Vayikra: 'Bring Yourself'
Vayikra (Focus on Lev 1 - 3)
The words of scripture thus far have been words sweet to read and wondrous to behold, the great victories, the humbling failings and the great redemptions of Genesis are the foundation of our faith, as it should be, God willing. Yet the words of Leviticus are among the most challenging and the most confusing words of the scripture that we find ourselves faced with. People it seems start the reading of Scripture soaring on the heights of the ventures of our great forefathers; Abraham who defeated Kings, Isaac who offered his life, Jacob, our Father ‘Israel’, who journeyed and worked decades for love, the 12 tribes who descended into Egypt, the epic of Moses and Aaron declaring ‘let my people go’ and our journey through the Red Sea into the wilderness.
But then we find ourselves here, stumbling if you will, upon the words of Leviticus and the masses having soared now flee as they pass over these words, quickly turning the pages as they ignore this book to get to the next compelling chapter of the Bible’s great story.
Yet we are called to read these words for they are life as much as the other portions of scripture. Hereto, like Genesis, we may learn of our great and glorious God. Here also we learn who He is, what His desires are for humanity and the ways in which we may better our lives. Even today in a world full of the modern we may learn to live through the words of Leviticus.
The words of Moses in Deuteronomy apply as much to the rest of the Torah, as they do to Leviticus;
Deuteronomy 32:46–47 (The Scriptures)
46 … “Set your heart on all the words with which I warn you today, so that you command your children to guard to do all the Words of this Torah.
47 “For it is not a worthless Word for you, because it is your life, and by this Word you prolong your days on the soil which you pass over the Yarděn to possess.”
Naturally, in a society where the Temple actually stood, the ancient perception of Leviticus differs greatly to our modern view. Today we scoff as we skip these pages choosing to remain ignorant while thinking ourselves informed. Yet a little ancient wisdom for our modern lives would greatly improve us for Leviticus conveys the character and the heart of God.
Beloved, take every 50th letter of the Torah, starting in Genesis and ending in Exodus and you will find that every 50th letter spells out the word ‘torah’.
Do the same in the book of Numbers and the book of Deuteronomy, and you will behold that the word spelt out for you is ‘Torah’, only backwards. Thus Genesis to Exodus, Numbers to Deuteronomy point inward to the Book of Leviticus, the centre of Torah.
Naturally, you would take every 50th letter of Leviticus and expect another word but there isn’t. What you will notice though as you’re counting letters is that every 8th letter spells out a name, that is, the name of God, YHWH.
Thus the Torah reveals YHWH and ironically He is found in the book of Leviticus.
Beloved, take another 2 letters from the Torah, the first and the last; that is, the first letter of Genesis ‘bet’ and the last letter of Deuteronomy ‘lamed’. In putting them together you get a word that is not very profound for you have the word ‘bel’, meaning; ‘no’ (as seen in Is 26:10).
But imagine the ‘bet’ and the ‘lamed’ on paper and imagine yourself on the page standing to the right (in English terms).
(Bet) – (Lamed) <-You
Imagine yourself looking backwards to the letters, in doing so they are reversed; and in reversing the word it spells something very different. They spell the word ‘lev’; meaning ‘heart’.
Thus for you and I, looking backwards in time if you will, see that the Torah is the heart of God which at its very centre reveals the name of God, YHWH; where we least expect it, in the book of Leviticus.
So we begin to read and we start with the words,
‘And YHWH called to Mosheh…’
The Hebrew begins with the word ‘Vayikra’, the name of our portion, which translates as ‘and called’ or ‘and He called’.
In Hebrew the word begins with the letter ‘vav’, which means ‘and’, indicating a continuation of something. Whilst this may be a new book it really is a continuation from the ending of the book of Exodus. Vav is commonly used to connect words etc. in a sentence like we would with the word ‘and’. In a sense ‘vav’ is doing just that with the book of Exodus.
