“It will be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him.” – Leviticus 1:4b
Leviticus 5 belongs with chapters 1 through 4. Together they describe the five offerings. Though the primary purposes of the offerings are worship and atonement, the cooked meat of the offerings also served secondarily as groceries for the tribe of Levi (Get it? LEVIticus?). The tribe of Levi was to be exempted from economic activity and would serve as Priests between God and Israel1. Since they had no other means to get food, the offerings kept the Levites fed. And likewise God Himself was “fed” by the offerings. God dines anthropomorphically when an offering is said to be consumed by fire. And the people are invited to the party as well – though to a much lesser degree.
The first three offerings are voluntary – offered as worship only:
The burnt offering sees Christ as God’s satisfaction. Leviticus 1 is presented in three very parallel sections, segmented according to what the offerer can afford. (This point is made clearer in Leviticus 5.)
The meal offering sees Christ as the satisfaction of God’s people (a fellowship offering). The peace offering is Christ as the peace between God and God’s people (Romans 5:1).
The sin offering and the trespass offering are required offerings for – well, for having sinned and having trespassed. They are prescient peeks into Christ, who IS our Sacrifice, and in doing so, make us the glorious church without spot or wrinkle as we stand before God.
Leviticus 4 and 5 must be read against the backdrop of Hebrews 10:4: “It is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins.”
“It is” is not really in the original; the words were inserted for smooth English. The word insertion perhaps makes it easier to read, but it blunts the effect. “NOT POSSIBLE [ain’t never gonna happen – the word doesn’t mean unlikely, nor does it mean extremely rare. It means that God has provided no path whatsoever for one event to lead to the other – ZERO]: blood of goats and bulls taking away sin.” is a tad more literal, and provides the better effect. And we see once again how every Old Testament sacrifice ever offered would have been a waste had Christ not fulfilled it for real2.
The primary distinction between a Sin offering and a Trespass offering is: the Sin offering is for sins of our human nature, while the Trespass offering is for sins of our human conduct. That is why Leviticus 5 is more focused on remuneration – even extending into Leviticus 6 and 7 – than Leviticus 43.
Leviticus 1-5 give the nation of Israel a sneak peek at Christ’s work on the cross. And the people themselves are counted as righteous for having believed God, and for those who believe, it was counted to them as righteousness. But it was their faith in the Person of Jesus that saved them. The blood of the goats and the bulls was simply a mess that had to be cleaned up.
1God called the Levites to His service in a very powerful account given in Numbers 3. Numbers 3 is so powerful that it justifies naming the whole book “Numbers.” (The Hebrew title of the book is “in the wilderness,” a phrase taken from Numbers 1:1. When the Scriptures were first translated into Greek, about 325 BC, the translators titled the book “Arithmetic.”)
In Exodus 13:2 – fresh off the Plague of the Egyptian Firstborn – God commanded that He had special rights to all firstborn of Israel. In Numbers 3:39-43, Moses observed that the number of Levites was 22,000, and the number of firstborns was 22,273. This was considered close enough for a swap: “Take the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the children of Israel, and the livestock of the Levites instead of their livestock. The Levites shall be Mine: I am the Lord.” Numbers 3:45. But there was a one-time tax imposed on the people to compensate for the 273 difference.
Moses, himself a Levite, first announced the office of priest in Israel at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:6). In Exodus 28:1, Aaron and his four sons were inaugurated as the first priests. At the time of Leviticus, Aaron’s lineage was declared an ongoing office of priests (Exodus 40:15), and might by now have included grandsons. It wasn’t until Numbers 3 that the whole tribe were declared Priests.
2This is an example of how making a passage easier to read can make the passage more difficult to understand.
3Most commentary on Leviticus 4-5 agrees with this distinction.