Burnt Offerings and the Bible

The purpose of the sacrificial system, however, continues to apply to the New Testament saint. The author of Hebrews teaches, “But do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased” (Heb 13:16). Offering a burnt offering was a sacrificial act; it cost the worshipper something. In the same way, the New Testament believer should live a life of sacrifice, giving not only of one’s abundance, but even in one’s poverty to those less fortunate than oneself.

“Take now your son, your only son whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering” (Gen 22:2). Chilling words. Abraham, however, does not ask questions. He doesn’t need a clarification; he makes no excuses, causes no delays. He understands the significance of the command.

So he rises early in the morning and saddles his donkey—to make the most sacrificial of burnt offerings.

In this act, Abraham becomes an example for Old Covenant believers to follow.

Understanding the history, practice, and significance of the burnt offering will also help New Testament believers understand the sacrifice of Abraham and apply his example to their own Christian walks.

The history of the burnt offering.

Without any explanation or instruction we know about, people after Eden included sacrificial offerings in their worship. The first Old Testament story after Adam and Eve’s expulsion tells the story of Cain and Abel’s offerings to the Lord. A few chapters later, Noah departs from the ark, builds an altar, and offers his own sacrifices: the first recorded burnt offerings (Gen 8:20).

This is a practice which, by this time in the Old Testament story, seems already well established. Abel’s offering, while not a burnt offering, establishes the proper prioritization for an offering and reflects the proper heart of worship (Gen 4:4). The “choice parts” of the animal are offered to God by fire (Lev 3:16).1 The worshipper can consume some of the animal, but the best cuts are devoted to the Lord by fire.2

The burnt offering was a completely consumed offering, one that left nothing but ashes. It is sometimes called the “holocaust sacrifice” because everything goes up in smoke (holo, “whole”; caust, “burnt”).

In Genesis, Abraham travels through Canaan building altars and presumably sacrificing upon them (Gen 12:7–813:18), following the customs of those who had gone before him.

The practice of the burnt offering.

The book of Leviticus describes the process of completing a burnt offering. It details the worshipper’s responsibilities (Lev 1:3–17) and the priest’s responsibilities (Lev 6:8–13). The worshipper freely brings an unblemished male animal to the tabernacle. He presses his hand on the animal’s head and prays a prayer of confession (cf. Lev 16:21).3 He then kills the animal and captures the blood in a vessel, which the priest then sprinkles around the altar. The worshipper then skins the animal and cuts it into pieces. Then the priest takes the pieces of the animal and places them on the wood, where it is burned completely.

The peace offering, by contrast, burns only the fatty parts of the animal (the best parts), leaving the other sections for the priest and worshipper to eat (Lev 7:11–38).

The burnt offering is a very diverse offering, and some of the details differ depending on the animal sacrificed or the specific kind of sacrifice—sin offering (Lev 4:1–12) or daily sacrifice (Num 28:3–8). But the general idea of the burnt offering remains the same throughout the Old Testament: the entire sacrifice was consumed.

The Significance of the Burnt Offering

The burnt offering was one of the most frequent and significant offerings a worshipper could offer in Old Testament times.4 But because the ancient world was already very familiar with this offering, modern readers are left to discern its purpose and significance from only scant biblical data.

This much we can discern, however; the burnt offering had multiple purposes:5

1. The worshipper sought the favor of the Lord.

Whether it was to atone for sin (Lev 1:3–4) or gain a blessing (1 Kgs 3:4–15), the worshipper sacrificed something valuable to the Lord.

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