The Bible
  NT Background
  NT Books
  NT Studies
  OT Background
  OT Books
  OT Studies
  Inductive Bible Study
  Types of literature
  Geog / Archaeology
  Early Church History
  British Museum
  Historical Docs
  Life Questions
  How to Preach
  SBS Staff
Search for page by title (auto-completes)
Advanced search
Google Translate
Advanced Search
Search for word or phrase within each page
Search by OT book and chapter
Search by NT book and chapter

The Jewish Sacrificial System in the OT

Unknown Author

The sacrifices to be offered to God by the people of Israel are described in the Book of Leviticus. The first part of the book consists of the instructions for the people bringing the offerings (Lev 1:1 - 6:7). This is followed by a section of extra instructions for the priests (Lev 6:8 - 7:38).

There are four blood sacrifices:
1. Burnt Offering
2. Peace Offering, or sacrifice of well-being
3. Sin Offering
4. Guilt Offering

Burnt and peace offerings are for fellowship with God in general. They are described as ‘a pleasing odour’. Sin and guilt offerings are for mending of broken fellowship caused by sin.

The Cereal Offering was included with each of the above and very occasionally on its own. The Drink Offering, which consisted of wine being poured out on the ground, was not included in the list of sacrifices.

The Burnt Offering (Lev 1:1-17)

The main description is the law concerning the offering of a bull (v3-9). It should be without blemish, which included the animal not being blind, disabled, mutilated, having a discharge, itch or scabs. It cannot have a part too long or too short. Its testicles cannot be bruised, crushed, torn or cut. Neither can it come from a foreigner, as it was taken for granted that it was mutilated (Lev 22:22-25).

This sacrifice was offered at the door of the tent of meeting. There were specific instructions concerning what was done by the person who was offering the sacrifice, and what was done by the priest.

First, the offerer laid his hands on the beast so it became a substitute for him, making atonement for him (v4). The offerer then killed the animal and the priest collected the blood and threw it around the altar (v5). The offerer then cut up the animal and the priest put fire on the altar, laying out the wood as necessary. The priest then laid the various pieces of the fire (v6-8). The offerer washed the entrails, the guts, internal parts and the legs with water and the priest burned the whole of it on the altar (v9).

The tasks of the offerer were the laying on of hands, the slaying by cutting the throat, skinning and cutting up the animal, then washing the internal parts. The offering had to be an animal belonging to the offerer and he had to offer it himself.

The tasks of the priests were catching the blood, sprinkling it around the altar, lighting the fire, setting wood in order and bringing up the pieces to lay them in order on the altar. The priest did everything which concerned the blood and the altar. There would be a very large quantity of blood. The average full-grown bull has ten gallons (45 litres), and a young bull could have three to five gallons.

Next follows the instruction for the offering of sheep or goats (v10-13). These had to be male, and were offered at the north side of the altar, not at the door of the tent of meeting. The instructions were much the same as for the bull.

There was provision for those who were poor, yet who needed to make a burnt offering (v14-17). The acceptable birds were turtle doves or young pigeons. The priests wrung off its head and emptied the blood on the side of the altar. The offerer removed the crop with the feathers and threw them at the side of the altar. He then tore its wing and the priest burned it on the altar.

There are further instructions for the priest concerning the cleaning of the altar after the continual burnt offering, which lasted all night. (6:8-14). The priest was first to put on special garments and remove the ashes to a place beside the altar, then change his clothes and remove the ashes to a clean place outside the camp.

The fire on the altar was to be kept continually burning with wood. Individuals would bring personal burnt offerings. The priests were also to offer burnt offerings on behalf of the nation on the various days, weeks, months, and feasts (Num 28 -29).

The regular burnt offerings

a) Daily (Num 28:3)
The daily offering of two male lambs, one in the morning and one in the evening. With each offering there was a required cereal and drink offering.

b) Sabbath (Num 28:9-10)
Each Sabbath there were additional offerings of two male lambs.

c) New moon (Num 28:11-15)
On the first day of each month (new moon), two bulls, one ram, and seven lambs were offered, plus a goat as a sin offering.

d) Passover - Feast of unleavened bread (Num 28:16-25)
Two bulls, one ram, seven male lambs, (plus one goat for a sin offering) were offered on each of the seven days of unleavened bread.

e) Pentecost - Feast of first fruits (Num 28:26)
Two bulls, one ram, seven male lambs, (and a male goat as a sin offering).

f) The Feast of Trumpets (Num 29:1-6)
One bull, one ram, seven male lambs, (and a male goat as a sin offering).

g) The Day of Atonement (Num 29:7-11)
One bull, one ram, seven male lambs, (and a male goat as a sin offering).

h) The Feast of Tabernacles (Num 29:12-38)
This had a reducing number of bulls, starting at 13 on the first day, going down to seven on the seventh day. With these were two rams, 14 male lambs, (also the goat for the sin offering) each day. The total burnt offerings were 70 bulls, 14 rams and 98 male lambs.

