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Leviticus 3:1-17

As we found in chapters 1 and 2, so in chapter 3 the regulations for the peace offering are divided into three very similar paragraphs, each describing how the offering is to be brought depending upon what kind of animal is to be sacrificed: cattle, sheep, or goats. In each case the tasks of the worshipper and the priest are specified, though this second time around all the details of chapter 1 regarding animal sacrifice are not repeated. In both cases the worshipper killed and butchered the animal, the priest then splashed the blood on the altar and cooked specified parts of the carcass on the altar fire. Three times in this chapter we are reminded that the peace offering was a “food offering” to the Lord.

The peace offering was different from the burnt offering, though the regulations governing all the animal sacrifices were similar in many ways. The peace offering was optional; it was not part of the regular daily offerings of the temple liturgy. Only at the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost among the feasts of the liturgical calendar was it required that a peace offering be made. Normally, this offering would be brought when someone thought it important to do so. In Leviticus 7:11-18 we read of the reasons why someone might bring a peace offering. For example, it could be brought as a special act of thanksgiving for a blessing sought from God and received. We read in the Psalms of a psalmist promising to pay his vows if only the Lord would grant his prayer. The vow would apparently often be the promise to give thanks to God with a peace offering should his prayer be answered. Have you ever told the Lord as you were making an urgent prayer to him that if he would only hear and answer your prayer you would bring thanks into the sanctuary and among the people of God? When the Lord heard Hannah’s prayer and gave her a son after long years of barrenness, she brought a peace offering to the tabernacle to pay such a vow that she had made when she was praying for a child.

Though the peace offering in the OT was sometimes associated with the confession of sin and prayers for help in need, most of the time this offering is associated with thanksgiving and rejoicing in the goodness of the Lord. For example, Psalm 100 was appointed for use with this offering, and that Psalm, as you know, is a psalm of rejoicing in the goodness of God. [Wenham, 79-80]

The distinctive feature of the peace offering among the other animal sacrifices was that the worshipper himself, and his family and perhaps friends as well, could share in the meal. The priests got their share of the meat and the bread (peace offerings were often, if not always, accompanied by grain offerings; bread is mentioned as part of the offering in chapter 7 but not here in chapter 3; this may explain why these regulations follow those for the grain offering), but the remainder of the cooked meat made for a feast for the people who had made their way to the sanctuary for the purpose of offering the sacrifice. Most Israelites did not eat meat very often. It was a luxury they could not often afford, so a feast of meat at the sanctuary was something to look forward to. The meal would have been eaten at or near the sanctuary.

Text Comment

v.1       The term “sacrifice of peace,” literally zeveḥ shelamim, “shelamim” being derived from the same root as shalom, the Hebrew term for “peace” or “well-being,” has been translated variously. The NIV rendered it “fellowship offering,” perhaps because it resulted in a festive meal that was eaten by people together. [Wenham, 76; Ross, 114-115] While the burnt offering had to be a male, the peace offering could be a male or female animal.

v.2       So far the instructions for the peace offering are the same as those for the burnt offering. The fact that the blood was splashed on the altar suggests that atonement was taking place, though this is not said in so many words. Presumably the worshipper butchered this sacrifice as he did the animal for the burnt offering, but that point is assumed rather than mentioned again. But from this point the ritual is different from that of the burnt offering.

v.5       The gist of vv. 3-5 is that the fatty parts of the animal — the kidneys, the “large net” of fat around and between the intestines, and the long lobe of the liver (cf. Wenham, 75-76; Sklar, 103) — were burned up on the altar. That is, this was the Lord’s portion of the animal. As we read in 7:31-32, in addition to the hide, the priests received the breast and the right thigh.

The fat was given to God because in that time and place it was regarded as the very best part of the animal, hence the phrase “the fat of the land” in Gen. 45:18. Still today any chef will tell you that the tastiest steak is the one marbled with fat. Pig farmers in America have for years worked to take the fat out of the American hog for the sake of health-conscious consumers who were taught to prefer lean meat; but lean pork is usually dry and much less appetizing and the market has suffered as a result. Some pork farmers are nowadays working hard to restore the fat in pork because consumers are turning away from a meat that isn’t as tasty as it used to be. Fat matters in cooked meat!

You’ll notice that the fatty portions were not burned by themselves, but on top of the burnt offerings that would have been cooking on the altar. Again the fat would have made for a more pleasing aroma. We’ve got all kinds of smells in the tabernacle by now. We have the frankincense, we have the fat, we have the meat cooking, and we have the incense burning inside and probably wafting outside, and so on. The fat would have also helped to keep the fire hot.

