What is the meaning of offering and sacrifice in Leviticus?

In the opening verses of the third, and final, book of Moses (Leviticus), we are informed that the reason God has given us the book is “So that you may learn to revere Me all the days”. The remainder of this text reveals how God instructs these ancient Israelites on how they ought to live in accordance with certain sacrifices and offerings. But what are these sacrifices and offerings? Why did they offer them? And what does this mean for us today when we make similar offerings?

There is a lot of information, laws, and commandments found in the book of Leviticus, but most people tend to focus solely on those that were given to the visiting Israelites living in the desert. Perhaps we are like those who visited Israel and merely being observers focused on the miracle of water flowing from a rock or Moses parting the sea. Unfortunately we miss out on so much information that God gave us as He was preparing His people for greatness.

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What is the meaning of offering and sacrifice in Leviticus?

In Leviticus, God has a contractual relationship with Israel. He is their leader. Therefore, they must follow his orders and laws. This contract is the covenant between them.

In order for Israel to be a holy people, they must follow the law of holiness that God has given them. This includes not only moral and ethical behavior but also ritual law. The ritual law includes the Sabbath and Tabernacle; this is what makes them a separate community.

The Tabernacle and sacrifices are examples of ritual law. The Tabernacle is where God resides on earth, so it must be kept pure at all times through ritual cleansing. Sacrifices are how Israel worships God and how they seek forgiveness for their sins; this brings them closer to God by fulfilling their obligation under the covenant to obey his commandments.

The sacrifices in Leviticus are divided into two categories: sin offerings (to remove guilt) and burnt offerings (to give thanks). Sin offerings take precedence over burnt offerings because guilt needs to be removed before there can be thanksgiving.

The concept of sacrifice and offerings occurs multiple times in the book of Leviticus. In fact, from what I can tell, it’s one of the main themes of the book.

While most translations don’t use the word “sacrifice” very often, almost every occurrence of this theme is mentioned using the word “offering”, which has a similar definition.

Let’s start with Leviticus 1, verse 2: “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When any of you brings an offering to the Lord…” This is basically a command to make offerings.

In Leviticus 7:12-13, we learn that sacrifices such as those offered at the dedication of an altar are considered “peace” offerings. This makes sense, because they’re done when something good happens (i.e., dedication), and they seem to be a way to say “thanks”.

While most of us living in the 21st century are unfamiliar with the concept of animal sacrifice, it remains a powerful and significant ritual today in many religions. The practice is referenced frequently in the Bible, but one of the clearest explanations of its meaning can be found in Leviticus.

In Leviticus, God explains to Moses and his people that through offering and sacrifice they can draw near to him. There are different kinds of offerings, but they all fall into two categories: sin and guilt offerings, which absolve wrongdoings; and burnt offerings, which are a way of demonstrating faithfulness.

Sin and guilt offerings are called for when someone has committed an unintentional offense against God or another person—including offenses against sacred objects belonging to God. In these cases, the individual must bring forth a female goat or lamb as sacrifice for his or her sin. Sometimes a bird is also required for purification.

Burnt offerings were voluntary sacrifices offered by individuals as a sign of their commitment to following God’s commandments. They also served as a way to atone for unintentional offenses against God’s commands.

The Lord describes burnt offerings as “a pleasing aroma” that he will accept on behalf of those making them (Leviticus 1:9).

types of offerings and their significance

The Old Testament can be said to revolve around a system of sacrificial offerings mitigated by priests during rituals to atone for the sins of humanity, especially of Israel. These offerings run throughout the majority of the Old Testament. Genesis 3:20 may allude to the first sacrifice, where the LORD God offered garments of skin to Adam and Eve to express devotion and commitment to His priests (humanity) serving in His temple (the Heavens and the Earth), an act that may foreshadow the Burnt Offering more fully described in Leviticus. The last of the Prophets, Malachi, cites improper animal sacrifices (1:8) as the reason God no longer accepts the Grain Offerings (1:10, 2:13). Malachi then builds to a climax that begins with the return to proper tithes and grain offerings (1:11, 3:3, 3:10) to initiate the day of the LORD.

