VaYikra – וַיִּקְרָא
Parasha: Lev. 1.1 — Lev. 6.7 (Hebrew 5:19); Haftarah: Isaiah 43.21—44.23
The central theme of the book of Leviticus is the sacrificial system that the Lord God provided for his chosen people Israel, in order that he could dwell in the midst of a holy people, cleansed from all their transgression, sins, and iniquity against him. The responsibility for mediating this system of reconciling sinful people to God was the privilege of the priestly tribe of Levi, especially through the family of Aaron, the appointed and anointed High Priest.
Those who know Jesus to be the Rock, Messiah – the Son of God and Anointed One of the Lord, Israel’s Prophet, High Priest, and King – can see him throughout the specified sacrifices required by the God of Israel for his people to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation unto him.
First of all, in the goodness and love of God our Father, he provided a substitute to pay the deadly price of each person’s sin and, indeed, the sin of whole nation. These substitutes must all be without spot or blemish; they needed to be “without sin.” Jesus is that sinless substitute whom God gave so that all people, Jews and Gentiles, can live in his presence: “For he made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Corinthians 5.21)
Each of the substitutionary offerings commanded by the Lord for Israelis to bring to the priests speaks in some measure of Messiah’s character, and of his life and death. The bull speaks of service; rams of consecration (remember, God provided a ram in place of Isaac for Abraham to sacrifice); lambs of redemption, especially at Passover; goats of our particular substitute, in that it is an animal worthy for sacrifice, but with an independent character unsuitable for people created in the image of God, our Shepherd King. Jesus came in “the likeness of sinful flesh” to be our Atonement. (Romans 8.3; Leviticus 16). Doves and young pigeons symbolize “heavenly” birds of peace.
The five offerings point to the necessity that the Messiah live a sinless life unto God. Only then can he be the all-encompassing acceptable sacrifice for sin to reconcile the holy God to a redeemed people for himself (Isaiah 43.25). Jesus lived that sinless life.
The whole burnt offering — Jesus gave his whole being to God in sacrifice — both in his life and in his death on the cross — and was ‘burned up in full’ as he suffered the wrath of God and the separation from his Father while he bore our sins upon himself on the cross.
The grain offering — No grain offering, or any offering by any Israeli under the Law could be offered with leaven or with honey (Leviticus 2.11; but see Leviticus 23.17). All the grain offerings required seasoning with salt, which preserves against corruption and impurity. Jesus lived a pure, sinless, uncorrupted life; the only perfect man. He never needed a blood sacrifice to be offered for himself. There was no malice or hypocrisy in his character, nor did he enjoy the natural sweetness of the pleasures which this life can offer, but which detract from the single-eyed purpose of God to sanctify and glorify his name. Jesus’ life was wholly consecrated to God to preserve his covenantal purpose and promises for his people and creation: Holiness to the Lord!
The sin offering — Jesus bore on the cross the sinfulness of our nature, and the sin of the whole world in its contrariness to God.
The trespass/guilt offering — Jesus bore our guilt, uncleanness, and shame for our sins. We are saved by grace, and are [justified] sinners through faith till the end of our life.
The peace offering — On the basis of Jesus’ fulfillment of the previous sacrifices — and his one, comprehensive, sacrificial death — we have peace with God, with ourselves, and with others. The priest and the sinner could both eat only of the peace offering; and if it was a thank offering, it also included leaven along with the unleavened bread. The Lord’s Supper is the remembrance of all that Jesus has accomplished for God and for us in his sacrificial atoning death (Luke 22.19-20). At the last supper, he, the High Priest after the order of Melchizedek, shared the bread and the wine (the reminders of the flesh and blood of the sacrificial Passover Lamb) with his sinful apostles in anticipation of the peace of reconciliation he was making for them, and leaving with them (John 14.27).
