In this chapter, the LORD establishes the ritual of the burnt offering.
This chapter is the first of five different types of ritual offerings which were to be made at the Tabernacle (i.e. tent of meeting). If that doesn't get you excited, I honestly don't know what will. Maybe the sections covering ceremonial purity later on. Those are pretty good too.
Seriously though, the way this book is divided is that first, we are told how to make these different kinds of sacrifices. Then later on, we are told when each type of sacrifice is appropriate or required. Because there are many situations where a burnt offering is appropriate, it is defined here in a single location and then simply referenced later. For instance, we have already seen burnt offerings commanded for the consecration of the priests and the altar back in Ex 29, although since Ex 29 predates Leviticus, it was necessary to also explain the sacrificial process there as well.
The language in Ex 29 and here is nearly identical (in particular, look at Ex 29:15-18). In fact, we see mentions of a burnt offering going all the way back to Noah, but as is common to Genesis, the sacrifices of Noah were not tightly prescribed like the Levitical law here. Genesis 8:20 simply says that Noah "offered burnt offerings on the altar": we are told nothing about the particular way he killed the animals, how (or if) he sprinkled the blood, washing of entrails, etc. Similarly with Abraham's offering in Genesis 22:13, the ram is simply "offered up for a burnt offering" and that's all we are told.
The Hebrew word is the same in these four places (Gen 8, Gen 22, Ex 29, Lev 1), "Olah" (lit. "that which ascends", figurative, "ascends in smoke", i.e. burn), and the textual similarity between Ex 29 and Lev 1 is beyond doubt, both in terms of the ritual significance of the offering as well as the procedure for offering it. However, given the many thematic differences between Exodus/Leviticus and Genesis, I don't believe the same can be said for the earlier Genesis references. It's clear that the author is referring to the same kind of thing, in a general sense, especially because the term "olah" is only ever used in the OT to refer to burnt offerings. We are perhaps intended to draw an allusion from the ritual slaughter in Leviticus when we read Gen 8 and 22, which leaves the patriarchs appearing yet more righteous (they made proper sacrifices in accord with the Mosaic Law) and also further solidifies the legitimacy of the sacrificial system by appealing to those same patriarchs.
It might seem contrary to modern readers that I say Genesis is alluding to Leviticus, when Genesis precedes Leviticus in book-order and in story chronology, but in the world of the Hebrew readers of the Pentateuch, they would have been familiar with hundreds of years of ritual sacrifices as prescribed by Leviticus. This is their religious experience year after year, generation after generation. The stories of Genesis are distant and largely folkloric compared to the much more commonplace reality of the Levitical sacrificial system. Perhaps a good modern parallel is (in the US) the stories regarding the founding of America. We have a set of somewhat folkloric stories about George Washington, Valley Forge and so on, which in the end produced the US Constitution which is a much more concrete legal basis for our society since then. To us, stories about the revolution are distant, but it seems like almost everybody knows about freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and various other components of the Bill of Rights. There are many other aspects of the Constitution of which most Americans are ignorant, but that too is possibly a valid parallel to ignorance of the Covenant that is shown by the ancient Israelites. Certainly we see lots of ignorance in the biblical text, but it is reasonable to suppose that ignorance remained in Israelite society for quite a while, given the complexity of the Mosaic Law and the difficulty of communicating information in this time period.
The last meta-comment I want to make before getting into the specifics of the text is, why are there five types of sacrifices? Leviticus doesn't really answer that question, but my opinion is that the different kinds of sacrifices are used in different situations as a natural consequence of what I said in the preceding paragraph: namely, the sacrifices are like tools that are naturally going to be useful in some situations but not others. For instance, if you have to make a sin offering, it's because you committed some sort of sin and are atoning for it. If you make a fellowship (or peace) offering, it's because you are seeking to fellowship or have peace with the LORD, which is subtly different. In a lot of cases the different sacrifices are compounded together, and that's because the various sacrifices, when put together, establish a process whereby men draw near to God. Each sacrifice is a different step in the process, first of atoning for sin and then after purifying oneself, drawing near to God. This is like the three days of self-purification when the Israelites were preparing for the LORD in Ex 19. One does not simply "approach the LORD" under the Mosaic Covenant. There is a process and a pattern to be followed; that's the message here.