All of the burnt offerings were to be male animals. It was easier to offer male rather than female animals, as you could get away with fewer males in the flock. Also, all the bulls were young bulls.

During these times, private burnt offerings were expected in addition to the burnt offerings (Num 29:39).

If any of the above feasts fell on the same day then the burnt offerings for each of the special days would also be offered on that same day.

The skins of the burnt offerings that were offered by the people (not by the priests) were given to the priest as his due (Lev 7:8). Tradition has it that they would often sell these giving them a profitable source of income.

Burnt offerings would also be offered at a time of cleansing from those who were ceremonially unclean:
1. Purification of women after childbirth (Lev 12:6-8), a male lamb (and a sin offering) or a turtle dove or pigeon if she was poor
2. Cleansing of a leper (Lev 14), a male lamb or a bird (dependent on wealth).
3. Cleansing of men and women after various discharges (Lev 15:15,30), a turtle dove or young pigeon.
4. Cleansing of a Nazarite who has broken his vow (Num 6:10), a turtle dove or young pigeon.
5. Nazarite at the completion of his time (Num 6:14), a male lamb.

Burnt offerings were also offered at times of consecration.
1. Consecration of the priests (Lev 8:18, 9:2)
2. Dedication of the temple by Solomon (1 Kings 8:64)
3. Sanctifying of the temple in the days of Hezekiah (2 Chr 29:21). There were private burnt offerings numbering 70 bulls, 100 rams and 200 lambs (v32). The burnt offerings from the temple were 600 bulls, 3000 sheep (2 Chr 29:33).

For a New Testament reader, the burnt offering points to total commitment and consecration to God. In his letter to the Romans, Paul brings a NT parallel to burnt offerings, which pictures the believer laying their lives on the altar in worship and sacrifice (Rom 12:1). There is also an atoning aspect of the burnt offering (Lev 1:4). It was needed so the person could become acceptable before the Lord (Lev 1:3). These things and the fact that it was required continually seem to indicate that it atoned for original sin. Jesus was the supreme 'burnt offering'.

The Cereal Offering (Lev 2)

Cereal offerings mostly accompanied the various blood offerings, especially the burnt offering, They were only occasionally presented on their own. The offering could be brought in various forms. If it was fine flour, oil and frankincense were poured on it (Lev 2:1). The priest would then take a handful of the flour and oil, and all of the frankincense and burn this as a memorial portion on the altar. The rest of the flour and oil belonged to the priests. If it was a priest who was offering, the cereal offering was all burned.

With the various blood offerings the cereal offering could be brought in different forms, including being baked in an oven, wafers, baked on a griddle, or cooked in a pan.

No cereal offering was to have leaven in it if it was to be brought to the altar. Honey was not permitted either, unless the offering was of the first fruits. If any of the cereal offerings did have any of these substances in them, they went straight to the priests. Leavened bread was permitted with peace offerings (Lev 7:13).

If the offering was in any form other than the fine flour, a cake or wafer, then a handful was broken in pieces, oil was poured on it, and it was burned. The rest belonged to the priest. All cereal offerings that were dry or mixed with oil went to any priest. If it was cooked, it went to the priest who took it (Lev 7:9-10). The priest's portion should be eaten in a holy place, in the court of the tent of meeting by any of the sons of Aaron (Lev 6:14-18).

The cereal offering presented with the peace offerings were different in that a small part was given to the priest, the rest the offerer had with the peace offering meal that he ate (see Peace Offerings).

Cereal offerings were instructed to be offered with all the required burnt offerings (Num 28, 29, 15:1-16). The amounts for each animal were clearly laid out:
With a young bull - 3 tenths of an ephah of fine flour
with a ram - 2 tenths of an ephah of fine flour
with a lamb - 1 tenth of an ephah of fine flour.

