Fair warning: These posts are more of study papers than blogs and will be quite lengthy! I tried to cut down as much as possible, but they say the shorter the paper the better you have to understand the topic, and I'll admit, I don't understand this topic well enough to summarize yet!
In this first post we'll look at the Burnt Offering described in detail in Leviticus 1, 6:8-13, and 22:18-20. I highly recommend reading those passages before you start reading this post. :) If you have a question, an answer, a disagreement, or an agreement, feel free to comment!
How was the offering performed? What was offered?
The burnt offering, in Hebrew “olah” (Strong’s 5930a, meaning “whole burnt offering”) or “kalil” (Strong’s 3632, meaning “entire,” “perfect,” “whole,” or “a holocaust”), is the first and most commonly referenced offering in the Scripture. It appears it was often given jointly with one or more of the other offerings, such as the grain offering (Numbers 7:87), drink offering (Numbers 15:10, 2 Chronicles 29:35 – this offering is not enumerated as one of the main categories of offerings in Leviticus, likely because it was never given independently, but appears to have usually consisted of wine), peace offering (Leviticus 3:5), or sin offering (Numbers 29).
When the burnt offering was given individually, it was a voluntary offering (Leviticus 1:3). The burnt offering was commanded to be given twice daily, once in the morning and once at twilight (Exodus 29:38-39, Numbers 28:3, 2 Chronicles 31:3, Ezra 3:3), and was an important part of Feast day and Sabbath offerings (Leviticus 16:5, 23:37, Numbers 10:10, 28:10, Ezra 3:4-5).
A burnt offering was always a male animal, but God provided several different options for sacrifices with varying values, so that the burnt offering would be affordable for almost anyone (note that even more affordable offering option are given for the sin offering, so that anyone could afford to offer the involuntary sacrifices to atone for their sins)—they could offer a bull, a sheep, a goat, a turtledove, or a pigeon (see Leviticus 14:22,31). The important thing was that the animals were “without blemish” (Leviticus 1:3,10).
The worshiper did much of the work in preparing the burnt offering. The steps involved in the offering of bulls, sheep, and goats were as follows:
- The Israelite man brought the animal to the door of the Tabernacle.
- He laid his hand on the head of the animal, identifying himself with it.
- The Israelite killed the animal.
- The priests took the blood of the animal and sprinkled it on the bronze altar (also known as the “altar of burnt offering” – Exodus 38:1).
- The Israelite skinned the animal (the skin was then given to the priests as their portion – Leviticus 7:8) and cut it in pieces, which are given in detail:
- The head
- The fat
- The organs
- The legs
- The Israelite washed the legs and innards of the animal.
- The priests placed all the pieces of the animal, except for the skin, on the altar, and burned it completely. The sacrifice was to be kept burning all night on the altar until morning, and only then were the ashes to be removed from the altar and placed beside it (Leviticus 6:9-10).
The steps are different in notable ways when the offering was a bird. The worshiper was much less involved in the gory details of the sacrifice, and actually was only required to bring the bird to the Tabernacle. The priests did the rest of the work. They wrung off the head of the bird, drained its blood on the side of the bronze altar, removed the crop and feathers, split the bird almost into two pieces at the wings, and then, just like the bulls, goats, and sheep, the bird was placed on the altar and burned completely.
What did the offering mean to the Israelites?
Aside from being the first offering discussed in Leviticus, the burnt offering had a rich history going back thousands of years, of which the Israelites would have known, including the offerings of Noah following the Flood and Abraham’s famed Mount Moriah sacrifice. A few of the Leviticus 1-7 sacrifices may have been new to the Israelites, but this was certainly not one of them.
Livestock were an important commodity, both in the wilderness years and upon settling in the Promised Land. The Israelites were shepherds at the time of their settling in Egypt, and brought their flocks and herds with them to Egypt in the days of Joseph (Genesis 46:32). They then took the much-multiplied, generations-later offspring of those original flocks and herds with them out of Egypt in the Exodus (Exodus 12:32,38). Thus, it seems that even in the wilderness years, the children of Israel did not have a livestock shortage. However, making this voluntary sacrifice meant taking one of your best animals and giving it to God—watching it be killed and then completely burned up.
Sacrifices were common in Old Testament times, and were an important part of many different religious rituals, possibly as a result of Satan’s corruption of the sacrifices given to God by Noah, from whom all the nations were descended. Pagan religions of the day gave burnt sacrifices, including human sacrifices, to gain the attention and favor of their gods. Burnt offerings to the true God seem to represent something more specific—complete devotion to God.
