For many of us, the most we know of “burnt offerings” is from the jokes which are told by husbands pertaining to the “burnt offerings” of their wives. The ancient Israelite knew much more about burnt offerings, much thanks to the Book of Leviticus. The burnt offering is the first, and one of the most significant offerings.
The burnt offering, along with the others described in Leviticus 1-7, was offered on the bronze altar of burnt offering, the plans for which God gave Moses in the Book of Exodus:
And you shall make the altar of acacia wood, five cubits long and five cubits wide; the altar shall be square, and its height shall be three cubits. And you shall make its horns on its four corners; its horns shall be of one piece with it, and you shall overlay it with bronze. And you shall make its pails for removing its ashes, and its shovels and its basins and its forks and its fire pans; you shall make all its utensils of bronze. And you shall make for it a grating of network of bronze; and on the net you shall make four bronze rings at its four corners. And you shall put it beneath, under the ledge of the altar, that the net may reach halfway up the altar. And you shall make poles for the altar, poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with bronze. And its poles shall be inserted into the rings, so that the poles shall be on the two sides of the altar when it is carried. You shall make it hollow with planks; as it was shown to you in the mountain, so they shall make it (Exod. 27:1-8; cf. also 38:1-7).
The altar for the burnt offerings was thus made of acacia wood, overlaid with bronze, being nearly 8 feet square and about 4 and a half feet high.21 It was a very large altar indeed, but certainly not too large considering the large number of sacrifices and offerings which it was required to facilitate.
As one entered the courtyard of the tabernacle through the gate, the altar of burnt offering would be the first of the tabernacle furnishings to be encountered as one approached the tabernacle proper. To the left of the altar would be the ash heap, where the ashes from the altar were placed (cf. Lev. 1:16). Between the altar and the tabernacle doorway was the bronze laver (30:17-21; 38:8), where Aaron and his sons cleansed themselves. Then, there was the doorway to the tabernacle. Since the altar was located at the approach to the tabernacle, the sacrifices enabled men to draw near to God who dwelt in the tabernacle, and who spoke to Moses from within it (Lev. 1:1).
The purpose of this lesson is to study the first of the sacrifices regulated by chapters 1-7 of Leviticus. We will first make several observations about this sacrifice; then we will attempt to pursue the meaning of the burnt offering for the Israelite, and then we will seek to determine its meaning and application to the New Testament Christian.
As we seek to study the sacrifices of Leviticus, we will focus on two aspects of each. First, we will seek to see the continuity of one sacrifice to the rest. That is, we will seek to learn how a particular sacrifice is like the others. Secondly, we will seek to discern the unique contribution of each sacrifice. That is, we will attempt to determine how each sacrifice is distinct and unique from the others. I believe this two-fold approach will provide us with the key to understanding the sacrifices.
The following observations will provide us with the raw material necessary for understanding the significance of the burnt offering of Leviticus chapter 1 (cf. the “law of the burnt offering” in Lev. 6:8-13):
(1) The burnt offering does not originate in Leviticus, but is found early in the Book of Genesis. It is incorrect to suppose that the burnt offering originates in Leviticus. Consulting a concordance will show that the first occurrence of the burnt offering is found in Genesis chapter 8. The first “burnt offering”22 was that offered by Noah after the flood waters had subsided, at which time he offered “burnt offerings” of all the clean23 animals (Gen. 8:20). God instructed Abraham to offer up Isaac as a “burnt offering” (Gen. 22:2ff.), and so the ram which God in Isaac’s place was offered by Abraham as a burnt offering (Gen. 22:13). When Moses told Pharaoh that Israel must take their cattle with them into the wilderness to worship their God, it was because they needed them to offer burnt offerings (Exod. 10:25-26). Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, offered a burnt offering to God in Exodus chapter 18 (v. 12). The Israelites offered up burnt offerings in conjunction with their meeting with God and receiving His covenant on Mt. Sinai (Exod. 20:24; 24:5, etc.). Unfortunately, when the Israelites worshipped the golden calf they offered up burnt offerings as a part of their false worship (Exod. 32:6).
