The Usefulness of Leviticus: Sacrifice for Catholics

The Church tells us we should venerate Sacred Scripture, study it, pray with it, because it is the Word of God spoken to mankind, to the Church, to the heart and mind of each believer. It is uniquely inspired by God Himself, free from error, and always beneficial to the soul [i].

Yet this does not make it free from difficulty for us, nor is it always obviously beneficial. As St. Augustine says, the Lord mingles easier and harder passages, clearer and more obscure, consoling messages and challenging ones, to satisfy our hunger while pushing us on to greater growth in the spiritual life. The Bible tests our fortitude and perseverance even while giving us radiant lights to follow.

A case in point, perhaps the case in point, is the Book of Leviticus, which makes for notoriously difficult reading. First, it is likely to strike readers as a dry legislative text, as it minutely specifies the dozens of sacrifices and other ritual actions instituted by God through Moses for the people of Israel. On top of this, Leviticus is a bloody book, full of animal slaughter and dismemberment. We are tempted to wonder why God instituted this kind of religion for his Chosen People. Couldn’t there have been a more “spiritual” worship, a more PETA-friendly way of doing things? The early Church ecclesiastical writer Origen (ca. 185–254 A.D.) reports that some Christians in his day objected: “Why should these things be read in church? Of what use are Jewish observances to us? Those things concern the Jews; let the Jews worry about them.” In a recent edition of the Pentateuch we find this comment: “A superficial reading of Leviticus could give one the impression that this book is very difficult to understand and has no relevance to our own time” [ii].

But since Leviticus is no less God’s inspired word than the Gospels, we know that it was He, the all-wise Father, who instituted this sacrificial system for Israel, and that He must have had good reasons for doing so. In contrast to our reaction, the Fathers of the Church read this book with considerable interest and even excitement, for what they found in it was a tightly interlocked set of symbols pointing ahead to the all-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the unblemished Victim, on the altar of the Cross. This was the inner meaning of the external ceremonies covered in Leviticus.

A Brief Tour of the Book

Leviticus is the middle book of the Torah or Pentateuch, preceded by Genesis and Exodus and followed by Numbers and Deuteronomy. Its central position is deliberate and symbolic. Since God created man to be a royal priest who offers up the universe to its Creator in praise and thanksgiving, and since Israel was created to be a royal priestly people through whom this original plan would be restored, it makes sense that the “how-to” manual of worship would be at the center of the Law. The sacrifices by which Yahweh asks to be worshiped are the central act of the true religion that the true God has revealed. In Exodus, the Lord calls His people to become a holy nation, a kingdom of priests. In Leviticus, He specifies what they need to do to attain that holiness, how they are to function as a priestly kingdom.

It would be nice if the story were that simple, but there’s more going on. The situation of Israel was desperately complicated by the covenant-breaking apostasy of the golden calf, “Israel’s original sin,” which we find narrated in Exodus 32–33. God’s response to this apostasy takes the form of making several changes in the law that had been given up to that point [iii]. Prior to the golden calf, it was God’s intention that every firstborn son of the Israelites should be a priest. After the apostasy, God transfers the priesthood exclusively to the tribe of Levi, such that Levites substitute for the firstborn sons. Moreover, while God had earlier intended a renewed intimacy between Himself and each Israelite, He now exalts Moses as mediator between God and a sinful people, in this way foreshadowing the greater Lawgiver and Mediator who was to come.

Lastly — and this brings us right into Leviticus — God mandated that the newly ordained Levites offer regular animal sacrifices in the tabernacle on behalf of the other tribes of Israel. Why was this introduced only after the golden calf incident? Scott Hahn compares the Israelites’ proneness to idolatry to the experience of an alcoholic attached to, and overmastered by, alcohol. The people’s hearts are still stubbornly clinging to their Egyptian idols; they are addicted, as it were, to paganism. Thus, says Hahn, “it wasn’t enough for them to make a one-time offering at Sinai (Ex 24:3–11) by slaughtering the animals the Egyptians venerated as gods (Ex 8:26)” [iv]. On the other hand, Israel was not yet ready for the definitive cure, the redemption that only God could bring “in the fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4).

