The Lord called Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying, (Leviticus 1:1, ESV)
Read Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26
The Bible book of Leviticus is called וַיִּקְרָ֖א (vayikra’) in the Hebrew Bible and is derived from the first word with which the Bible book begins. Vayikra means “and he called”.1 As we can read in Leviticus 1:1, YHWH calls Moses to speak with him from the tabernacle. Rashi (a medieval French Rabbi) explains that Vayikra is a term of closeness affection.
Many of Gods messages in the Torah begin with “He said” (יֹאמֶר; yo’mer), “He spoke” (יְדַבֵּר; yedaber), or “He commanded” (יְצַוֶּה ; yetzaweh). Al three of these belong to the language of authority. God gives an order that we must obey. But וַיִּקְרָ֖א (Vayikra’; and he called) is the language of invitation, friendship, love.
Adam where are you?
We encounter this language of love very early in the Bible in Genesis 3:9 where YHWH calls Adam: “Where are you?” Also here we find the Hebrew word וַיִּקְרָ֖א (Vayikra). God called Adam not from the language of authority, but from the language of love! It was the desire of YHWH to establish an intimate relationship with man. Even though man turned against YHWH, He continued to pursue His desire to continue to approach man in love.
Changing of language
In the history of Abram in Genesis 17:1-8, YHWH appears to Abram, who is then 99 years old, to reaffirm the covenant with Abram. Here Abram is given the promise that he will be father of a multitude of nations (v.4). After this, the name of Abram is changed in Abraham. The GNB says: “Your name will no longer be Abram, but Abraham.” But from the root text it literally says: “You will no longer be called (יִקָּרֵא; yiqare’) by your name Abram, but your name will be Abraham.” 2 Previously YHWH spoke (וַיֹּאמֶר; vayo’mer) to Abram from the language of authority, but here with the name change YHWH calls Abraham in the language of love.
Love vs law
Likewise here in Leviticus, YHWH calls the people of Israel in the language of His love to draw closer to Him, to participate in His holiness, to become in this way representatives (intermediaries) of His Presence (His Glory, Shechinah) in the world. But as everyone knows love has boundaries. Indeed, without boundaries debauchery arises, which no longer has anything to do with love. The book of Vayikra (Leviticus) is therefore about why love needs boundaries (laws) and vice versa (laws needs love). We see this love reflected in the first three sacrifices.
The first sacrifice is called burnt offering. The second grain offering and the third is called peace offering (ESV, NKJV) or fellowship offering (GNB, LEB). We will look from the root text (Hebrew) at the “original” meaning.
Voluntary or obligatory?
Even though in Leviticus chapter 1 through 3, God gives the Israelites instructions on how to act when they want to offer a sacrifice, it is important to see that these first three sacrifices unlike the guilt offering and sin offering are voluntary sacrifices. And is therefore not an obligation for man. Indeed, this is evident from two things. First, it says: ‘When anyone (of you) brings…’.3 The when clearly indicates that it is optional. The sin offering and guilt offering involve an obligation: If, a person sins…, then for his sin, he shall bring a sin offering to YHWH.’.4 Second, with the three sacrifices, we read that it ‘is pleasing to the YHWH.’.5
The first sacrifice in Leviticus is called עֹלָה (’olah) in the Hebrew and is derived from the verb עָלַה (’alah) which means ascending. So, the first sacrifice was an ascending sacrifice, or in other words an upgoing offering. This may sound strange to us, but within Judaism it is a familiar term. The verb עָלַה (‘alah) was used for pilgrims who travelled to Jerusalem to celebrate one of the three great feasts in the temple.
The pilgrims ‘went up’ to Jerusalem to meet God (in the temple). Going up does not stand alone, because the travellers had to go up the mountain to reach the temple. But in addition to the literal meaning, it also had a spiritual meaning. During the pilgrimage, the party members prepared themselves “spiritually” to meet YHWH. During this travel they sang the pilgrims songs.6 As it were, with their psalms they brought an offering c.q. an ode to YHWH. The first sacrifice in Leviticus can be viewed in this way as well. By bringing of a ‘upgoing’ offering, the bringer was preparing himself to encounter YHWH.