It is my contention that it is these earlier references to the burnt offering in Genesis and Exodus which provided the Israelites with the key to understanding the meaning and significance of the burnt offering regulated in Leviticus chapter 1. We will demonstrate this fact a little later in this message.
(2) The burnt offering regulated in Leviticus chapter 1 was viewed primarily as a personal offering, done voluntarily by the individual Israelite.24 Elsewhere, the burnt offering is often a corporate offering, but as it is regulated in Leviticus 1 it is viewed as a personal, private offering. Thus, verse 2 reads, “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘When any man of you brings an offering to the LORD, you shall bring your offering of animals from the herd or the flock’” (Lev. 1:2). From here on, the personal pronoun “he” is employed, referring to this individual Israelite, who comes with the burnt offering. It is also apparent that it was only the males who could make these offerings to the Lord. It seems that they represented their families (cp. Job 1:5).
(3) The burnt offering is one of the most common offerings, which is offered on a great variety of occasions, often in conjunction with another sacrifice or offering. The major purpose of Leviticus 1 is to instruct the Israelites how the burnt offering is to be offered, but they also needed to know when it should be offered. We find the answer to this question elsewhere in the Pentateuch. I will summarize the occasions on which the burnt offering was appropriate or required.
There were the regularly scheduled times for the burnt offering. Burnt offerings were to be made every day, in the morning and the evening (Exod 29:38-42; Num. 28:3, 6, cf. 2 Chron. 2:4, etc.). An additional burnt offering was to be offered up each Sabbath day (Num. 28:9-10). Also, at the beginning of each month (Num. 28:11), at the celebration of Passover on the 14th day of the 1st month (Num. 28:16), along with new grain offering at Feast of Weeks (Num. 28:27), at the feast of trumpets, on sacred day in the 7th month (Num. 29:1ff.), and for the celebration of the new moon (Num. 29:6).25
A burnt offering was often offered in conjunction with another sacrifice. Among these were the guilt offering (Lev. 5:7, 10, 17-18), the sin offering (cf. Lev. 5:7; 6:25; 9:2-3, 7; 12:6, 8), the votive or freewill offering (Lev. 22:18), the sheaf offering (Lev. 23:12), and the new grain offering (Lev. 23:15-22, esp. v. 18).
There were a number of occasions when a sacrifice was required for cleansing, of which the burnt offering was one of the sacrifices offered. The burnt offering was required in the cleansing of a woman’s uncleanness as a result of child-bearing (sin and burnt offering required, Lev. 12:6-8), of a leper (Lev. 14:19-20), of a man with a discharge (with a sin offering, Lev. 15:14-15), of a woman with an abnormal discharge (with a sin offering, Lev. 15:30), and of a Nazarite who was unintentionally defiled by contact with a dead body (Num. 6:11, 14). When the congregation unwittingly failed to observe one of God’s commands, and was thereby defiled, a burnt offering was required for the purification of the congregation (Num. 15:22-26). A burnt offering was required for the purification and consecration of Aaron (Lev. 16:3, 5, 24), as well as the Levites (Num. 8:12).
In addition to this, there were special times at which the burnt offering was appropriate. Then, there were times when this sacrifice could be offered voluntarily. The bottom line is that this sacrifice was the most common of all sacrifices in Israel:
The reason for describing the burnt offering first is that it was the commonest of all the sacrifices, performed every morning and evening, and more frequently on holy days. … This makes it plausible to suppose that the sacrifices in chs. 1-5 are arranged according to their various theological concepts, so that it is easier to remember their distinctive features. It may be that they were grouped in this way to help the priests learn their tasks.26
(4) The burnt offering was a whole “burnt offering,” which was totally consumed on the altar. Most of the sacrifices benefited the offerer and the priests, in addition to being pleasing to God. Sometimes, the offerer would eat some of the meat of the sacrificial animal, and most often the priest received a portion of it. Thus, when one offered a sacrifice to God, one’s mouth would water, knowing that he would be able to partake of the sacrifice. Not so in the case of the burnt offering, however. Neither the offerer nor the priest partook of any of the meat, for it was all burned in the fire. The hide of the animal was the priest’s only remuneration (cf. Lev. 7:8).
