The Peace Offering (Lev. 3:1-17; 7:11-36)
The third offering of Leviticus is also described as “a sweet aroma to the LORD,” and it shares much in common with the burnt offering that was spelled out in chapter 1. The name of this offering is variously translated as peace, fellowship, blessing, or well-being, and it is derived from a familiar Hebrew term, shalom. We often translate this word into English as “peace,” but it signifies more than just the absence of conflict. In the Jewish mind, to speak of shalom is to speak of health, prosperity, and peace with God and your fellow man. In this respect, the peace offering was a reflection of the worshiper’s relationship to Yahweh, a recognition that all was right between he and his God. According to 3:5, the peace offering followed a burnt offering, by which the worshiper’s sins would be atoned and fellowship restored. There were 3 primary occasions on which it would be offered: thanksgiving for answered prayer, the completion of a vow, or as a freewill offering in response to an unexpected blessing from the Lord.
When an Israelite brought a peace offering, he would meet one of the priests at the door of the Tabernacle with the animal to be sacrificed. He could bring a bull from the herd, a sheep from the flock, or a goat, but, unlike the burnt offering, there was no provision made for the poor to bring a lesser offering such as a bird. When he presented the animal, the worshiper would lay his hand on its head and kill it there at the door of the Tabernacle. Its blood would be collected by the priest, so that it could be sprinkled all around the altar, and the animal would be butchered. The priest would take several portions of the fat – those that were considered the choicest parts in ancient times – and burn them on the altar of burnt offering to the Lord, producing the sweet aroma that was pleasing to God. Then the priest would take the right breast and right thigh of the animal for himself, and the worshiper would take the rest of the animal and return home.
One of the striking things about the peace offering is that there were essentially 3 parties that were involved, and each party received something from the sacrifice. First, the Lord was given the portions of fat that surrounded the internal organs, along with the kidneys and a portion of the liver, and they were burned on top of the burnt offering. Second, the priests would receive two pieces of meat along with one portion of fat. This fat was also to be burned on the altar, as an offering made by the priest to the Lord, but the rest of the meat was to be food for the priests and their families. Finally, the worshiper himself would take the rest of the carcase home, cook it, and eat the whole thing the same day it was offered. Obviously, this would require him to enlist the help of his family, friends, and neighbors, and even the poor who could not afford to offer such an expensive sacrifice. This celebration was a key part of the offering, where the Israelites would feast together and rejoice in God’s goodness.
The peace offering was an important part of the worship of ancient Israel. In one respect, it was a somber sacrifice, simply by virtue of the gruesome and bloody nature of the offering. You could not participate in a peace offering without being reminded that your well-being and peace are very costly things, requiring the bloody death of a substitute, in this case, the animal on whose head you placed your hand just before taking its life. But this sobering lesson was transformed into a joyful celebration as you gathered around a table with friends and gave thanks to God for his faithful provision and protection. As Gordon Wenham notes, “it was a meal in which God’s presence was recognized as specially near, and this made it a particularly joyful occasion.” He goes on to say, “It was right and proper for men to look forward to the peace offering. It was a pledge and physical illustration of all the benefits that may be enjoyed by those at peace with God.”
In order to understand the meaning of the peace offering and its instructions here in Leviticus, we must consider what the NT says concerning Jesus Christ himself. In Colossians 1:19-20, Paul says that God the Father has chosen to reconcile all things to Himself by means of Christ, “having made peace through the blood of His cross.” And Ephesians 2:14 is even more explicit when it states, “He Himself is our peace.” Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God whose blood was shed to make atonement for us, and whose body was broken and completely given up for us, has not only made peace for us, he is our peace. That is, if he were to leave, our peace would disappear. All of the benefits of being right with God – fellowship, forgiveness, cleansing, joy, etc. – are ours in Christ. It is by virtue of his sacrifice that we have peace with God and men. Although the reminder of his bloody death is a somber thing, it is also a joyous one, because by him we have been reconciled to God and receive his grace which abounds over and above our sin. So while we no longer offer peace offerings to God as they did under the old covenant, we partake in the rich blessings that belong to our heavenly Father and enjoy the fellowship of all those who are at peace with God through Christ Jesus our Lord.