What was needed was a way of training the people in habits of obedience and deference to Yahweh, while at the same time reminding them of their “accursed condition” and their need for “circumcision of the heart.”

The Israelites had to fight a protracted war against idolatry, which they were commanded now to wage by daily animal sacrifice, among other things. Within the Father’s remedial program lay a subtle strategy. On the one hand, Israel couldn’t slaughter — or eat — the animals that the Egyptians sacrificed to their gods; they were declared unclean. On the other hand, Israel had to slaughter and eat the animals that the Egyptians venerated but never sacrificed; they were clean. [v]

The idea is, sacrifice the things venerated by the pagans, but eat the things that pagans deem unclean. Animals worshiped in the Egyptian cult as gods — Hathor in the form of a cow, Ares in the form of a sheep — have to be ritually slaughtered. Since all the pagan nations in the territory of Canaan round about the Israelites had similar idols, the Levitical code was a constant reminder to the Israelites that Yahweh is the true God to be loved and followed, and the rest are false gods to be rejected. This lesson remains true for us: what the pagans venerate, we should slay or at least abstain from; what the pagans flee from like vampires from holy water is what we should embrace and make use of.

A Code of Holiness

The one who just picks up Leviticus and reads it may come away with an impression of randomness in the material. Yet as with all biblical texts, further probing and reflecting disclose a definite ascending pattern to the four parts of the book. As one commentary elucidates:

Around his central theme, the worship of the thrice-holy God (cf. Is 6:3), the hagiographer built up a series of steps of legislative material. First came the rites to be followed when offering sacrifices; then, on a higher level, those to do with the ordination of the men whose task it would be to offer these sacrifices, the priests; higher still, the rules which show priests and people how to be “pure,” that is, to be worthy to take part in worship; finally, at the very top, the rules about divine worship itself, the rules about “holiness,” which is what this Law covers. [vi]

This structure already contains lessons of universal importance in the Catholic Faith. First, there is a definite way of worshiping God that He introduces as pleasing to Him. Second, there are definite ministers who must be qualified for, consecrated for, and involved in such worship. Third, those who are to take part in worship, whether as offering or as receiving, must be pure. Fourth, the ultimate goal is to become holy as God is holy.

If we look at these negatively, we can see no less crucial lessons. First, God is not to be worshiped haphazardly, according to our whims, feelings, and preferences; the Church’s liturgical law must be respected. Second, not just anyone can take it upon himself to stride up to the altar and act as a priest, but a divine mandate is required, and an ordination of the priest. Third, there is such a thing as being “spiritually unprepared” for worship, and we have to make a conscious effort to prepare ourselves so that our participation will not be “in vain.” Lastly, the worst condition of man is to be unholy — that is, lacking in grace, lacking in righteousness. This, above all else, is what we want to avoid.

The sacrificial law placed upon the guilty nation of Israel an abiding need for symbolic atonement by holocausts or burnt offerings [vii]. These offerings in and of themselves cannot “justify” or make holy, but they do symbolize the repentance and reconciliation that God’s gift of grace effects in the heart. Man is not sanctified by the blood of bulls or rams, but by means of such offerings he can manifest contrition, thanksgiving, or a desire for holiness. Taken as the exterior sign of an interior sacrifice, they do have value; taken in a purely ritualistic or formalistic way, they are empty of value. This explains the constant polemic of the Old Testament prophets against sacrifices done mechanically, without interior piety and without a genuine love for one’s neighbor, especially the poor [viii]. Here, too, we have a warning that remains relevant: our liturgy is to be done with sincere faith, great care, reverence, and beauty, not in a slipshod or rushed manner, cutting corners to save time or money, and it must be at once the vanguard and rearguard of our spiritual and corporal works of mercy.