Incidentally, in verse 2 the Hebrew word used for an offering is “corban,” which is referred to by our Lord in Mark 7:11, providing us with an interesting and helpful insight into the evil practiced by the scribes and Pharisees when they called a possession “corban” to keep from having to provide for their parents in their old age.
(5) The regulations for the burnt offering (as well as the other offerings) are very important, and violations are taken very seriously. The way in which one offers any of the sacrifices described in chapters 1-7 must follow God’s regulations precisely. One need only read of the death of Nadab and Abihu in chapter 10 to have this point vividly underscored (cf. also Lev. 17:8-9).
(6) There are three types of animals to sacrifice in the burnt offering.27 The three types of animals, and the specific regulations pertaining to each, provides the structure for chapter 1: (1) Offerings from the herd (bull), vv. 3-9. (2) Offerings from the flock (a sheep or a goat), vv. 10-13. (3) Offerings of birds (turtledoves or pigeons), vv. 14-17. It would seem that the principal reason for providing several sacrificial animals is that the poor could not afford to sacrifice a bull (cf. 14:21-22, 31, where being poor is given as basis for reduction in sacrifice demanded by God).
(7) The animal to be offered in the burnt offering was always to be of the highest quality. A bull, a sheep, or a goat, were all livestock of considerable value.28 With the exception of the birds which could be offered for a burnt offering, the animal must be a male of the flock (v. 10) or the herd (v. 3).29 The animal was to be young, not a old, unproductive, useless creature, fit only for soup or for the proverbial “glue factory.” In fact, it is my impression that the animals were just at the point where they would begin to “pay for their keep.” It truly would be a sacrifice to offer up an animal which one had raised, which was about to be productive, and was thus valuable.
(8) There is an alternation between the activity of the priest and the offerer. As you read the regulations in Leviticus 1 pertaining to the burnt offering you notice an intermingling of involvement between the offerer and the priest(s). While the offering of the birds is somewhat different (it is not nearly so complicated a process), the offerer generally puts the animal to death and cuts it up, while the priest handles the sprinkling of its blood and its burning on the altar of sacrifice. The offerer is much more involved in the process of sacrifice than we might think.30 Sacrifice was, for the offerer, a very personal experience. This was intended, I believe, to make an impression on the Israelite who was making his sacrifice.
(9) The purpose of the burnt offering was to make atonement for the sin of the offerer and thus to gain God’s acceptance. The offerer laid his hands upon the animal, identifying with it.31 More specifically, he identified his sins with the animal. Thus, when the animal was slain (by the hand of the offerer) it died for the sins of the offerer. It is not so much for the offerer’s specific sins (which are dealt with by other sacrifices), but rather for the offerer’s general state of sinfulness.32
The burnt offering was required by, and served to remind the offerer of, his depravity. The burnt offering was thus not so much to gain forgiveness for a particular sin, but to make atonement for the offerer’s sinfulness. It was not just a certain sin which required men to remain separated from God, but the individual’s sinful state. The burnt offering seems to provide a divine solution for man’s fallen condition.
When we come to the point of trying to discern the meaning of the burnt offering (or any other offering, for that matter) to the Israelites of Moses’ day, we tend to forget a very important fact: they understood this sacrifice in the light of what they already knew about it, not in terms of its future fulfillment. We often impose our viewpoint and interpretation on the Israelites of old by interpreting the meaning of an Old Testament text in the light of the coming of Christ. We must remember, however, that Christ’s coming, life, death, and resurrection is a past event for us, but a future event for the Israelites. They (like Christians today) had to interpret God’s Word in the light of what God had already said and done.
Thus, the key to understanding the meaning of the burnt offering for the ancient Israelite was what had already been revealed about it before the regulations of Leviticus. Leviticus 1 informed the Israelite how the burnt offering was to be offered, not what it meant. I believe that the two major interpretive keys to the meaning of the burnt offering are to be found in the “burnt offerings” of Noah in Genesis 8 and of Abraham in Genesis 22.