Why the kidney and liver should be given to God is not so clear. As you may remember, these organs were metaphorically the seat of human emotions in the ancient world, as the heart is for us today. Perhaps the idea is that the worshipper’s best and deepest feelings were being given to God. Remember, the sacrificial animal was a substitute for the worshipper. [Wenham, 80-81]

By the way, the fact that only these parts of the animal were given to God is a clear indication that the rest of the sacrifice would be consumed by the others. While the regulations of chapter 3 do not comment on the meal that concluded the offering, they do assume the existence of that meal. What is more, the peace offering is also not said to be a “most holy” offering, as the grain offering is said to have been in 2:3. That is because it could be eaten by lay men and women as well as by the priests. This is another indication that some, indeed most of meat would be eaten by the worshippers themselves.

v.9       Since the fat tail was full of fat, it too was removed to be burned on the altar with the burnt offering. Indeed the sheep in view, the broad-tailed sheep that is still popular in that part of the world has a mass of fat that might weigh as much as 28 pounds. It is considered a delicacy in many parts of the world today. [Sklar, 104]

v.17     Since this was the one offering from which the worshippers might themselves share the meal, it was important to say what parts of the animal they could eat. They couldn’t eat the fat or the blood. The phrase “eating blood” actually refers to eating meat that was raw with blood. [Sklar, 106] The rationale for this prohibition will be given in chapter 17.

This law against the eating of fat or blood applied not only to the meals of the sanctuary, but to the meals they ate at home as well. There was, in other words, a universal prohibition against the eating of blood or fat. This is the origin of kosher food. Kosher meat has had all the blood drained from it and still today certain fat around the innards is removed by kosher butchers. Once again the prohibition against eating the blood or fat assumes that the worshippers were eating the rest of the sacrifice, at least those parts of it not given to the priests.

We are given in Leviticus 3 the regulations for the offering of the sacrifice of peace, but it won’t be until chapter 7 that we read of the meal that was its conclusion, the meal that would have been the most anticipated and most memorable part of the service for those who came to the tabernacle and later the temple to offer such a sacrifice. This offering was known in Israel before these regulations were written down so the Israelites reading this would have had the whole ritual in their mind as they read about how it was to be performed.

For example, at the covenant renewal ceremony at Mt. Sinai, described for us in Exodus 24, it is explicitly said that both burnt offerings and peace offerings were part of that ceremony. That is the first mention of a “peace offering,” but no doubt its practice there drew on an older tradition of making such sacrifices. When at the end of that ceremony Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up on to the lower reaches of the mountain and “ate and drank” as they beheld the glory of the Lord, the food consumed would have been their portion of the peace offerings that had been made.

As we have said previously, in Israel, unlike ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia, it was not thought that God needed nourishment, that he was consuming the food. The idiom was preserved, but the meaning was completely changed. The idea of a meal was used to express Yahweh’s desire for fellowship with his people. [Levine, 17] It was, we read, a “food offering” to the Lord, not because God was hungry, but because his people ate the meal, as it were, ate with him, in his presence. [Sklar, 104]

What we have in the peace offering is, in fact, an instance of a universal human custom: the meal, and especially the feast, as an expression of joy, of thanksgiving, of giving honor, and of human love and fellowship. It is important, I think, in fact very important, that we place these Israelite customs that can seem so odd to us, in this larger human context. It helps us to see that they did as we do and for the same reasons. The forms might be different, but the essential qualities and motives are the same. Actually the forms aren’t all that different in some respects. What would a good meal be without meat and without bread? Lying behind this universal custom of the social significance of a meal are two trans-temporal and trans-cultural realities.

  1. The first is that food tastes good and so it is a real pleasure for human beings to eat. We take this entirely for granted. Unlike the animals, we do not eat only to survive. If we did we wouldn’t eat nearly as much food as we do. For us eating is not only for nourishment, I’m not even sure it is primarily nourishment. It is perhaps more a pleasure than a necessity if truth be told. Things that are pleasurable are regularly used to enhance events that have nothing in particular to do with food. The giving of gifts works in a similar way. We love to give gifts to those we love and we love to see them open them and find pleasure in them. And, of course, we love to receive gifts. Why do we open gifts at birthdays and at Christmas? Because gifts increase pleasure. They bathe the event, which is really about something else, with still more of those states of mind and heart that we think the event itself should produce: gratitude, love, and joy. We have confirmation of this in the Bible as you may remember. When the Jews were delivered from the threat of extermination in Persia through the offices of Esther and Mordecai, a great holiday was appointed, the Feast of Purim, and we read in Esther 9 that this holiday was to be a time of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and gifts to the poor. Why gifts? Because they increase gladness. There, at Purim, you have both food and gifts combining to increase happiness. The same principle is found in Nehemiah where in chapter 8 we read of Nehemiah, on the Feast of Trumpets, finding the people mourning on a day that should have been a day of gladness. He sent them home with these instructions: “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep. Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to the Lord… for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” [8:9-10] They were told to get happy and use food and gifts to get happy. Note in those instructions the emphasis on good food, even the best food, and the best drinks. We love to eat really good food! Our two banquets prepared by Francis Foucachon to raise money for the translation of the Third Millennium seminary curriculum into French were cases in point. As the courses arrived at our table we all took our first sips or first bites and then began talking together about how good it was, wondering how he produced that taste, and so on. Those proved to be evenings of pleasure because they combined good company and conversation with extraordinary food.All over the world and in every manner of custom, special dinners and fine food are used to increase pleasure and, especially, increase pleasure in the celebration of certain events thought by a people to have intrinsic importance, as believers would think some great kindness they had received from God was of intrinsic importance
  2. The second of these trans-temporal and trans-cultural realities is that meals, especially festive meals, are an occasion of fellowship. No one thinks of a feast being a meal eaten by a single individual alone. The notion of a solo feast is an oxymoron. Feasts are by their very nature convivial events. There is something inevitable about human beings gathering around a table to eat together. The food enhances the fellowship — indeed, we enjoy the food even more because we can talk with one another about how good it tastes! — and the fellowship enhances the food, making the meal still more enjoyable than the food itself.

