Torah Portions Vayikra

Leviticus 1:1 - 6:7

Isaiah 43:21 - 44:23

This year we will be going through the Torah portion cycle with short teachings under 30 minutes each. Included in this post are the Haftarah portion and the Echoes Through Scriptures from previous years.

In Vayikra, we will study the significance of each of the sacrifices, especially the sin sacrifice.

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Shalom! This is the twenty third portion in the Haftarah cycle. This week is probably my favorite portion of the year because in it we learn how to approach God's holiness. This week we actually are doing ~ 2 hours of video because there is so much to cover in this Haftarah portion. This year we will be spending approximately one hour on each of the Haftarah portions and investigating them from their historical setting and their ancient Near Eastern context as well as making connections back to the Torah Portion. I pray that you will enjoy these teachings!

In Vayikra, I discuss the original significance of the sacrifices and how this correct understanding can better understand the complete work of Yeshua and how we can live our lives today as a living sacrifice.

Note: I was only able to do a brief summary of the sacrifices due to time constraints. If you would like to further information, please watch my series Restoring Honor, Removing Shame According to the Temple Service

Parashah Vayikra
Clean Up Your Mess!

Leviticus 1:1 - 6:7

When we read the book of Leviticus, we enter into an unfamiliar world of impurities, sacrifices, and strict ritual performances. For most of us it is difficult to begin to even grasp the concepts and purposes behind these rituals since we have nothing comparable in modern culture. To further complicate the matter, we have inherited almost 2,000 years of tradition and theology which have developed without an existing Temple; tradition and theology that is sadly devoid of the contextual understanding that ancient Israelites would have possessed when they were receiving the instructions. They grew up in an environment that was structured around order and chaos, purity and impurity, honor and shame, rituals and sacrifices. Thus there was no need for the author of Leviticus to waste valuable space explaining concepts which the audience was already intimately familiar with. Over 3,000 years later, we no longer share these conceptual understandings with the original audience and are at a loss to explain why such rituals were so important to ancient Israel. What are we to do? Recent archaeological discoveries have opened up our understanding of these concepts, especially those from the Hurro-Hittite region of Kizzuwatna in southeastern Anatolia[1] from the 14th and 13th centuries BCE. With these discoveries, we are now able to view the so-called “sin sacrifice” of Leviticus 4 through the cultural perspective of the ancient Near Eastern world.

To begin, we must redefine our vocabulary. We most commonly associate the ritual offering of animals with the English word ‘sacrifice’, a word that is used today to also refer to a soldier giving his life in battle, a person giving up something important to them, or for a baseball player hitting a ball far into the outfield to be caught but also allowing another player to advance to the next base. Yet all of these additional modern usages are foreign to the Biblical concept of sacrifice; never once is the word used to describe a soldier dying in battle. If we trace back the etymological roots of our English word ‘sacrifice’, we find it comes from the Latin sacrificum, which broken down is sacer “sacred” and –ficium “to do, make”[2]. Thus, it would better be defined as “to make sacred”. The Hebrew word most commonly used in reference to sacrifices is qorban which is from the root Q.R.B. which means “to approach” or “to draw near”. Thus, our understanding of sacrifices must be that they are for the purpose of approaching the Holy God, and not about loss and death which is antithetical to God.

Atonement is another word that requires better definition. The Hebrew word is kipper and prior to the 19th century, scholars tended to believe it was related to the Arabic kafara “to cover” and thus they defined it in those terms. However, with the deciphering of the Akkadian language in the 19th century, scholars have now turned to the Akkadian verb kupurru for help understanding the Biblical term since it has a much closer comparable usage[3]. Thus, it is now understood that kipper concretely means “to smear” and “to wipe (off)”. This matches its usage in Leviticus as a word used alongside other words for purification. It also is abstractly connected to the noun form kofer (spelled with the same consonants, different vowel sounds) which is typically translated as “ransom”. A study of the usage of kofer on the Hebrew Bible by Jay Sklar showed the following characteristics: it is a legal payment; it delivers a guilty party from a more severe punishment; it is up to the offended party whether or not to accept payment; and it restores peace to the relationship[4]. We also see that it restores the honor to the party that has been shamed. Thus we can also associate these concepts with kipper when it is used in the abstract; a legal payment of a reduced amount which, when accepted by the offended party, removes the shame and restores the honor of the offended party, thus restoring the relationship.

