The Syntax of Sacrifice

The Syntax of Sacrifice

The worshiper offers purification and reparations offerings in order to repair breaches in the relationship caused by sinful and impure actions. Then the worshiper offers himself in total surrender to Yahweh, drawing near to him as a pleasing aroma in the ascension offering. And he may offer a tribute to Yahweh for all of his kindness to him. But even these aren’t the end. All of these offerings — purification, reparation, total surrender, and tribute — are meant to lead to communion. There are two different terms for the tabernacle in Leviticus: “tabernacle” (or “dwelling”) and “tent of meeting.” Both terms are important. God doesn’t merely want to dwell with his people; he wants to meet with his people. And he doesn’t just want to meet with his people; he wants to dine with his people.

Comedian Brian Regan tells a funny story about his struggles in school as a kid. He talks about the public humiliation of the spelling bee and his difficulty with the i-before-e rule. A particularly funny portion describes the teacher’s questions to him and Erwin (the smart kid in class) about how to make a plural.

Teacher: “Brian, how do you make a word plural?”
Brian: “You put an s at the end of it.”
Teacher: “Erwin, what’s the plural for ox?”
Erwin: “Oxen. The farmer used his oxen.”
Teacher: “Brian, what’s the plural for box?”
Brian: “Boxen. I bought two boxen of doughnuts.”
Teacher: “No, Brian. Erwin, what’s the plural for goose?”
Erwin: “Geese. I saw a flock of geese.”
Teacher: “Brian, what’s the plural for moose?”
Brian: “Moosen. I saw a flock of moosen. . . . There were many of them . . . many, much moosen . . . out in the woods, in the wood-es, in the wood-es-en . . .”

Superficially, the joke is about Brian’s ignorance. But it actually demonstrates the complexity and difficulty of the English language (to which anyone who has learned English as a second language can attest). As native English speakers, we don’t always think about this difficulty and complexity because we’re so familiar with it. We inhabit the language, we use the language, and therefore, it feels (mostly) comprehensible to us.

For many of us, the book of Leviticus mystifies us. We find the sacrifices, rules, and regulations to be complex and confusing. To us, Leviticus is like a foreign language. It mystifies because we’re unfamiliar with it. Like Brian Regan and making plural words, the intricacies elude and confuse us.1

Levitical Language

Thinking of Leviticus as a language can help demystify it. Consider what goes into a language. First, we have an alphabet. We arrange the letters of the alphabet to form words. There are different kinds of words — nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions, adverbs. We arrange the words into sentences with meaning and purpose. We modify words by adding letters at the beginning or end in order to make plurals or speak about the past or future or communicate ongoing versus completed action.

What’s more, in English, in order to make sense, we must arrange the words in a certain order. “Bill throws the ball” means something very different from “The ball throws Bill.” Arranging the words rightly is necessary in order to communicate clearly.

The sacrificial system is similar. Instead of nouns, verbs, and adjectives, we have people, places, sins, animals, animal body parts, and actions, and they are arranged and combined in various ways in order to say something, in order to communicate.

The sacrificial system resembles language learning in another way. In truth, we don’t actually learn our native language by first learning the alphabet, then learning words, and then arranging words into sentences. In other words, we don’t move from the smallest parts up to the larger parts.

Instead, as children, we first learn nouns — like “Mommy” and “Daddy” and “milk” — and sentences — simple ones like “Yes” and “No” and “Help, please.” Then as we mature, we learn more nouns and more complex sentences. At a certain age, we’re taught to read, and we learn to break words down into letters and then to break sentences down into subjects, verbs, and direct objects so we can grasp the rules of spelling and grammar.

The Bible teaches us the sacrificial system in the same way. We get glimpses of it early on: God provides Adam and Eve with animal skins after their sin in the garden (Genesis 3:21). Cain and Abel offer tribute to God (Genesis 4:3–4). Noah offers whole burnt offerings of clean animals after the flood (Genesis 8:20). Abraham prepares to offer Isaac as a burnt offering, and God substitutes a ram at the last minute (Genesis 22:1–19). Moses makes burnt offerings and peace offerings and sprinkles blood on the people at Sinai (Exodus 24:4–8).

Then finally, in Leviticus, it’s like we pick up a grammar textbook that sets forth more detailed rules for how all of these sacrifices work in the covenantal arrangement established by God with his people after the exodus. Leviticus, along with Numbers, provides the basic spelling, grammar, and syntax of the sacrificial system, and in learning the language, we can better understand what God is saying to us.