Now think for a moment about how this works in human life. If we wish to honor someone, to thank him or her for what he or she has done, we are very likely to celebrate their achievements with a banquet. The good meal becomes the setting for a celebration of personal appreciation. What happens when a visiting dignitary comes to Washington D.C., an important man or woman the government wishes to honor? They hold a state dinner for him or her at the White House. They bring out all the sterling silver and all the crystal and they serve the very best food and it is served by waiters in their most impressive livery and all the rest. What is more, other people are invited to turn the meal into a feast. We’ve done similar things here on several occasions. And we organize the meal in a way to give the honoree the best, usually in our case, the best place at the table, often at what we call the “head table.” We sit him next to the president or sit him where everyone can see him. We even call that seat at the table “the place of honor.” Well, in the ancient near eastern fashion, that is what the peace offering did. It honored the Lord for what he had done for those who brought the sacrifice and then enjoyed the meal. That is why the Lord got the fat. They were taking it out of the animal and giving it to him instead of eating it themselves. The best was reserved for him. It was symbolic of course, metaphorical. They understood that. But that did not make the honor that was paid any less real. How else can you give a gift to God, the invisible, transcendent Almighty, who does not eat and who owns everything already? They were honoring the Lord in a way that everyone could appreciate and understand.

In the peace offering, and the meal that was produced from it, they were also celebrating their fellowship with God and with one another. We do the same today. I’m not sure it is always entirely clear to us that this is what we are doing, but the effect is the same. How does a feast celebrate fellowship? Well quite simply. People come together to eat. They gather at the table! For those of you parents with children, you are well aware that it is at meal times that the whole family is together; it is at the table that you have conversations that involve everyone. It is one of the most tragic consequences of the loss of the regular family meal in modern American culture that the most consistent and the most important instrument of family fellowship has been lost with it. But with feasts the fellowship is also enhanced. Everyone gathers at the table for Thanksgiving or Christmas, but they are the more happy to be together because of the table loaded with the best of food and drink. We may not reflect on this very much, but is it not so with you? You think of these feasts as happy times in which you get together with your friends and loved ones. Why even the office Christmas party trades on this so human convention: it is only right to get together at Christmas and only right that food should play an important part in our celebration of unity as a company or as an office. What do we ever really celebrate without others present and without food?

And, finally, with the peace offering and its meal, they were giving thanks; they were celebrating God’s goodness to them. All over the world feasts are used to give thanks. The connection with God may have alas become attenuated, as it has in the American celebration of thanksgiving. Sportscasters on Thanksgiving Day football games and others still talk about being thankful, but the language is incoherent. What is thankfulness if one is not thanking someone? What they really mean is, I suppose, is that we should be happy for what makes us happy, a meaningless tautology. To be thankful, one must recognize not only the gift but the giver! Is that not so? Well, the peace offering explicitly recognized both gift and giver. The gift had been received and it was for that reason that they brought their offering to the tabernacle. They had come to give thanks and the thanks were given to Yahweh. It was a food offering to the Lord. That was made explicit with the best parts of the animal being burned up on the altar as if they were a gift to him. That was his portion.

