The basic, jack-of-all-trades sacrifice found in the Old Testament is the Burnt Offering. The unique feature of this sacrifice is that the entire animal (excluding the skin) is to be burned during the sacrifice. The priest can’t take a cut of steak to have for dinner. The whole animal is destroyed in the fire.
The general nature of Burnt Offerings is seen by the number of occasions they’re required. According to Numbers 28:3b-7 burnt offerings started and ended the days work in the tabernacle and temple.
“Each day present two unblemished year-old male lambs as a regular burnt offering.Offer one lamb in the morning and the other lamb at twilight,along with two quarts of fine flour for a grain offering mixed with a quart of olive oil from crushed olives.It is a regular burnt offering established at Mount Sinai for a pleasing aroma, a fire offering to the Lord.” (HCSB)
In Leviticus 9:7 we see that the burnt offering accompanies the sin offering. They’re offered together.
“Then Moses said to Aaron, “Approach the altar and sacrifice your sin offering and your burnt offering; make atonement for yourself and the people.”
In his commentary on Leviticus, Rooker notes, “On every one of the Israelite feast days, excluding the Day of Atonement when the sin offering is the central focus, the burnt offering was the most important sacrifice.” (84)
Purpose of the Burnt Offering
Pinning down the purpose of the burnt offering is more difficult. Leviticus 1:3 describes the purpose of presenting the animals to the priests at the entrance of the tabernacle “so that you may be acceptable to the Lord.” Based on this statement, some commentators characterise the burnt offering as one of dedication or consecration. The Tyndale OT Commentary on Leviticus by Harrison contains this summary,
“The burnt offering was a gift intended to win divine favour for the worshipper, as indicated by the phrase that he may be accepted. By contrast, the sin offering (4:1-5:13) was meant to secure divine pardon for the donor.” (44)
However, as we keep reading this nice neat division of purpose fails to hold up.
Leviticus 1:4 instructs, “[The worshipper] is to lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering so it can be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him.” (HCSB) Atonement basically refers to God forgiving our sins. So the burnt offering, like the sin offering, is a means of seeking God’s forgiveness.
Even Harrison in speaking of v4 seems to contradict himself when he says, “This atonement nullifies or removes the effects of sin or uncleanness. (45) Rooker (88) comments that “atonement should be considered as part of the burnt offering’s primary function.”
The quandary we face is that the burnt offering needs to be distinguished from the sin offering discussed in chapter 4. If a burnt offering achieves the same purpose as a sin offering, then a separate “sin offering” appears redundant.
One suggestion I found that may reconcile these two statements (dedication in v3 and atonement in v4) is the possibility that since Leviticus 1 doesn’t connect the burnt offering with specific offenses, while the sin offering does, the burnt offering may provide a more general atonement for one’s state of sinfulness. Rooker cites several scholars and ancient Jewish rabbis who believe the burnt offering covers sins not specifically mentioned in Leviticus 4-5, including sins of omission.
It seems to me that the concepts of dedication and atonement for general sinfulness are close enough in thought that these two purposes can be ascribed to the same sacrifice without conflict. This also leaves space for the sin offering of chapter 4 to have its own specific purpose.
If you’ve made it this far in the article, “Congratulations”. My blog posts aren’t usually that definitional. 🙂
As mentioned above, the distinguishing feature of the Burnt Offering is the fact that the entire animal is burned. When the Hebrew word for burnt offering is translated into Greek (holokautoma) it becomes the basis for the English word “holocaust“. This word only occurs twice in the New Testament (Mark 12:33, Heb. 10:6-8).
In Hebrews 10 the passage makes the point that burnt offerings are inferior to the sacrifice of Christ. I might write later about the relationship between the New Testament and the Israelite sacrificial system. For now, I want to consider the comparison between Christ’s sacrifice and the burnt offering.
The death of Jesus was an atoning sacrifice for us, just as the burnt offering brought atonement for the sins of the Israelites. Unlike the burnt offerings that were offered on behalf of the Israelite nation each morning and evening, Jesus’ sacrifice was “once for all“. But in common with the Israelite burnt offerings Jesus’ sacrifice makes us holy in God’s sight (Heb 10:10,14).
Jesus obviously wasn’t consumed by fire, but I do believe the concept of “holocaust” or burnt offering can be applied to his death. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that on the cross our sins consumed Jesus. His haunting cry echoes throughout history, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46) Consumed by our sins, he dies. But in submitting himself to death he makes us holy, acceptable to God. (Rom 12:1)