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Acceptable offerings

Scripture passage and lesson focus: Leviticus 22:17-25, 31-33 

Very few Christians, and probably even fewer Presbyterian Christians, devote much time to reflecting on the book of Leviticus. A cursory glance indicates that Leviticus contains lots of rules about the religious ceremonies and the daily life of ancient Israelites. A closer look, however, shows that Leviticus is about God’s nature as a holy God and God’s people as a holy people. What does it mean to worship a holy God and to be a holy people?

Anthropologists and historians of religion have observed that a basic feature of ancient worship was sacrifice. The sacrificial offerings could be almost anything valuable or useful: a portion of the crops, food or drink, small animals or livestock, or whatever the religious leaders required. Many people believed that presenting a sacrificial offering to the gods could be a way to gain a god’s help and blessing. The Latin phrase do ut des (I give so that you give) illustrates this transactional understanding of sacrifice. Sacrifices were to be offered in a prescribed way by authorized persons and often with a stipulated cost, so they also functioned as a means of social control with economic implications.

Sacrifices could also be a way for individuals to demonstrate their commitment by making a vow and offering a sacrifice. Certain festivals or times of the year were thought to be propitious times to make such votive offerings.

Leviticus 22:17-25 — Acceptable sacrifices 
The Hebrew title of Leviticus indicates that it is a handbook for the priests of ancient Israel. Much of this book is addressed to Aaron and his sons, who were the priests, and to the people of Israel as a whole, who were required to offer the sacrifices.

The role of the priests was to maintain the divinely ordered purity of the worship of God — and therefore the purity of the people and the land — by making sure that nothing profane came in contact with anything that was sacred. Their task was to accept the prescribed offerings from the people and to offer them to God as an integral part of worship in the temple. Depending on the nature of the sacrifice, a portion of it would be consumed by fire and a portion of it belonged to the priests. Only the priests and their immediate families were allowed to eat certain sacrificial offerings.

The book of Leviticus goes into great detail regarding the sacred festivals to be celebrated, who may celebrate them and what sacrifices were acceptable offerings to God. There were three kinds of sacrificial offerings. The sacrifice of well-being (in the NRSV translation) could more understandably be called a thanksgiving offering. A votive offering refers to a sacrifice that represents the worshipper’s avowed commitment to carry out a specific act of devotion. A free-will offering refers to an individual’s personal offering.

The basic principle governing acceptable sacrifices was that the sacrificial offering must be perfect, “without blemish.” An animal that was blind, or injured, or that had any indications of illness was not acceptable. Also, any animal that had damaged testicles was unacceptable, although the widely used translation of the Jewish Publication Society places the reference to testicles in square brackets suggesting that an animal damaged in any way was unacceptable. Certain minor imperfections did not disqualify an animal for a free-will offering, but more stringent requirements applied to votive offerings. While the ancient practices associated with sacrificial offerings were open to interpretation, the overriding principle was clear: Sacrificial offerings to God must be perfect.

Leviticus 22:31-33 — Be holy 
For the priestly writer of Leviticus, failure to obey God’s commands about acceptable sacrifices was a violation of the covenant relationship between God and Israel. Proper worship as described in Leviticus involved practices that evolved over centuries. But the basic theological principle remained the same: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).

Passages like this one from Leviticus help Christians understand why Jesus Christ is described as a sacrificial offering. 1 Peter 1:15-16, 19 quotes Leviticus 19:2 and describes God’s people as redeemed through “the precious blood of Christ like that of a lamb without defect or blemish.” Jesus was the perfect sacrifice acceptable to God.

For discussion
What offerings do you think are acceptable to our holy God? What is the difference between being pious and being holy? Why do Christians not want to be considered “holier than thou”?