In Genesis chapter 8, after the flood has destroyed all life on earth (except for what was in the ark), and after the water has subsided, we read:
Then Noah built an altar to the LORD, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And the LORD smelled the soothing aroma; and the LORD said to Himself, “I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done. While the earth remains, Seedtime and harvest, And cold and heat, And summer and winter, And day and night Shall not cease” (Gen. 8:20-22).
The relationship between this text and that of Leviticus can be seen by several lines of correspondence. First, the term “burnt offering” found in Genesis 8:20 is the same as that of Leviticus 1. Second, “clean” animals and birds are offered by Noah (Gen. 8:20). It is Leviticus which defines the difference between what is clean and what is not. Third, the offering is said to be a “soothing aroma” to God (Gen. 8:21), which is an expression similar to that found frequently in Leviticus, and more specifically in Leviticus chapter 1 (vv. 9, 13, 17).
The sacrifice which Noah offered was the basis for the covenantal promise of God that He would never again destroy every living thing by a flood again (Gen. 8:21). This promise was not due to the fact that all sin had been destroyed from the face of the earth. The fact of man’s depravity (as will soon be manifested in Noah and his family) is still present, for God can still say, “the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Gen. 8:21), a statement very similar to that of Exodus 32:9, where God told Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people.”
The basis for God’s promise to Noah is not the goodness of man, for man’s depravity is specifically stated. This basis for God’s covenant promise is the result of the burnt offering offered up by Noah. Thus, the Israelites saw that the burnt offering was a means of avoiding God’s wrath and of obtaining God’s favor. God’s blessing was the result of a burnt offering, not of man’s good deeds.
The second interpretive key is found in the burnt offering of Abraham in Genesis 22. God summoned Abraham with this command: “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you” (Gen. 22:2).
We know from the account given by Moses that Abraham did as God commanded him. We know from the New Testament accounts that Abraham was willing to sacrifice his only son because he believed that God would raise him from the dead (cf. Rom. 4:19-21; Heb. 11:19). In God’s grace, He stopped Abraham from slaying his son, and provided a ram in his place (Gen. 22:13).
In what way did this account of the offering up of Isaac as a burnt offering instruct the Israelites about the meaning of the burnt offering? I believe that it taught them several important lessons. First, they could have seen that the promise of God’s blessing to all the earth, the promise of the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen. 12:1-3), involved the death and resurrection of Abraham’s offspring. Secondly, the Israelites saw that in the “burnt offering” the sacrificial animal died in place of the man. Isaac didn’t die because God provided an animal to take his place. So when the Israelite place his hand on the head of the sacrificial animal, he should have known that this animal was dying in his place, just as the ram died in the place of Isaac. He should also have seen that something must take place in the future, so that the death of Isaac, which was prevented by the sacrifice of the ram, could be carried out in some greater way.
All of this has become clear to the New Testament saint, but it was obscure to the ancient Israelite, who knew that God was at work in some mysterious and, as yet, unknown way. Until the time when this purpose was made known, the Israelite offered up his burnt offering, so that God’s wrath could be avoided, and so that God’s blessings could be received.
Regardless of what the ancient Israelite understood of the symbolism of the burnt offering in terms of its future fulfillment in Christ, Christ was the ultimate fulfillment, the antitype of the burnt offering. John the Baptist indicated this at the very outset of our Lord’s ministry, when he greeted Him with the words, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).33
We must agree with the theology of the Book of Hebrews (in particular) and of the New Testament (in general) that now that Christ has come as the Lamb of God and died “once for all” there is no longer any need for the burnt offering, the type of which our Lord is the ultimate and final antitype.
It might seem that if the burnt offering is no longer necessary, we must conclude that the burnt offering is no longer relevant, since the future meaning of that sacrifice has been realized in Christ. There is a sense in which this conclusion is absolutely correct. There is another sense in which this conclusion can be carried too far. Let me press on to show the importance and the applicability of the burnt offering to New Testament saints today.