An ephah is approximately 21 dry quarts or 23 litres. A tenth part of an ephah would be about 4 dry pints. One pint of flour weighs about 14 oz, so a tenth of an ephah would weigh about 3 1/2 lbs. Therefore with a young bull 10 1/2 lbs. of flour, with a ram 7 lbs. of flour, and with a lamb 3 1/2 lbs. of flour.

Cereal offerings were part of the ceremonial cleansing rites of those offering sacrifices including cleansing after leprosy, after fulfilling their time under a Nazarite vow (Lev 6:15, 14:10-21).

There were some special cereal offerings:
Passover: (Lev 23:9-15)
During the feast of Passover, the first fruits of the barley harvest were waved before the Lord (also Num 15:17-21). A cake was to be made from the first of the 'course meal' (barley) as an offering. There would be a special field near Jerusalem that was marked out for this purpose. At the right time, it would be reaped during a special ceremony and made into a 'cake'. It was then offered - waved before the Lord. (The Temple, A. Edersheim p. 256ff).

Pentecost: (Lev 23:15-21)
The feast of Pentecost was during the wheat harvest. The first-fruits of the wheat harvest were baked into two loaves of bread with leaven. This was one of the few times bread could have leaven in it when brought into the temple. No first-fruits offerings that had leaven in them were burned on the altar (Lev 2:12).

Sin offering: (Lev 5:11)
Very poor people who could not afford an animal were to bring a tenth of an ephah of fine flour (3 1/2 lbs.), but as it was a sin offering it was to have no oil or frankincense in it.

Drink Offering

The drink offering is not mentioned in Lev 2 with the cereal offering, but it normally accompanied it. Num 28:14 gives the required quantities for various animals. With a bull 1/2 hin (4 pints), with a ram 1/3 hin (2 to 3 pints), and with a lamb 1/4 hin (2 pints). These were not drunk but poured out in a holy place on the ground (Num 28:7).

2) Peace Offering (Lev 3, 7:11) or Sacrifice of Well-being

The peace offering was not offered for sin, rather it was offered as an act of fellowship with God. There were three types of peace offerings:
a) Thanksgiving (Lev 7:12) - given in gratitude to God for blessings bestowed.
b) Votive Offering (Lev 7:16) - given as fulfilment of a promise made to God.
c) Freewill Offering (Lev 7:16) - given for no reason other than a desire for the offerer to fellowship with God and give Him an offering.

The unique aspect of peace offerings is that the offerer joined in eating the meat of the sacrifice. It was a communal meal between the Lord, the offerer, and his friends and family (Deut 12:17-19).Detailed instructions are given describing which parts of the animal were burned, the parts the priest had, and the parts the offerer had. Male and female animals were permitted, and in the case of a freewill offering the animal could have minor blemishes (Lev 22:23). The offering could be from the herd or flock. Various fat portions were removed and burned on the altar on top of the burnt offering (Lev 3:3-4, 9-10, 14-16).

The breast and the thigh belonged to the priest (Lev 14-15), they were waved as a wave offering before the Lord and were for the priest to share with his family. The flesh of the thanksgiving offering was to be eaten on the same day. Any remaining was to be burned the next day. The votive and freewill offering was to be eaten within two days and any remaining was to be burned (Lev 7:11-18). Leavened cakes were permitted with all peace offerings in addition to the unleavened cereal offering. One cake went to the priest, the rest was for the offerer with his meal (Lev 7:13-14).

The offering of peace offerings were only specifically commanded twice: on the Day of Pentecost (Lev 23:19), and when a Nazarite completes his vow (Num 6:14).

Peace offerings were also commanded three times a year when the people came to the feasts (Num 29:39, Deut 16:16-17). Num 15:1-16 is also about peace offerings. Votive and freewill offerings can also be burnt offerings (Lev 22:17).

Peace offerings were sacrificed during the ordination to the Tabernacle (Lev 9:8-21), and Temple (1 Kings 8:63), the dedication of the altar (Num 7:17), and in times of national celebration and renewal (1 Sam 11:12, 2 Chr 29:31)

The peace offerings represent fellowship with God, rejoicing, and expressing love and gratitude to God (Heb 13:15-16).

3) Sin Offering (Lev 4)

The sin offering was mainly for unintended sins where no restitution was possible, except in Lev 5:1-6. There was also a general aspect of forgiveness of sins, hence there were sin offerings on each of the feast days.

