Why did OT people offer sacrifices for atonement?


By BibleAsk Team

Sacrifices for atonement play a central role in the religious practices of ancient Israel as depicted in the Bible. These rituals involved the offering of animals or other items to God as a means of seeking forgiveness for sins and restoring right relationship with Him. In this comprehensive exploration, we will delve into the purpose, significance, and theological implications of these ceremonies as described in the Old Testament, with reference to relevant passages from the Bible.

The Concept of Atonement

Atonement is a fundamental concept in Judeo-Christian theology, referring to the reconciliation of humanity with God through the forgiveness of sins. The need for atonement arises from the reality of human sinfulness and the consequent rupture of the relationship between God and humanity. Leviticus 17:11 (NKJV) states, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul.”

Purpose of Sacrifices for Atonement

a. Symbolic Representation: Sacrifices served as symbolic acts of repentance, submission, and devotion to God. They expressed a recognition of human sinfulness and the desire for reconciliation with the divine. Hebrews 9:22 (NKJV) affirms, “And according to the law almost all things are purified with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission.”

b. Transfer of Guilt and Consequences: Sacrificial rituals allowed for the transfer of guilt and consequences from the sinner to the sacrificial victim. The shedding of blood symbolized the payment of the penalty for sin and the removal of guilt. Leviticus 1:4 (NKJV) states, “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.”

c. Means of Cleansing and Purification: Sacrifices also served as a means of cleansing and purification, both for individuals and for the community as a whole. They were intended to restore ritual purity and enable access to God’s presence. Psalm 51:7 (NKJV) expresses, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”

Types of Sacrifices

The Old Testament outlines various types of sacrifices for different purposes, each with its own specific rituals and regulations:

a. Burnt Offerings: Burnt offerings were entirely consumed by fire on the altar as a symbol of complete surrender to God. Leviticus 1:9 (NKJV) instructs, “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.”

b. Sin Offerings: Sin offerings were offered to atone for unintentional sins or offenses committed against God’s commandments. Leviticus 4:3 (NKJV) explains, “If the anointed priest sins, bringing guilt on the people, then let him offer to the Lord for his sin which he has sinned a young bull without blemish as a sin offering.”

c. Guilt Offerings: Guilt offerings were prescribed for specific transgressions requiring restitution or compensation. Leviticus 5:15 (NKJV) states, “If a person commits a trespass, and sins unintentionally in regard to the holy things of the Lord, then he shall bring to the Lord as his trespass offering a ram without blemish from the flocks.”

Theological Significance

a. Foreshadowing of Christ’s Sacrifice: The sacrificial system in the Old Testament foreshadowed the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. Hebrews 10:10 (NKJV) declares, “By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

b. Redemption and Forgiveness: Sacrifices for atonement provided a means of redemption and forgiveness, pointing to God’s mercy and grace. Ephesians 1:7 (NKJV) proclaims, “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace.”

c. Covenant Relationship: Sacrifices served as a tangible expression of the covenant relationship between God and His people. Exodus 24:8 (NKJV) records, “And Moses took the blood, sprinkled it on the people, and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you according to all these words.'”

New Testament Perspective

In the New Testament, the sacrificial system of the Old Testament is fulfilled and surpassed by the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Hebrews 9:12 (NKJV) affirms, “Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.”

Application to Christian Faith

While Christians no longer offer animal sacrifices for atonement, the principles underlying sacrificial rituals remain relevant to the Christian faith:

a. Repentance and Faith: Christians are called to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as the ultimate sacrifice for sin. Acts 3:19 (NKJV) exhorts, “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.”

b. Living Sacrifices: Believers are called to offer themselves as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God. Romans 12:1 (NKJV) urges, “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.”

c. Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Through faith in Christ, believers experience forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration of their relationship with God. Colossians 1:20 (NKJV) declares, “And by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross.”


    Sacrifices for atonement in the Old Testament served as a profound expression of humanity’s need for reconciliation with God and foreshadowed the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. While the sacrificial system of the Old Testament has been fulfilled in Christ, its theological significance endures, reminding believers of the depth of God’s love, mercy, and grace. As Christians, we are called to embrace the reality of atonement through faith in Christ, offering our lives as living sacrifices in grateful response to God’s redeeming work.

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    In His service,
    BibleAsk Team

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