The burnt offering (and the others, too) was symbolic in the sense that it represented and portrayed, in advance, the ultimate burnt offering, Jesus Christ. The burnt offering also symbolized the Old Testament saint’s faith in God’s provision for his sins, and for his access to God. The burnt offering symbolized the Old Testament saint’s faith in God, and his intention to love God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love his neighbor as himself.
The Israelite’s worship often deteriorated to mere ritualism when the sacrifices were offered, but then the faith and obedience which they symbolized did not follow. When this happened, the prophets sternly rebuked the Israelites for their hypocrisy:
With what shall I come to the LORD And bow myself before the God on high? Shall I come to Him with burnt offerings, With yearling calves? Does the LORD take delight in thousands of rams, In ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I present my first-born for my rebellious acts, The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6-8).
It is my contention that the faith and obedience of the Israelite, which the sacrifice of the burnt offering symbolized, and which was required by God of the Israelites, is the same faith and obedience which the death of Christ is to produce in all who profess Him as Savior, and which God requires of us. These acts of faith and obedience are described by the New Testament writers by the use of the same sacrificial terminology as is employed in the Old Testament.
Christian service, in church and in the community, is compared to sacrifice: “Through him let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God. … Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Heb. 13:15-16; cf. Phil. 4:18; 1 Pet. 2:5). In that the only burnt offering that can atone for sin has been made by Christ, Christians no longer have to bring their lambs to the altar to receive forgiveness of sins. But bringing a sacrifice involved praising God for his grace and declaring one’s intention to love God and keep his commandments. Now that animal sacrifice is obsolete, praise and good works by themselves constitute the proper sacrifices expected of a Christian.34
Thus far, we have seen that the burnt offering and the other Old Testament sacrifices apply in the fulfillment of Christ as the “once for all” sacrifice for sinners, and in the faith and obedience of the offerer which the sacrifices symbolized. There is yet another way in which the sacrifices apply to us. The same principles which the sacrifices were intended to teach the Israelite and those which these sacrifices teach us, these principles still apply today, as much as in the days of the Israelite. Let me identify a few of these principles and suggest some of their practical implications to New Testament saints. As our study of Leviticus continues, we shall pursue these principles in greater detail.
(1) The principle of man’s depravity The burnt offering was not an offering for a specific sin, but was associated with other offerings, and with various occasions, from mourning and repentance, to celebration and joy. The purpose of this sacrifice, I believe, was to be a reminder to the Israelites of man’s depravity. As God Himself put it in Genesis 8:21, “the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” In any instance when an Israelite wanted to approach God, to worship Him, to be accepted by Him, he had to come with a burnt offering, thus acknowledging and making provision for his sinfulness. We ought not forget our own depravity.
The principle applies equally to Christians today. While it is true that Christ died for our sins, once for all, it is also still true that we will not be freed from sin’s presence until we are in the presence of God, with transformed bodies. Our present condition is the reason why we must die, and to enter into heaven in a different form (cf. 1 Cor. 15). Because we are still corrupted by sin, we need to suspect and scrutinize our every motive and action. We need to realize that whether we are witnessing, preaching, or serving, our actions can appear to be pious, but can be prompted by the basest motives. We need to realize that we are in need of the present intercession and mediation of Christ, that we need Him every hour, yes every moment. The only reason why we can approach God is due to the sacrificial work of Christ.
(2) The principle of particularity. If the Israelite learned anything from the meticulous rules and regulations which God laid down for the burnt offering and all of the rest, it was that He is very particular about the way men approach Him. The rebellious nature of fallen man inclines him to want to approach God his own way. The song, “I did it my way,” illustrates this tendency. God did not allow men to approach Him their own way, but rather only in accordance with the means He Himself established. Men could only approach God by means of the tabernacle, the priesthood, and the sacrifices. Today, men can only come to God God’s way, through the person and work of Jesus Christ, who, as the sacrificial lamb, died for our sins, making a way of approach to God. Our Lord conveyed the exclusiveness of His death as the way to God when He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6).