The five different kinds of sacrifice spoken of in Leviticus — the burnt offering, the grain offering, the fellowship offering, the sin offering, and the guilt offering — illustrate different facets of man’s relationship with God. This relationship involves, first and foremost, a total surrender to God’s providential love, giving everything back to Him from whom it came. It involves giving of the substance of our labor, as we do with tithing. It involves seeking peace and unity with God by seeking them with our neighbors. It involves expressing sorrow for sins and repairing the wrong done. The Levitical rituals are, one might say, the virtue of “religion” writ large, made evident and graphic.

A good example of the language of symbols would be the triple-consecration of ears, hands, and feet often mentioned in Leviticus — “smear some blood on the right ear, then on the thumb of the right hand, then on the great toe of the right foot.” This symbolizes that the priest, or servant of God, should listen to the voice of God, turn his hands to the work of worship (which means all works pleasing to God), and walk in holiness.

The True and Perfect Sacrifice

After Israel’s “original sin,” God institutes a remedial-pedagogical sacrificial religion for the nation. Initially, at least, the people are probably not much aware of its pedagogical value; they see it as a bunch of prescriptions handed down from the Lord through their leader Moses. However, on a basic level, this system is “weaning” Israel from its attachment to regional idols, which usually take an animal form.

On top of this, and more valuable, is the spiritual discipline of obeying prescriptions simply because God asks you to do so. In the Garden of Eden, the one and only requirement laid on our first parents was the requirement of not eating the fruit God asked them not to eat. God did not have to explain to them the whys and wherefores of this prohibition. He was asking the creature to trust in the Creator’s wisdom — to obey without seeing “why.” Unlike Adam, Abraham demonstrates this trust or faith in God’s Providence, for he does not quarrel with God or second-guess him. Abraham simply does as he is told. And given the fairly primitive mentality that appears to be operative in Israel at this early stage, a large part of the sacrificial system’s value is that is keeps the people really busy fulfilling their obligations. If the old saying is true, “idle hands are the devil’s tools,” then the devil won’t be able to find many tools among the busy hands of observant Israelites as they strive to put into practice the hundreds of commandments of the Mosaic Law.

Then we may ask: what is the meaning of sacrifice in general? It is an offering of something valuable, as a sign of an interior offering of self. An expiatory offering is a sign that one’s own sins are placed humbly into the fire of God, and then annihilated by His mercy. Jews over the centuries came to understand that the actions they performed were really about themselves in relation to God, not about something external to themselves; it was not that God needed animal victims, but rather that we needed to express our praise, thanksgiving, penance, etc. by means of visible signs, for we are creatures of sensation and imagination. We know from the Gospels that this legislation runs the danger of hardening into legalism, but without the law there would never have been a receptive dwelling for Jesus Christ in the bosom of the human race.

Beyond the remedial, pedagogical, and moral benefits of the sacrificial system stands a more profound purpose: to prepare Israel for the One who redeems and saves mankind — namely, the one in whom all that Israel was supposed to be, all that man is supposed to be, is found: Jesus Christ, the firstborn son of God.

Enter the “Dumb Ox”

One of the most profound commentaries written on the ceremonial precepts of the Old Law is that of St. Thomas Aquinas, as found in his Summa Theologiae (I-II, q. 102). Building on the work of the Church Fathers, St. Thomas brilliantly unfolds the allegorical meaning of the Old Testament sacrifices. The value of his analysis is such that it merits being quoted in full:

The ceremonies of the Old Law had a twofold cause, namely, a literal cause, according as they were intended for divine worship; and a figurative or mystical cause, according as they were intended to foreshadow Christ; and in either way the ceremonies pertaining to the sacrifices can be assigned to a fitting cause.