In this parasha we encounter the principle that sins of religious leaders bring guilt upon the people – even unintentional sins through ignorance. This guilt is transmitted through the generations until there is repentance (Leviticus 4.1-3, 13-14). In the haftarah reading from the prophet Isaiah, the Lord God says that Jacob and Israel have not brought him the sacrifices he has called for to honor him; therefore he will give Jacob to the curse, and Israel to reproaches (Isaiah 43.23, 28). If Jesus be the true Holy One of Israel sent by the Father of Israel to redeem his people, then the false witness and unjust condemnation by the High Priest Caiaphas of this innocent Man has, according to the Law, brought guilt upon all the people of Israel, which the Holy Spirit is bringing to our knowledge, that repentance and restitution be granted to the people of the Lord God’s inheritance. (Leviticus 26.40-42; Mt 26.56-66; 27.20-25; Acts 5.24-32)
All of the multitude of animal sacrifices under the Law and the levitical priesthood could not succeed in making the people depart from iniquity and love righteousness (Romans 8.3). Something more was needed for that, and God had already planned for this from before the foundation of the world. “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake; and I will not remember your sins.” (Isaiah 43.25). And again he says, “Do not fear, nor be afraid; Have I not told you from that time, and declared it? You are my witnesses: Is there a God besides me? Indeed there is no other Rock; I know not one!” (Isaiah 44.8); the Lord declares further, “Remember these, O Jacob, and Israel, my servant; I have formed you, you are my servant; O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me! I have blotted out, like a thick cloud, your transgressions, and, like a cloud, your sins. Return to me, for I have redeemed you!” (Isaiah 44.21-22).
“But Messiah came as High Priest of the good things to come. . ., having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats . . . sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Messiah, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God! And for this reason [Jesus] is the mediator of the New Covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.” (Hebrews 9.11-15) [HB]
The sacrificial system shown to Moses on Mount Sinai laid down certain principles that point to the ultimate sacrifice that will finally take care of the problem of sin forever. The sacrifices given to Moses, however, were of a temporary nature, temporary in their short term effectiveness because they had to be repeated frequently, and temporary in the long term because they would one day be replaced by the final atoning sacrifice of the Messiah. [BSI/rp]
Leviticus 1.4: “He shall lay his hand upon the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him.” This can be understood as a kind of transfer of the man’s sin to the victim to be sacrificed. Leviticus 16.21: “Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins; and he shall put them upon the head of the goat.” (Isaiah 53.6 relates this to the sacrifice of the Messiah: “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”) Laying hands on the victim is also an act of identifying with the victim: the person is saying in effect, “What is done to this victim, may it be as if it is done to me.” [BSI/rp]
Leviticus 4.13-15: “If the whole congregation of Israel commits a sin unwittingly and the thing is hidden from the eyes of the assembly, and they do any one of the things which the Lord has commanded not to be done and are guilty; when the sin which they have committed becomes known, the assembly shall offer a young bull for a sin offering and bring it before the tent of meeting; and the elders of the congregation shall lay their hands upon the head of the bull before the Lord, and the bull shall be killed before the Lord.”
When a sacrifice is made for all of the people, it is the elders who represent them, laying their hands on the victim on behalf of the nation. So too, when the final atonement was made, it was the leaders who acted on behalf of all. In the events leading up to the death of Jesus, it is the leaders who are taking the initiative. “Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and took counsel together in order to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. But they said, ‘Not during the feast, lest there be a tumult among the people.’” (Matthew 26.3-5).
When they came to arrest him, it was a group sent by the leaders: “Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders, who had come out against him, ‘Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs?’” (Luke 22.52). It was even the high priest who, unwittingly, prophesied that it was good for one man to die on behalf of the nation: “One of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all; you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.’ He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. So from that day on they took counsel how to put him to death.” (John 11.49-53). [BSI/rp]
Leviticus 5.15, 17: “If any one commits a breach of faith and sins unwittingly in any of the holy things of the Lord, he shall bring, as his guilt offering to the Lord, a ram without blemish out of the flock, valued by you in shekels of silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary; it is a guilt offering. . . . If any one sins, doing any of the things which the Lord has commanded not to be done, though he does not know it, yet he is guilty and shall bear his iniquity.”
All sin, whether it is known to the person or not, requires payment. Since sin is ultimately against God, then there can be no talk of small and large sins. Every sin, no matter how “small” or seemingly insignificant, separates the sinner from God. All sin, therefore, requires atonement. [BSI/rp]
Leviticus, called by our sages, “The Law of the Priests,” speaks in its initial chapters of the law of the sacrifices. According to the Law of Moses, sacrifice is fundamental in the worship of God. Therefore, the sacrificial system has the first and most important place in this book. The first five chapters (“Vayikra”) give details of the various sacrifices. There were five kinds of sacrifices: the burnt offering and (of the same category) the peace offering; the sin offering and its kin, the trespass offering; and lastly, the meat (meal) offering.
