As Exodus 28 described the holy raiment of the priests and closed out with an explanation of when Aaron and his sons would wear the garments, chapter 29 describes the consecration (dedication, or ordination) of the priests and the sacrificial offerings.
The consecration takes place in the first nine verses and it is a small, humble ceremony that identifies and sets these men aside as dedicated to do the Lord’s work in the tabernacle. Total completion time will be seven days.
Verses 10-14 describe a bull sacrifice that is to be made on behalf of Aaron and his sons. This bull was to “contain” the sins of the priests and sacrificing it would atone for their sins, making them more righteous and fit to serve. A quick note on sacrifices here – atoning for sin through any animal sacrifice did not absolve the sin or produce forgiveness from God. It only helped to compensate for their sins so that both the priests and the people could stand accepted before God as they maintained the terms of the covenant. Forgiveness of sins would of course come much later in the form of Jesus Christ. To forgive sin, there must be a perfect sacrifice, and the obedience of man to enter into the appropriate relationship with God to obtain it. Isaiah 53 tells us that the Suffering Servant Christ will be that atonement, and we enter into the relationship through faith and being obedient to God in baptism (John 3:5, Mark 16:16, I Peter 3:21).
The offering of the bull has some symbolism to address. The blood, here as in throughout the Bible, represents life. The placing of the bull’s blood before the altar and on the horns of the altar represents that the animal’s life was given as a substitute for the life of the sinner. This, incidentally, reveals the seriousness of sin’s consequences. The fat and the kidneys were to be burned on the altar while the rest of the animal was to be burned outside the tabernacle. The fat in many ways represented the best that the animal had to offer because it was the excess of the animal, showing that it was healthy and considered fit for God. The kidneys, along with the heart, are considered representative of a man’s inner life. Sacrificing the bull in this way reminded the priests of the price of sin. This offering serves to anoint them as priests, after all. In fact, it should have also initiated a surge of gratitude towards God because it was the bull and not they, that was giving its life for their transgressions of the law.
The sacrifices mentioned in verses 15-28 are described as fire offerings, wave offerings, burnt offerings, and heave offerings. These offerings are described in their detail and serve to please God. The burnt offerings (fire offerings included) are meant to please God with their aroma. Further anointing with blood on and around the altar and around the priest’s bodies takes place. No reason is given for why blood is placed on the right ear, thumb, and big toe. But if you look ahead to Leviticus 14:14-18, a person seeking ceremonial cleansing after recovering from a skin disease received the same treatment with blood and oil.
The peace offerings (wave, heave offerings) celebrated the priests’ communion with God and incorporated a shared meal of sorts.
In verses 29-37, we have the conclusion of the ceremony needed to consecrate Aaron and his sons as priests. This process was to take seven days. The holiness of the priests would be sufficient for serving God in the tabernacle and presiding over the daily sacrifices. The holiness of the altar was stressed mightily along with the priests: “Seven days you shall make atonement for the altar and sanctify it. And the altar shall be most holy. Whatever touches the altar must be holy.” These in-depth explanations serve to stress to the Israelites and us today just how far away we are from God, how far sin has taken us from Him. If all of the actions of seven days did not properly forgive transgressions for the priests, it is another indicator of just how precious the saving blood of Christ is.
There is a lengthy yet revealing explanation in Hebrews on how animal sacrifices were futile in the mission to forgive sin, albeit necessary under Old Testament law for the people to be able to serve and approach God. Pay attention to the italicized statements in the passage below. As has been mentioned before in our study of Exodus, the Old Covenant was for us a teacher, to prepare mankind for the ultimate sacrifice in Jesus Christ that was perfect enough to offer salvation to every human being that has ever, or will ever live.
Hebrews 10:1-10: “For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? For the worshipers, once purified, would have had no more consciousness of sins. But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins. Therefore, when He came into the world, He said: “Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, but a body You have prepared for Me. In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin you had no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come— in the volume of the book it is written of Me— to do Your will, O God.’ ” Previously saying, “Sacrifice and offering, burnt offerings, and offerings for sin You did not desire, nor had pleasure in them” (which are offered according to the law), then He said, “Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God.” He takes away the first that He may establish the second. By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”
The final verses of this lengthy chapter sum up the point of it all. What is all of this ceremony, show, preparation, and sacrifice building to? Why go to all of this trouble?
Exodus 29:46: “And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them up out of the land of Egypt, that I may dwell among them. I am the Lord their God.”
There should be very little doubt as to why. In the face of a powerful God that can and will exact vengeance for sin (including those with whom He has a covenant), mankind has no greater duty to fill than to follow the commandments of the Lord, and to do so with purpose, gratitude, pride, and fear.