For, according as the ceremonies of the sacrifices were intended for divine worship, the causes of the sacrifices can be taken in two ways. First, in so far as the sacrifice represented the directing of the mind to God, to which the offerer of the sacrifice was stimulated. Now in order rightly to direct his mind to God, man must recognize that whatever he has is from God as from its first principle, and direct it to God as its last end. This was denoted in the offerings and sacrifices, by the fact that man offered some of his own belongings in honor of God, as though in recognition of his having received them from God, according to the saying of [King] David: “All things are Thine: and we have given Thee what we received of Thy hand” (1 Paral. xxix, 14). Hence in offering up sacrifices man made protestation that God is the first principle of the creation of all things, and their last end, to which all things must be directed. And since, for the human mind to be rightly directed to God, it must recognize no first author of things other than God, nor place its end in any other [thing], for this reason it was forbidden in the Law to offer sacrifice to any other but God, according to Ex. 22:20: “He that sacrificeth to any gods other than to the Lord shall be put to death.” So another reasonable cause may be assigned to the ceremonies of the sacrifices, from the fact that men were thereby withdrawn from offering sacrifices to idols. Hence too it is that the precepts about the sacrifices were not given to the Jewish people until after they had fallen into idolatry, by worshipping the golden calf: as though those sacrifices were instituted so that the people, being ready to offer sacrifices, might offer those sacrifices to God rather than to idols. …

Now of all the gifts which God vouchsafed to mankind after they had fallen away by sin, the chief is that He gave His Son; thus it is written (Jn. 3:16): “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him may not perish, but have eternal life.” Consequently the chief sacrifice is that whereby Christ Himself “delivered Himself … to God for an odor of sweetness” (Eph. 5:2). And for this reason all the other sacrifices of the Old Law were offered up in order to foreshadow this one individual and paramount sacrifice — the imperfect forecasting the perfect. Hence the Apostle says (Heb. 10:11) that the priest of the Old Law “often” offered “the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins, whereas” Christ offered “one sacrifice for sins, for ever.” And since the reason of the figure is taken from that which the figure represents, therefore the reasons of the figurative sacrifices of the Old Law should be taken from the true sacrifice of Christ. [ix]

In other words, God, Creator of the universe and Governor of history, appointed certain sacrifices for the Jews precisely with a view to the one all-sufficient and perfect sacrifice of Christ.

In the same question of the Summa, St. Thomas shows how each major element of the Levitical code has both a valid historical reason and a figurative or mystical meaning. The text is too lengthy to reproduce here, but I will share a couple of highlights.

Why, according to Leviticus, do the animals have to be killed rather than, say, brought in for a moment, and after a quick prayer, taken away and put back in the flock? St. Thomas explains:

The animals which were offered in sacrifice were slain, because it is by being killed that they become useful to man, forasmuch as God gave them to man for food. Hence, too, they were burnt with fire: because it is by being cooked that they are made fit for human consumption. Moreover, the slaying of the animals signified the destruction of sins: and also that man deserved death on account of his sins; as though those animals were slain in man’s stead, in order to betoken the expiation of sins. Again, the slaying of these animals signified the slaying of Christ.

Elsewhere St. Thomas tells us why the non-animal items specified for worship — bread, wine, oil, incense, and salt — are not arbitrary:

The products of the soil are useful to man, either as food, and of these bread was offered; or as drink, and of these wine was offered; or as seasoning, and of these oil and salt were offered; or as healing, and of these they offered incense, which both smells sweetly and binds easily together [i.e., can be used as ointment for wounds]. Now the bread foreshadowed the flesh of Christ; and the wine, His blood, whereby we were redeemed; oil betokens the grace of Christ; salt, His knowledge; incense, His prayer.

