10 “If his gift for a burnt offering is from the flock, from the sheep or goats, he shall bring a male without blemish, 11 and he shall kill it on the north side of the altar before the Lord, and Aaron’s sons the priests shall throw its blood against the sides of the altar. 12 And he shall cut it into pieces, with its head and its fat, and the priest shall arrange them on the wood that is on the fire on the altar, 13 but the entrails and the legs he shall wash with water. And the priest shall offer all of it and burn it on the altar; it is a burnt offering, a food offering with a pleasing aroma to the Lord.
14 “If his offering to the Lord is a burnt offering of birds, then he shall bring his offering of turtledoves or pigeons. 15 And the priest shall bring it to the altar and wring off its head and burn it on the altar. Its blood shall be drained out on the side of the altar. 16 He shall remove its crop with its contents and cast it beside the altar on the east side, in the place for ashes. 17 He shall tear it open by its wings, but shall not sever it completely. And the priest shall burn it on the altar, on the wood that is on the fire. It is a burnt offering, a food offering with a pleasing aroma to the Lord. – Leviticus 1:10-17 ESV
The book of Leviticus begins with God outlining the details concerning three different burnt offerings that the Israelites were to present as gifts or sacrifices before Him. As with the plans for the Tabernacle and the laws found in the Book of the Covenant, the instructions concerning the offerings are very specific and allow no room for experimentation or personal customization. The kinds of offerings that would be acceptable to God were not up for debate or negotiation, and the manner in which the offerings were to be made had to follow divine protocol.
This set of strict standards was meant to ensure that the Israelites worshiped God in an acceptable manner. After their four-century-long exposure to the Egyptian culture and its pantheon of false gods, the Egyptians had the predisposition to adopt and adapt the worship styles of their former captors. Their cult-like display of unbridled feasting and dancing to celebrate the creation of the golden calf was evidence of their tendency to imitate and assimilate the ways of their pagan neighbors. And God knew that, once they arrived in the land of Canaan, they would find additional sources of pagan religious practices that would tempt them to worship Yahweh in unacceptable ways.
As God’s chosen people, they were expected to follow His exacting standards for proper worship. This included the kinds of offerings He would accept and the manner in which those gifts were to be presented. The first three sacrifices God prescribed were all burnt offerings. The first involved a bull from the herd, while the second detailed the use of a sheep or goat from the flock, and the final one covered the sacrifice of a turtledove or pigeon. By including these various animal groups, God was making provision for the economic disparity among His people. Within the diverse community of the Israelites, there would have been a wide range of classes. Some had become relatively wealthy during their stay in Egypt, while others had been forced to serve as indentured servants to the Egyptians, and had been part of an impoverished class when they crossed the Red Sea.
So, God made provision for this discrepancy in resources by allowing for a range of different offerings. Those who could afford to give a bull from the herd were expected to do so. But those with financial limitations could give a less-expensive sheep or even a turtledove. Each offering would be acceptable to God if given appropriately and in accordance with His strict instructions. In all three cases, the end result is the same. When any of the offerings were presented on the altar in the proper fashion, they would become “a pleasing aroma to the Lord” (vs 9, 13, 17). The right gift given in the right way would produce the right result. God would be pleased.
The burnt offerings were the most common sacrifices the Israelites were to make. Each and every day of the year, the priests were to present a burnt offering, once in the morning and once in the evening. And these offerings were visible expressions of the giver’s complete consecration to Yahweh and served as a sign of His acceptance of them. The death of the animal and the burning of its body produced a pleasing aroma before the Lord, indicating that atonement or satisfaction had been achieved. God was pleased and the sinner was accepted by God.
It was essential that no matter the nature of the gift given, it had to be without blemish. God would not accept a sick or less-than-perfect animal. The one presenting the offering was expected to choose the best of what he had. This gift was to involve cost and commitment because the offering was being made to God. And since the giver was hoping for atonement for his sin, the price for such an unmerited and undeserved blessing was high.
The process for making these offerings was quite specific. The one presenting the burnt offering was expected to bring his chosen animal to the Tabernacle. Under the guidance of the priests, the individual was to slaughter his own animal, then the priests were to sprinkle some of its blood on the sides of the bronze altar. All of this took place within the courtyard of the Tabernacle. The freshly killed animal was then skinned and cut into pieces, with the entrails carefully washed with water in order to purify them. Then the entire carcass was placed on the bronze altar by the priests, where it was consumed by flames and produced “a pleasing aroma to the Lord.” The hide of the animal was the only thing not to be placed on the alter. This became the property of the priests.
And the priest who offers any man’s burnt offering shall have for himself the skin of the burnt offering that he has offered. – Leviticus 7:8 ESV
It may be that the hide of the animal was not consumed in order to stress God’s focus on the eternal nature of man’s sin problem. Man tends to look on the external, measuring another person’s value or worth based on his outer appearance. But God looks at the heart. As God told the prophet, Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7 ESV).
Jesus told the Pharisees of His day, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15 ESV). These men were obsessed with their outer appearance and how they were perceived by others. But Jesus later compared them to “whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matthew 23:27 ESV).
It’s what is inside that really counts. God looks beneath the surface and sees the true nature of a person’s character. While others may be impressed by our outer appearance, God sees into our hearts and knows the truth about our sinful condition. In offering up the entire animal as a burnt offering, the Israelite was vicariously offering up himself as a sacrificial gift to Yahweh. He was submitting his entire life to God in a dramatic display that demonstrated his admission of guilt and his desire for forgiveness. His costly sacrifice was proof that he took his sinful state seriously, and it gave visual evidence of his desire to be restored to a right relationship with God.
“The burnt offering was the commonest of all the OT sacrifices. Its main function was to atone for man’s sin by propitiating God’s wrath. In the immolation [burning] of the animal, most commonly a lamb, God’s judgment against human sin was symbolized and the animal suffered in man’s place. The worshiper acknowledged his guilt and responsibility for his sins by pressing his hand on the animal’s head and confessing his sin. The lamb was accepted as the ransom price for the guilty man [cf. Mark 10:45; Eph. 2:5; Heb. 7:27; 1 Pet. 1:18-19]. The daily use of the sacrifice in the worship of the temple and tabernacle was a constant reminder of man’s sinfulness and God’s holiness.” – Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.