Two Levitical Offerings and Their Meaning to Us Today

The Burnt Offering

Hebrew Term

OLAH, literally ascending,” that is, the sacrifice “ascends” to God. It is translated as “burnt offering” or “whole offering.”

Description of the Ritual

The actual ritual was divided between the worshiper and the priest, as follows:

1. Worshiper brought animal to Tabernacle entrance. (Size of the animal scaled to worshiper’s financial situation, ranging from expensive bull through sheep, goats, and finally birds.)*

2. Worshiper laid hands on animal’s head, showing that the animal symbolically received worshiper’s sins, and would die in his or her place.

3. Priest declared animal acceptable.

4. Worshiper killed animal.

5. Priest splashed blood against altar.

6. Worshiper divided animal.

7. Priest burned animal on altar. Nearly all of the animal was burned; with the larger animals, the priest could keep the hide and sell it in order to receive a “salary.”

*In the case of the small birds, the priest did most of the ritual himself.

Main Idea of the Sacrifice

The traditional view is that it indicated total consecration to God; more recent views are that atonement also played a large role; besides its aspect of consecration, the sacrifice propitiated God’s wrath.

Some Occasions When Offered

This was the most common sacrifice of all.

Publicly: each morning and evening on behalf of the whole nation (suggested times are 6:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.).

Privately: when someone sinned (according to more recent views), after fulfillment of a vow; after cleansing from childbirth, healing, and bodily discharges (these three involved a kind of atonement; see note at right), as free acts of thanksgiving and dedication (Numbers 15:3. Vow fulfillment, though mandatory, may fit here). Often the private aspect is considered voluntary, but chapters 12 to 15 show that it was often obligatory.

In the Old Testament

Atonement idea: Genesis 8:20, 21; Job 1:5, 42:7-9

Consecration or thanksgiving idea: Exodus 18:11,12; Numbers 15:3; Psalm 50:8, 14. Perhaps Genesis 22, where Isaac was to be a “burnt offering,” fits here.

In the New Testament

Explicit in Mark 12:33; Hebrews 10:6-9.

Implied in Luke 2:24 (after childbirth), Luke 17:14 (after healing), Acts 21:26 (after consecration to a Nazirite vow, or cleansing from defilement during a Nazirite vow).

Allusions in John 3:16, Romans 8:32 (both to the sacrifice of Isaac), Ephesians 5:2; Hebrews 13:15, 16 (“continual” perhaps alluding to the perpetual fire of the burnt offering, Leviticus 6:13).

Practical Principles for the Christian’s Daily Life

1. The fire of the burnt offering had to be kept going perpetually (Leviticus 6:13). This necessitated constant vigilance on the part of the priests. Likewise, as a “nation of priests,” our service to God is an entire lifestyle, rather than a nine-to-five or once-a-week affair.

2. There was a “division of labor” between worshiper and priest in the sacrifice ritual. Likewise, there is a division of labor in the Body of Christ, as each of us serves according to our gifts and abilities, no task being more important than another.

3. In Leviticus 6:10-11, the priest even does the “lowly” work of cleaning up the ashes. In our Christian lifestyle, all work has dignity; thus no one is too “high” to do even what is considered menial work, for no work is really menial when performed as unto the Lord.

4. There was more here than just the principle of an animal’s life in place of the worshiper’s, for no wild animal was permitted, but the sacrifice animal was to be the worshiper’s own property, so that he would “feel the pinch.” This was so even where a burnt offering was offered freely in its aspect of consecration. Even so, our Christian lifestyle is not one of comfort and ease. Though it should involve great joy, there should also be an element of personal sacrifice as we bring the gospel to the world (also see 2 Samuel 24:24).

5. The worshiper in the sacrifice ritual did not stand idly by while the priest did everything. He was as involved as the priest. Similarly, Christian worship demands involvement on the part of the “laity,” as much as on the part of the “clergy.” If we are a “nation of priests,” this becomes doubly true. (Needless to say, as much for the Old Testament believer as for us, the externals without an internal involvement are not pleasing to the Lord.)

6. As the priest could keep the animal’s hide for remuneration, it is proper for those in the Christian ministry to receive remuneration, too.

NOTE: The burnt offering is said to provide atonement after cleansing from childbirth, healing and certain bodily discharges. Although such circumstances are not equivalent with personal sins, which clearly need atonement, they do reflect the disruption in nature that resulted from Adam’s sin. Recall from Genesis 3 that even childbirth was not the same after the Fall. This at least seems to provide a partial explanation of why “atonement” is needed in these cases, as a reminder of the results of sin that pervade the natural order.