Also, some commentators say that five is the biblical number for grace, just like seven and ten are numbers of completion or fullness. In general, I have a hard time finding support for this assertion, because as we can see these sacrifices are just as much about atonement or mercy as anything else. I don't know if there is any way to clearly delineate grace versus mercy or atonement in these rituals.
With all that in mind, there are a couple details I'd like to comment upon. First, we see three different types of burnt offerings, depending on whether one offers a bull, a sheep/goat, or an offering of birds. The reason for this is to establish a variety of acceptable sacrifices in accordance with the financial status of the offerer. In terms of cost, a bull is more expensive than a lamb/goat which is far more expensive than a a bird. Even the poorest people of the land would be expected (and generally be able) to pay for a burnt offering of birds, and this is equally acceptable to the more expensive offerings. We hadn't seen this type of flexibility with the Tabernacle offerings in Exodus, because those were offered by the community as a whole and not mandated on any particular individual. There was also the census tax of half a shekel, but half a shekel is a small amount of money, so most likely the poor would have been able to afford it. Since the sacrifices described here are required to attain ceremonial cleanliness and therefore approach the LORD, it is important that they be affordable to anyone in Israelite society.
This is an important lesson and it teaches us some important things about sacrifice. We can see that sacrifice is not meant to be "out of reach". Sacrifice is meant to be costly, yet attainable, and it is usually crafted to match your circumstances as well. The expectation here is not that you would meet someone else's standard (i.e. give a bull because the rich can afford to give bulls) but rather to meet your own standard (give an animal in accordance with your means). Yet even in the sacrifices of the poor (the birds), it is a standard and the process is just as well defined as the sacrifices of the wealthy. Verses 14-17 define how the bird must be killed and burned. I guess what I mean is that offering a bird is not "sloppy" or careless, it is intended to have the same rigor as any other burnt offering.
Still, sacrificing birds is very unusual given that we have never seen (and never will see) any reference to the Israelites raising flocks of birds. We know that going all the way back to Abraham and even Abel that the people were raising herds of cattle and sheep and goats, and these were the sacrifices of Abraham and the patriarchs of Genesis. As such, I can't help but wonder where the people would get these birds for sacrifice. Later in the Pentateuch there are regulations of what birds can be eaten and what to do if you "happen to find a nest" of birds, so my guess is that the people would just go around and try to simply catch a bird, or shoot them with arrows or something. I don't believe the people will ever actually raise birds for offering because that would involve building cages for them and stuff like that. I don't really know. Biblically, there aren't any references to people actually offering birds in the rest of the OT, but we will see references to this practice in the NT (dated roughly 1st century CE). So clearly the practice persists, or at least is later re-adopted. For the purposes of the OT however, virtually all of the sacrifices are of the other types: bulls, sheep, goats, grain offerings and so forth.
Next, the text notes that "he shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering" (v. 4). This is the same physical symbolism of substitutionary atonement that we saw back in the offerings for the priests (Ex 29:10, 15, 19, etc.). It's interesting that this is part of the burnt offering, because there is a separate "sin offering" which is much more directly related to atonement ("sin offering" is Hebrew "chattath", closely related to the Hebrew "chata" which means sin). Of course, the sin offering also involves laying one's hand on the animal's head (see Lev 4:4), so both of them are related to atonement. I suppose this is just a common aspect.
Next, we can see from the descriptions how bloody these sacrifices can get. Of course, intuitively one would know that killing an animal involves a lot of blood, but given how disconnected most people are from the actual process of killing an animal, we perhaps underestimate the gore of destroying a living being. Nevertheless, this chapter makes it clear that performing a burnt offering involves the shedding of blood.
Lastly, we can note that it is most likely the offerer who has to slay the animal, rather than the priest. In fact, there appears to be a sort of interplay between the priest and the offerer in that the offerer slays the animal, then the priests sprinkles some of the blood, then the offerer skins the animal, then the priest arrange the fire, and so on. The involvement of the offerer wasn't immediately obvious to me when first reading this passage because the OT is full of ambiguous pronouns. Readers of English translations might not realize this because the translators often guess whom a pronoun is referring and fill that into the translation. The Hebrew itself, however, is frequently ambiguous, and we partially see that here.
This isn't a huge problem because one can usually discern the nature of these pronouns through context, but it sometimes makes the passage harder to translate (a good example is Ex 4:24).