If you wish to approach God, to be assured of the forgiveness of your sins, and to dwell in His presence forever, my friend, you can do so only through faith in the person of Jesus Christ, who came to earth and died in your place. No other way is acceptable with God. In no other way can you be found acceptable in Him.
(3) The principle of acceptance with God. Closely related to this is the principle of acceptance with God. There is a great deal of emphasis these days on self-acceptance, or self-esteem, most of which is wrongly oriented. Contemporary self-esteem looks inward for acceptance, while the Bible tells us that the ultimate acceptance we must seek is God’s. People today want to “feel good about themselves” by looking for the good which is in them, while God’s word tells us that we are not good, in and of ourselves, but must look for God’s favor which is occasioned by something outside ourselves, ultimately in something which we put to death. Today we are told, even from the pulpit, that we must first feel good about ourselves, we must first love ourselves, and then we will be able to love God. The Bible tells us that we cannot, that we should not, accept ourselves until God has accepted us.
The bottom line is that the Bible portrays God’s acceptance as the highest good of all, and that making great sacrifice is worth the price to attain God’s favor. Let us see God’s approval as our highest good, and let us forsake all, including self-seeking and self-love to attain it. It is in our death, in Christ, that God is well pleased. It is in giving up our life that we gain life. And as Christians, no motive should be stronger than that of pleasing God, of hearing Him say to us in that day, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
(4) The principle of atonement through the shedding of blood. The sinful state of man is dealt with by the shedding of innocent blood, the blood of a sacrificial victim. The burnt offering communicates and illustrates this principle of atonement.
(5) The principle of identification. The one who was to benefit from the death of the sacrificial victim had to identify with that animal. It was, first of all, his animal, one that he had either raised or obtained at a price. Then the offerer placed his hand upon the victim, symbolically identifying himself with the victim, which he killed in his place. Apart from identifying with the sacrificial animal in this way, the sacrifice had no benefit for the individual Israelite.
We, too, are redeemed, and atonement is made, when we identify ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection. Baptism is the rite which God has established, whereby men identify personally with the work of Christ. Baptism does not, in and of itself, save men, but identification with Christ (which is symbolized and expressed by baptism) is the instrumentality God has ordained so that we may be delivered from the judgment we deserve. Those who have failed to be baptized may either fail in their understanding of the importance and urgency of this public act of identification, or they may not have personally identified with Christ by faith.
(6) The principle of sacrifice. One of the unique contributions of the whole burnt offering is that it illustrates sacrifice in its purest form. A very valuable animal is given up wholly to God. Neither the offerer nor the priest gains much from the offering, other than the benefit of being found acceptable to God, which, in the final analysis, is the ultimate benefit.
This kind of sacrifice is seldom practiced, and even when it is we may wonder at the wisdom of such waste. The widow who gave her last two mites might be criticized today for her lack of prudence in failing to plan and prepare for the future. The woman who poured out her expensive perfume, anointing the feet of the Lord, was accused of wastefulness. And so we tend to give our worn out old things to God, while we keep what is new and best for ourselves. We know little of giving our best to God, with no hope of anything beyond His approval.
But this kind of sacrifice is what God calls for from those who would be true disciples. Disciples are those who give up all to follow Christ. They are to count the cost of discipleship, and then to gladly pay it. When we give ourselves to God, as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1-2), we are to do so totally, without reserve, so as to be pleasing to Him. May God enable us to practice this kind of sacrifice in our own lives.
21 “Outside the tent was found the large altar for burnt offerings, 7 ft. 6 inches (2.2 meters) square and 4 ft. 6 inches (1.3 meters) high, which is described in Exod. 27:1-8.” Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), pp. 52-53.
22 When I refer to the term “burnt offering” here I refer specifically to that offering which is designated by the same Hebrew term as is found in Leviticus chapter one.
