The book of Leviticus introduces the guidelines for the sacrificial system where the Israelite could come to the altar of the tent of meeting where God met His people and offer a sacrifice of atonement, thanksgiving, or dedication. This was the first step in the sanctification process for the ancient Israelite. The two important purposes of the tent of meeting was where God communicated His revelatory word and as a place of worship, where God was approached through sacrifices.[i] The first of these sacrifices, the burnt offering, was the giving of an animal by the Israelite to signify the atonement for sins they had committed. The sacrifice was open to all Israelites regardless of financial or social standing indicating the need for and allowance for everyone to approach God. The burnt offering symbolizes the ultimate sacrifice of the work of Christ on the cross to atone for all sins past, present, and future. The Christian today can look to the burnt offering as acknowledgement of how we can approach God and savor the work of Christ to atone for our sins.
Procedure for the Burnt Offering Sacrifice
Since we are told of Abel’s sacrifice to God in Genesis 4:4, we know that animal sacrifices were part of God’s dealings with His people from the beginning, but Leviticus is where God gave detailed descriptions of how these were to be performed. The opening verses of Leviticus open with the Lord instructing Moses at the tent of meeting that His responsibility was to speak to the sons of Israel regarding offerings to the Lord. Chapter 1 describes the procedures involved for the first offering, called the burnt offering in verse 1:3, which is to be from the herd, flock, or birds of the person making the offering. If it is from the herd, he is to bring the unblemished male to the doorway of the tent of meeting and lay his hand on the head of the animal. The priest then would sprinkle the animal’s blood around the altar. The person making the offering would then skin the animal and cut it into pieces while the priest arranged the fire on the altar as well as other parts of the animal. The entrails and legs were washed with water and offered up in smoke as a soothing aroma to the Lord.
If the sacrifice was from the flock, the procedure was similar with the added stipulation that the male goat or sheep was to be slain on the northward side of the altar. If the sacrifice was from the birds it was to be from the turtledoves or pigeons. The priest would kill the bird by wringing off its head and offer it up in smoke and draining out its blood on the side of the altar. The crop and feathers were cast aside eastward to the place of ashes while the remainder was offered up in smoke as a soothing aroma.
Additional procedures are given in chapter 6:8-13 that the burnt offering was to remain on the altar all night. The priest was responsible to take the ashes from the offering to a clean place outside the camp, and certain garments were to be worn while doing this. Verse 12 mentions the offering of the fat portions of the peace offerings and great emphasis is given to the continual burning of the fire at the altar.
Significance of the Burnt Offering Ritual to the Ancient Israelite
Leviticus 17:11 states that the life of the flesh is blood, and that God has given that blood on the altar to make atonement for souls. This does not mean that the blood itself has atoning value, but rather the fact that God has chosen it as a fitting symbol of atonement and forgiveness gives the blood its prominent place in the burnt offering ritual.[ii] The view of those that this was an act of flesh and blood, and some might say senseless killing, do not appreciate the sovereign rule of God over all living things. His control over humans, animals, and all living matter is key to understanding his right to take them at will and make other living things part of that process. One must get pass the fairness of the issue and see that the substitutionary atonement of the victim’s blood as foundational to the understanding of the Israelite sacrificial system.[iii]
The involvement of the presenter in laying his hand on the head of the sacrifice symbolized his acceptance of his sin and the animal as the atonement for it. He was actively involved in worship in approaching God at the tent of meeting and most likely experienced the gravity of his sin. The effect was most likely the deepening of his relationship with God and the desire to repent. The involvement of the priest was to ensure that those procedures were followed in accordance with the Lord’s instruction since God demanded perfection in this sacrifice. This perfection was continued by the priest’s offering up entrails and legs as a soothing aroma, not in the sense of smell, but in the sense or tranquility by bringing peace between God and the worshiper.[iv]
Commentators seem to differ or remain silent on the meaning of the continual burning of altar fire as described in Leviticus 6:12-13. Some suggestions might be that it was to remind the Israelites of their continual devotion to the Lord and continual need to bring their sacrifices before the Lord. The addition of wood every morning might represent the acknowledgement of a new day before the Lord and dedication to service and adoration to Him. Just as the flame is to burn continually, the love of God and love to Him should be eternal.
The perfection involved in the sacrificial system is an act of obedience by the person making the offering and the priest, but the act bringing the offering is one of repentance and worship. Moses acted as the covenant mediator between God and the Israelites and the priests were set apart to do the tabernacle work. The priest’s role was of supreme importance and was not to be taken lightly, as indicated in chapter 10 by the death of Nadab and Abihu when they were killed for improperly kindling the fire. However, any Israelite was given the right to take action in atoning for their sin.
Sacrifice by any Israelite
Verse 1:2 of Leviticus says that “when any man of you brings an offering to the Lord,” indicates that the burnt offering sacrifice could be made by any Israelite, regardless, of social standing, economic condition or past actions. A merciful God adjusted His worship regulations so that even the poor were not denied the privilege of bringing offerings to God.[v] The terminology in verse 1:2, “from the herd or the flock,” would indicate that is was from the herd of flock owned by the person making the offering. In addition, it was to be a male without defect, which would be the more valuable of the flock or the herd. Verse 1:14 says the offering could be “a bird” which suggest that the bird might even be a wild bird and it also was not required to be without defect. The burnt offering by a bird could be soothing aroma just as an unblemished bull or goat.
