There’s an experience that is very common when we decide to read through the entire Bible. We begin in Genesis, and find it fairly easy reading, since most of its space is taken up with the stories of the patriarchs. The first half of Exodus goes by pretty quickly, too, as we read about Moses and the great signs and wonders that God did in Egypt. When we get into the back half of Exodus, things slow down a bit as God instructs Moses on the fabrication of the Tabernacle, its furnishings, and the priestly garments. But when we come to Leviticus, it may seem like everything comes to a screeching halt. The book begins with God telling Moses to say to the people of Israel, “When any one of you brings an offering to the LORD, you shall bring your offering of the livestock–of the herd and of the flock.” Over the next several chapters, we read a very detailed description of the bloody and gruesome practice of animal sacrifice that God demanded of the Israelites. If we’re not careful, our goal of reading through the Bible can be derailed here, simply because of the unfamiliarity of the text and the difficulty that we have in seeing how it applies to us as 21st century Christians. In order to avoid this, let’s consider the nature of each type of offering, its significance for the Israelites, and its meaning for us today.
The Burnt Offering (Lev. 1:1-17)
The burnt offering was really the backbone of the entire sacrificial system of ancient Israel. It was offered every day in the morning and the evening, with additional burnt offerings being made on the Sabbath, the first day of the month, and many of Israel’s yearly feasts. It was sometimes offered in conjunction with other sacrifices, like the guilt offering, sin offering, and freewill offering. It was even used as part of the ritual of cleansing on a variety of occasions. As a result, the burnt offering was the most common of all the offerings that were a part of Israel’s worship.
The offering could be made of a bull, a sheep or goat, or even a turtledove or pigeon. The lesser options seem to have been accommodations for those who were poor and could not afford the very costly sacrifice of a male bull. Clearly, whatever animal was offered was to be a significant investment on the part of the worshiper, and for this reason, it was not to be made by compulsion, but each Israelite was to offer it of his own free will. Unlike most other offerings, where the priest and sometimes the worshiper himself would share a portion of the sacrifice, the burnt offering was to be completely consumed by fire on the altar. It was an offering given in its entirety to the Lord, and represented the offerer’s complete devotion to God.
Before offering it, the worshiper was to place his hand on the animal’s head at the entrance to the Tabernacle, and then kill it. This act of identification served to remind the worshiper that the animal was dying in his place in order to “be accepted on his behalf,” securing the Lord’s pleasure and making “atonement for him.” The language here suggests that the burnt offering was not made for any particular sins but for the man’s general sinfulness, in order to make him acceptable to God to come before him in worship. This idea is reinforced by the statement at the end of the instructions for each offering, that it was “a sweet aroma to the LORD.” In making this offering, the individual was securing for himself the Lord’s favor by means of his sacrificial substitute.
Of course, this helps us to see how the burnt offering speaks to us as modern day Christians, because we, too, can come before the Lord’s presence on the basis of our substitute, the Lord Jesus Christ. The total devotion of the animal to the Lord in the burnt offering is paralleled by Jesus’ complete devotion to the will of God, and it also speaks of the Christian’s commitment of himself wholly to the Lord. While some may have viewed the burnt offering as wasteful, consuming the entire animal with fire and offering no apparent benefit to the worshipers or priests, it was to be an act of pure worship and selfless sacrifice to God. As a Christian today, your atonement is secured by Jesus’ substitutionary death, and you are also called to “present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service” (Romans 12:1).