Troublesome Topic: General information about the Burnt Offering

Lesson 13 of 21

The regulations about the burnt offering were given in Lev 1:1-17; 6:8-13; 8:18-21; 16:24,

What Does the Name Mean?

The Hebrew word which is usually rendered “burnt offering” means “to ascend, to go up, to rise, ascend stairs.” Because the Jews believed that God lived up above, something that “went up” was getting “closer to God” which is considered by some to be an additional meaning of the term. It is not really a meaning but rather an additional implication. The reason this sacrifice was given this name was because the sacrificial animal was entirely burned up, thus all of it “went up” in smoke to get “closer to God.”

It has traditionally been called the burnt offering (which really means “burned-up offering”) because it was different from the rest of the animal sacrifices in that it got all burned up. However, the Hebrew name emphasizes the smoke going up, not the animal burning or being consumed. I choose to call it by the following descriptive phrase: the it-all-goes-up-in-smoke offering. (You can see why they went with something more simple.  Rich Oka, a Messianic Jew, calls it the “going up” offering. I still like mine better, even if it is longer.

What Was Being Offered and What Did it Symbolize?

The burnt offering was a blood offering, meaning it was an animal rather than a plant. Leviticus chapter one makes clear that it could be a young bull, a sheep, a goat, a dove or a pigeon.

The blood of these animals represented the person’s blood, or the person’s life. Thus it represented the offering of one’s life to God.

How Was it Offered?

From Leviticus chapter one we learn the following details: First the worshipper would lay one hand on the head of the animal, transferring his sinful condition onto the animal which would serve as his substitute. Under the supervision and with the guidance of the priest, the worshipper who brought the animal would be the one to slit its throat while a priest caught the animal’s blood in a bowl made for that purpose. The animal was skinned (the priest got to keep the skin and use it or sell it), then the digestive tract was washed with water (they had to cut open the abdomen to accomplish this washing). This would ensure that none of the partially digested food particles in the stomach and none of the excrement left in the bowels would be burned with the sacrifice. We are also told that the legs had to be washed with water. That seems strange, but here’s the key. Although we are not told specifically, I am quite confident that they did not skin the legs all the way down to the hooves. That would take too long, it would not produce useful portions of hide, and it would be almost impossible to get that hide to come off cleanly without leaving any holes in the hide and pieces of skin still on the animal. So they would remove the skin down to the knee joints and then wash the lower part of the legs to get the filthiness off before placing it on the altar. Then they would cut the animal into large pieces so that it could be positioned on the altar more easily while accommodating other sacrifices as well. The animal was totally consumed except for the blood, which was not burned; it was sprinkled on all sides of the altar or poured out at the foot of the altar on all sides.

Laying one hand on the animal, sprinkling the blood on the altar, and seeing the smoke rise were the most important parts of this sacrifice.

The rising of the smoke was what gave this offering its name. Smoke was the visible proof that their offering was going up to God so He could accept it. All the sacrifices produced smoke, but in this one the entire animal was turned into smoke (and ashes, and gases, and heat, but we shouldn’t be picky because smoke was the visible part).

When Was it Offered?

The burnt offering was offered at various times and occasions. I will answer this question more fully in a separate lesson.

My Conclusion about the Purpose of This Offering

The primary purpose of the burnt offering was, well, um, it was actually quite vague.

It appears from the name that the purpose of this offering was that of dedication or consecration to God. If you wanted to offer yourself completely to God, this would be the sacrifice that would be the best visible depiction of your inward commitment because of the smoke going up from a sacrifice that was totally consumed.

The ideas of commitment and consecration also coincide with when it was used. It expressed the desire of the nation to daily seek God’s favor by recognizing its sinful tendencies and committing to serve and follow Him. It expressed similar desires on the part of an individual. Sometimes those desires were closely related to the gratitude they felt for what God had done, so gratitude was not far removed from this sacrifice, even though most scholars do not say gratitude was one of its key purposes. It was sometimes used as a direct response to an unintentional sin, or for cleansing.

How it was sacrificed pointed to commitment and dedication because the sacrificial animal went entirely up in smoke to God. Yet it also pointed to some aspect of atonement because the worshipper placed his hand on the animal to transfer his sinful condition onto the animal which was his substitute.

God’s comments indicate that when this sacrifice was done correctly it was something very pleasing to Him, like a sweet-smelling aroma.

Beyond that, it was a gift from a servant to his king in a demonstration of loyalty. Because it was a gift of love, it was pleasing to the king and therefore it kept the relationship strong. There were times when this sacrifice was chosen by the person, and times when it was required – for instance it was required that the priests offer this sacrifice once a day for all the people.

To better understand this sacrifice I decided to look up every use of the term “burnt offering” in the Old Testament and organize them in an excel spreadsheet. There are around 265 instances. For most of them there was no purpose stated and it was implied that the reader should know what the purpose was (from the points I have discussed above). 45 of its uses were obviously connected to the consecration of a thing or a person, and most of those had to do with the dedication of the priests or Hezekiah’s purification of the temple. 15 times the idea of gratitude was also implied, but not stated.

So the first thing my spreadsheet did was confirm my suspicion that the purpose of this sacrifice was primarily that of dedication, consecration, or commitment. (Other scholars say this as well, but I wanted to be sure since it is never stated as clearly as we would like.) It was a picture of them giving themselves up totally to God just like this sacrificial animal was all going up in smoke toward God.

I have not yet gotten into what is truly strange about the Burnt Offering. Please click on the right arrow key to move to the next lesson, in it the strange and interesting part is revealed.

The next lesson for all three series on covenants is Where Could the Burnt Offering Be Offered?

The next lesson for Why Is That in the Bible? is: Something Strange about the Burnt Offering