These are just a few examples of the five types of offerings in the Old Testament. The following offerings—the Burnt Offering, the Grain Offering, the Peace Offering, the Purification Offering, and the Reparation Offering—should not be viewed as legalistic rites one must perform to earn God’s grace. The Prophet Samuel said, “to obey is better than sacrifice,” (1 Sam 15:22), and Jeremiah likewise negates Burnt Offerings for atonement and says that disobedience results in calamity (Jer 44:23). Rather, the sacrificial system in the Old Testament was a means of grace by which one who unintentionally sinned might make reparations for that sin without paying with his or her life, or with the life of his or her child. The system was an outward expression of a person or community’s inward desire to restore the broken relationships between humanity and God and humanity and the world.

  1. Burnt Offering
    The first offering is the olah, literally, “an offering of ascent,” commonly called the Burnt Offering. The purpose of the Burnt Offering was for general atonement of sin and expression of devotion to God. The instructions for the Burnt Offering are given in Lev 1:3-17. The offering could be a bull (1:3), sheep or goat (1:10), or dove or pigeon (1:14). The animal was to be burnt whole overnight (6:8-13), though its skin was given to the priest (1:6). The Burnt Offering was likely the earliest type of atonement offering in the Old Testament (Job 1:5, Gen 8:20). The primary contrast between the Old Testament Burnt Offering and the Canaanite Burnt Offering was that the Canaanites would offer children as burnt sacrifices for their own atonement. Although this does occur during the worst of Israel’s history (Judges 11), God made it clear that He would not accept children as burnt offerings (Gen 22), and the instructions given in Leviticus explicitly limit the type of animals to be offered as burnt sacrifices to bulls, rams, and birds.
  2. Grain Offering
    The second type of offering in the Old Testament is the minchah, or Grain Offering. The purpose of the Grain Offering was a voluntary expression of devotion to God, recognizing His goodness and providence. The instructions for the grain offerings are given in Leviticus 2. Generally it was cooked bread—baked (2:4), grilled (2:5), fried (2:7), roasted, or made into cereal (2:14)—though always seasoned (2:13), unsweetened, and unleavened (2:11). Unlike the whole Burnt Offering, only a portion of the offering was to be burnt (2:9). The remainder went to the priests for their meal (2:10). Although the minchah was instructed to be a freewill offering of grains, it appears that earlier freewill offerings expressing devotion to God and gratitude for His goodness and providence may have been the “first fruits” of livestock (Gen 4:4).
  3. Peace Offering
    The third offering is the shelem, or Peace Offering. This category, first discussed in Leviticus 3, included Thanksgiving Offerings (Lev 7:12), Freewill Offerings (7:16), and Wave Offerings (7:30). The offering could be cattle (3:1), sheep (3:7), or a goat (3:12). It could be male or female, but must be without defect. If it was a Thanksgiving Offering, it could also include a variety of breads (7:12). The purpose of the Peace Offering was to consecrate a meal between two or more parties before God and share that meal together in fellowship of peace and a commitment to each others’ future prosperity. The portions unsuitable for eating were given to God (7:19-27). Depending on the type of Peace Offering, the breast may have been given to the High Priest (7:31) and the right thigh may be given to the priest officiating the meal (7:32). The rest of the meal was to be eaten within one day by the fellowship of parties (7:16), and the leftovers were to be burnt after two days (7:17).
  4. Sin Offering
    The fourth offering was called chattath, literally “sin” or “sin offering.” This offering is sometimes seen as an offering of atonement for unintentional sin (4:2-3, 4:20). Similarly, it is sometimes viewed as guilt offering, removing the consequences for lack of perfection (4:13-14, 4:22-23). As an atonement offering, it contained elements of a Burnt Offering (4:25), yet at the same time had elements of a Peace Offering (4:26). Conversely, some of the “sins” for which one needed atonement were not moral sins but rather matters of ritual impurity (5:1-5). As such, some have proposed the term “Purification Offering” instead of “Sin Offering.” The primary purpose of this offering is not to atone for sins but rather to purify oneself for re-entering the presence of God. The elements of a Purification Offering could be any of the elements of the previous three types offerings, though unlike the Peace Offering, the meal was not to be shared by the one offering the sacrifice.
  5. Guilt Offering
    The fifth and final offering was the asham, traditionally translated “Guilt Offering.” Unlike the English word “guilt” this does not refer to a matter of one’s conscience but rather to something one owes on account of a “sin.” Other suggestions for the name of this offering are the “Trespass Offering” or the “Reparation Offering.” The purpose of this offering was to make reparations for one’s sin. As such, this offering had a specific monetary value, and one who owed another on account of a debt due to a “sin” could repay it in silver rather than by sacrificing a ram (5:15). In addition, a 20% fee was assessed and given to the priest who mitigated the debt (5:16).

