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Holman Bible Dictionary
Sacrifice and Offering
Sacrifice in the Ancient Near East Israel was not unique among the nations of the Ancient Near East in their use of sacrifices and offerings as a means of religious expression. Some type of sacrificial system characterized the many religious methodologies that the nations employed in their attempts to honor their gods. The presence of sacrifices and offerings in Israel, therefore, was a reflection of the larger culture of which this nation was a part.
Many references to the offering of sacrifices exist in extrabiblical literature. The primary approach to the gods was through the sacrificial system. In Babylon, part of the ritual of purifying the temple of Bel for the new year's festival involved the slaughter of a ram. The animal was decapitated and the priest, in turn, used the body in the purification ceremony. The ram's body then was thrown into the river. The ritual accompanying the replacing of the head of the kettledrum that was used in the temple required that a black bull be selected for sacrifice. After an elaborate ceremony that culminated in the sacrifice of the bull, its hide was dipped in and rubbed with two separate mixtures and then used to cover the kettledrum.
While the above sacrifices were performed on special occasions, a variety of rams, bulls, and birds were offered as meals to the idols on a daily basis. Barley beer, mixed beer, milk, and wine also were placed before the deities, as well as loaves of bread.
The sacrifices and offerings were designed to serve the gods by meeting any physical need that they may have had. The sacrifices were the food and drink of the gods. Faithfulness to the preparation and presentation of them was an act of devotion.
The Sacrificial System in the Old Testament From the earliest times of the Old Testament, sacrifice was practiced. Cain and Abel brought offerings to the Lord from the produce of the land and from the first born of the flock (Genesis 4:1 ). Upon embarking from the ark after the great flood, Noah immediately built an altar and offered burnt sacrifices. These were a soothing aroma to the Lord (Genesis 8:1 ). Other Ancient Near Eastern flood stories have parallels to this act by Noah. The patriarchal stories in Genesis 12-50 are filled with instances of sacrifice to God. The most famous is that of Abraham and Isaac ( Genesis 22:1 ).
An organized system of sacrifice does not appear in the Old Testament until after the Exodus of Israel from Egypt. In the instructions given for the building of the tabernacle and the establishment of a priestly organization, sacrifices were to be used in the consecration or ordination of the priests (Exodus 29:1 ). A bull was slaughtered as a sin offering. Other sacrifices provided Aaron and his sons a holy meal. These sacrifices were repeated each day for a week as a part of the “ordination” of the priests. The altar itself was consecrated through the offering of two lambs and a grain offering and a libation of wine. This sacrifice also was carried out each day for a week.
The sacrifices that constituted much of the worship of Israel at this time were burned on an altar that was made from accacia wood and overlaid with copper (Exodus 27:1 ). In addition to the sacrifices offered on this altar, incense was burned on a smaller altar (Exodus 30:1 ). While the sacrificial altar was placed in the courtyard, just before the door of the tabernacle, the incense altar was positioned inside the tabernacle, just before the ark of the covenant. See Altar .
Leviticus 1-7 gives the most detailed description of Israel's sacrificial system, including five types of sacrifices. The sacrifices and offerings that were brought by the people were to be the physical expression of their inward devotion.
1. Burnt offering (olah ). The burnt offering was offered both in the morning and in the evening, as well as on special days such as the Sabbath, the new moon, and the yearly feasts (Numbers 28-29; 2 Kings 16:15; 2 Chronicles 2:4; 2 Chronicles 31:3; Ezra 3:3-6 ). Rituals performed after childbirth (Leviticus 12:6-8 ), for an unclean discharge (Leviticus 15:14-15 ) or hemorrhage (Leviticus 15:29-30 ), or after a person who was keeping a Nazirite vow was defiled (Numbers 6:10-11 ) required a burnt offering, as well as a sin offering.