The word then for ‘called’ is spelt out;
Yud – qaf – resh – alef (Yikra)
If you’re keen enough, I would encourage you to participate in a rather odd and childish exercise. Get yourself some honey, print and cut out the letters for ‘vayikra’ and using the honey stick the letters to another piece of paper or cardboard, spelling out the word ‘vayikra’. I’ll explain in a little.
‘Vayikra’ is a very important word to learn. As I’ve mentioned the ancient perception of Leviticus differed from ours to the extent that when a child started their education at the age of 5, they did so by learning the book of Leviticus. Now you need to be mindful that religion and education were not separated then. So when children started their education – not just Sunday school – they did so starting in the book of Leviticus.
Why the honey? Because in the ancient world they had cut outs of the Hebrew letters and the teachers didn’t have glue or a blackboard to write on. What they did was they would sometimes use honey to stick the letters up on the wall, or on a board I would imagine, for the children to see. You can imagine 5 year olds probably couldn’t help themselves and perhaps tasted the honey as they leant the words of Torah.
The tradition where a child’s education starts with Leviticus is old. It is old enough that I can confidently suggest that our Master, Yeshua, when He Himself started his education started with the words of Leviticus and that He started with the word ‘vayikra’.
Vayikra is an important word for you to learn.
Perhaps our Master learnt with the honey as a child himself; perhaps the honey is why it is written;
Psalm 119:103 (The Scriptures)
103 How sweet to my taste has Your word been,
More than honey to my mouth!
Proverbs 16:24 (The Scriptures)
24 Pleasant words are like a honeycomb,
Sweet to the being, and healing to the bones.
But ‘Why do we start the children with Leviticus and not with Genesis?
The Holy One, Blessed be He, said, ‘since the children are pure and the sacrifices are pure, let the pure come and occupy themselves with the things that are pure.’ (Leviticus Rabbah 7:3)
The first word Vayikra holds more truth for us. We cannot tell for we don’t have an original manuscript and most Hebrew bibles do not include the ‘jots’ and ‘tittles’ that the Torah scrolls contain. There is however something further that makes the word vayikra unique.
It is because the ‘alef’ at the end of the text is diminished – it’s written much smaller than all of the other words – as seen below.
In Jewish tradition they take maintaining the intricate details of the Torah very seriously, to the point where every scroll of the Torah is to look the same and that if even one stroke is wrong then the whole Torah scroll is rendered invalid. The Torah scrolls then, and their details are ancient and arguably the copies we have reflect the very writing of Moses himself.
The sages have long asked then, why did Moses, who wrote the Torah, write the alef small?
There are a myriad of answers available and the most common is that Moses didn’t want to actually write the alef at the end of the word vayikra. The reason been is because without the ‘alef’, the word vayikra becomes the word ‘vayikar’. This actually changes the meaning somewhat, rather than ‘And he called’ which shows that someone is been spoken to directly and purposefully, it implies rather ‘and He stumbled upon’ (vayikar i.e. stumbled upon, is the description used for Balaam interestingly enough when God ‘stumbles’ upon him). So the sages say that Moses wanted to diminish God calling to Him specifically, and that he would rather put that God ‘stumbled’ upon him. The sages then make the connection that Moses was the most humble man of all – as the scripture says – and that the diminished alef then is a representation of Moses’ humility.
Whilst the message in that is true – that Moses was the most humble man – there is another position regarding the diminished alef that I would like to share, particularly as it connects to children beginning their education in Leviticus. It a lesson from Rabbi Twersky who wrote;
My teacher, a tall, dignified man with a long, white beard which was parted in the center then continued. ‘Do you see that the first word, vayikra, he called, is written with a tiny aleph? Do you know why this is so? Because this is the beginning of Torah for tiny people, for small children.’
This tiny aleph represented me. Small, but sacred. Little, but being called by God to greatness, this was my aleph…in many ways man is tiny, and to a degree that this is true, man should be aware of his infinitely small nature. But tiny men can also be great and sacred, just like the tiny little person who begins to learn Torah.
Why was the aleph chosen from all the letters to represent this concept? Perhaps because the aleph is the first letter of the alphabet, and this is the primary concept a person should have. Indeed, we may be small in some ways, but we can be sacred and precious to God, and in this way we can all be great.
