What is a burnt offering?

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By BibleAsk Team


A burnt offering, as described in the Bible, is a significant sacrificial practice in ancient Israelite worship. It was an offering that was completely consumed by fire on the altar as an act of worship and atonement. Understanding the concept of burnt offerings requires exploring its origins, purposes, procedures, and theological implications as presented in the Bible.

Origins and Biblical Foundation

Genesis and Early Offerings

The practice of burnt offerings finds its roots in early biblical narratives, particularly in the account of Cain and Abel’s offerings to God.

  • Genesis 4:3-4:”And in the process of time it came to pass that Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground to the Lord. Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat. And the Lord respected Abel and his offering.”

This passage highlights Abel’s offering of a lamb, which was accepted by God, suggesting that the concept of offering sacrifices, including burnt offerings, was established early in human history as a means of worship and relationship with God.

Institution in Mosaic Law

The practice of burnt offerings was formalized and detailed in the Mosaic Law, outlining specific procedures, purposes, and regulations for these sacrifices.

  • Leviticus 1:1-9:”Now the Lord called to Moses, and spoke to him from the tabernacle of meeting, saying, ‘Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘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. If his offering is a burnt sacrifice of the herd, let him offer a male without blemish; he shall offer it of his own free will at the door of the tabernacle of meeting before the Lord. Then he shall put his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him. He shall kill the bull before the Lord; and the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall bring the blood and sprinkle the blood all around on the altar that is by the door of the tabernacle of meeting. And he shall skin the burnt offering and cut it into its pieces. The sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire on the altar, and lay the wood in order on the fire. Then the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall lay the parts, the head, and the fat in order on the wood that is on the fire upon the altar; but he shall wash its entrails and its legs with water. And the priest shall burn all on the altar as a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, a sweet aroma to the Lord.'”

This passage provides detailed instructions for the burnt offering, specifying the type of animal (male without blemish), the ritual actions (laying hands, killing, skinning, cutting into pieces), and the burning of the sacrifice as a pleasing aroma to the Lord.

Purpose and Symbolism

Atonement and Forgiveness

One of the primary purposes of burnt offerings was atonement for sin and purification, symbolizing reconciliation between God and humanity.

  • Leviticus 1:4:”Then he shall put his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him.”

By laying hands on the animal, the offerer symbolically transferred their sins onto the sacrificial animal, whose death and burning represented the penalty for sin being paid and the offerer’s desire for forgiveness and reconciliation with God.

Expression of Devotion and Worship

Burnt offerings were also expressions of devotion and worship, demonstrating the offerer’s commitment to God and acknowledgment of His sovereignty and grace.

  • Leviticus 1:3:”If his offering is a burnt sacrifice of the herd, let him offer a male without blemish; he shall offer it of his own free will at the door of the tabernacle of meeting before the Lord.”

The requirement for the animal to be without blemish and offered willingly underscored the offerer’s reverence and sincerity in approaching God through sacrifice.

Acknowledgment of God’s Provision

In offering their best livestock to God, the Israelites acknowledged God’s provision and sovereignty over all creation.

  • Leviticus 22:18-20:”Speak to Aaron and his sons, and to all the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘Whatever man of the house of Israel, or of the strangers in Israel, who offers his sacrifice for any of his vows or for any of his freewill offerings, which they offer to the Lord as a burnt offering— you shall offer of your own free will a male without blemish from the cattle, from the sheep, or from the goats. Whatever has a defect, you shall not offer, for it shall not be acceptable on your behalf.'”

This passage reinforces the requirement for offerings to be without defect, emphasizing the importance of presenting the best to God as an expression of gratitude and dependence on His provision.

Procedure of Burnt Offerings

Selection and Examination

The animal for the burnt offering had to be chosen carefully, meeting specific criteria of being male, without blemish, and offered willingly.

  • Leviticus 22:19-20:”You shall offer of your own free will a male without blemish from the cattle, from the sheep, or from the goats. Whatever has a defect, you shall not offer, for it shall not be acceptable on your behalf.”

