Leviticus 1

Notes (NET Translation)

1 Then the Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Meeting Tent:

Exodus ended with the glory of Yahweh filling the Meeting Tent and thereby preventing Moses from entering it (Ex. 40:34-35). Yahweh’s glory was a cloud by day and a fire by night. The Israelites would continue their journey only when the cloud lifted up (Ex. 40:36-38). It is within this context that Moses is called by Yahweh. The giving of laws is an important part of the history of Israel’s journey from Egypt to the promised land.

The Meeting Tent was where God communicated to his people and where God was worshiped through sacrifices. It was surrounded by a courtyard. The altar for burnt offerings was in this courtyard and faced the entrance of the Tent. Presumably, Moses was in the courtyard when God spoke from the Meeting Tent.

2 “Speak to the Israelites and tell them, ‘When someone among you presents an offering to the Lord, you must present your offering from the domesticated animals, either from the herd or from the flock.

Note that Moses is to speak to the Israelites as a whole, not just the priests. Israel’s ancient neighbors did not permit the common man to enter the sanctuary or to read the texts of the rituals (Milgrom 1991, p. 143-144).

This legislation indicates that there was to be a close tie between the laity and the priests. The priests were to instruct the laity in the basic knowledge and procedures of the cult. Thus knowledge was not to be guarded by the priests in order that they might exploit it to dominate the people. Rather the laity participated with priests in making sacrifices, at least in the oldest era. The priests served to assist the laity in making the sacrifice correctly, in performing the rites at the altar, and in leading the laity to God. Their primary role was to make expiation for the party presenting the sacrifice so that that party might find forgiveness and reconciliation with Yahweh. For their labor they received specified portions of the various sacrifices. This cultic legislation is given in a way that seeks to build a bond between the priests and the laity under the covenant. (Hartley 1998, p. 10-11)

The conditional particle ki (“if, when”) means the following laws apply only if or when a certain situation arises.

The term korban (“gift, oblation, offering”) refers to anything presented to God (e.g., animals, vegetables, grains, precious metals). “Archaeological excavations at various sites, including Jerusalem and its environs, have turned up objects inscribed with the word korban, indicating that they were used to prepare or present offerings” (Levine 1989, p. 5).

The term behemah (“domesticated animals”) refers to quadrupeds. Animals from the herd (bakar, “large cattle”) or from the flock (tso’n) are specific examples. Perhaps this restriction was in place so that an offering had to come from a person’s livelihood and cost him significantly (2 Sam. 24:24). However, the poor were allowed to sacrifice birds (e.g., Lev. 1:14-17).

In the overfed West we can easily fail to realize what was involved in offering an unblemished animal in sacrifice. Meat was a rare luxury in OT times for all but the very rich (cf. Nathan’s parable, 2 Sam. 12:1-6). Yet even we might blanch if we saw a whole lamb or bull go up in smoke as a burnt offering. How much greater pangs must a poor Israelite have felt. (Wenham 1979, loc. 649-651)

3 “‘If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd he must present it as a flawless male; he must present it at the entrance of the Meeting Tent for its acceptance before the Lord.

“Burnt offering” is a translation of the Hebrew ‘olah, which literally means “that which ascends”. Other translations include “holocaust” and “whole offering”. This kind of sacrifice was consumed in its entirety by the altar fire, except for the hide. It may have been offered each morning (2 Kgs. 16:15; 1 Chr. 16:40; 2 Chr. 2:3[4]; 13:11; Ezek. 45:13-15) or both in the morning and the evening (Num. 28:3-8; 1 Chr. 16:40). It was to be offered at festivals (Lev. 16:5; Num. 28-29) and in adherence to other laws (Lev. 12:6-8; 14:19-20, 22, 31; 15:14-15, 29-30; 22:18; Num. 6:9-12, 14, 16). An individual could also make a burnt offering voluntarily in praise or petition.

