…he is to bring an unblemished male. – Leviticus 1:3b (HCSB)
We know very little about Jesus’ childhood. We can speculate, however, based on what we know about the world in which he grew up. The Life and Times of Jesus The Messiah by Alfred Edersheim is a classic and certainly one of the most definitive and exhaustive resources on the life of Jesus and gives healthy attention to the cultural context of the boy Jesus.
Edersheim notes that it is likely Jesus began attending a typical school for Jewish boys around the age of 5 or 6. (Part one, page 230.) He further argues that the earliest lessons instructing Jesus in the school would likely have been from Leviticus. (Part one, page 233.) If that were the case, then we may be able to gain some speculative insight into the boy Jesus by examining what likely was one of the earliest influences on the worldview of the young Messiah.
Leviticus is easy to skip because of its heavy emphasis on the sacrificial regulations of the Mosaic Law. We can gain a new appreciation for the book, however, when we consider how a young and developing messianic identity might have read these verses. We’ll limit the scope of this article to the opening verses of Leviticus, but these will be sufficient to fuel some interesting speculation about the future “Lamb of God”.
Imagine a young Jesus approaching Leviticus for the first time. His parents have already instilled within him a love and respect for the Torah (Books of the Law). Any young male growing up in a devout Jewish home would already be well aware of the unique history of his people and the God who redeemed them from slavery and entered into a unique covenant relationship with them. Just as importantly, he would have been acquainted with the powerful messianic expectation that pervaded the second temple era in which Jesus lived.
Had the young Jesus been told about the angelic announcements regarding his birth? Could he recall the visit of the Magi that likely had taken place when he was around two years old? Did Mary share with Jesus the many things which we’re told she was “treasuring. . . in her heart”? (Luke 2:19) It’s hard to imagine that she wouldn’t. It’s likely that well before Jesus began any formal training at a local school, he was already pondering what it meant to be called “Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21b)
“Jesus” is the anglicized form of Joshua (English) or Yeshua (Hebrew). It means “savior” or “deliverer.” The simple, daily calling of his name would be a constant reminder of his chosen status and his divine purpose. In this child we surely can imagine a budding understanding of his sacrificial destiny. Imagine this developing understanding hearing the opening words of Leviticus.
Then the Lord summoned Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting: “Speak to the Israelites and tell them: When any of you brings an offering to the Lord from the livestock, you may bring your offering from the herd or the flock. If his gift is a burnt offering from the herd, he is to bring an unblemished male…” Leviticus 1:1-3a.
The power of these verses would be hard to miss for the child Jesus. There is little introduction, little commentary, and little explanation. In the context of his family, his community, his nation and its history, certain truths simply would be apparent, accepted, and now underscored by the simplicity and clarity of these words. Some of these truths would include. . .
- A blood sacrifice is essential to fulfill the requirements of the law. Jesus had heard the story of Adam and Eve and knew that sin leads to a sacrificial death. On hearing these words Jesus may have wondered, “will the Messiah have to die to accomplish his mission?”
- The sacrifice would need to be “unblemished.” Did the boy Jesus ponder the meaning of that word? What would it mean for the Messiah to be “unblemished?” Perhaps even at this age Jesus was gaining an understanding of what it means to fulfill both the letter and spirit of the law. He may have asked, “how can I be ‘unblemished’ before God?”
- The sacrifice would need to be a male. Even at his young age, so many things pointed to his divine calling and destiny. The angels. The Magi. The prophecies. The stories. Was this just one more indicator? Did the boy Jesus, sitting in a class, surrounded by other boys with whom he laughed and played, quietly whisper, “Am I the male?”
It’s easy to imagine how these questions might have raced through Jesus’ young mind and heart as he heard, memorized, and studied these verses. But the lessons continued. . .
“Then the priest will burn all of it on the altar as a burnt offering, a fire offering of a pleasing aroma to the Lord.” (Leviticus 1:9b) “. . . it is a burnt offering, a fire offering of a pleasing aroma to the Lord.” (Leviticus 1:13c) “. . . a fire offering of a pleasing aroma to the Lord.” (Leviticus 1:17c) “. . . a fire offering of a pleasing aroma to the Lord.” (Leviticus 2:2c).
This phrase, “offering of a pleasing aroma to the Lord”, is repeated several more times in the first three chapters alone. Again, the simplicity and the repetition of the phrase would underscore a profound truth that would be essential to the sacrificial worldview of the young Messiah; the blood sacrifice of an unblemished male for the atonement of sin is pleasing to God.
Our modern sensibilities struggle with this. For the young Jewish male living in Palestine it would go without saying. For Jesus, it would burn deep into his heart and reinforce the conviction that someday he would need to face a painful and sacrificial death.
Even at this age Jesus was beginning to learn submission to the will of his heavenly Father. “Am I the One, God? Am I the unblemished male that someday will be the sacrifice that becomes a pleasing aroma to you? Is there any way to avoid this? Nevertheless, not my will, but thine.” The Garden of Gethsemane surely was not the first time Jesus struggled with the need for the coming sacrifice.
As Jesus grew in his understanding of who he was and what he was here to do, he would grow in his understanding of the need for a blood sacrifice and the “pleasing aroma” that sacrifice would be to God. Throughout His life, Jesus would carry a daily realization that he was destined to be the “unblemished male” of Leviticus.