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Eating the Fat

By the time we get to the end of Leviticus 3, we begin to see some clear patterns in the rituals and restrictions that were a part of the sacrificial system. As I mention in my sermon, the peace offering shares a common ritual root with the burnt offering. For example, just as in the burnt offering, the worshiper identifies himself with the sacrifice by pressing his hand down on the head of the animal. Moreover, in both the burnt and the peace offerings, the sacrifice is killed at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and its blood is thrown against the sides of the altar of sacrifice. While nothing explicit is said about atonement in the peace offering, the similarities with the burnt offering suggest that this idea is at least in the background of what’s going on.

But even as the rituals divide from their common root, there still is some overlap. Whereas the burnt offering requires the offering of the whole animal, the peace offering only requires some of the sacrifice to be placed on the altar as a food offering with a pleasing aroma to the Lord. Notably, at this point of departure in the ritual, it is the fat of the animal that is nevertheless offered in both cases. This suggests that the fat of the animal sacrifice is reserved for God, even though the rest of the peace offering is given back to the worshiper for a communal meal. Indeed, Lev 3:17 (ESV) makes this explicit: “It shall be a statute forever throughout your generations, in all your dwelling places, that you eat neither fat nor blood.”

Beyond the explicit proscription from eating fat, no explanatory note is included for why the fat would be reserved exclusively for God. With respect to the other part of the animal that an Israelite could not eat, i.e. the blood, there is a rationale given:

If any one of the house of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from among his people. 11 For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life. 12 Therefore I have said to the people of Israel, “No person among you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger who sojourns among you eat blood.” (Lev 17:10-12 ESV)

The blood of the animal is reserved for the symbolizing atonement, so it cannot be misused or misappropriated without risking a misapplication of the significance of the sacrificial system. With respect to the fat, various theories have been proposed, and it has been suggested that because fat burns relatively efficiently it served well as a marker that the Lord had an interest in the sacrifice of every animal, even as a communal sacrifice of praise. Moreover, because fat is often associated with luxury it was a good reminder that God is owed our best (TWOT, µ¢leb).

As far as we know, the biblical evidence suggests that this statute continued to be observed (at least by faithful worshipers and priests) through the time of Jesus. Even in the time of Nehemiah, after the exile and when the sacrificial system was being reinstituted, this was observed. While Nehemiah and Ezra encourage the people in Neh 8:10 to “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine,” they are not contradicting the Lord’s command, for “the fat” in Neh 8:10 is related to olive oil not animal fat. What Nehemiah and Ezra encourage the people to do is eat richly prepared food like fried chicken, not the fat of the kidney. Thus, the proscription continued through the generations.

But with the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, the significance of the sacrificial system is fully realized, including the meaning of the blood and the fat. No more must we follow this statute, for Christ has fulfilled it. As Paul says to the Colossians (2:16-17 ESV), “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” So, then, the richness of salvation is Christ seen, and remembered, even when we eat the fat.

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