The second sacrifice, which is called by the translators, grain offering, is called in Hebrew a מִנְחָה (mincha) offering and mincha means gift. So, the second offering was a gift sacrifice. When the sacrifice is indicated in this way, you also see more of the logic between the first and second offering. When you visit someone, it is quite common to bring a gift, a present, in appreciation for the hospitality. And certainly with God you do not come with ‘empty handed’, but take something with you out of thankfulness for what He has done, is doing and shall do for you. That the second offering need not be so much a grain, flour or food offering (a product of the earth), we can learn from Genesis 4:1-5.
In this history, both Cain (worker of the soil) and Abel (shepherd) bring YHWH a mincha offering. Cain offered a sacrifice of a portion of his produce from the land and Abel of the firstborn of his small livestock. From the description the different translations give of the second offer (grain offering) in Leviticus, one would expect that the sacrifice of Cain would be accepted and the sacrifice of Abel rejected. But it is just the opposite. The reason why the sacrifices of Abel is accepted and not of Cain has to do with the heart condition of both brothers (Genesis 4:7). Most likely, Abel brought YHWH a gift (offering) out of gratitude and Cain did not.
The third and final sacrifice is described in Hebrew as a שְׁלָמִים (shelamim), which is derived from the Hebrew word שָׁלוֹם (shalom), meaning peace. Thus, the third was a peace offering. Within the Jewish context, the word shalom has a much broader meaning than just peace. The underlaying idea of שָׁלוֹם (shalom) is: health, well-being, wholeness and harmony with God. The peace offering emphasizes the fact that all the people of Israel had the opportunity to come into a deep relationship with YHWH. They could eat the meat, that had been offered as a sacrifice to YHWH. The peace offering expressed that all is well (at peace) in the relationship with God and His people. So the peace offering could also be seen as a fellowship meal between God and the bringer.
We also see this in Exodus 24, where the people of Israel make the Sinai covenant with God. When Moses climbs up with Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel, first burnt offerings, as well as peace offerings (shelamim) are brought before YHWH. Then we read in Exodus 24:11:
11 And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank. (ESV)
Again we see, that at the third offering is entirely about the relationschip between the bringer and God. After the upgoing and gift offering, the bringer holds a ‘meal with YHWH, through the peace offering.
Within Judaism, eating together has a deep meaning. First of all, It implied a reciprocal relation of friendship or affection. Eating together also very often meant making a covenant of friendship (fellowship).
New Testament covenant
During the meal that Jesus instituted between Him and His disciples he says:
26 Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” 27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26: 26-28, ESV)
In addition, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:16-18:
16 The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. 18 Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? (ESV)
In both New Testament texts we see that there is speaking of a covenant (by Jesus Himself) and that in the meal, who Jesus instituted, is compared to the eating of sacrifices (peace offering) by the Israelites in the Old Testament, which meant that you had fellowship with the One (in this case YHWH) to whom you were offering.
Jesus’ sacrifice was thus, among other things, a peace offering, through which we can and may have fellowship with YHWH again. This is also exactly what Paul says in the letter Ephesians in chapter 2: 13-18:
13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. (ESV)
‘…by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances…’, is not the Torah (law) what is meant by this,, but the sacrificial system, including the three sacrifices discussed (olah, mincha and shelamim). Not that these sacrifices were bad, but because YHWH instituted a better everlasting sacrifice (Jesus, the Messiah) as a statute! And thereby renewed the covenant. What a LOVE!
- derived from the verb קָרַא (kara’), which means to call
- The Hebrew word here is Niphal, and it is in the passive verb form.
- Leviticus 1:2, 2:1 and 3:1
- Leviticus 4:3, 5:6
- Leviticus 1:17; 2:9; 3:16
- Psalms 120-134