Bulls were the most valuable of the animals mentioned in this chapter and are therefore mentioned first. They served as work animals and produced meat and hides. One might think a male was required because males were more highly valued in ancient society. However, bulls were more economically expendable, for females supplied milk and offspring. The bull was to be flawless, complete, entire, without blemish or defect (tamam). Such an animal was more valuable than irregular animals. The animal’s freedom from defect may have been intended to accord with God’s pure and holy character. The sacrifice had to be unblemished for it to be acceptable to God.

4 He must lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted for him to make atonement on his behalf.

The Hebrew word samak could be better translated as “press” rather than “lay”. The worshiper was not just to touch the animal but to lean on it. This action is also associated with the peace offering (Lev. 3:2, 8, 13), the sin offering (Lev. 4:4, 15, 24, 29, 33), and the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:21). The meaning of the action is not clear but there are a few common suggestions.

One position is to hold that it symbolizes the transfer of sins to the animal as was the case with the goat for Azazel on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:21). But in that case the goat bearing the congregation’s sins was defiled and thus sent to the wilderness instead of sacrificed. In this passage the victim is sacrificed and presumably not defiled. Moreover, the peace offering includes the action but has little concern with expiating sin.

J. Milgrom notes that the laying on of the hand was not required for offerings that would fit in a person’s hands. He thinks this is because it would be obvious that the worshiper owned such offerings. The owner of larger animals might not be as clear and so the laying on of the hand was used to indicate ownership.

Another position is that it indicates the animal is taking the place of the worshiper. Laying hands on the Levites indicated that they were to serve in place of the firstborn (Num. 8:10). Moses laid his hands on Joshua to designate him to act in his place as his successor (Num. 27:18, 23; Deut. 34:9).

Since the burnt offering was not occasioned by any sin, the atonement (kipper) in question is not clear.

In Ex. 30:12, 15 each Israelite was required to contribute a half-shekel as a ransom so that no plague would come upon them. Ibn Ezra thinks something similar is happening in this verse. “Proximity to God was inherently dangerous for both the worshiper and the priests, even if there had been no particular offense to anger Him. The favorable acceptance of the ‘olah signaled God’s willingness to be approached and served as a kind of ransom, or redemption, from divine wrath” (Levine 1989, p. 7).

G. J. Wenham argues that it propitiates God’s wrath against sin. Unintentional sins required a burnt offering (Num. 15:24). The plague that befell Israel after David’s census stopped after David offered a burnt offering (2 Sam. 24:25; 1 Chr. 21:26). Job offered burnt offerings every week in case his sons had sinned (Job 1:5). Job’s friends were told to offer a burnt offering so that God would not deal with them for their folly (Job 42:8). The wrath of God came against Judah because Ahaz had neglected divine worship (2 Chr. 29:7-8). “On the basis of these passages we conclude that one function of the burnt offering was to prevent God’s displeasure at man’s sin from being turned into punishment. Because man’s very nature is sinful, there is always friction between him and his maker” (Wenham 1979, loc. 722-724).

5 Then the one presenting the offering must slaughter the bull before the Lord, and the sons of Aaron, the priests, must present the blood and splash the blood against the sides of the altar which is at the entrance of the Meeting Tent.

This verse states that the offerer, not the priests, is to slaughter the bull. The slaughter was probably done by slitting the animal’s throat (Milgrom 1991, p. 154-155). The animal’s blood may have been collected in bowls (Ex. 24:6; 38:3; Num. 4:14). It was then presented in some way the text does not specify before being splashed against the sides/walls of the altar (not the top of the altar). The altar in question is mentioned in Lev. 4:7 (mizbah ha’olah) and described in Ex. 27:1-8.

6 Next, the one presenting the offering must skin the burnt offering and cut it into parts,

It is the offerer who skins and cuts up the animal. The hide was not burned but instead became the property of the priest (Lev. 7:8).

7 and the sons of Aaron, the priest, must put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire.

The act of putting fire on the altar is only mentioned here in the sacrificial rituals. The fire was to be kept burning continually, day after day (Lev. 6:8-13 [1-6]).

8 Then the sons of Aaron, the priests, must arrange the parts with the head and the suet on the wood that is in the fire on the altar.

The exact meaning of the Hebrew word peder (“suet”) is not known, but it refers to some kind of fat.