So the word vayikra and the letter alef here is a representation of us. Us ‘little people’ beginning our education in Torah.
But all these lessons and traditions stand in contrast to the original title for the Book of Leviticus which was originally called ‘Torah Kohanin’ meaning ‘the manual of the priests’. The book was called Leviticus because in Hellenistic times the term Levite meant priest. We know however that this is not true, especially when the actual Levites are only mentioned once in the book of Leviticus (Lev. 25).
Whilst the name Torah Kohanin makes perfect sense, as shown by the traditions with children, the manual was in essence one for all of Israel. Note that God did not say to Moses ‘speak to priests’, but rather ‘speak to children of Israel’. Therefore, God has eliminated all excuses that we may make in order to avoid reading Leviticus. God directed these words to us too, not just the priests.
This concept stands in stark contrast to the pagan religions of the day. Whereas God says ‘speak to the children of Israel’, pagan Mesopotamian texts state;
‘the ritual which you perform, only the qualified person shall view it. An outsider who has nothing to do with the ritual shall not view it, if he does, may his days be few! The informed person may show this to the informed person. The uninformed shall not see it. ‘
Or from Egypt where the children of Israel came from, the priestly code there ‘the book of the dead’ states;
‘do not show this to anyone, not to your father, not to your son, it is for you alone.’
In Israel the priesthood was different in that it did not stand as some kind of elite cult, but was rather public and for all people. We see this in how they laity were participants in the sacrifice process. They laying of the hands on the sacrifice were performed by laity; the laity could slaughter and flay the sacrifice and was even permitted to enter the courtyard as part of many of the rituals. Unlike other secret priesthoods, Israel’s was visible and accessible.
The only elitist aspect of the priesthood is found in its strict hereditary character. Though for Egypt historians note that ‘because of its lay character and ever recurring ‘rotation’ in the life of the priest, the Egyptian clergy was open to committing abuses of every sort’. Whereas in Israel, the priests trained their whole lives to perform the service of the sanctuary. Whilst abuses did occur, the hereditary nature of it could be argued was required to maintain the specific skill sets required.
The things we could learn regarding the sacrifices are many – but further comparison to pagan religions reveals some fascinating truths and differences regarding the God of Israel and its sacrificial system.
The premise of pagan religions included the belief that the deity was influenced by and dependent on some sort of divine realm. Pagan’s believed that this divine realm – the spirit world if we can call it – spawned forces both good and evil, and they believed that if they were able to access the power of this realm that they could in some way control and influence the deity in which they were worshipping. For pagans it was a world full of demons where if they effected the right ritual that they could combat them. It was a world of ‘spiritual warfare’ of sorts and in pagan belief it was common for these demons to attack and desecrate their temples etc. So, pagan rituals were a means to cleanse their temple from demonic assault and a means to access this kind of divine realm whereby their deity could be influenced by the will of humans, hence the idea that sacrifices etc. were ‘food’ for the gods.
In the book of Leviticus the contrast is fascinating and these concepts are rejected. Rather than a world where demons perpetrate significant evil (though that’s possible) and desecrate the temple, it is rather man that perpetrates evil and desecrates. The realm of demons is dispelled and the notion that man can influence and in these ways control God is dispelled. Much anthropomorphic language is also avoided in the Bible so as to eliminate the belief that perhaps we are feeding God who himself says;
Psalm 50:12–13 (The Scriptures)
12 “If I were hungry, I would not speak to you;
For the world is Mine, and all that fills it.
13 “Do I eat the flesh of bulls,
Or drink the blood of goats?
So the purpose of the sacrificial system in Israel differs greatly to others. Not to control God or dispel demons, but to draw near to God and to dispel the impurity caused in the sanctuary by our sins. The sanctuary after all is the dwelling place of God – which, if contaminated by sin meant that God would not be able to dwell with his, the reason then for sacrifice ultimately been maintaining and drawing access with Him.
