Priestly Animals

The first commandment given in the Levitical sacrificial legislation has to do with the animals appropriate to sacrifice: “When any man of you brings an offering to the Lord, you shall bring your offering of cattle (behemah), from the herd or the flock” (Lev. 1:2). Cattle alone were permitted as sacrificial animals, though there were two subdivisions within this general category: cattle of the herd and cattle of the flock. What are cattle? And why did God limit the sacrificial system to cattle?

The word behemah sometimes refers to all land animals (excluding “creeping things,” cf. Gen. 6:7; Dt. 14:4) and sometimes specifically to domesticated animals (Ex. 13:12; Lev. 27:28). In Leviticus 1, it evidently has the latter connotation, since it is qualified by the following phrases, “of the herd or of the flock.” Leviticus 1:2 therefore required that only domestic animals be offering on the altar of burnt offering.

James B. Jordan points out that the “domestic” animals that were used in the sacrifices were domestic to God, not those necessarily domestic to man. Sheep, goats, and oxen are domesticated by man, and since God takes them into His house, are also domestic to Him. “Domestic birds would be chickens, but it is pigeons and doves that are used in the sacrifices, and they are not domestic. They have to be caught.” Jordan continues, “It is God who defines what animals are “domestic” to His altar. Man’s domestic bird may be the chicken, but God’s domestic birds are doves and pigeons” (Jordan, “The Whole Burnt Sacrifice: Its Liturgy and Meaning,” Biblical Horizons Occasional Paper No. 11, pp. 1-2).

To understand why only domestic animals were suitable sacrifices, we must examine the meaning of the term for “offering,” qorban. Essentially, the word means “something brought near.” It is used in the Law to refer to sacrificial animals (Lev. 1:2; 22:18; etc.) and other gifts to the sanctuary (cf. Nu. 7:12-13, 19; etc.). The thing brought near represented the worshiper, who desired to come near himself. Because the worshiper is sinful, however, he can draw near only through a representative offering. The worshiper cannot himself be immolated as a living sacrifice on the altar of burnt offering, but he can ascend the altar through a representative. The worshiper himself cannot become a fixed piece of furniture in the courts of the Lord, but he can offering his qorban of gold and silver. The goal of the qorban was to draw near to God in His house.

The creation account of Genesis 1 gives additional insight into the requirement of Leviticus 1:2. Genesis 1 draws several deliberate parallels between man and the land animals. Both were created on the same day; both were made of earth (1:24; 2:7); both shared the same original habitat. Clearly, analogies between men and animals were built into the creation. This becomes relevant to the sacrificial requirements when we recognize that Genesis 1:24 divides the land animals into three classes: cattle, creeping things, and beasts. These are distinguished by their environment; “beasts” are wild animals, living far from man; “cattle” are domestic animals, which live near to man; “creeping things” cross the boundaries. (See James B. Jordan, “Animals and the Bible,” Studies in Food and Faith No. 6). Some land animals, we conclude, are naturally domesticated, naturally nearer to man. Because domestic animals are near to God’s image, they appropriately represent men who wish to draw near to God. Domestic animals are fitting qorban because they naturally qareb (“come near”).

There is also a redemptive-historical dimension to the symbolism. Domestic animals not only represent the worshiper’s desires, but also the people that God has specially “domesticated.” Israel herself was God’s flock and herd, gathered around His house. A “son of Israel” was appropriately represented by a “son of the herd” (this is the literal translation of Lev. 1:5). An animal, moreover, taken “from the herd” symbolized the Israelite as a member of God’s household. The sacrificial animal represented the Israelite both as near to God and as near to his fellows.

Israel drew near to God to serve Him as priests (Ex. 19:6). I have elsewhere defined the priest as the “household servants of the Great King” (in Biblical Horizons No. 33). The priests are preeminently the “cattle” of God’s household. The priests could enter the sanctuary, just as domestic animals could approach the altar. Domestic animals represent worshiper as priest.

Recognition of the priestly character of the sacrificial animals helps explain why the animal of the burnt offering had to be a male, just as all the priests were male. The burnt offering was the sacrifice of “coming near” par excellence; in that offering alone, the whole animal was ushered into the “Holy of Holies” on top of the altar, and the whole animal entered as a priest into the glory-cloud of the Lord. The parallel between priests and animals is reinforced by the regulations of Leviticus 21-22. Physical defilements disqualified a priest from “offering the bread of his God” (Lev. 21:21), and the same defilements disqualified an animal from becoming bread for God. When an animal was brought to the altar, in short, it came under priestly regulations.

This argument is confirmed by the fact that Noah offered “every clean animal and of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar” (Gen. 8:20). Prior to the erection of the tabernacle and the gathering of a priestly people around God’s house, all believing nations were on an equal plane. Thus, Noah could offer any clean animal on the altar; his offering was not restricted to domestic animals, since there was no special domestic people. All believing peoples were priests; therefore, all clean animals were offerable. With the election of Israel as the priestly people, and God’s tabernacling among men, a distinction was made between clean beasts and clean domestic animals.

In the New Covenant, as Peter found, we return in this respect to the Noahic situation (Acts 10-11). There is no longer a distinct priestly nation; all God’s people, whether Jew or Gentile, are priests. Since the wild branches have been grafted in (Rom. 11:17), all clean animals, both domestic and wild, can be offered as food on the altar of God.

The regulations for animal sacrifices point to Jesus Christ. Sacrificial animals had to be domestic, and they had to be taken “from the herd or from the flock.” They had to be near to God’s image, and near to their fellows. As the perfect sacrifice, Jesus must fulfill both of these requirements; He must be a domestic “animal,” and must be taken from the “flock.” Jesus came not to destroy but to fulfill the law and prophets, and in fulfilling this law, Jesus burst the wineskins of the Old Testament requirements. Jesus, the perfect qorban, is not merely symbolically near to God, as the sacrificial animals were. He has been with God from all eternity (Jn. 1:1); He not only dwells in God’s house but is the Son of the house (Heb. 3:6).

But Jesus is not only eternally with God. He has also has drawn near to man. Though domestic to God’s house, He emptied Himself, becoming a Son of the flock. He meets the requirements of the perfect sacrificial victim, since He is not ashamed to call us brothers.

Peter Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute. This post originally appeared on Biblical Horizons.