Some of the offerings, such as the burnt, meal, and peace offerings, were generally free-will offerings. If any man . . . bring an offering . . . thus and thus shall he bring his offering. It was not obligatory; it was done of the person’s free will.
On the other hand, the sin and the trespass offerings were obligatory. “If any one sins unwittingly in any of the things which the Lord has commanded not to be done, and does any one of them, . . . then let him offer for the sin which he has committed” (Leviticus 4.2, 3). Scripture speaks here of a sin done through ignorance, without intention. For a sin committed deliberately—willfully—no sacrifice was ordered or valid.
The book of Exodus tells us in its last chapters of the completion of the Tabernacle, its complete furnishing and of the Divine Presence filling the place. In the words of Scripture, Then a cloud covered the tent of the congregation, and the glory of the Lord filled the Tabernacle. Now Scripture comes to teach us how to keep and preserve a living contact with a holy God. In the first chapters of Leviticus we find three basic principles, without which it is impossible to be in living touch with God.
(a) For the person who sins willfully there is no remedy—and according to our sages—there is only death.
(b) The person who sins through ignorance, or unintentionally, is not guiltless, but in this case, God in his great mercy makes it possible to “make amends,” as it were, by offering a sin or trespass offering, and obtain God’s forgiveness.
(c) The principle of the priesthood. The priesthood in its ideal character was, as it were, the communication apparatus and link between God and man.
It is possible to argue—and there are many today who do so—that the whole institution of sacrifices and priesthood belong to an early, primitive era in the history of mankind, and that there is no place for it in modern times like ours—especially now that we no longer have a Temple. What is more, the Torah forbade us to sacrifice in any other place than at the Temple in Jerusalem.
The particular pattern in which this institution functioned before the Temple was finally destroyed is not applicable today, nor is there any need for it, though I am not prepared to vouch that the system is completely a matter of the past, not to be renewed in some form or other, in a coming day. The fundamental principle of this system, however, is fully valid today for the following reasons:
(a) The holiness of God requires punishment for sin in our day, as at all other times.
(b) The blood of atonement is required today, for “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” for “it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul.” (Hebrews 9.22; Leviticus 17.11).
(c) Because of our human weakness, we need a Mediator, a priest who, in the words of Job, “shall put his hands on both of us” (God and man, Job 9.33).
For what reason, and on what authority, do we take to ourselves the right to abrogate these important principles made known to us by God, or to ignore them? How did it happen that the chosen nation should treat these things that occupy such a central place in Scripture with disparagement and utter indifference? We, who revere the word of God, must remember the Scriptures are all of one piece, an organic body, from which we cannot take away one limb or another as we might like. If Leviticus is of no actuality today, who can guarantee that all the other things of Divine Revelation, like those that give Israel a special place in Divine Election—”a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”—who will dare to assure us that this is actual and valid today? Who will vouch that Israel’s claim of the Holy Land has not been revoked two thousand years ago? “The word of the Lord stands forever,” but we must take all the word of God, and not just the parts that have a special appeal to us.
Here we must emphasize the difference between that which is temporary, passing and between the eternal, which does not pass away. In what we have been considering in this parasha, the outward form of things has passed away; the principle remains, is eternal, and we have to enquire whether the temporary expression, the symbol, has not given place to another expression of the same principle, one that is permanent, immutable.
As we look into Scripture, we find that this is truly so. The prophets of Israel pointed in their prophetic utterances to the Messiah, who was to suffer for many. Isaiah in his central prophetic utterance says, “By his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many, for he shall bear their iniquity.” Thus Messiah suffers for the many, bears their iniquities in his own body, and thus justifies them (not their deeds). He is the divine sacrifice for a sinful world, but Isaiah continues and says, “Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great … because He hath poured out his soul unto death, and he was numbered with the transgressors, and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors”; that is, he will bear them up in constant prayer before God. Messiah is the sacrifice for sin; Messiah is also priest. In these two fundamental functions is Messiah presented to us in the New Testament. This is a mystery which God reveals to all who love the truth, and his covenant he makes known to them. Truly, in him, in the Messiah, “mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” (Psalms 85.10). [SO]