There were several different classes of sin offering. In each case the priest would eat it unless the blood was taken into the holy place (Lev 6:29-30), then the remainder was burned outside the camp in a clean place.

If a priest sins, a bull was required (Lev 4:1-22). It was brought to the door of the tent of meeting and killed there. Blood was taken into the holy place and sprinkled before the veil, and placed on the altar of incense, on the four horns of the altar. If the whole congregation sins, the procedure was the same as for the priest. (Lev 4:13-21). A ruler sins a goat was offered (Lev 4:22-26). The blood was placed on the four horns of the altar of burnt offerings, it was not taken into the tent of meeting. If one of the common people sins a goat or lamb was permitted, a female without blemish: (Lev 4:27-35). Blood was likewise placed on the four horns of the altar.

There were three specific classes of sins (Lev 5:1-6):
a) Someone not bearing testimony when he should do so
b) Ceremonial uncleanness
c) Someone who utters a rash oath

For these, a lamb or goat is required. Not bearing testimony is probably the exception to the 'unwitting' clause of all other sin offerings.

Sin offerings for poor people: (Lev 5:7-13)
If an animal was too expensive, then two turtledoves or two young pigeons were to be offered. The blood was drained on the side of the altar. If two birds were too expensive, 1/10 ephah of fine flour was acceptable (3 1/2 lbs.), but as it was a sin offering no oil or frankincense was to be in it.

Further instructions for the priest: (Lev 6:24-30)
If any blood of the sin offerings splashed on a garment it should be washed in a holy place and the vessel broken unless it was of bronze.

Male goats were offered as sin offerings on each of the following feast days (Num 28-29): New Moon, Passover, Feast of Weeks, Feast of Trumpets, Day of Atonement, Feast of Booths

Various purification rites required a sin offering: Childbirth (Lev 12:6-8), Leprosy (Lev 14:12-14,19,22,31), Discharges (Lev 15:15,30), Defilement during a nazarite vow (Num 6:10-11)

The most important sin offerings were offered during the Day of Atonement (Lev 16)

4) The Guilt Offering (Lev 5:14 - 6:7)

The guilt offerings were for three classes of sin. The first was when the offender has sinned unwittingly concerning something involving the holy things of the Lord, the tabernacle or sacrifices etc. He was to make restitution (Lev 5:14-16). The second was when he is not certain if he has sinned or not, (v17) "does not know it" (Lev 5:17-19). The third was when the offender commits one of the mentioned sins, where he is able to make restitution (Lev 6:1-7). Many sins were not forgivable, the ones mentioned in v1-5 were.

For all of these sins a ram was offered. The procedure was the same for the sin offering and the guilt offering, the blood was thrown about the altar (Lev 7:2). The sin and guilt offering were considered as one (Lev 7:7)

The guilt offering was also required when a leper was cleansed (Lev 14:12-18), a Nazarite broke his vow through contact with the dead (Num 6:12) and in the case of a man laying with a slave girl who is already betrothed.

In all cases where possible, on the day of the guilt offering, the offender was to make full restitution, adding 20% (Lev 6:5). If the offended party and all his relatives were not alive, the restitution was paid to the priest (Num 5:5,10).

In the OT system, some ritual uncleanness can be forgiven and some ethical sins, but there were many sins that could not be forgiven by the animal sacrifices. Among these were idolatry (Lev 20:2-3), witchcraft (Ex 22:18), false prophecy (Ex 22:18), blasphemy (Lev 24:14), sabbath breaking (Ex 31:14), striking or reviling parents (Ex 21:15), murder (Lev 24:17), kidnapping (Ex 21:16), adultery (Lev 20:10), incest and unnatural sexual relations (Ex 22:19, Lev 18), unchastity, rape (Lev 21:9, Deut 22:21,25), and false witnesses in some cases (Deut 19:1)

There were also some ritual offenses that could not be forgiven: not observing the Passover (Num 9:13), eating unleavened bread during the Passover (Ex 12:15-19), not observing the Day of Atonement (Lev 23:29-30), eating blood (Lev 7:22, 17:14), eating God's portion of the sacrifices (Lev 17:25), killing an animal in an unapproved place (Lev 17:4-9), eating peace offerings while unclean (Lev 7:20,21, 22:34), touching holy things illegally (Num 4:15), eating peace offerings after the allowed time (Lev 19:8), defiling the sanctuary (Num 19:13-20), and misusing the holy oil or perfume (Ex 30:32-38)