Lastly we should define chatta’t, which is generally translated as “sin sacrifice”. Designating this word as “sin sacrifice” is misleading since this offering is not only required when a person inadvertently sins, but also after child birth, a prolonged genital discharge, healing from leprosy, taking a Nazarite vow, and the dedication of a newly constructed altar! Clearly the chatta’t is offered for persons and objects who have not sinned. Jacob Milgrom states, “This translation [sin sacrifice] is inaccurate on all grounds: contextually, morphologically, and etymologically[5].” He describes how chatta’t is actually derived from the verb ḥiṭṭēʾ (spelled with the same consonants, different vowel markings), which is synonymous with ṭihar ‘purify’ and kipper ‘purge’ and thus he proposes it should be rendered as “purification offering”, a term that most commentators on Leviticus now use[6]. The blood of the purification offering is not applied to the offerer, but to the horns of the altar, thus it must be understood to be for the purpose of decontaminating the altar as is specifically stated in Leviticus 8:15. This function of blood is also attested in Hittite ritual, “They smear with blood the golden god, the wall, the utensils of the entirely new god. The new god and the temple become clean[7].” This begs the question though, why does the altar need to be cleansed if it is a person who has sinned or contracted a severe impurity?

Sin and impurity brought dishonor. We have a sense of this today when we commit a sin or have some sort of modern impurity, we often feel ashamed and want to hide. Yet our shame does not just affect ourselves, it affects others as well. When a child does something wrong, they bring shame and dishonor not only upon themselves, but also upon their family and especially upon their parents. In ancient Israel when an individual committed a sin or had a severe impurity it brought dishonor upon themselves, upon their covenantal family (the nation), and especially upon their Father, YHWH. This dishonor clung to YHWH’s house, the Tabernacle[8]. This defiling dishonor must be purged or “atoned” otherwise it created a dangerous situation where YHWH would leave His house, thus removing His protection from the nation.

The specific mode in which this defilement attached itself to YHWH’s house, particularly to the altar is through the concept of blood indexing. An index is a sign that connects one person or object to another[9]. For example, a pointing finger serves as a sign of reference between the one pointing the finger and the person or object being pointed at; it is a ritual connection. We sometimes use ritual actions such as grasping the shoulder or placing a hand upon the head of one’s child to index that child to ourselves (a symbol of our connection). In Exodus 24 we read that Moses read the Book of the Covenant to the people, the people accepted the terms of the covenant, and then Moses took the blood of bulls and goats and sprinkled half of it upon the people and the other half upon the altar. This sprinkling of the same blood on the people and upon the altar served to index the Israelites to the altar with Moses as the mediator. The altar represents YHWH’s authority and hospitality and thus it was understood that this act served to index the covenant relationship between YHWH and the people[10]. Thus when the people sin or contract severe impurity, their shameful defilement is ritually transferred to the altar by means of the indexing. The message is that our sins and impurities may seem to only affect us, but in reality they have defiling affects upon the world and put the community in danger if they are not properly addressed. Even in the cases where we did not intend to sin or if the defilement was unavoidable, such as when a person died sitting next to a Nazarite, it still causes a shameful defilement and it is up to the offending individual to take the appropriate steps to remedy the situation.

This human accountability was a major shift in understanding from what the surrounding cultures believed. Many of them also had various types of purification rituals for their temples as well, with one major difference. Israel’s neighbors believed that the source of impurity was demonic and thus the priests had to carry out various rituals and incantations in order to remove the demons from their temples and to prevent future attacks; they believed that they had to perform these rituals in order to protect their gods from demons[11]. YHWH’s message to Israel in Leviticus is much different; it is not demons which defile the temple, it is the moral failures of the people. It is not demons which threaten to overpower God, it is human depravity which causes Him to separate Himself from His people. It puts the responsibility upon us to maintain the presence of God within the congregation; we as a community are accountable for our actions even if we did not intend harm with them.

Unfortunately, many of us have been taught the idea that the sin sacrifice was part of the “old covenant” where God demanded that something must die in order for Him to forgive us and thus the animal acted as a substitute for the death of sinner. This theology is built upon a Western understanding of the death of Yeshua called the “penal substitution model” which claims that Yeshua was the final sacrifice for sin and thus abolished all sacrifices, bringing forth a new era where God can forgive people without needing to kill something since Yeshua already died. This model sadly is built upon a lot of false presuppositions and misunderstandings of the basics functions of the sacrifices set forth in Leviticus and also a lack of proper study of the rest of Scripture. In Acts 21:26, years after the death of Yeshua and at the behest of the elders in Jerusalem, Paul attempted to go to the Temple in order to pay for the purification of himself and four other believers from a Nazarite vow. Numbers 6:13-21 details how this ritual must occur and informs us that it involves the offering of several sacrifices, including the chatta’t purification offering (so called “sin sacrifice”). Thus we must conclude that neither Paul nor the elders in Jerusalem believed that Yeshua was the final sin sacrifice and that he had abolished the sacrificial system[12]. Furthermore, to claim that under the old covenant something had to die in order for God to forgive sin is not supportable by the text. Leviticus 4 states that a poor person can bring a bloodless grain offering for forgiveness and there are myriads of examples of God forgiving people without the need for a sacrifice[13]. Lastly, the sins for which an Israelite could bring a sacrifice were not ones which carried a death penalty. Willful, rebellious sins which required a death penalty or cutting off were not atoneable through animal sacrifice. Thus it is clear that the animal was by no means understood as a substitute for the offerer.

