The Old Testament is the first part of the Bible that is mostly based on the 24 books of the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible. Most notably, the Old Testament tells the past stories of the people of Israel and also lays out the rituals and laws that make up the 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 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 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. The most known sacrifice is a slaughtered animal, however, the Old Testament talks about other forms of sacrifices as well, which will be discussed in detail later.
Sacrifices and offerings in the Old Testament symbolized giving grace 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 sacrifices and offerings brought up, first, in the Old Testament gives us better context and understanding of what happens later in the Bible story.
A Quick Overview of the Old Testament
Thus, the Old Testament is filled with different types of offerings. In this setting, offerings are made mainly to atone for the sins that were committed by the people of Israel. The first sacrifice in the Bible happens in the first book, Genesis 3:20 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. This shows God’s sacrifice of killing an animal to provide clothing and protection for Adam and Eve. 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 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 brought up in the Old Testament include Burnt Offerings, Grain Offerings, Peace Offerings, Purification Offerings, and Reparation Offerings. These voluntary offerings were historically performed ceremoniously by priests and religious leaders for the atonement of unintentional sin—both in communities and as individuals—or giving thanks to God for the forgiveness of sin.
Voluntary Offerings as Seen in the Old Testament
Voluntary offerings traditionally refer to things that people willingly would give up to make reparations for the sin of a person or group of people. This was not a law or command set in place by God, but instead a way for people to show their unwavering devotion to God. There are five main voluntary offerings that the Old Testament discusses.
The first offering is the Burnt Offering. Burnt offering, like the name suggests, refers to the action of burning something, usually an animal, to atone for sin. Burnt Offering was 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 offering. This is one of the first expressions of sacrificing in an attempt to show devotion and atonement to God, shown early on in the first few books of the Old Testament.
Leviticus 1:3-16 gives details into what a Burnt Offering would comprise of. The Old Testament says that a Burnt Offering should be an animal such as a sheep, goat, bull, dove, or pigeon—and 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 Old Testament is known as Minchah in Hebrew, meaning Grain Offering. Like the other offerings mentioned, it was intended to show devotion to God in a physical manner. Leviticus 2 details the Grain Offering and how they were meant to be prepared. As the name suggests, a Grain Offering consisted of bread or cereal. The grain was to be cooked: either baked, fried, grilled, or roasted. It was also 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 Offering, or Shelem in Hebrew is the third offering 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 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. The meal was to be shared and consisted of different types of Peace Offerings. In some cases, the breast or thigh would be offered to the priest and the rest was to be eaten by the 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 Sin Offering. As the name suggests, this offering is meant to atone for sins or lack of perfection of the people. Like the Peace Offering, this offering has less specific instructions and can contain elements of other offerings. We see in Leviticus 4 that the offerings 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. This is the reason Sin Offering is also sometimes referred to as the Purification Offering. One thing of note was that even though it may consist of other elements from other offerings, a Sin Offering meal was not shared by the one making the sacrifice.
The last voluntary offering shown in the Old Testament is the Guilt Offering or Asham in Hebrew. This offering is not necessarily about the guilt that a person feels, but closer to the concept of reparations for a sin. It sounds similar to a Sin 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 tells the story of the 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.