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No. 39: The Lamb of God, Part 1

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 39
July, 1992
Copyright 1992, Biblical Horizons

At the Biblical Horizons Conference on Worship and Sacrifice, held 17-21 August, 1992, we explored the meaning of the five major sacrifices in considerable depth. (Tapes of the conference are available from Biblical Horizons .) During the last, the centrality of the male lamb (the ram) in the sacrificial system was briefly discussed. I want in this essay to explore that question.

We notice first of all in Leviticus 1 that there is a special notice given concerning the flock animal used in the Ascension Offering (also known as the Whole Burnt Offering). The first paragraph of Leviticus 1 deals with the offering of a "son of the herd" (vv. 3-9). The second paragraph deals with the offering "from the flock, of the sheep or of the goats" (vv. 10-13). The third paragraph deals with the offering of birds (turtledoves or young pigeons; vv. 14-17). Now, what we notice is that only in connection with the offering from the flock is it said that the layman is to slay it "on the side of the altar northward."

It might be assumed that the bulls and birds are also slaughtered on the north side, but there is reason to doubt this. First, if slaughtering on the north side of the altar applied in all three cases, we should expect it to be mentioned in the first case discussed, in connection with the bull. Then we could assume that it applied to the other two, lesser cases as well. Second, in Ezekiel’s visionary Temple, we find tables set up north of the altar for slaughtering, and it is not likely that living bulls were heaved up on these tables for slaughter! (See Ezk. 40:39-42). These tables were for flock animals.

Additionally, the law repeatedly contrasts the place where flock animals are slaughtered with the place where bulls and birds are slaughtered. In the law of the Purification ("Sin") Offering, the bull is slaughtered "before Yahweh," as in the case of the Ascension Offering (Lev. 4:4, 15). By way of literary contrast, the flockmember Purification Offering is slaughtered "in the place where the Ascension Offering is slaughtered" (Lev. 4:24, 29, 33). Along these same lines: The priest eats part of the flockmember offered for purification, while the entire bull of the Purification Offering is burned; and Leviticus 6:25 says that the Purification Offering that is eaten is to be slain "in the place where the Ascension Offering is slaughtered," again specifying a particular location, the north part of the courtyard. Similarly, the place of the ram of the Reparation Offering’s slaughter is to be "in the place where they slay the Ascension Offering" (Lev. 7:2; 14:13). This language always accompanies the slaughter of a flockmember for the Ascension, Purification, and Reparation Offerings, and never is used for bulls or birds. Thus, the northern zone of the courtyard is set aside for the slaughter of sheep and goats.

(The Peace Offering is an exception. The text does not direct that the flockmember Peace Offering be offered in the same place as the Ascension Offering. This is because, in contrast to the Ascension, Purification, and Reparation Offerings, which were "most holy," the Peace Offering is merely "holy." See Lev. 6:25-26; 7:1 & 6; 10:14.)

Thus, we have a picture of the activities in the forecourt. Bulls and birds might be slaughtered anywhere in the area eastward of the altar, between the altar and the gate (which was on the east). This might be done south, southeast, east, or perhaps northeast of the altar. Sheep and goats, however, were slaughtered due north of the altar, and probably on tables even in the era of the Tabernacle.

What is special about the north? It is the direction from which God comes in judgment from His throne in the north (Is. 14:1; Ps. 48:2). We see this in Ezekiel 1, where God comes in judgment upon Israel from the north. We also see it laid out in detail in Ezekiel 8, where God comes through a succession of north gates until He arrives in the Temple courtyard and begins to destroy the wicked in Israel (see also Ezk. 38:6, 15; 39:2). By specifying the north side as the place to slaughter lambs and goats, God was calling special attention to the fact that the judgment for sin was being exercised against these animals as representatives of sinful man. (Of course, the slaughtering of bulls and birds made the same point, but without the special focus that is given to the slaughter of flockmembers.)

We also notice that the flockmember is the central of the three sacrifices each time it is discussed in the laws of the Offerings. In the case of the Ascension Offering (Lev. 1), the three paragraphs discuss the bull, the flockmember, and the birds. In the case of the Peace Offering (Lev. 3), the three paragraphs discuss the bull, the lamb, and the goat. In the case of the Purification Offering (Lev. 4:1–5:13), the first two paragraphs discuss the bull, the second three the goats and female sheep (ewe), and the last two the birds and the grain used as an Offering by the extremely poor. Notice that in the case of the Peace Offering, it is the sheep that is central, between bull and goat.

This brings us to the Reparation or Compensation (Trespass, Guilt) Offering (Lev. 5:14–6:7). In all cases, this Offering must be a male lamb (ram). The ram is the one sacrificial animal not permitted for the Purification Offering. By setting things out this way, God again highlights the male lamb.