These 2 points however remain separate for the purpose of sacrifice is not necessarily connected to sin. The teaching of the church that sacrifice is to sin is false, and the teaching that sacrifice was needed for forgiveness is false. If we truly believe that Israel needed to kill a goat in order to be forgiven, and that Jesus has now died for us to not have to do that, then we have reduced the death of Messiah to one of simple convenience.
However beginning with Leviticus 1 – 3 we learn of three sacrifices;
The Olah (burnt offering/ascending offering)
The Minchah (cereal offering/grain offering)
The Peace Offering
None of these are in relation to sin.
The purpose of the Olah offering is debated because no clear reason is given. There are indications in scripture which suggest it played some role in expiation – that is appeasement of God. For example, David offers an olah offering to stop plague in Israel in 2 Sam 24:21-25, though it is never explicitly stated that the olah is for expiation or forgiveness.
What we do know however is that the olah is a voluntary offering, verse 1 says ‘when anyone brings an offering…’ but can be rendered ‘if’, and no reason is explicitly stated in Scripture which would compel someone to bring an olah.
It is then a freewill offering and scholars largely agree that its purpose was a ‘gift’ to God – to entreaty Him, to pay homage and for thanksgiving.
With each offering there is embedded symbolism. For the olah, the fact that it was completely burnt on the altar is commonly viewed as a representation of the offerer giving themselves over to God (a fact that we’ll get back to). That it has no explicit reason symbolizes the love and loyalty that the olah requires. Truly, the olah is a freewill gift to God.
That the verses mention that the olah is given ‘to make atonement’ (v3.) merely teaches us one of the many purposes of the sacrificial system, as stated before, to ‘draw near’ to God.
For we must understand that the word atonement does not mean ‘forgiveness’, it means covering. Sacrifice then was the means in which man draws near to God because it covered our imperfect humanity. Because He is holy and we are not, it means that we require a vehicle in order have access to Him lest we be struck down. Ironically, though the animal is killed, the Bible stresses over and over that the life of something is in its blood. Analyzing the text reveals that it is really life then that is required through the sacrificial system. A note further seen by the fact that impurity in the Bible is caused by one common denominator – death. Sacrifice therefore is about life, which is the means in which we access our God and the means in which we atone for ourselves, that is cover ourselves, so that we can draw near.
This is further seen in the word for ‘sacrifice’ which in Hebrew is ‘korban’. Sacrifice or offering in reality is not an accurate translation. Korban has the root ‘karav’ which means ‘to come near’ or ‘something brought near’. It is not sacrifice as we conceptualize it and it is not connected to sin per se, but the drawing near to God.
The olah then, given freely, is a means to pay homage to God, to express our love to God, and is a means to draw near to Him.
The grain offering has long been understood as a ‘poor man’s’ olah offering. Like the olah it too is voluntary and its purpose is much the same. It however was a means in which the poor, who cannot afford bulls etc., can offer sacrifice.
There are two things that I would like to point out regarding the minchah;
Only a portion of the offering was burnt up while the rest was given over to the priests to consume. This is notable because in the ancient world, grain offering were ones that could be performed within the privacy of one’s home. People would offer their sacrifices publically, typically at the temple, but the grain offering could be offered anywhere by anyone. This offering of the grain was a common practice – one that we knowingly associate with Ishtar (Easter) as the Bible demonstrates in Ezekial. So the commandment here eliminates that pagan practice and further ensured that the worship of God remained communal in nature and further differentiated from the pagan practices of the time.
The minchah offering, in verse 13, must be given with salt. It’s interesting because salt was used as a preservative in the ancient world and therefore represents permanence. Salt covenants then are symbolic of the eternal nature of the covenant been made. It’s is further interesting because there are 2 salt covenants in scripture – one with the priesthood (Num 18:19), and one with Kind David (2 Chron. 13:5) – permanent covenants that find their culmination in the Messiah.
The peace offering is of note in that it’s the only offering where the giver participates in eating the offering. It is the only one where God, the priesthood and the Israelite gets their share. For this reason it is called the peace offering in that it requires people to sit together and feast. It is also a voluntary offering and is typically given at festivals as part of the celebration.
