The burnt offering was the most commonly offered sacrifice in Israel. The Hebrew term for this offering was ‘olah / עלה, which is related to the Hebrew word for “going up.” In later times, it became the root word in the term “Holocaust.” But in the Bible, it became a technical term for a sacrifice that was burned in its entirety on the altar.
The Purpose of the Burnt Offering
The stated purpose of the burnt offering in Leviticus 1:4 for the worshipper is “to make atonement on his behalf.” Defining atonement is complex and may require its own article. Some think it involve a “life-for-life” transaction to trade penalties for sin. Others think it involved cleansing or the payment of penalties. Still others think it involved mere “covering” of sins.
A secondary effect of the burnt offering was that it was a “soothing aroma to Yahweh” (1:9, 13, 17). This phrase reappears throughout the first three chapters of Leviticus (2:2, 9; 3:5, 16). Unlike the sin offerings and guilt offerings, the peace offerings, burnt offerings, and grain offerings are all described as a pleasing smell to God. Sometimes this soothing aroma was used to avert judgment, like in the days of Noah (Genesis 8:20-21). In the NT, Jesus’ sacrifice is similarly seen as a “soothing aroma” to God (Ephesians 5:1-2), and the monetary contribution of Christians is described in a similar fashion (Philippians 4:18).
Throughout the Bible, there are actually a variety of circumstances in which these sacrifices are made. Burnt offerings are used to cleanse from infections diseases (Leviticus 14:20), to make atonement for the people on the “Day of Atonement” (16:24), or to atone for the unintentional sins of the congregation (Numbers 15:22-26). In 2 Samuel 24:25, burnt offerings and peace offerings were made by David to appeal to God and appease his wrath so that the plague on Israel would end. In the book of Job, Job used burnt offerings as a way of interceding on behalf of himself and his friends (Job 1:5; 42:7-8). There were also special burnt offerings, which were to be offered twice daily (Exodus 29:38-42) as the morning and evening sacrifices for the tabernacle.
The Procedure of the Burnt Offering
Leviticus 1 breaks into three sections:
- Burnt offerings from the herd: bulls (1:3-9)
- Burnt offerings from the flock: sheep or goats (1:10-13)
- Burnt offerings from birds: turtledoves or pigeons (1:14-17)
In all three of these sections, the same procedure is largely followed:
- The worshipper would present the animal for offering (1:3, 10, 14)
- The worshipper would lay his hand on the animal’s head (1:4)
- The worshipper would slaughter the animal (1:5, 11)
- The priest would sprinkle the blood on the bronze altar in the outer court (1:5, 11)
- The worshipper would cut up the animal (1:6, 12)
- The priest would arrange animal on the altar (1:7, 8, 12)
- The worshipper would wash the animals legs legs (1:9, 13)
- The priest would offer the animal up on the altar (1:9, 13, 17)
There are some slight variations in these procedures, depending on what animal was being sacrificed. Obviously, birds would not be killed in the same way as cattle or sheep. But an important element of this situation was the personal involvement of the worshipper. The worshipper had to kill his own animal for sacrifice. He had to “lay hands” on the animal–a gesture similar to one used for the atonement “scapegoat” in Leviticus 16:21, or for the “substitution” of the Levites in (Numbers 3:40-51; 8:10).
The animals which were sacrificed were supposed to be “without defect,” an expression that gets fuller definition in Leviticus 22:20-25. The prophets later indicted Israel for failing to offer their best animals to the Lord (Mal 1:6-14).
The Lesson in the Burnt Offering
The most pointed feature of the burnt offering is that none of it was eaten. It was all offered up in fire on the altar. It is important to appreciate that in the ancient world, eating meat was a rare luxury, and usually reserved for special occasions, or for the rich. The level of cost demanded in this action is not always appreciated in 21st century American culture, where meat is frequently expected at every meal! Because of this high cost, the sacrifice of an animal like this would have been a sacrifice of great luxury. A precious feast is removed from the potential of human use and given back to the God who gave it.
This total sacrifice of luxury suggests an application for Christians as well. While we do not offer bulls and lambs on the altar today, we are called to be “living sacrifices” as part of our devotion to God (Romans 12:1). The language of sacrifice is frequently invoked in the NT to express the doing of good (Hebrews 13:15-16; Philippians 4:18; 1 Peter 2:5). As Christ was offered for us, “a lamb unblemished and spotless” (1 Peter 1:18-19), we are called to keep ourselves unblemished from worldly corruption. If being a worshipper of God then required the sacrifice of luxury to express devotion to the Lord, how much more now in the age of Christ the more perfect sacrifice should we be expected to give up our luxuries to serve God? Many of the early Christians gave their resources, their time, their comforts, and many of them ultimately gave their lives. What will we give? What have we given to the Lord that has cost us?
As the words of Jesus are personified in song, “I gave my life for thee. What hast thou given for me?”