Like the other voluntary offerings, the burnt offering was intended to be pleasing to God (Leviticus 1:9,13,17). However, one word that is used to describe the burnt offering’s purpose is not used to describe any of the other voluntary offerings: “atonement” (Leviticus 1:4), the Hebrew word “kaphar” (Strong’s 3722, meaning “to cover over” or to pacify, appease, or forgive). There is no mention of sin, and also no mention of forgiveness (as is specifically stated in the involuntary offerings, cf Leviticus 4:20), but rather “acceptance” of the burnt offering “on his behalf”—it was sacrificed instead of the offerer.
The Israelite who brought the animal laid his hand on its head to identify himself with it, just as we will see was done with the animals offered as sin offerings, but instead of attaining forgiveness of sins, the intent was to bring himself closer to God in devoted worship. This “atonement” may have also been atonement for the uncleanness, both physical and spiritual, that separated them from God.
The Israelites alone among the nations of the OT were a holy people to God. Physical and spiritual uncleanness was illustrated as making the Israelites physically or spiritually unholy, as unholiness (uncleanness) was understood in OT times. There was clearly no sin involved in a woman undergoing her monthly cycle, for example, but the physical uncleanness was symbolic for the spiritual uncleanness that comes from sin, both active sin and sin of the heart, and their need to be “at one” with God. A whole burnt offering, sacrificing entirely to God a sinless, unblemished animal in the place of oneself, showed God complete devotion and desire to live according to His law despite the internal war with law-breaking (Psalm 119:8-9, Romans 7:21-23).
The specific parts of the animal which were enumerated also would have been symbolic to the Israelites. The parts of the body in those days were associated with different parts of the whole of the person—the head would have been associated with the thoughts, the legs with the actions (the “walk”), the fat with the general strength and vitality, and the innards with the feelings and emotions. This concept is reminiscent of the calls to ultimate devotion to God in Deuteronomy:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:5)
“What does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord and His statutes which I command you today for your good?” (Deuteronomy 10:12-13)
Looking back to the sacrifice of Abraham their forefather would have supported this concept. In the other voluntary offerings, others were able to eat significant portions of the animal or grain that was offered, and thus not only God benefited from the “sweet aroma” of the offering, but His people were also able to physically benefit from the offering. Not so in the case of the burnt offering, however.
The Hebrew words for the burnt offering emphasize the wholeness and entirety of the burning of the offering. Nothing was left for the offerer, or even for the priest, aside from the animal’s skin. God is the clear focus in the offering, and the burnt offering was likely given as a result of wanting to show complete and total devotion to Him.
When was it performed in the Bible?
The first recorded animal sacrifice, given by Abel in Genesis 4:4, may have been a burnt offering or a peace offering.
The sacrifices of Noah after the flood do appear to be burnt offerings, though we see that he offered all kinds of clean animals instead of just the five options God later enumerated for the Israelites. Notice God’s response:
Then Noah built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And the Lord smelled a soothing aroma. Then the Lord said in His heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground for man’s sake, although the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; nor will I again destroy every living thing as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, and day and night shall not cease.’ (Genesis 8:20-22)
Abraham’s famed burnt offering of the ram, which took the place of his son, is another telling passage in understanding the meaning of the burnt offering. God’s command to Abraham, which the omniscient reader understands to be God “testing” Abraham, was to “Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (Genesis 22:2-3). We are spared the details of Abraham’s thoughts and emotions, and are only told of his follow-through without hesitation. Again, notice God’s response:
Abraham’s obedience in his willingness to sacrifice his only son was clearly a type of the future sacrifice of Jesus Christ—a heart-rending sacrifice both on God’s part and on Jesus’s. Abraham kept nothing back from God, and was even willing to give up the most important thing in his life, the son that he had spent a century waiting for. According to Hebrews, Abraham had complete trust that the One who gave him his son would be able to bring him back to life again (Hebrews 11:17-19). Again, God’s response to Abraham’s sacrifice (in this case, his willingness to follow through was equivalent to if the sacrifice of Isaac had actually taken place, except that human sacrifice, which is abominable to God, did not actually occur) is in the form of a promise. God had made promises and covenants with Abraham in the past, but this one is the climax—God’s blessing on Abraham is no longer dependent on anything that Abraham or his descendants do. It is now unconditional.
In the examples of Noah and Abraham, we see that burnt offerings are deeply entwined with the important covenant promises. When they showed their complete devotion to Him, He in turn showed His devotion to them—His creation and His people.
When Moses requested of Pharaoh to let the children of Israel go out of Egypt, he originally requested that they might go out to offer “sacrifices [i.e., peace offerings] and burnt offerings” to God (Exodus 10:25).
The commanded offering of the firstborn, following the climactic plague of the death of the firstborn in Egypt and the institution of the Passover, was likely a burnt offering, though it may have been a peace offering, or possibly could have been either at the discretion of the owner (Exodus 13:1,11-16, 22:29, 34:19-20).