23 It is noteworthy that in this first account of a “burnt offering” the term “clean” appears, a term which is greatly clarified in Leviticus. Also, the sacrifice of the “burnt offering” offered by Noah was said to produce a “soothing aroma” to the Lord (Gen. 8:21), an expression frequently employed (at least in very similar terms) in Leviticus (e.g. 1:9, 17). This suggests that many of the practices which are regulated in Leviticus are not initiated here, but have their origin much earlier in the history of God’s dealings with men.
24 “The following laws deal with offerings made by private persons. The public national sacrifices offered each day and at the festivals are listed in Num. 28-29. But here it is a question of a personal act of devotion or atonement.” Wenham, p. 50.
25 Special times of offering burnt offerings are summarized in 2 Chronicles 8:13: “And did so according to the daily rule, offering them up according to the commandment of Moses, for the sabbaths, the new moons, and the three annual feasts—the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Booths” (cf. also 2 Chron. 31:3).
26 Wenham, p. 52.
27 Leviticus 1:2 makes it clear that only domesticated animals may be offered, and not wild game, which is (too) easily obtained.
28 “Furthermore, only perfect animals were acceptable in worship (Lev. 1:3, 10; 22:18ff.). Only the best is good enough for God. The prophet Malachi later told those who offered second-rate animals that they were despising the Lord’s name and polluting his table … Meat was a rare luxury in OT times for all but the very rich (cf. Nathan’s parable, 2 Sam. 12:1-6). Yet even we might blanch if we saw a whole lamb or bull go up in smoke as a burnt offering. How much greater pangs must a poor Israelite have felt.” Wenham, p. 51.
29 Wenham agrees that the male species is more highly valued: “Male animals were also regarded as more valuable than females. For example, in the case of purification offerings a ruler had to bring a he-goat, but an ordinary person was expected to offer only a she-goat (4:22-31). Except for the burnt offering and reparation offerings, animals of either sex could be offered: the limitation to male animals shows the high status of these two sacrifices.” Ibid., p. 55.
Harrison, however, disagrees: “Here and in 5:18 alone a male animal is specified for sacrifice. The choice of a male may reflect the dominance of that sex in other than matriarchal societies, but it may well have embraced a more pragmatic purpose also. Where a choice was involved, male animals were more expendable than females in a society in which livestock was equivalent to both capital and income. Fewer males than females were necessary for the survival of the herds and flocks, since the male was utilized only periodically for purposes of breeding. By contrast, the female functioned as a continual provider of milk and its by-products in addition to producing new livestock from time to time.” R. K. Harrison, Leviticus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1980), pp. 43-44.
I find Harrison’s reasoning hard to accept. The rarer animal (the male, by his admission) is the more expensive. Due to his role in the reproduction process, the male could reproduce many offspring, while the female would produce (normally) but one offspring. To give up a female was some loss; to give up the male, great loss. In either case, however, since the animals sacrificed were young, neither had yet produced for its owner. The owner was to sacrifice the animal just at that point in time when the animal was gaining value, after a period of what we might call “negative cash flow.” This really was a sacrifice, then.
30 “The ancient worshipper did not just listen to the minister and sing a few hymns. He was actively involved in the worship. He had to choose an unbelmished animal from his own flock, bring it to the sanctuary, kill it and dismember it with his own hands, then watch it go up in smoke before his very eyes. He was convicted that something very significant was achieved through these acts and knew that his relationship with God was profoundly affected by this sacrifice.” Wenham, p. 55.
31 Wenham stresses this when he writes, “Lay is perhaps a rather weak translation of the Hebrew (samak); ‘press’ might be preferable (cf. Isa. 59:16; Ezek. 24:2; 30:6; Amos 5:19). The worshipper was not just to touch the animal; he was to lean on it.” Wenham, p. 61.
32 Wenham seems to agree when he writes, “… the burnt offering makes atonement for sin in a more general sense.” Ibid., p. 57.
33 The words of John the Baptist are especially relevant, since he did not say, “who takes away the sins (plural) of the world,” but rather, “who takes away the sin of the world.” Christ as the Lamb of God, as the antitype of the burnt offering, deals with the depravity of man, with man’s sinfulness in general, as well as his sinfulness in terms of specific sins.
34 Wenham, pp. 64-65.