The animal for this sacrifice could be a young bull, lamb, goat, turtledove, or young pigeon; but it had to be a perfect and complete specimen. The type of animal chosen for this sacrifice seems to be dependent on the offerer's financial ability. The one bringing the offering was to lay a hand upon the animal so as to identify that the animal was taking the person's place and then to kill it. The priest then collected the blood and sprinkled it around the altar and the sanctuary, and the worshiper cut up and skinned the animal. If a bird was brought, the priest killed it. After the priest arranged the various parts on the altar, the entire animal was burned as a sacrifice. The only portion that remained was the hide, and the priest received it (Leviticus 7:8 ). The one who made this sacrifice did so to restore the relationship with God and to atone for some sin. When Araunah offered to David his threshing floor, oxen, and wood without cost so that David could sacrifice, David refused. His explanation was that he could not offer burnt offerings that cost him nothing (2 Samuel 24:18-25 ).
2. Grain offering (minchah; “meat offering” in KJV). An offering from the harvest of the land is the only type that required no bloodshed. It was composed of fine flour mixed with oil and frankincense. Sometimes, this offering was cooked into cakes prior to taking it to the priest. These cakes, however, had to be made without leaven. Every grain offering had to have salt in it (Leviticus 2:13 ), perhaps as a symbol of the covenant. Only a portion of this offering was burned on the altar, with the remainder going to the priests. While no reason is given for the grain offering, it may have symbolized the recognition of God's blessing in the harvest by a society based to a large degree on agriculture. The bringing of a representative portion of the grain harvest was another outward expression of devotion.
3. Peace offering (zebach shelamin; well-being in NRSV; “shared” in REB; “fellowship” in NIV). This consisted of the sacrifice of a bull, cow, lamb, or goat that had no defect. As with the burnt offering, the individual laid a hand on the animal and killed it. The priests, in turn, sprinkled the blood around the altar. Only certain parts of the internal organs were burned. The priest received the breast and the right thigh (Leviticus 7:28-36 ), but the offerer was given much of the meat to have a meal of celebration (Leviticus 7:11-21 ). As part of the meal, various kinds of bread were offered (and ultimately kept by the priest). The idea of thanksgiving was associated with the peace offering. It often accompanied other sacrifices in celebration of events such as the dedication of the Temple (1 Kings 8:63 ) or spiritual renewal (2 Chronicles 29:31-36 ).
4. Sin offering (chatta't; “purification” in REB). This was designed to deal with sin that was committed unintentionally. The sacrifice varied according to who committed the sin. If the priest or the congregation of Israel sinned, then a bull was required. A leader of the people had to bring a male goat, while anyone else sacrificed a female goat or a lamb. The poor were allowed to bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons. The one bringing the offering placed a hand on the animal and then slaughtered it. When the priest or the congregation sinned, the blood was sprinkled seven times before the veil in the sanctuary, and some of it was placed on the horns of the incense altar. The rest of the blood was poured out at the base of the sacrificial altar. For others who sinned, the sprinkling of the blood before the veil was omitted. The same internal organs that were designated for burning in the peace offering were likewise designated in this sacrifice. The rest of the animal was taken outside of the camp to the place where the ashes of the sacrifices were disposed, and there it was burned. These disposal procedures were not followed when the sin offering was made on behalf of a nonpriestly person (Leviticus 6:24-30 ). In this case, the priest was allowed to eat some of the meat.
5. Guilt offering (asham , trespass in KJV; reparation in REB). This is hard to distinguish from the sin offering (Leviticus 4-5 ). In Leviticus 5:6-7 , the guilt offering is called the sin offering. Both offerings also were made for similar types of sin. The guilt offering was concerned supremely with restitution. Someone who took something illegally was expected to repay it in full plus 20 percent of the value and then bring a ram for the guilt offering. Other instances in which the guilt offering was prescribed included the cleansing of a leper (Leviticus 14:1 ), having sexual relations with the female slave of another person (Leviticus 19:20-22 ), and for the renewing of a Nazirite vow that had been broken (Numbers 6:11-12 ).
The burnt, grain, peace, sin, and guilt offering composed the basic sacrificial system of Israel. These sacrifices were commonly used in conjunction with each other and were carried out on both an individual and a corporate basis. The sacrificial system taught the necessity of dealing with sin and, at the same time, demonstrated that God had provided a way for dealing with sin.