9 Finally, the one presenting the offering must wash its entrails and its legs in water and the priest must offer all of it up in smoke on the altar — it is a burnt offering, a gift of a soothing aroma to the Lord.

The Hebrew is somewhat ambiguous as to whether the offerer or the priest is to do the washing, but it probably refers to the offerrer. The Hebrew word kerev (“entrails”) refers to the intestines. Perhaps the dirt and excrement of the entrails and (lower) legs were seen to defile the altar. This would explain why they were washed. The washing may have taken place in the laver between the altar and the Meeting Tent (Ex. 40:7). Unlike other Old Testament sacrifices, the entire victim is to be consumed by the fire. The soothing aroma is an anthropomorphism indicating God’s pleasure with the sacrifice.

10 “‘If his offering is from the flock for a burnt offering — from the sheep or the goats — he must present a flawless male,

While verses 10-13 omit the laying on of hands, the skinning of the animal, and the building of the fire, we should presume these procedures were understood as necessary when a sheep or goat was offered.

11 and must slaughter it on the north side of the altar before the Lord, and the sons of Aaron, the priests, will splash its blood against the altar’s sides.

12 Next, the one presenting the offering must cut it into parts, with its head and its suet, and the priest must arrange them on the wood which is in the fire, on the altar.

13 Then the one presenting the offering must wash the entrails and the legs in water, and the priest must present all of it and offer it up in smoke on the altar — it is a burnt offering, a gift of a soothing aroma to the Lord.

14 “‘If his offering to the Lord is a burnt offering from the birds, he must present his offering from the turtledoves or from the young pigeons.

An offering of birds would be suitable for someone too poor to afford a member of the herd or flock (Lev. 5:7-10; 12:8; 14:21-22). Such birds were in abundance and thus accessible even to the poorest citizens. Pigeons were to be young perhaps because they are tough when old while doves can be eaten at any age. Nothing is said about the birds being unblemished or male, perhaps to allow the poor more latitude.

15 The priest must present it at the altar, pinch off its head and offer the head up in smoke on the altar, and its blood must be drained out against the side of the altar.

It appears that the priests were to perform all the sacrificial acts when the victim was a bird. “According to rabbinic tradition, the priest applied his fingernail close to the nape (5:8) to cut through the windpipe and gullet (t. Zebah. 7:4)” (Milgron 1991, p. 169). A bird yields too little blood for it to be collected in a bowl and so the slaughter takes place at the altar.

16 Then the priest must remove its entrails by cutting off its tail feathers, and throw them to the east side of the altar into the place of fatty ashes,

The meaning of the Hebrew behind the first half of the verse is disputed. Presumably, like the animals before it, the birds had be cleaned out before being offered up. The bird’s entrails are too small to be worth washing so they are simply discarded. Thus, the NET translation of mur’ato as entrails is likely correct. The Hebrew singular nosa is a collective meaning “plumage, feathers”. In this verse, the Hebrew term nosata probably refers to the feathers around the bird’s cloacal opening (beneath its tail). Again, the NET translation is probably correct. Rabbinic literature recommended removing the entire digestive tract.

The east side of the altar was away from the entrace to the Tent. Ashes mixed with the fat of the victims piled up until they were carried outside the camp for disposal (Lev. 6:10-11 [3-4]).

17 and tear it open by its wings without dividing it into two parts. Finally, the priest must offer it up in smoke on the altar on the wood which is in the fire — it is a burnt offering, a gift of a soothing aroma to the Lord.

The phrase “a gift of a soothing aroma to the Lord” indicates that the sacrifice of the poor is just as efficacious as the sacrifice of the rich.


Hartley, John E. Leviticus. Dallas, Tex.: Word Books, 1992.

Levine, Baruch A. Leviticus. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.

Milgrom, Jacob. Leviticus 1-16. New York: Doubleday, 1991.

Rooker, Mark, and Dennis R. Cole. Leviticus. Kindle Edition. Holman Reference, 2000.

Wenham, Gordon J. The Book of Leviticus. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979.


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