Troublesome Topic: Something Strange about the Burnt Offering

Lesson 7 of 9

What Kind of Sins Did This Sacrifice Cover?

Here is where it gets interesting.

I already said that the primary purpose of this sacrifice was for dedication, consecration, and commitment. But we would assume that it also had something to do with sins, right. Yes, there are verses which tie the burnt offering, or the it-all-goes-up-in-smoke offering, to atonement in general, and a few that mention atonement for sin.

However, it is not what I had expected.

There are times when the burnt offering was intended to “atone for him,” for the person offering it, such as Lev 1:4,

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but the type of sin involved is not made clear. There is much emphasis elsewhere on atonement for unintentional sins, so we cannot say with certainty that this one was for sins committed knowingly or defiantly; to say that would be an assumption. In reality when it is stated like this, “atone for him,” it probably means “atone for a sinful condition in general.”

By my count, there were 5 times (out of 265) that it was clearly stated to be for the atonement of the people (the nation of Israel), such as on the Day of Atonement. Burnt offerings were used along with other offerings on various feast days, and it probably had a general purpose, but we are not told. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest also offered a burnt offering as a sacrifice for his own sins, but it was most likely for his sinful condition in general.

There were 6 cases where it was used for an individual’s atonement for sins, and it specifically said “atone for his sin,” not just “atone for him.” Three of them were for unintentional sins,

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and 3 had to do with cleansing from a skin disorder!

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My point here is that none of the uses I found were instances where this sacrifice was clearly used as atonement for a sin committed knowingly or defiantly. It was used for uncleanness in cases we would not even call sin; it was used a few times for unintentional sins, and it was used in a very general way to atone for the entire nation, but it did not seem to be used to atone for individuals who had knowingly sinned against God (except possibly the cases involving skin disorders).

I found this to be weird because I had always assumed that of all the sacrifices, this one was the one that would cover true sinning (most of us don’t consider unintentional sins to be true sins, but rather mistakes).

The Hebrew word for “atonement” meant to “cover over, to appease, to pacify.” What did it pacify? It pacified the wrath of an authority figure such as a king. Why was the king angry? Well, there could be many reasons.  According to the Messianic Jew, Rich Oka, atonement does not always have to cover specific sins. In fact it was often used to approach God in recognition that as humans, we should not really be in His presence. It was an acknowledgement of our corrupt condition, not the confession of a particular sin. The going-up offering (as Rich calls it) “paved the way for reconciliation between imperfect man and a perfect God.”

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When Abraham offered Isaac on the altar (Gen chapter 22) it was called a burnt offering, but this had nothing to do with any sin that Abraham had committed. Abraham’s offering up of his son (and the beautiful substitution that God orchestrated) was either a recognition of his unworthy human condition or an expression of commitment and consecration to God, or both.

The it-all-goes-up-in-smoke offering involved laying a hand on the sacrificial animal before shedding its blood. Laying one’s right hand on the animal was a way to transfer one’s sinful or otherwise unacceptable condition onto that animal. When the animal died, it was serving as one’s substitute because it now bore the guilt of the human. We have always assumed that laying a hand on the animal, and the use of the word “atonement,” referred to specific sins that the person had committed. However, it could be for our unworthy human condition, which means we do not deserve to enter the presence of God.

I.M Haldeman said it this way, “Man is not a sinner because he commits sin, he commits sin because he is a sinner, because the root of sin is in him.” (I.M. Haldeman’s, The Tabernacle, Priesthood and offerings, p. 346.)

The burnt offering that was offered every morning on behalf of the people could have been for a general recognition of our human tendency toward sin or it could have been a dedication of the people to God, or both. God used many things with double meanings; this could have been one of them.


The it-all-goes-up-in-smoke offering was intended primarily as a demonstration of one’s commitment to God. It had something to do with atonement, but the details are very fuzzy; the connection was usually general, or it covered things like unintentional sins and uncleanness. The Burnt Offering was never described as the sacrifice to atone for willful, defiant sins!

The next lesson in all three series on covenants is Wait! So Which Sacrifice Was for Deliberate Sins?

The next lesson in Why Is That in the Bible? is: Wait! So Which Sacrifice Was for Deliberate Sins?


1: Lev 1:4

“Then he must put his hand on the head of the it-all-goes-up-in-smoke offering, and it will be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him.”


Two of these are in Job (1:5 & 42:8) and the other is part of a long section about unintentional sins found in Leviticus chapters 4, 5 and most of 6. The verse that specifically mentions forgiveness of sin is 5:10, but the context clearly indicates that an unintentional sin was in mind.


These are Lev 14:19, 22, 23.