Through Him, with Him, in Him

The Angelic Doctor helps us to appreciate why the activity of offering sacrifice to God is something that should be natural to us, if we are thinking rightly about ourselves and God. Aversion to the very idea of sacrifice, which is common in our day and age, finally comes back to a too limited notion of God. If we think of God as a fellow player on the field of the universe, a kind of superhuman force, then sure, we feel comfortable letting God have some dealings with mankind, but there could be no question of yielding ourselves up to Him as a burnt offering. To deserve this kind of action — nothing less than the offering up of one’s entire self — God must be wholly beyond us, infinitely great and worthy of all our love, indeed worthy of all the love we could never even give because we are finite. God, to be God, must be “higher than the highest in me, and yet more intimate than the innermost in me” (St. Augustine), the absolute origin of all that I am, and the single goal of all that I will be. If this is what we mean by “God,” then yes, the most natural and spontaneous and joyful thing I could do is to give myself up to Him entirely, seeking out symbolic ways in which to make visible and tangible this inner desire to give myself to Him.

But then we find, to our dismay, that we cannot fulfill this desire on our own. All men are born, so to speak, in the Old Testament; we have to be lifted up out of our proneness to idolatry in all its different forms. We are born in the shadow of the golden calf and have to be weaned from the temptation to pull God down to our level and make of him a rival in the contest for self-determination. We need a savior, a rescuer, who has stooped to our condition, has entered into it so fully that he can lift us up on his shoulders and bring us to where we are supposed to be.

The New Testament gives us the key that interprets the whole of the Old Testament. It is Our Lord Jesus Christ who offers the perfect sacrifice, the perfect worship, that fulfills the original plan of creation and making it possible for the rest of us to do so as well. He accomplishes this end not by observing Levitical sacrifices with fastidious correctness [x], but by substituting Himself as the sinless victim, the Paschal Lamb. As Cardinal Ratzinger beautifully says:

The Shepherd [of Israel] has become a Lamb. The vision of the lamb that appears in the story of Isaac, the lamb that gets entangled in the undergrowth and ransoms the son, has become a reality; the Lord became a Lamb; He allows Himself to be bound and sacrificed, to deliver us. [xi]

In so doing He brings to an end the sacrificial system contained in Leviticus. He is the reality that the symbols of the Jewish religion point to. He is the agent in whose person and by whose action fallen human beings can resume their rightful place as royal priests who bring the world back to its original purpose, who help the universe achieve its destiny. That is what is at stake!

God Gives Himself to Us

But how do we make His perfect sacrifice of love our own? Or better, how does He share this sacrifice with us? Jesus makes Himself our food and drink so that we may share His life and the reality of His sacrifice.

If we turn to the Gospel of John, we can see this more clearly. By the time St. John is writing his Gospel, his Christian readers or listeners already know the “institution narrative” from the liturgy. They know that the Eucharist has fulfilled and replaced the Passover meal. John plays on this in a remarkable way. Just when readers accustomed to the Synoptic Gospels expect the account of Jesus lifting up bread at the Last Supper, they get instead the body of Jesus being lifted up on the Cross as the Passover Lamb.

John has the Jewish Passover being prepared on Good Friday — and he adds this poignant detail in 19:14: “Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about the sixth hour” [i.e., noon]. This is the hour, according to ancient Jewish sources, when all the lambs were ritually slaughtered in the court of the Temple, in order to be brought to the homes where the meal would be celebrated. Jesus, the true Lamb of God, is handed over at this very moment to be sacrificed on the Cross.

Now, since (as John is dramatically showing) the body of Jesus on the Cross is the Passover Lamb, and since (as the Christians already know) the Eucharist is the new Passover Meal, therefore the Eucharist is the very same body of Jesus that hung on the Cross for our salvation — the same Jesus who is our salvation. To eat this Passover meal, therefore, means that we are incorporated into the Son of God: we become living members of His body, and we are spared the destroying angel.

Our Life as Catholics

With these marvelous truths in mind, what are some concrete applications to our life as Catholics, our way of thinking and acting?

From the time of the Apostolic Fathers to the present, the Church has understood the Mass to be nothing other than the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus Christ on Calvary, made present to us under the appearances of bread and wine — the forms Jesus chose at the Last Supper, the Passover meal He transformed into the first Mass. The Mass is the true and perfect sacrifice that makes possible, fulfills, and inspires all sacrifices of love. There is no unselfish love in this world that does not derive from the Cross, which translates into: from the Holy Mass offered day after day, year after year, century after century, until Christ returns in glory. As St. Pio of Pietrelcina once said: “It would be easier for the world to exist without the sun than without the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.”