The other laws surrounding the Ascension Offering also serve to highlight the centrality of the male lamb. Leviticus 1 specifies that the Ascension Offerings must be male bulls, rams, or he-goats (apparently the sex of the birds does not matter). It is the male lamb, one year old, that is offered in all the required sacrifices set up by God in the law: the daily morning and evening Offerings, the sabbath Offerings, and the festival Offerings (Lev. 9:3; 23:12, 18; Ex. 29:38-41; Num. 28-29; Ezk. 46:13). By way of contrast, the he-goat is offered as an Ascension Offering only as voluntary Offerings from individuals (Lev. 22:19; Num. 15:11). Thus, it is the ram (male lamb) that is appointed as the normal, central Offering.

The Ram of Reparation

If the male lamb is central in the first of the Offerings, the Ascension, it is also central in the system as a whole. We see this when we consider the male lamb (ram) of the Reparation (Trespass, Guilt, Compensation) Offering. Leviticus 5:14–6:7 provide three cases when the Reparation Offering is required. The first two of these are paired by being introduced by the phrase "Yahweh spoke to Moses" (5:14 & 6:1).

The first two cases have to do with trespasses against God’s holy things, stealing from God in some way. In the first case, the person was unaware that he was wronging God, but later came to his senses, and now must make reparation. In the second case, the person never figures out exactly what he has done, but he knows that he has directly offended God, and seeks to get things right. Both of these cases deal with offenses directly against God that are deep in the "subconscious" of man.

The third case deals with a high-handed offense against God committed in full consciousness. The man has been accused of stealing, but when brought into court, swears falsely before God. He knows fully what he is doing, because after all, you cannot be in this situation and be "inadvertent." His sin is self-conscious, high-handed, and directly against God’s majesty. Later he is overcome by guilt and confesses his sin. He is to bring the ram of reparation.

The Reparation Offering must be paired with the Purification Offering. The full system of sacrificial animals is used in these two sacrifices together, so that they complement one another. The Purification Offering uses a bull, a male or female goat, a ewe, birds, or even grain, to atone for sins of "wandering away" from God’s law in areas other than God’s own personal things (Lev. 5:1-5). When a person wanders away, he loses his holy status and becomes unclean. He is restored by the Purification Offering, which purges his sin and uncleanness.

By way of contrast, the Reparation Offering uses the ram and it alone. It is used for the opposite kind of sin, the sin of affronting God. By affronting God directly, the sinner has not wandered away from God, but has trespassed upon God’s holy things. Like Adam, he has stolen directly from God. By doing so, he has become especially holy in a judicial sense. This additional holiness puts him in the position of the priests, who were set apart as specially holy. Though he is not a priest, he comes under the tighter rules of the priesthood and the greater threats that come from being especially near to God. God will burn him up with cherubic fire unless he becomes de-sanctified. The Reparation Offering is given to de-sanctify him.

Thus, while the Purification Offering deals with sins of wandering astray, the Reparation Offering deals with Adamic sins of direct affront to God. There are two kinds of these Adamic sins. The first two cases deal with the deep, "subconscious," manifestations of the "sin nature." The third case deals with open, defiant sins against God. Thus, the Reparation Offering deals with sin, rebellion against God, in its full manifestations, inwardly and outwardly. (For a fuller discussion, I recommend purchasing the tapes of the Conference on Worship and Sacrifice, mentioned above.)

What is additionally interesting about the ram of reparation is that it is never offered as part of the normal ritual of worship in Israel. In fact, when it is offered, it precedes that ritual. It seems that the Reparation Offering is the foundation upon which all the other Offerings are built. We worship God by confessing sin (Purification), being consecrated to His service (Ascension and Tribute Offerings*), and communing with Him (Peace Offering), in that order (Lev. 9:15-18). Before we can do any of these things, our profound trespass against God’s holy property, committed in Adam, must be dealt with. *[The Tribute Offering is variously called Cereal, Grain, Meal, or Meat (KJV for meal) Offering. Tribute or Gift is the proper translation; Lev. 2.]

Hebrews 10 points to this distinctiveness of the Reparation Offering when it says that the usual sacrifices did not remove "consciousness of sins" (Heb. 10:2). It is precisely this consciousness of sin that the Reparation Offering is said to deal with, because in each case, the sinner is provoked to bring the sacrifice by being overcome with a sense of guilt. Thus, citing Psalm 40:6, the writer of Hebrews says that God did not delight in the other four sacrifices: "sacrifices (technical term for Peace Offerings) and Offerings (literally, Tribute Offerings) and whole burnt Offerings (Ascension Offerings) and those for sin (Purification Offerings) You have not desired" (Heb. 10:5-8). [It is clear in Hebrew and Greek that these are the four Offerings in view; all commentators agree.] By omitting the ram of reparation, Hebrews indicates that it, by way of contrast, represented the sacrifice that does please God.

The Centrality of the Ram

The climax of the Offerings in Leviticus 1:1–6:26 is the ram of reparation. Why is the ram central? Or, to rephrase the question, how are we to understand the centrality of the ram?

First, the primordial Offering in the Bible was that of Abel, who brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. We are not told that God had previously required this, but we are told that God approved of it (Gen. 4:4).