This is the offering Yeshua spoke of when he said;
Matthew 5:23–24 (The Scriptures)
23 “If, then, you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother holds whatever against you,
24 leave your gift there before the altar, and go, first make peace with your brother, and then come and offer your gift
Sacrifice then is not what we think it is, but a means to live in communion with God.
The symbolism and the lessons they teach are immense and the above is merely an introduction.
I would however like to demonstrate the depth of some of the symbolism by re-examining the Olah in Leviticus 1.
It is the first offering mentioned, as we read;
Leviticus 1:1–2 (The Scriptures)
And יהוה called to Mosheh, and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying,
2 “Speak to the children of Yisra’ěl, and say to them, ‘When anyone of you brings an offering to יהוה, you bring your offering of the livestock, of the herd or of the flock.
We’ve learnt of how fascinating the first word of this Torah portion is – now we must learn just how fascinating this first verse is for it has drawn the scrutiny of scholars and rabbis alike over the centuries. This is because the tenses of the verse and it’s rendering in the Hebrew makes little sense.
In English we can read it as ‘when one of you offers a sacrifice’ or like my translation above which says ‘when anyone of you brings an offering’.
If this translation was accurate though we would read in the Hebrew ‘adam mikem ki yakriv’, but we do not. What the verse literally states is ‘adam ki yakriv mikem’ – notice how the word order is different. It literally renders in the English as ‘when one offers a sacrifice of you’.
The verse is further fascinating because the word for ‘man’ in Hebrew is ‘ish’, it does not however appear in the text. The word that is rendered ‘man’ here is the Hebrew word ‘adam’ – as in the name of the first man, that famous character in the Book of Genesis.
The Jewish mystics teach that in essence what God wants then is for mankind to offer himself i.e. bring a sacrifice of ‘you’.
Perhaps this is what Paul had in mind when he wrote the words;
Romans 12:1 (The Scriptures)
… to present your bodies a living offering—set-apart, well-pleasing to Elohim—your reasonable worship.
Yet the prevalence of ‘adam’ here, rather than ‘ish’ speaks of something more.
But let’s return to the little alef first – there is more to see here because the sages noticed something. They noticed that if you spell out the pronunciation of the letter ‘alef’ that it is done with the letters;
Alef – lamed – Vav – Fey – a word which is said as ‘alef’ and is also the pronunciation of the letter ‘alef’.
Not surprisingly the word ‘alef’ is a rank of nobility, a champion, or a prince. In modern Hebrew it is a rank in the IDF.
The sages say then that the alef also represents God (for He is the prince etc.), who had to diminish Himself in order to communicate and dwell with mankind. ‘He called’ (vayikra) therefore speaks to God communicating with mankind, but also the fact that God had to diminish His eternal nature in order to interact with us. Like they say of Moses and the little alef, God humbled himself.
This should remind us of verses such as this one in Philippians which states;
Philippians 2:8 (The Scriptures)
8 ... having been found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death…
I reveal this because the diminished alef, the humble God, reveals the true identity of the true ‘adam’ that would bring the sacrifice of Himself. As we know, God humbled Himself by becoming man and by dwelling amongst us. The humble alef then is our Humble Messiah.
It is no coincidence then that the Humble Alef is found in the description given for the olah sacrifice. The olah is notably the same type of sacrifice that Isaac was when he offered himself at the command of his father.
The alef and this verse therefore reveals that the sacrifice of the olah is the Messiah who diminished Himself as He dwelt among us. That it is our Humble Messiah who completely offered His life. No reason made Him – though He offered himself voluntarily.
The olah then, which we are commanded to bring, is a call to follow in our Messiah’s footsteps – to draw near to our Heavenly Father in offering ourselves to Him as we carry our own cross.
The message of Scripture then is revealed in the first two verses Leviticus. Re-rendered, the verses can be understood as;
And יהוה called to Mosheh, and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying,
2 “Speak to the children of Yisra’ěl, and say to them, ‘When one of you brings an offering to YHWH, bring yourself.’