The offering of the sacrifice of the Cross, made present by the double-consecration that symbolically separates body from blood, is therefore the central action of the Mass, the main reason it exists, the main reason we are there, and — here we have to think big — the main cause of the universe attaining its destiny. Without the continual celebration of the Mass, the world would literally fail to achieve the purpose for which God created it. The Mass is the most vital, most urgently needed, most solemn event that could ever and does ever take place. This means that the way it is celebrated, as well as our own interior attitude when we attend, should be a faithful reflection of its cosmic magnitude and mystical density.

The implications are obvious. We have to get beyond thinking that the Mass is about us. Yes, we are invited to partake of this heavenly banquet, but we are also and more fundamentally assisting at the world-redeeming sacrifice of Calvary, conforming ourselves spiritually to this sacrifice as Mary did at the foot of the Cross, so that we may “complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His Body, that is, the Church” (Col. 1:24). We are being asked to throw ourselves into the life-giving mystery of the Cross, which will make us worthy of tasting the fruit that grows from this Tree of Life. We are praying that we shall become fruitful branches of the true vine, Jesus Christ, who desires to see us grow strong and spread into the world that He created, then entered into as a man, and on the last day will judge in the sight of the angels.

When we assist at Mass and join ourselves spiritually to the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, we are helping to lead the world back to its original purpose and hastening the glorious coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It becomes an excellent examination of conscience to ask, first of all, am I fully “on board” with God’s plan for creation — starting with the purpose of my own existence? And second, do I desire to hasten the coming of Him who is the Judge of the Living and the Dead, who will purify the world with fire and carry into His kingdom all that is pure? We are being asked to adopt a radically heaven-centered perspective; we are being asked to adopt eternity, not time, as our basic frame of reference.

Through Leviticus, the Cross, and the Mass, Our Lord is beckoning us to think of sacrifice, meaning the gift of self, as our fundamental cast of mind and way of life, rather than acquisition, mastery over others, or autonomous self-determination — all the idols that dominate the minds of modern Americans and Europeans. Our way of life is to be Eucharistic, which means, having given thanks to God and partaken of His strength even unto death, we then allow ourselves, our time, our energy, our gifts, to be blessed, broken, and distributed to others, to bring them His life.


[i] For more, see my earlier article “The Inspiration and Inerrancy of Sacred Scripture.”

[ii] The Navarre Bible: Pentateuch (New York: Scepter Publishers, 1999), 417.

[iii] As Scott Hahn observes, “the legal procedure for renewing Israel’s broken covenant — while temporarily suspending their sentence — takes up the rest of Exodus, all of Leviticus, and the first ten chapters of Numbers!” (A Father Who Keeps His Promises [Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Publications], 155).

[iv] Ibid., 165.

[v] Ibid., 166.

[vi] Navarre Bible: Pentateuch, 416. It should be noted that the “codes” are indeed distinct (the prevailing content makes this clear), but some of the same sayings and particular rules are repeated in different codes, as refrains (e.g., 11:44 and 20:7) or to accentuate their importance.

[vii] The “burnt offering” is also sometimes translated “holocaust,” a Greek word meaning “burnt in its entirety.”

[viii] See Isaiah 1, Jeremiah 6, Amos 5:21, Hosea 6:6, Mark 12:33, etc.

[ix] ST II-II, q. 102, a. 3, corp.

[x] And in any case he himself is from the tribe of Judah, not that of Levi.

[xi] “The Theology of the Liturgy,” in Looking Again at the Question of the Liturgy with Cardinal Ratzinger, ed. Alcuin Reid, OSB (Farnborough: Saint Michael’s Abbey Press, 2003), 24.

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