The Old Testament is the first part of the Bible that is primarily based on the 24 books of the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible. Most notably, the Old Testament tells the stories of the people of Israel and also lays out the teaching and laws that make up the foundation of Christian faith. Like most religious books, the text and language of the Old Testament can be difficult to understand. It is a text of profound meaning and depth expressed through rich language. For example, a large portion of the Old Testament talks about various sacrifices or offerings, which many might find confusing from our modern context. To help you along your journey, give context to the Biblical text, and spark discussion on the important themes of the Old Testament, we break down the Old Testament sacrifices and offerings and explain what they mean.
What is a Sacrifice or Offering?
To get a better understanding of what the sacrifices and offerings in the Old Testament mean, we must first go over what a sacrifice or offering is. Sacrifice and offering in a Biblical context most notably mean sacrificing slaughtered animals in a ritualized process as an offering to God. However, the Old Testament also outlines other forms of sacrifices as well, which will be discussed in detail later.
Sacrifices and offerings in the Old Testament symbolized giving thanks to God and were intended to mend the relationship between people and God. This experience of sacrifice and offering gets fully realized in the New Testament, through the Crucifixion of Jesus—the ultimate sacrifice, as a means to restore humanity and the relationship humans have with God. Studying the various sacrifices and offerings brought up first in the Old Testament gives us better context and understanding of what happens later in the Biblical story.
The first sacrifice in the Bible happens in the first book, Genesis where it was actually God, who initially offered something to Adam and Eve.
In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve were wearing clothes made of fig leaves. God offered to give them something more suitable to wear and sacrificed an animal to make the clothing. God’s willingness to sacrifice an animal to provide clothing and protection for Adam and Eve is an act of love and care, even in the immediate aftermath of Adam and Eve's disobedience to God. While we may think of sacrifices most often in terms of humans offering something to God, it was actually God who first offered something to humanity.This situation is a parallel to Jesus who, later in the Biblical story, dies on the cross as a true sacrifice for human brokenness.
Especially during the times within the Old Testament, when the people of Israel’s faith were being tested and tempted by idols, or covenants between God and people were being broken, many different forms of offering took place. The five most common types of offerings include Burnt Offerings, Grain Offerings, Peace Offerings, Purification Offerings, and Reparation Offerings. These offerings were historically performed by priests and religious leaders for the atonement of sin—both in communities and as individuals—or giving thanks to God for God's forgiveness.
Offerings as Seen in the Old Testament
The first type of offering is the Burnt Offering. Burnt offering, like the name suggests, refers to the action of burning something, usually an animal sacrifice, to atone for sin. Burnt Offerings were also referred to as Olah in Hebrew, which translates to “what is brought up”. Biblical scholars have discussed various ideas on the connection between burnt offering and its reference to Olah, a core idea being it is referred to as Olah because the animal "goes up in flames", or because of the literal smoke that rises from the burnt offering.This is one of the first expressions of sacrificing to show devotion and atonement to God, and came be seen frequently throughout the first few books of the Old Testament.
Leviticus 1:3-16 gives details of what a Burnt Offering would comprise. It should be an animal sacrifice such as a sheep, goat, bull, dove, or pigeon. The text also gives instruction, not only in terms of the sacrificial animal but also the sacrificial process. The animal being sacrificed was meant to burn overnight in its entirety without its skin.
The second offering mentioned in the Testament is known as Minchah in Hebrew, meaning Grain Offering. Like the other offerings mentioned, Grain Offerings were intended to show devotion to God in a physical manner. Leviticus 2 details the Grain Offerings and how they were meant to be prepared. As the name suggests, a Grain Offering consisted of bread or wheat. The grain was to be cooked: either baked, fried, grilled, or roasted. Any bread was supposed to be unleavened, seasoned, and unsweetened. Lastly, The sacrificial process of the Grain Offering consisted of burning a part of the offering, the rest being eaten by the priests.
Peace Offerings, or Shelem in Hebrew, are the third offering type mentioned in the Old Testament. This type of sacrifice was more generalized and included the Wave Offering, Thanksgiving Offerings, and other broader Freewill Offerings. Here, it was emphasized that the animal offered must be without any imperfections. This type of offering was meant to be a meal, with different parties, in front of God. It ultimately symbolized commitment and peace.
As described in Leviticus 3, a Peace Offering could consist of male or female cattle, sheep, goats, or bread. In some cases, the breast or thigh would be offered to the high priest and the rest was to be eaten by the assembled parties. The rest of the portions were burned after two days as an offering to God— symbolizing a shared meal.
Chattah, Hebrew for “sin” is the fourth offering mentioned in the Old Testament, also known as the Purification Offering. As the name suggests, Purification Offerings were meant to atone for the sins of the people. Like the Peace Offering, the Purification Offering often contained elements of other offerings. We see in Leviticus 4 that these sacrifices may consist of Peace Offerings as well as Burnt Offerings and are meant to purify a person or group of people in order to be renewed in the presence of God.
The last offering type shown in the Old Testament is the Reparations Offering or Asham in Hebrew. Reparations Offering were not necessarily about the guilt that a person felt for committing a grievance, but closer to the concept of reparations for an unintentional sin. The Reparations Offering sounds similar to a Purification Offering but is more specific to what someone owes depending on the sin. For example, Leviticus 5 explains that sin could be repaid with specific monetary values. Unlike other offerings where food items or animals are being offered, money was given in silver on account of the debt owed for committing a sin.
The Old Testament recounts many different offerings performed throughout ancient Israel to find forgiveness for sins and show thanks to God. Ultimately, studying the history of these traditions and practices helps us better understand the significance of the sacrifice and offering made later on in the New Testament: when Jesus dies on the cross. If you are interested in further study around the Old Testament, the books of Genesis, Esther, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Job, and Isaiah are available on our website. These visually striking books are designed for all and will encourage you to deepen your relationship with the Bible through its design and meaningful images.
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