By allowing laypersons to make their own sacrifices, under the auspices of the priests, the sacrificial laws gave people a degree of control over their spiritual lives. Inviting people into the sanctuary for the sacrifice, people felt themselves personally invited into God’s earthly home.
In essence, the system of sacrifice provided a metaphor, a method, for the Israelites to reach God, responding to the deep psychological, emotional, and religious needs of the people. Indeed, this is the meaning of the Hebrew word for “sacrifice”; it comes from a verb meaning “to bring near.”
…[Regarding contemporary animal rights concerns:] First, according to the Bible, the life of the animal was its blood (Gen 9:4). Out of respect for that life force, all biblical sources agree that it was forbidden to imbibe blood. …[one] had to return the blood to God, its divine creator, by offering the blood of sacrificial animals on the altar….
In what may seem like an ironic twist, then, these and other dietary rules are founded on the sanctity and inviolability of life. In this way, the sacrificial laws exemplify one of the most exciting characteristics of the book of Leviticus: behind the seeming arcane rituals lies a system of meaning that we can draw into our own, modern lives.
–Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics, pp17-18
Milgrom, Jacob. Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2004.
Milgrom’s book and those below provide historical and anthropological perspectives on the book of Leviticus. While academic and detailed, they can help provide some orientation for what can seem a very foreign territory: the sacrificial system.
For a different sort of orientation see “The Rationale of the Sacrifices,” from Nehama Leibovitz.
Academic Works on Leviticus
Purity and Danger. Douglas, Mary. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966. In this classic of anthropology, we learn: “Defilement is never an isolated event. It cannot occur except in a systematic ordering of ideas.” Much of the frequently referenced chapter, “The Abominations of Leviticus,” is available at Google Books. Douglas has also written other works on Leviticus and the sacrificial system.
Reading Leviticus: A Conversation with Mary Douglas. Sawyer, John F.A., ed. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996. Includes one response from another scholar, following each main paper, and subsequent discussion.
Golden Bells and Pomegranates. Visotzky, Burton L. Tuebingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2003. A study of the 5th Century CE commentary, Leviticus Rabbah.
Click on the “WeeklyTorah” tag for more resources on the weekly portion throughout the year, or on a portion name for parashah-specific notes. (The series began with Numbers; posts for Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus are being drafted, week-by-week.) You can also zero-in on particular types of “Opening the Book” posts by clicking Language and Translation, Something to Notice, a Path to Follow, or Great Source in the tag cloud.