    The sacrificial system of the Old Testament was a means of grace by which the relationship between God and humanity begins to be restored. Ultimately, the sacrificial system was inadequate, and none could repay the debt of life that was owed until Christ defeated death once and for all (Heb. 10:10). In the age of the Church, we live in light of Christ’s meritorious sacrifice for us while also offering our own lives as a living and holy sacrifice (Rom 12:1; 1 Pet. 2:5).

spiritual meaning of burnt offering

The burnt offering is one of the oldest and most common offerings in history. It’s entirely possible that Abel’s offering in Genesis 4:4 was a burnt offering, although the first recorded instance is in Genesis 8:20 when Noah offers burnt offerings after the flood. God ordered Abraham to offer his son, Isaac, in a burnt offering in Genesis 22, and then provided a ram as a replacement. After suffering through nine of the ten plagues, Pharaoh decided to let the people go from bondage in Egypt, but his refusal to allow the Israelites to take their livestock with them in order to offer burnt offerings brought about the final plague that led to the Israelites’ delivery (Exodus 10:24-29).

The Hebrew word for “burnt offering” actually means to “ascend,“ literally to “go up in smoke.” The smoke from the sacrifice ascended to God, “a soothing aroma to the LORD” (Leviticus 1:9). Technically, any offering burned over an altar was a burnt offering, but in more specific terms, a burnt offering was the complete destruction of the animal (except for the hide) in an effort to renew the relationship between Holy God and sinful man. With the development of the law, God gave the Israelites specific instructions as to the types of burnt offerings and what they symbolized.

Leviticus 1 and 6:8-13 describe the traditional burnt offering. The Israelites brought a bull, sheep, or goat, a male with no defect, and killed it at the entrance to the tabernacle. The animal’s blood was drained, and the priest sprinkled blood around the altar. The animal was skinned and cut it into pieces, the intestines and legs washed, and the priest burned the pieces over the altar all night. The priest received the skin as a fee for his help. A turtledove or pigeon could also be sacrificed, although they weren’t skinned.

A person could give a burnt offering at any time. It was a sacrifice of general atonement—an acknowledgement of the sin nature and a request for renewed relationship with God. God also set times for the priests to give a burnt offering for the benefit of the Israelites as a whole, although the animals required for each sacrifice varied:

Every morning and evening (Exodus 29:38-42; Numbers 28:2)
Each Sabbath (Numbers 28:9-10)
The beginning of each month (Numbers 28:11)
At Passover (Numbers 28:19)
With the new grain/firstfruits offering at the Feast of Weeks (Numbers 28:27)
At the Feast of Trumpets/Rosh Hashanah (Numbers 29:1)
At the new moon (Numbers 29:6)

The ultimate fulfillment of the burnt offering is in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. His physical life was completely consumed, He ascended to God, and His covering (that is, His garment) was distributed to those who officiated over His sacrifice (Matthew 27:35). But most importantly, His sacrifice, once for all time, atoned for our sins and restored our relationship with God.

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