Other examples of times when burnt offerings were offered include the consecration of the priesthood (Exodus 29:25, Leviticus 8:28), at the ratification of the Old Covenant (Exodus 24:4-6), as part of certain purification rituals, usually along with a sin offering (Leviticus 12:6, 14:20, Numbers 6:11), in conjunction with sin offerings given for the congregation of Israel (Numbers 15:24), in times of trouble when God’s favor was requested (Judges 20:26, 1 Samuel 7:9) the consecration of the Tabernacle (Numbers 7), upon the occasion of bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:17), the consecration of the Temple (1 Kings 8:64, 2 Chronicles 7:1), to stop plagues (2 Samuel 24:25), as part of national rededication (2 Chronicles 29:27), and as part of Holy Day offerings, feast days, Sabbaths, and new moons (Leviticus 16:5, 23:37, Numbers 10:10, 28:10, Ezra 3:4-5, Ezekiel 5:17).
Burnt offerings were also used by the children of Israel in idol-worship (Exodus 32:6, 2 Kings 3:27, 2 Kings 16:15), and by pagans to try to get God on their side (Numbers 23:3).
Saul offered a burnt offering when he was afraid that Israel would be scattered from him, but he missed the point of the offering. He didn’t obey Samuel’s command to wait until he arrived to offer the burnt and peace offerings, and instead did it himself. Samuel’s response on God’s behalf in is very important:
Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, He also has rejected you from being king. (1 Samuel 15:22-23)
In contrast to the rich blessings God promised to those who offered burnt offerings to Him out of a right heart, God here promises to end Saul’s reign. Instead of offering the burnt offering out of devotion and love for God, Saul offered it out of fear, faithlessness in God, and pride—believing that he could decide for himself what was the right action to take in this situation. He called it bending the rules to keep control. Samuel called it rebellion. (Compare Jeremiah 6:20.)
Saul’s unrighteous burnt offering stands in stark contrast with the right heart with which Solomon offered 1,000 burnt offerings when he was made king. God greatly respected his offerings, and offered to give him anything he desired. His request was proof of his devotion to God and to his people: wisdom, “that I may discern between good and evil—” so that he could make the right decisions and be a godly leader (1 Kings 3:9). God was so pleased with this response that He not only promised to give Solomon what he had requested, but also to give him many blessings that he had not requested. Note that His promise for long life was not unconditional, as God’s covenant with Abraham had been, however:
So if you walk in My ways, to keep My statutes and My commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your days. (1 Kings 3:14)
Even 1,000 burnt offerings was not enough to prove that Solomon was always going to put God first. As we know, his devotion to God eventually was overshadowed by his love of women, and his desire to please them became greater than his desire to please God.
What lessons can we learn from this offering today? What symbolism does it contain?
The main lesson for the Israelites, of complete devotion to God and desire to obey Him and love Him with all our being, despite our sinful nature, is an extremely important lesson for us today, as well. We must keep nothing back from God—our commitment must be complete, and our self-sacrifice must be entire (2 Corinthians 8:5, Philippians 2:5-8).
We know that Jesus was the perfect sacrifice, offering Himself of His own volition as a sweet aroma, well-pleasing to God (Psalm 40:6-8).
Therefore, be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma. (Ephesians 5:2)
In this offering, the facet of His sacrifice that we focus on is His perfection and completeness in devotion to God and to us, as well as the outcome of His perfect sacrifice on our lives. He now lives in baptized members (note the washing of the legs and organs in Leviticus 1:9, symbolizing cleansing through baptism and the Holy Spirit in our lives) of His Church so that we, through Him, may be living sacrifices, also well-pleasing to God (Romans 12:1, Philippians 4:18) to help us overcome our human nature (Romans 7:21-25).
Jesus is also symbolized in the giving of the burnt offering by the priest, as our High Priest and intercessor (Romans 8:34, Hebrews 4:14-16, 7:25, 8:1), who expects from us an offering that is the best we can give, but will give us as much aid as we need in our Christian walk. The many different varieties of animals which could be sacrificed, based on the wealth of the worshiper, are reflective of different facets of the nature of Christ, our spiritual gifts, and God’s expectations of us (Matthew 29:15-30). Note the change in the responsibilities of the poor man offering a turtledove or pigeon—all he had to do was bring his gift to the altar, and the priest took care of the rest. Jesus, our High Priest, will do the same for us if and when we need Him to.
To summarize the burnt offering’s bearing on the lives of modern-day Christians, the so-called “first and great commandment,” as stated by Jesus, quoting from Deuteronomy and simultaneously summarizing the first four of the Ten Commandments, seems fitting:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. (Matthew 22:37)