This is not to imply that a person owning a herd or flock was wealthy or that their sacrifice was not financially demanding, but rather that the approaching of the Lord at the tent of meeting was open to all Israelites. No one was denied the atonement for their sin and the enjoyment of His presence in worship. God intends to work in the lives of all of His people and He desires all to have a personal relationship with Him and never requires any unattainable physical possession to be a condition for closeness to Him.
The Burnt Offering Sacrifice in Relation to Christ
In John 5:46, Jesus said “For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me. This statement is an overriding theme that the entire Old Testament points to the work of Jesus Christ on the cross for the ultimate glorification of God. Not only does the book of Leviticus substantiate this, but specifically the burnt offering is highly symbolic and practical in understanding the cross.
When a person comes to a saving knowledge through Jesus Christ, they must first understand two major points, the substitutionary atonement through Christ on the cross for the forgiveness of the sins they have committed and the recognition of his deity and the offering of their lives in service to Him. The beauty and wonderfulness of the cross is the once and for all atonement of all sins past, present, and future. We deserve the punishment for our sin, but God has provided a substitute. For the ancient Israelite, this substitute was the burnt offering, but for us it is Jesus Christ. Although the substitutionary atonement is the main similarity between Jesus and the burnt offering, there are others similarities as well.
The sacrifice in the burnt offering had to suffer physical death. In an obviously much greater way, our Savior suffered tremendously both physically and spiritually. Joseph Seiss in The Gospel of Leviticus states that,
“Christ as our sacrifice, suffered not only in the outer man, but in His whole inner and out nature conjoined. The nails, and thorns, and thongs he did not more feel in His flesh than the pangs of unutterable grief in his inmost soul. True, only his body was broken, but as no part of the victim was saved from burning, so every part of Christ’s mysterious nature came under the curse which he bore for us; the prophet is witness that God also made His soul and offering of sin.”[vi]
Christ left the peace and tranquility of Heaven to endure not only the sinfulness of the earth and the physical difficulties of this life, but the emotional separation for God at the time of the sacrifice on the cross was the greatest hardship He had to endure. Through His separation from God the Father, He made our connection to God. In a similar way, the separation of the animal from its owner in the burnt offering sacrifice, made a connection to God for the person making the offering. Christ has made our permanent relationship with God.
The burnt offering sacrifice, other than the bird, was to be without defect. This represented the best to be presented before God. Wouldn’t it have made more sense for God to sacrifice a criminal on the cross for our sins or at least a disciple or two? God presented the best He had, His Son who was perfect and sinless. One of the most amazing facts of the sacrificial atonement of Jesus Christ was that He was the only person on this earth to not deserve punishment because He was without sin.
The burnt offering and the promise of the continual flame was open to all Israelites regardless of their position or condition in life. The purpose and the promise of the work of Jesus on the cross is open to all people regardless of position, condition, and moreover, race. We all deserve eternal torment for our transgressions, but no matter how many sins or how much worse our sins might be than someone else, the sacrifice of Christ paid for them all. God has not withheld His love from anyone and just as the burnt offering was open to all who would come, the promise of salvation through Jesus Christ is open to all.
The priest in the burnt offering sacrifice was very important in aiding the presenter with his sacrifice and performing the functions to God’s specifications. They acted as mediators to aid in worship of God and atoning for sins. Now we have one mediator between God and us who is Jesus Christ to act as our priest and we can have direct worship with God without the need of additional sacrifices. The writer of Hebrews has called Him our high priest.
The burnt offering sacrifice was an important part of the tent of meeting procedures because it provided a place and occasion for the ancient Israelite to atone for sins and worship God. While the thought of sacrificing an animal today is unheard of in America, it is still done in other parts of the world. Christians today see no need for such a practice because God provided the ultimate sacrifice once and for eternity.
Does this mean we do not need to study the book of Leviticus? Absolutely not. The burnt offering sacrifice is a direct and enduring symbol in our understanding of the cross. Hebrews 9:22 states that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” and 1 John 1:7 says “the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.” The shedding of blood in the burnt offering sacrifice helps us to see and understand the shedding of blood by Christ. The more time we spend understanding the Old Testament, the easier it will be to understand the New Testament.[vii]
Clendenen, E. Ray. The New American Commentary. Vol. 3A, Leviticus, by Mark F. Rooker. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000.
Lenz, Mark J., Leviticus, Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1988.
Seiss, Joseph A., The Gospel in Leviticus, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, NO PRINTING YEAR LISTED.
Walvoord, John F. and Zuck, Roy B., ed., The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, Colorado Springs: Chariot Victor Publishing, 1985.
[i] E. Ray Clendenen, ed., The New American Commentary. Vol. 3A, Leviticus, by Mark F. Rooker (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 83.
[ii] John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, ed., The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament (Colorado Springs: Chariot Victor Publishing, 1985), 199.
[iii] E. Ray Clendenen, ed., The New American Commentary. Vol. 3A, Leviticus, by Mark F. Rooker (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 53.
[iv] E. Ray Clendenen, ed., The New American Commentary. Vol. 3A, Leviticus, by Mark F. Rooker (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 90.
[v] Mark J. Lenz, Leviticus, (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1988) 21.
[vi] Joseph A. Seiss, The Gospel in Leviticus, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, NO PRINTING YEAR LISTED) 36.
[vii] Mark J. Lenz, Leviticus, (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1988) 2.