Again, we do the very same thing today. When we wish to celebrate some goodness, some gift, some blessing we eat together. Such is our celebration of Thanksgiving. God has been good to us and we give thanks to him — it is so natural for us to do this — by having a feast. Think about that. Why should our sitting down to enjoy a great meal, a table loaded with the best food, be a means of giving thanks to God? We’re the ones eating the food after all! Well, the idea is partly that by enjoying such tasty food and so much of it we are embodying God’s goodness to us. This bounty is what the Lord has provided; it stands for all that we are thankful to God for. But the great feast also serves not only to remind us of God’s goodness but to enhance our sense of it. The feast makes us happy in the provision of the Lord. What is more, as we read in Nehemiah and Esther, in these feasts of thanksgiving in those days and today, it seems right, even natural to us to share the bounty the Lord has given us with others. So we volunteer to serve a thanksgiving meal at the mission or invite to our table newcomers to town who have nowhere else to go. Some scholars, assessing the biblical evidence, argue that the poor were also feasted at the peace offering meals in the tabernacle and temple. [Ross, 119] So at the peace offering feast would be your family, maybe some of your friends, maybe a priest who had helped you in the service. And then there would be some poor folk whom you invited to share this meal. We’re talking about a whole animal. There was plenty of food to go around.

This principle is universally present in human life, as I said. Think, for example, of the wedding, which all over the world usually is accompanied by a feast. The parents put on a feast of some kind. They do it to increase the happiness of all those who have gathered to rejoice with the couple, but they do it as well, especially if they are Christians, to rejoice in the goodness of God to their children. But it is not only weddings. In our homes here, it is natural for us on the day of a baptism to gather as loved ones and friends to celebrate God’s goodness to us, in both the gift of a child and his promise to be his or her God, with a feast. We often do the same when our children graduate from high school or college. We even very often gather around good food at funerals. We are celebrating our love and our gratitude for a life now lost to us and we do so at a table loaded with good food.

The peace offering, in all these ways, was very like what we do and what all people do and have always done. The feast is a universal human custom by which people are honored, fellowship is enjoyed and celebrated, and thanksgiving is given. The reason it was called a “food offering” to the Lord was because it was eaten in his presence! [Ross, 118-119]

Now, even if you didn’t know that at the institution of the Lord’s Supper in the upper room the night of his betrayal, the Lord Jesus referred to the cup as the “covenant in my blood,” an echo of the phrase “the blood of the covenant” taken from Exodus 24:8, and by so doing explicitly linked the Lord’s Supper to the peace offering, it should be obvious by now that the Lord’s Supper we celebrate every Sunday bears all the marks of the peace offering.

  1. It too is a sacrificial meal — that is a meal that follows the sacrifice and in which the sacrifice itself is eaten — even if in this case it is bread and wine not bread and meat. The bread and wine are, as we are reminded in the institution itself, the body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ who was sacrificed for us.
  2. It is a common meal. That is, it is shared by us together. And in fact, as with the peace offering so with our Lord’s Supper, both the priest and the laity eat the meal together.
  3. It is a celebration of honor — the honor we are paying to the Lord for his saving love and work — of fellowship — ours with God and with one another — and of thanksgiving for what the Lord has done for us and given to us. Indeed, one of the New Testament names for the Lord’s Supper is Eucharist, a Greek word that means “thanksgiving.”
  4. It is a communion not only with one another but with the Lord himself. He is not eating our bread and drinking our wine, to be sure, any more than he ate the fat cooked on the altar, but it is a celebration of his presence. The phrase “pleasing aroma to the Lord” (v. 5) is meant to convey that fact. The Lord himself was present with his people to enjoy the sacrifice they were making for him and eating with him.
  5. And it is a feast that celebrates our peace with God. It is a covenantal meal — the Lord Jesus explicitly said that it was — and that is what the covenant means. We have peace with God.

I think it is a wonderful thing the way God has appointed for our use rituals, such as the Lord’s Supper, that draw from instincts and customs so universal in human life, so perfectly suited to our condition, our longings, and our natural pleasures as human beings. Again and again the Lord designed our relationship with him to be expressed in ways that were delightful to us. How impoverished we would be without the feasts that grace our lives: Thanksgiving, Christmas, weddings, baptisms, and, supremely, the Lord’s Supper. These matter so much more to us than those celebrations that have nothing to do with God and are not graced by his presence: the fourth of July, or Labor Day, Halloween, or New Year’s Eve. Who gathers with friends and loved ones to feast on Halloween? How do those celebrations humble us, or purify us, or raise in our hearts a living gratitude to God?

Every Lord’s Day we celebrate the new version of the peace offering. The world lacks peace, peace with God and peace between human beings. At this moment its lack of peace is front page news everywhere. But we celebrate our peace with God and with one another every Lord’s Day; we give thanks to God in this powerful and potent way. We remember what he did for us to grant us his peace and we enjoy doing so in the company of others we know and love who share our sense of gratitude and our feelings of joy in the eternal peace that we have through Jesus Christ. That is the Lord’s Supper, our peace offering. Visualize, if you can, those long ago brethren eating that sumptuous meal at the tabernacle, a large group of people gathered round an enormous table loaded with food and drink, smiling and laughing and having the greatest time, made so much the greater by their sense that the Lord was pleased with what they were doing, happy for the happiness he had given them, happy for the gratitude that filled their hearts.