and these also point to him. The dove in the Bible symbolises sorrow and innocence, and the innocent Christ was indeed ‘a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering’.[14]  It also symbolises love: ‘My dove in the clefts of the rock…let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet.’[15] Certainly our Lord’s self-sacrificial love has won our hearts completely. That just leaves the pigeon. The pigeon was at the bottom of the scale, the offering brought by the very poorest, and as such it speaks of poverty. Here we recall the words of Paul, ‘You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.’[16]

What a comprehensive picture we have of Christ, then, in the burnt offering of Leviticus. Did the people of Old Testament times have any idea at all of its significance in this respect? Almost certainly not. But we, guided by the New Testament writers, are privileged to examine its details in the light of the revelation brought by Christ, and how wonderful they are!

The God who desired to draw close to his people in Moses’ day still longs to draw near to us, and shed blood is still the only way. He was pleased, through Christ, ‘to reconcile to himself all things…by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.’[17] How do we approach a holy God? Through the blood shed by Jesus. It’s all about him!

A hymn that I used to sing as a boy when breaking bread with the Brethren pulls all this together far better than I myself could ever express it. Here it is:

Not all the blood of beasts
On Jewish altars slain
Could give the guilty conscience peace
Or wash away one stain.

But Christ, the heavenly Lamb,
Took all our sins away,
A sacrifice of nobler name
And richer blood than they.

By faith we lay our hand
On that dear head of thine.
With broken, contrite hearts we stand
And there confess our sin.

We now look back to see
The burden thou didst bear
When hanging on the accursed tree,
And know our guilt was there.

Believing, we rejoice
To see the curse remove.
We bless the Lamb with cheerful voice
And sing his endless love!

Copyright © David Matthew 2009

1. Leviticus 1:1

2. Exodus 40:34-35


Approaching A Holy God


This is one essay in the Windows On The Word series. Click the Next and Previous buttons to move through the series, and Up to go to the list. Footnotes appear in the right-hand column. Hover over Bible references to see the text.



3. Leviticus 9:23

4. It would be helpful to pause here and read the passage, Leviticus 1:1-17

5. Luke 24:27

6. Hebrews 9:14

7. Andrew Bonar, Leviticus, Banner of Truth Trust, 1966 (1846)

10. Matthew 11:30


8. See Hebrews 9:5 in context

9. Ephesians 5:2

11. Proverbs 14:4

12. Isaiah 53:7

13. Proverbs 30:29-31

14. Isaiah 38:14; 53:3 NIV

15. Song of Solomon 2:14

16. 2 Corinthians 8:9

17. Colossians 1:20

18. The Believers’ Hymn Book, Pickering & Inglis Ltd., No.170 (author unknown)

The gist of this article

Leviticus chapters 1-7 detail the many blood-sacrifices that God required the Israelites to make. It was a messy business, with blood everywhere. The blood, of course, prefigured the blood of Christ by which we as believers draw near to God.