The offerer brought his or her animal to the Tabernacle. There the offerer presses his/her hand upon the head of the animal, indexing a relationship between the offerer and the animal. Immediately after the animal is slaughtered in order to use its blood in the ritual that follows. The priest catches the blood in a container and then manipulates the blood upon all four horns of the altar. This indexes a relationship between the blood and the altar, the blood belonged to the animal which was indexed to the offerer, thus there is an indexical relationship created between the offerer and the altar, mediated by the priest and the sacrificial animal[14]. The blood being wiped upon the altar purges the stain of dishonorable impurity from the altar and, because of the indexed relationship, the offerer receives the benefits from this purging as the text states “And the priest shall make atonement/purgation on his behalf, and he will be forgiven[15].” Interestingly the text never actually requires a confession in Leviticus 4, it assumes the offerer has experienced remorse and desires repentance by the fact that he/she showed up for the ritual. The ritual serves as a means for the offerer to make restitution for the problem that his/her sin or impurity has caused in the world and is part of the process of forgiveness. This teaches us today that forgiveness is a proactive process, it requires us to take an active role in restoring order in the world. This is also confirmed in the Lord’s Prayer where Yeshua taught us to pray “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” and he adds afterwards, “if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions[16].” This is not salvation by works, this is taking an active role in the Kingdom of God! The cultural context of Torah portion Vayikra teaches us today that when we commit sin, even if unintentionally, it has far reaching effects on the world around us and that it is our responsibility as part of the forgiveness process to clean up the effects of our sins.

Further studies into animal sacrifices:

Sin and Sacrifice in Ancient Israel

The Temple Service According to Honor and Shame Yeshiva


[1] Kizzuwatna is near the northern border of Syria, a region close to where Abraham and Jacob spent time. Due to the trade between nations in this time period, knowledge of other cultures was common especially in the land of Canaan, which served as a land bridge for trade routes between the northern kingdoms of the Hittites, Assyrians, and Babylonians and the southern kingdoms of Egypt and other African nations. The Hurro-Hittite culture gives us the closest comparison to the blood manipulation rituals (tossing, sprinkling, daubing/wiping, or pouring out of the blood in a ritual manner) found in Leviticus and thus helps us to understand its function better as well as to contrast YHWH’s offerings against those of the pagans.


[3] Feder, Blood Expiation in Hittite and Biblical Ritual: Origins, Context, and Meaning, 168.

[4] Sklar, Leviticus, 50.

[5] Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, 253.

[6] Ibid, 232.

[7] Wright, The Disposal of Impurity, 36 n. 67 (citing Ulippi 4.38-40).

[8] Sklar, Leviticus, 108.

[9] Gilders, Blood Ritual in the Hebrew Bible, 8.

[10] Ibid, 39-41.

[11] Milgrom, A Continental Commentary: Leviticus, 31-32.

[12] Yeshua was the eschatological Passover lamb, which was a special type of shelamim-peace offering. In its original context of Exodus 12, this lamb functioned as a blood covenant which released Israel from the bondage of Egyptian slavery much like how Yeshua’s death and resurrection served to release us from the bondage to sin (Romans 7).

[13] For example: The Ninevites in the time of Jonah, Daniel 9 and the forgiveness of the exiles in Babylon, and Yeshua healing a person by saying their sins are forgiven “in order that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Matthew 9:6). Also consider that in the first century, most Jews lived too far away from the Temple to visit it more than once in their lifetime

[14] Gilders, Blood Ritual in the Hebrew Bible, 81-82.

[15] Leviticus 4:31. “on his behalf” is from the indirect object marker ‘al which indicates that he is not what is being purged, but that the purgation is being done on his behalf.

[16] Matthew 6:9-15.


Gilders, William. Blood Ritual in the Hebrew Bible: Meaning and Power. John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 2004.

Feder, Yitzhaq. Blood Expiation in Hittite and Biblical Ritual: Origins, Context, and Meaning. Society of Biblical Literature: Atlanta, 2011.

Milgrom, Jacob. A Continental Commentary: Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004.

Milgrom, Jacob. Leviticus 1–16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 3, Anchor Yale Bible. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008.

Sklar, Jay. Leviticus: Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. IVP Academic, 2014.

Wright, David. The Disposal of Impurity: Elimination Rites in the Bible and in Hittite and Mesopotamian Literature. SBL, 1996.

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