Three Images

To grasp the symbolic system of Leviticus, we begin with three images. Leviticus builds on the book of Genesis, especially the early chapters. Recall the basic story. God made the world and everything in it in six days. The crown of his creation is man, made on the sixth day, male and female, in God’s own image, as his representatives and stewards. He gives the first man and woman a commission — be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, subdue it, and have dominion over its inhabitants. He places them in a garden to work and keep it, and gives them one prohibition: “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17).

Under the influence of the crafty serpent, Adam and Eve rebel against God, eat the fruit, and are confronted in their rebellion. God judges them for their rebellion, cursing the ground, multiplying pain and hardship in their relationship, and dooming them to die and return to dust. But he mingles mercy with his justice, promising them descendants, and especially a redeemer who will crush the serpent’s head. He then clothes them with animal skins and exiles them from the garden.

Now, here’s the important image: in order to prevent Adam and Eve from eating from the tree of life in the midst of the garden, God “drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life” (Genesis 3:24).

This is crucial. The holy presence of God is in the garden. Life is in the garden. And there is an angelic bouncer with a sword of fire separating man from divine life. There’s no way to draw near to God without losing your head and being burned up.

The second image comes from the book of Exodus. Yahweh has just delivered his people from bondage and gathered them at the holy mountain. God descends in a thick cloud of smoke and lightning, and he says to the people through Moses,

You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:4–6)

There is a profound tension between this image and the one in Genesis. In Genesis 3, we see life and glory in the garden, with an angel guarding the way with a flaming sword. In Exodus 19, we see life and glory on the mountain, with the words “you are my treasured possession; I have brought you to myself and intend to dwell with you.”

The tension between these two biblical scenes yields a third image. Imagine if the sun — the giant ball of flaming gas in the sky — wanted to come live in your neighborhood. What would happen? There is no atmosphere to protect you, no sunscreen strong enough, no covering to shield you: just the blazing inferno of the sun and your weak, frail, human self. How would that work out for you? Can you handle that heat?

The answer is obvious. We can’t handle that heat. The scene at Sinai confirms it. Yahweh invites the people to draw near, but he also commands them to consecrate and prepare themselves; they are to wash their garments and abstain from sexual relations for three days prior (Exodus 19:10–1115). What’s more, he sets limits around the mountain, a boundary that they are not to cross, on pain of death (verses 12–13). It seems we have not left the angelic guardian entirely behind. To cross the boundary, to touch the holy mountain, is to court death. And the passage couldn’t be clearer: the real danger is that the Lord will break out against them (verses 21–24). The danger is that they would get too close to the sun. And they can’t handle that heat.

We can summarize the basic problem in this way. The living God is holy. We are a sinful people in a world of death. But the living and holy God desires to dwell with his sinful people in this world of death. How is that possible? If we’re going to return to the garden of life, if we’re going to draw near to the holy God, how do we get past the angel and his flaming sword?

Basics of the Grammar

God’s answer to this problem is the whole Levitical system. It’s an entire symbolic system — a language — that testifies both to God’s holiness and life and to our sinfulness and death. And at the center of that system is atonement — the God-given covering that enables us to remarkably, miraculously, mercifully draw near to God and handle the heat.

So what are the basics of the grammar of this Levitical language? Let’s think in terms of nouns, adjectives, and verbs.


Back in elementary school, we learned that there are three basic categories of nouns: people, places, and things. These categories offer a good way to approach the grammar of Leviticus as well.

Start with people. First, we have men and women. The book opens with a call-back to Genesis: “When an adam brings an offering . . .” (Leviticus 1:2). The word adam reminds us that we are sons of earth, since adam was taken from the dust of the adamah. But we aren’t merely “earth-men”; we are men and women, ish and ishshah (Genesis 2:23).

In the Levitical system, we can break God’s people down even more. First, we have the congregation as a whole. Within the congregation, we have the Levites, the priests, and especially the high priest. Beyond them, we have the leaders or rulers of the people. Then we have individual Israelites, some of them rich, and some of them poor. So the Levitical system recognizes distinctions in terms of people.

What about places? Here we need to connect sacred geography and sacred architecture. Leviticus is built on Genesis, especially the early chapters. And there, we remember the garden, in the land of Eden, and the world beyond (unsubdued and unfilled): garden, land, world (Genesis 2:8). The garden was on a mountain, and a river flowed down to water the garden, and then from there it split into four rivers spreading out over the earth (Genesis 2:10). So in terms of geography, think of a summit, a mountain, the land around it, and then the waters/ocean at the edge.

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