The OT sacrifices imply atonement, redemption, vicarious punishment, and forgiveness. The animal was a substitute. They pointed to a future reality. The rabbis insisted that repentance was vital with the sacrifice for it to be valid, and they saw the animal as the sin bearer. According to the author of Hebrews, “it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins” (Heb 10:4), and “And every priest stand daily at his service offering repeatedly the same sacrifices which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all times a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God...for by a single offering has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” (Heb 10:11-14). Jesus is our sin and guilt offering.

Summary of The Six Blood Sacrifices

1) Burnt Offering ('olah): (Lev 1:3-17, 14:20)

Purpose As part of the organised community worship to propitiate for sin in general (original sin). A means of approach by unholy people to holy God. A pleasing odour to God. Atonement / covering.
Victim Male, unblemished: ox/sheep/goat/dove (according to wealth)
God's portion Entire animal (hence called: kalil = whole burnt offering).
Priest's portion Nothing
Offerer's portion Nothing

2) Peace Offerings (shelamim):

The purpose was Fellowship with God, a communion meal. There were three kinds of peace offering

2a) Thank Offering (towdah): (Lev 7:11-21)
Purpose For unexpected blessing or deliverance already granted, a response to God's goodness
Victim Unblemished male or female ox/sheep/ goat.
God's Portion Fatty portions (covering innards)
Priest's Portion 1. Wave offering: breast - to high priest.
2. Heave offering: right foreleg - to officiating priest (to be eaten in any clean place).
Offerer's Portion Remainder (eaten in court, the same day).

2b) Votive Offering (neder): (Lev 7:11-21)
Purpose For blessing or deliverance already granted, when a vow had been made, conditional on God granting the request.
Victim Unblemished male or female ox/sheep/goat.
God's Portion Fatty portions (covering innards)
Priest's Portion As for thank offering.
Offerer's Portion Remainder (eaten in court, 1st or 2nd day).

2c) Freewill Offering (nedabah): (Lev 7:11-21)
Purpose To express general thankfulness and love toward God, without regard to specific blessings, or in support of a request made to God.
Victim Male or female ox/sheep/goat (minor imperfections permitted).
God's Portion Fatty portions (as above).
Priest's Portion As for thank offering.
Offerer's Portion Remainder (eaten in court, 1st or 2nd day).

3) Sin Offering (hatta't): (Lev 4:1 - 5:13)

Purpose To atone for specific transgressions of ignorance or error, where no restitution was possible.
Victim Priest or congregation: bullock
Ruler: he-goat
Commoner: she-goat.
God's Portion Fatty portions (fat covering innards: kidneys, liver).
Priest's Portion All the remainder (had to be eaten within court of tabernacle).
Offerer's Portion Nothing

4) Guilt Offering ('asham): (Lev 5:14 - 6:7)

Purpose To atone for specific transgressions where restitution was possible, damages computed at six-fifths payable before the sacrifice. Legal satisfaction.
Victim Ram (only).
God's Portion Fatty portions covering innards
Priest's Portion All the remainder (had to be eaten within court of tabernacle)
Offerer's Portion Nothing

Two Associated Offerings

1) Cereal Offering (Meal Offering): (Lev 2:1-16, 7:10)

Purpose Daily food offered to acknowledge God as the giver. A pleasing odour to the Lord. Normally accompanied the burnt offering.
Food offered Fine flour, usually mixed with oil. Oil and frankincense was put on it. May be offered cooked or uncooked. Seasoned with salt. Not to be leavened or with honey as burnt offering, but may be offered as first fruits. Cereal offering of new grain - parched with fire, oil and frankincense put on it.
God's Portion Memorial portion: one handful offered by fire
Priest's offering: wholly offered on altar.
Priest's Portion All remainder of memorial portion.
Offerer's Portion Nothing

2) Drink Offering (Libation): (Num 15:1-10)

Purpose Accompanied burnt and peace offerings. An additional pleasing odour.
Drink offered For lamb: 1/4 hin of wine
For ram: 1/3 hin of wine
For bull: 1/2 hin of wine
God's Portion All of it
Priest's Portion Nothing
Offerer's Portion Nothing