This selection process ensured that only the best and most valuable animals were sacrificed, reflecting the offerer’s respect and reverence for God.

Ritual Actions

The ritual actions involved in the burnt offering included laying hands on the animal, slaughtering it, and preparing it for burning on the altar.

  • Leviticus 1:4-5:”Then he shall put his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him. He shall kill the bull before the Lord; and the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall bring the blood and sprinkle the blood all around on the altar that is by the door of the tabernacle of meeting.”

These actions symbolized the transfer of sin to the animal and the shedding of blood for atonement, necessary for forgiveness and reconciliation with God.

Burning as a Sweet Aroma

The burnt offering was wholly consumed by fire on the altar, with the smoke rising as a pleasing aroma to God.

  • Leviticus 1:9:”But he shall wash its entrails and its legs with water. And the priest shall burn all on the altar as a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, a sweet aroma to the Lord.”

The burning of the sacrifice symbolized the complete dedication of the offerer to God, with the aroma pleasing to Him, signifying acceptance and approval of the worshipper’s devotion and obedience.

Theological Significance and Application

Foreshadowing Christ’s Sacrifice

The burnt offering served as a foreshadowing of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice on the cross, where He offered Himself without blemish to atone for the sins of humanity.

  • Hebrews 10:10:”By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

Christ’s sacrifice fulfilled the requirements of the burnt offering, providing eternal atonement and reconciliation with God for all who believe in Him.

Call to Wholehearted Devotion

The burnt offering challenges believers to offer themselves completely to God, presenting their lives as living sacrifices in worship and service.

  • Romans 12:1:”I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.”

Just as the burnt offering was wholly dedicated to God, Christians are called to offer their lives completely to Him, demonstrating devotion, obedience, and gratitude in all aspects of life.

God’s Holiness and Grace

Through the burnt offering, God revealed His holiness and grace, providing a means for sinful humanity to approach Him and receive forgiveness through the shedding of blood.

  • Ephesians 2:8-9:”For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”

God’s provision of sacrificial atonement in the Old Testament points to His ultimate grace and salvation through Jesus Christ in the New Testament, underscoring His desire for restored relationship with His people.

Types

Mandatory

First-The mandatory offerings were also divided to 2 kinds:

  1. Those that were done at set times and were presented by the priests on behalf of the whole nation. Such were:
  2. Those that were done at occasional times. Such were:
    • The offerings at the consecration of a priest (Exodus 29:15–18; Leviticus 8:18–21; 9:12–14).
    • The offerings at childbirth (Leviticus 12:6–8).
    • The offerings at the cleansing of a leper (Leviticus 14:19, 20).
    • The offerings at the purifying from ceremonial defilement (Leviticus15:14, 15, 30).
    • The offerings at the taking of a Nazirite vow (Numbers 6:13–16).

Voluntary

Second- The voluntary offerings which were presented by a person at any time. However, these conformed in all aspects to the same rules that ruled the obligatory burnt offerings (Numbers 7; 1 Kings 8:64). Leviticus chapter one is concerned specifically with voluntary offerings.

Animal sacrifices only pointed forward to the supreme sacrifice of “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29, NKJV). Thus, the altar of burnt offering, with its shed blood, represents the great gospel truth of atonement for sin through the vicarious sacrifice of Christ.

Conclusion

The burnt offering, as outlined in the Bible, served as a significant sacrificial practice in ancient Israelite worship. It symbolized atonement for sin, reconciliation with God, and wholehearted devotion and worship. The offering’s detailed procedures and theological significance highlight God’s sovereignty over creation and His provision of grace and forgiveness through sacrificial means.

Ultimately, the burnt offering pointed forward to Christ’s ultimate sacrifice on the cross, where He offered Himself as the perfect and final sacrifice for the sins of humanity. Understanding the burnt offering enriches our understanding of God’s holiness, grace, and desire for restored relationship with His people, encouraging believers to offer their lives as living sacrifices in worship and service to Him.

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