As we begin a selective series through the book of Leviticus, we start with the first sacrifice described, the burnt offering. But the book of Leviticus so quickly dives into instruction that we have to gather some background information and context before we can fully appreciate what’s going on not only in these opening verses but also in the whole of the book. One contextual key is understanding that the book of Leviticus is a continuation of the book of Exodus, providing a resolution to the crisis that is presented when Moses cannot enter the tabernacle. Another key is to understand that sacrifice has been wrapped up with communion with God from Eden through the Exodus.
Arguably the most important background information to the sacrificial system and its answer to the crisis presented at the end of Exodus 40 is the flood narrative in Genesis 6-9. In that first new creation in the Scriptures, sacrifice is critical to the new start that Noah makes in the new creation. Indeed, Michael Morales plainly states, “A new beginning for the new creation is possible only via Noah’s sacrifice.”
As a reminder, the flood was a conscious unwinding of creation all the way back to Genesis 1:2. First, the gathering of all the living creatures and Noah’s family into the ark is the undoing of the creation mandate to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (1:22, 28). Second, the pouring forth of water from both the great deep and the heavens (7:11) is the undoing of God’s distinction between the waters of the heavens and the waters of the earth (1:7). Finally, by the time the flood had ended, the earth was essentially undone all the way back to being without form and void (1:2).
However, de-creation was not God’s goal. Genesis 8 describes a process of re-creation. “The fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed” (8:2). A distinction was once again made between land and sea (8:3). Eventually, God sent the remnant in the ark out, giving them the command to “be fruitful and multiply” (8:18). At this point, the first act of Noah, the new Adam, was to offer a burnt offering. That sacrifice of clean animals to God is described in Genesis 8 as “a pleasing aroma,” which is the same language used to describe the offerings described in the book of Leviticus. Noah’s sacrifice resolved something of a crisis through its propitiatory effect on God.
Looking forward to the Exodus, there are similar themes of de-creation and re-creation as God brings the Israelites from the chaos and corruption of Egypt. A significant part of the re-creation theme revolves around the instructions for and building of the tabernacle. In fact, Morales points out that when the whole of the Old Testament testimony on the tabernacle is factored in, then the tabernacle is quite closely related to the creation. The altar is called “the mountain of God” in Ezek 43:15, and its base is literally described as “the bosom of the earth” just a verse earlier. Moreover, the bronze basin that was filled with water was clearly meant to picture the sea. These three layers, the sea, the bosom of the earth, and the mountain of God, formed a kind of picture of creation in the Ancient Near East. The rest of the tabernacle then pictured the whole of the cosmos with God’s special presence in the holy of holies representing his position in heaven. All of this imagery suggests that the “tabernacle, then, ‘is a microcosm of creation, the world order as God intended it writ small in Israel.’”
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the first filling of the tabernacle with God’s presence would go hand-in-hand with the instructions for the sacrifices that would allow Israel to enter into the tabernacle, the tent of meeting, and thus commune with God in this microcosm of the new creation.
All of this, however, was only types and shadows of the realities that would come with Christ’s sacrifice and will come with the renewal of all things in heaven and earth. Interestingly, the order is reversed at the coming of Christ so that the crisis of how anyone can dwell in the presence of God is resolved before the new creation is formed. Such are the depths of the riches and wisdom of God.