Could Samuel as a Levite, though not a priest, offer a burnt offering away from the tabernacle?
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It may seem that making sacrifices away from the tabernacle is not allowed according to Leviticus, chapter 17. Perhaps this is what you have in mind. But let us look at the passage carefully before drawing conclusions. Verses 3–4 read, “Any Israelite who sacrifices an ox, a lamb or a goat in the camp or outside of it instead of bringing it to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting to present it as an offering to the Lord in front of the tabernacle of the Lord—that man shall be considered guilty of bloodshed; he has shed blood and must be cut off from his people” (NIV). There was reason to require this. The Israelites had been sacrificing to goat idols. The purpose of requiring them to bring their sacrifices to the tabernacle was to put a stop to this practice. To be seen sacrificing in the open fields by another Israelite might discourage, or lead his countryman astray, thinking that he was sacrificing to goat idols. This would bring disfavor to Israel in the sight of God. Verses 5 and 7 explain, “This is so the Israelites will bring to the Lord the sacrifices they are now making in the open fields…. They must no longer offer any of their sacrifices to the goat idols to whom they prostitute themselves” (NIV). The next two verses seem conclusive, “Say to them: ‘Any Israelite or any alien living among them who offers a burnt offering or sacrifice and does not bring it to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting to sacrifice it to the Lord—that man must be cut off from his people.’” It seems from the wording of this verse that the ordinance pertained to individual sacrifices, not national sacrifices: “Any Israelite or alien living among them…that man must be cut off.”
How long was this ordinance to last? It was to “last forever unto them throughout their generations” (Lev. 17:7). The word forever is from the Hebrew word owlam, which can refer to no longer than one’s lifetime. Example: “slave forever”—The Abridged Brown-Driver-Brigs Hebrew-English Lexicon of the Old Testament. The phrase, “throughout their generations,” comes from the Hebrew word dowr which is defined:
1) period, generation, habitation, dwelling; 1a) period, age, generation (period of time); 1b) generation (those living during a period); 1c) generation (characterized by quality, condition, class of men); 1d) dwelling-place, habitation—Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon. The command was given around 1490 B.C. It is thought that the incidence in the 7th chapter of 1 Samuel occurred around 1112 B.C., a span of more than 300 years. It was given for a specific time, that is, during the time of the ones living when it was given (1a and 1b), or during a time characterized by certain conditions (1c). So, it is possible that, according to almost every definition given above, that the command had ceased by limitation. At the time the command was given, there was no reason why anyone could not bring their offering to the tabernacle. They were living somewhat as one huge community. This arrangement would end after the wandering and result in problems regarding personal sacrifices. God would make other arrangements.
After settling in the land, some 50 years prior to the incident in the 7th chapter of 1 Samuel (c. 1161 B.C.?), an angel appeared to Manoah and his wife. The passage reads in part: “Then Manoah said to the angel of the Lord, ‘Please stay here until we can prepare a young goat for you to eat.’ ‘I will stay,’ the angel of the Lord replied, ‘but I will not eat anything. However, you may prepare a burnt offering as a sacrifice to the Lord.’ (Manoah didn’t realize it was the angel of the Lord.)” (Judg. 13:15–16 NLT). This seems to indicate that the command not to offer a burnt offering away from the tabernacle was no longer binding. The angel told Manoah that he could offer the goat as a burnt offering to the Lord right where he was at the time.
“Then Manoah took a young goat and a grain offering and offered it on a rock as a sacrifice to the Lord. And as Manoah and his wife watched, the Lord did an amazing thing. As the flames from the altar shot up toward the sky, the angel of the Lord ascended in the fire. When Manoah and his wife saw this, they fell with their faces to the ground. The angel did not appear again to Manoah and his wife. Manoah finally realized it was the angel of the Lord, and he said to his wife, ‘We will die, for we have seen God!’ But his wife said, ‘If the Lord were going to kill us, he wouldn’t have accepted our burnt offering and grain offering. He wouldn’t have appeared to us and told us this wonderful thing and done these miracles’” (Judg. 13:19–23 NLT). The angel said it was all right to offer the sacrifice to the Lord on the rock where they were. Then, by ascending in the flame, he showed his approval.
Therefore, we can only say that it was appropriate for Samuel to offer a burnt offering away from the tabernacle.
You seem to indicate that Samuel was not a priest. According to the Holman Bible Dictionary, the Bible Knowledge Commentary, the Treasury of Scripture Knowledge, the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, and other sources, Samuel was both priest and judge. There are several who disagree that he was a priest since he was not from the Kohath family from which the priests were chosen. A priest was a Levite, but all Levites were not priests. But, as a child, we find him wearing a linen ephod which priests wore (1 Sam. 2:18, 28). This does not mean he was a priest, but it does seem to indicate that he was thought of in a priestly manner at that early age. And after the death of Eli, the high priest, we find him filling the role of priest (1 Sam. 7:9, 17; 13:8; 16:2). If he was not an official priest, he did serve in that role. Was not the principal function of the priest to appear before God as the reconciling mediator on behalf of the people? Also, Saul was reproved for imposing upon Samuel’s offering (1 Sam. 13:8–14). But whether he was officially a priest or just acting in that role, he was one of God’s great men, who exercised his duties in a most exemplary manner.
Perhaps you are thinking that Samuel, if not a priest, should not offer a burnt offering away from the tabernacle. I see no reason why this would be the case. Anyone could offer a burnt offering away from the tabernacle just as Manoah did. Or as David did when he purchased the threshing floor from Araunah, built an altar, and sacrificed oxen as burnt offerings there. We know that his offering was approved because “then the LORD answered prayer in behalf of the land, and the plague on Israel was stopped”. Nor was this something David decided to do on his own, “the Lord had commanded through Gad” (2 Sam. 24:20–25, 19 NIV).