The Peace Offering

Hebrew Term

SH’LAMIM, variously translated as “peace offering” “shared offering,” “fellowship offering” and “well-being offering.” Generally thought to have been derived from the verb “to make peace,” or possibly from “to repay.” In Hebrew thought, “peace” indicated complete well-being and harmony, not just absence of war.

Description of the Ritual

1. Worshiper brought animal to entrance of tent; (if for confession/thanksgiving, accompanied by unleavened and leavened bread).

2. Worshiper laid hands on animal’s head.

3. Worshiper killed animal.

4. Priest splashed blood over the altar.

5. (Implied): worshiper cut up animal. (Up to this point, the peace offering resembles the burnt offering.)

6. The following parts were then burned: kidneys, perhaps symbolizing the offering of one’s emotions (see Job 19:27, literally kidneys), fat, perhaps symbolizing the offering of one’s “best” to God (see Genesis 45:18).

7. The priest was entitled to the skin, breast (wave offering) and right thigh (heave offering), these may be misnomers whose meaning is obscure.

8. Worshiper, with others, ate the remainder of the sacrifice as a festive meal, on the same day if for thanksgiving/confession, on the next day if for other. All had to be ritually clean; any “leftovers” had to be completely burned.

Main Idea of the Sacrifice

This was most likely an expression of gratitude for well-being, and for the fellowship that can exist between man and God. Some, based on the second derivation suggested above, think of it as “repayment” for blessings God has bestowed. Because it was a blood sacrifice, atonement is probably involved, too, as Leviticus 17:11 would suggest.

Some Occasions When Offered

Privately: optionally, in two possible forms: for thanksgiving or confession, and as a spontaneous free-will offering; required at the fulfillment of a vow (see Leviticus 7:12,16). Leviticus 3:5 suggests that it would be preceded regularly by a burnt offering. Publicly: only at the festival of Shavuot (Pentecost; Leviticus 23:19), and at ordination of priests (Leviticus 9:4).

In the Old Testament

Genesis 31:54 is probably a prototype; 1 Samuel 2:13-15. Thanksgiving and vow: Psalm 56:12,13; freewill: 1 Samuel 1, Psalm 54:6.

In the New Testament Not directly mentioned. Probably implied in Acts 21:23-26, if that deals with the completion and not the interruption of the vows. Parallels with the Lord’s Supper are discussed below.

Practical Principles for the Christian’s Daily Life 1. The peace offering combined serious aspects with the culmination of a joyous meal. Christians should seek a balance between the serious and joyous aspects of their faith. While the Lord’s Supper has many aspects in common with this offering (see note on page 4), more of a parallel can be made with a modern holiday like Thanksgiving. For a believer, Thanksgiving can be a time to reflect on God’s grace in spite of one’s sin, and a time of reverent yet joyful celebration of His blessings.

2. The Lord’s Supper is derived from Passover, which can itself be seen as a kind of peace offering. Not only are expressions of thanksgiving present in both observances, but participants need to be “qualified” (compare Leviticus 7:19 and 1 Corinthians 11:27). In cases of extreme abuse, judgment from God is indicated (Leviticus 7:20, 21 and 1 Corinthians 11:29,30). Though today a festive meal is generally not part of the Lord’s Supper, in the early church the agape meal went along with communion. While there are distinctions, certainly the peace offering is a second reminder alongside 1 Corinthians 11 that we need to be fit to observe the Lord’s Supper—specifically, according to Paul, being aware of “the body,” and seeing to it that our attitudes are proper, which was not the case in the church at Corinth.

3. Leviticus 7:29,30 indicates that a gift “for the Lord” (which is then given to the priests) is to be brought by the worshiper’s “own hands.” The Old Testament worshiper did not merely give money to support the priests; he raised the sacrifice animals, brought them, and killed them. While in the church our support is generally through direct financial giving, it would be appropriate also to offer services to help maintain the church building, to minister to the congregants, etc., in a way that exacted some visible effort. Of course, in a sense, even writing a check for the offering reflects the effort that went into the earning of those funds, but there is something especially uplifting about seeing congregants tangibly and physically involved in the life and work of the church.

NOTE: The term “worship” is used here to refer to the ceremonies of atonement, though of course it encompassed other aspects. Christian worship includes not only praise and thanksgiving (which is how we tend to use the term), but also confession and petition.


Rich Robinson | San Francisco

Scholar in Residence, Missionary

Rich has been on staff since 1978. He has served at several Jews for Jesus branches and was a pianist and songwriter with their music team, the Liberated Wailing Wall. He is now at the San Francisco headquarters, where he conducts research, writes and edits as the senior researcher. He is author of the books Christ in the Sabbath and The Day Jesus Did Tikkun Olam: Jewish Values and the New Testament, and co-author of Christ in the Feast of Pentecost. Rich received his M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 1978 and a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies and Hermeneutics from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1993.

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