The Prophets' Attitude Toward the Sacrificial System The prophets spoke harshly about the people's concept of sacrifice. They tended to ignore faith, confession, and devotion, thinking the mere act of sacrifice ensured forgiveness. Isaiah contended that the sacrifices were worthless when they were not accompanied by repentance and an obedient life (Isaiah 1:10-17 ). Micah reflected the same sentiments when he proclaimed that God was not interested in the physical act of sacrifice by itself but in the life and heart of the one making the sacrifice (Micah 6:4-6 ). Jeremiah condemned the belief that as long as the Temple was in Jerusalem and the people were faithful to perform the sacrifices, then God would protect them. The symbol of the sacrifice must be reflected in the individual's life (Jeremiah 7:1-26 ). Malachi chastised the people for offering the lame and sick animals to God instead of the best, as the Levitical law required. In doing this, the people were defiling the altar and despising God (Malachi 1:7-14 ).
The prophets did not want to abolish the sacrificial system. They, instead, denounced the people's misuse of it. God wanted more than the physical performance of meaningless sacrifices. He desired the offerings to exemplify the heart of the worshiper.
Sacrifice in the New Testament During the time of the New Testament, the people sacrificed according to the guidelines in the Old Testament. In keeping with the Levitical law (Leviticus 12:1 ), Mary brought the baby Jesus to the Temple and offered a sacrifice for her purification. She sacrificed turtledoves or pigeons, indicating the family's low financial status. When Jesus healed the leper (Luke 5:12-14 ), He told him to go to the priest and make a sacrifice (compare Leviticus 14:1 ). The cleansing of the Temple (John 2:1 ) came about because people were selling animals and birds for the various sacrifices within the Temple precincts. These people had allowed the “business” of sacrifice to overwhelm the spiritual nature of the offerings. Jesus chided the Pharisees neglecting family responsibilities by claiming that something was “corban,” or offered to God, and thus unavailable for the care of their parents (Mark 7:1 ). Corban is the Hebrew word for offering (Leviticus 1:2 ). See Corban .
The New Testament consistently describes Christ's death in sacrificial terms. Hebrews portrays Christ as the sinless high priest who offered himself up as a sacrifice for sinners (Leviticus 7:27 ). The superiority of Christ's sacrifice over the Levitical sacrificial system is seen in that His sacrifice had to be offered only once. The book ends with an encouragement to offer sacrifices of praise to God through Christ. This thought is reflected in 1 Peter 2:1 where believers are called a holy and royal priesthood who offer up spiritual sacrifices.
Paul used the terminology of the Old Testament sacrifices in teaching about the death of Jesus. His death was an offering and sacrifice to God and, as such, a fragrant aroma (Ephesians 5:2 ). He associated Jesus with the Passover sacrifice (1 Corinthians 5:7 ). Paul also spoke of himself as a libation poured out (Philippians 2:18 ). He called the Philippians' gift a fragrant aroma and an acceptable sacrifice to God (Philippians 4:18 ).
The first-century church lived in a culture that sacrificed to their gods. Paul and Barnabas at Lystra were thought to be the gods Zeus and Hermes. The priest of Zeus sought to offer sacrifices to them (Acts 14:1 ). The church at Corinth was embroiled in a controversy over whether or not it was permissible for Christians to eat meat offered to idols (1 Corinthians 8-10 ). Paul's preaching of the gospel at Ephesus disrupted the business and worship of the goddess Artemis (Acts 19:1 ).
When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 A.D., the Jews' sacrificial system ceased. By this time, however, the church had begun to distance itself from Judaism. The biblical view of sacrifice changed as well. In the Old Testament and in the beginning years of the New Testament, sacrifice was the accepted mode of worship. With the death of Christ, however, physical sacrifice became unnecessary. As the temple and priest of God, the believer now has the responsibility for offering acceptable spiritual sacrifices.
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Sacrifice and Offering'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hbd/s/sacrifice-and-offering.html. 1991.