Second, when Abraham offered Isaac, it was a ram that was given as a substitute (Gen. 22:13). Isaac was the "seed," the seed born of a special woman, of a barren womb. Abraham understood that Isaac’s death was to satisfy God in some way, and was convinced that he would receive him back from the dead (Gen. 22:5; Heb. 11:19). Isaac was the anointed one, the messiah, the son, the seed of the woman. Every Israelite knew from this that the ram signified the Messiah to come, the greater Isaac.

Third, the Passover had to be either a male lamb or a male goat (Ex. 12:5). The Passover was the constituting sacrifice that underlay the entire system of Offerings in the Tabernacle and Temple.

With this as background, we can see that the original sacrifice was the male lamb, and all the other sacrifices spread out from it. Also, the original sacrifice was the Ascension Offering. As regards the bull, it seems that the bull was offered by those with wealth and power, and also represented whole nations (Num. 29:12-13; the 70 bulls represent the 70 nations of the world). The birds were offered by those too poor to afford a lamb or kid (goat) (Lev. 12:8; 14:21-22).

The system of the Purification Offering only came into being when God took up residence in the midst of the people. A study of the animals used in the Purification Offering reveals a system of representations that shed light on the relative weight of the various animals used. Bear in mind that the symbolic meaning of the animals in the Purification Offering is more specific than their meaning in the Ascension Offering.

The bull is used for the priests and Levites. They, being closed to God, are the weightiest of men. They also represent the nation. In Leviticus 4:1-21, the bull is offered for the high priest when he sins, and because his sin defiles the whole nation, the nation must also offer a bull. The purifying bull of the High Priest and the purifying bull of the nation as a whole constituted on sacrificial rite, as we see when we compare the phrase "and they/he shall be forgiven" in Leviticus 4:20, 26, 31, 35 with the absence of that phrase in Lev. 4:1-12.

The bull also represents the High Priest by himself, or with the immediate circle of Aaronic priests, considered apart from the nation as a whole (Lev. 8:14; 16:6, 11). And in Numbers 8:12, when the Levites are given to the Tabernacle as substitutes for the firstborn of Israel, and as representatives of the nation, they are purified by a bull. Thus, it would seem that the bull was used for purify from sin the high priest, any priest, any Levite, and the nation as a whole when the nation as a whole is defiled by the action of the high priest.

The he-goat is used for civil leaders in Israel (Lev. 4:22-26), such as the princes who brought he-goats to purify themselves in Numbers 7. The he-goat is also used to purify the sins of the nation as a whole (Lev. 9:3; 16:5; Num. 15:24; Num. 28–29; 2 Chron. 29:24; Ezra 8:35). It is only when the nation as a whole is brought into defilement by the sin of the high priest that the nation is purified by a bull, and in that ritual the high priest must also offer a bull (Lev. 4:1-21).

In Ezekiel 45:22, the prince of the nation offers a bull as a Purification Offering for himself and the nation with him. This is the only time a civil leader offers a bull for Purification. It may reflect a slight change of administration in the Restoration Covenant, which Ezekiel’s visionary Temple defines. It may also reflect the status of the prince in Ezekiel 45 as Chief Layman, and thus as a religious leader in Israel. It does not seem to me that this changes the basic structure that we have seen emerge thus far: Bulls are offered for religious leaders, and he-goats for civil leaders.

As in the case of the Ascension Offering, birds were used in the Purification Offering for those too poor to afford the she-goat or ewe, which were the normal Offerings of citizens (Lev. 5:7-10).

Thus, the person as a person was represented by a she-goat, a ewe, or a ram (Lev. 4:27-35; 5:14–6:7). Along these lines, no matter how poor a man may be, he may never bring anything less than a ram for a Reparation Offering (Lev. 14:10 & 21). [The she-goat is the "bride" of the he-goat, and thus represents the ordinary person in relationship to his leaders in the nation.]

With this background, we are not so surprised that Jesus is never called the "bull" or "pigeon" of God, but the Lamb of God, the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world. He is called the Lamb four places outside the book of Revelation (John 1:29, 36; Acts 8:32; 1 Pet. 1:19) and four times seven (28) times in Revelation.

We can return to Hebrews to see another way in which the ram of reparation is set apart from the other sacrifices. Hebrews 10:4 says that "it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins." Notice that the lamb is not mentioned. Why? Not because the literal sheep in the sacrificial system were actually effective in removing sin, but because the author of Hebrews considers Jesus Christ to be the Lamb. Thus, in Hebrews 9:12 we read this contrast: "not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place," a reference to the Day of Atonement, when bulls and goats were offered, but not sheep (Lev. 16).

Similarly, Hebrews 9:13-14 carries through the contrast: "For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled, sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ . . . cleanse your conscience." Here again, it is the ram of reparation that was offered when the conscience was distressed for sins against God’s holiness.

(essay concluded in Biblical Horizons No. 40)