Sacrifices and offerings in the Bible and ancient Near East (Leviticus 1)

Mosaic Law prescribed five categories of sacrifices and other offerings:

  • Burnt offering effected atonement and emphasized total devotion to the Lord.
  • Grain offerings expressed an individual’s petition for God’s bestowal of covenantal blessings, as well as the definition of the fruit of his labour to God.
  • Fellowship offerings (sometimes referred to as “peace” offerings) accompanied expressions of thanksgiving or were offered in fulfillment of vows. As the occasion for a communal meal, such an offering emphasized covenantal fellowship.
  • Sin/purification offerings effected expiation for unintentional sin, such as those committed from negligence, as well as for ritual impurity.
  • Guilt/reparation offerings provided atonement for unintentional sins against God’s “holy things” and commandments. The aspect of restitution was intrinsic to these mandatory offerings.

In addition to the above, the Israelites were required to bring tithes and other offerings (e.g. Deuteronomy 14:22). Different types of offerings were presented in diverse combinations on various occasions, such as during the ordination of priests and the sanctifying of sacred objects (Leviticus 8-9, Numbers 7), during the daily sacrifices (Leviticus 6:8-13) and the annual feasts and at milestone moments in the life of a family (Leviticus 12).

It is difficult to uncover the full significance of each offering, especially since the regulations in Leviticus 1-7 were directed to the priests (in some sense the religious “professionals”) and are therefore somewhat terse, without a great deal of amplification in terms of their meaning. Leviticus 17:11 indicates clearly enough, however, that the costly blood of the animal sacrifice was God’s provision to atone for the offender, whose offerings were most likely accompanied by psalm singing, confession of sin and/or special petitions. Viewed in this light, it is clear that the laws governing the presentation of Israel’s offerings were not heavy burdens but rather the welcomed means by which God’s people could officially recognize their sins, experience God’s forgiveness and remain secure within His covenant. At the same time, portions of every offering (except for the whole burnt offering) provided food for the priests and their families.

Although Leviticus 1-7 is unparalleled among ancient Near Eastern texts in its degree of detail, the sacrifice of animals (as well as offerings and libations – “poured” offerings – of other foods and drinks) was by no means peculiar to Israel. A wide range of technical, sanctified terms (several of which are nearly identical to Israel’s) is found in texts from Late Bronze and Early Iron Age Canaanite areas, including Ugarit, Phoenicia, Syria, Ammon and Moab. They demonstrate that Israel’s neighbours also had elaborate sacrificial systems. In Ugarit and Phoenicia, for example, burnt offerings, fruit and grain offerings and libations were specified, but certain animals (pigs in particular) were forbidden to use as sacrifices to Baal. Ugarit practiced both whole burnt offerings (that fed a deity) and peace offerings (that nourished the people). The great religious centres of Egypt and Mesopotamia also stipulated highly ordered and meticulous sacrificial practices.

But despite any commonalities Israel’s sacrificial system was unique by virtue of its covenantal context. Its complex sacrificial laws made sense within the bounds of the story of God’s redemption of His people from Egyptian bondage. The sacrificial system was not magical. Its efficacy depended not upon the offering of a particular animal (although following the prescribed rules was  essential because it taught the Israelites that they were to approach God only on His terms) but rather on God Himself, who had ordained these sacrifices. Fully as important, without an attitude of repentance, perfunctory observance of sacrificial rituals was meaningless – and denounced repeatedly by God’s prophets (e.g. 1 Samuel 15:22, Amos 5:21, Micah 6:6-8, cf. Psalm 51:14-19).

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