A Sacrifice For the Altar

Timothy K. Cain

An altar experience cannot be complete without a proper sacrifice! This was true of Moses in the OT, of Jesus Christ in the NT, and it is true of us today. As previously mentioned, the sacrifice is the second required element of a complete altar experience. The offering of sacrifices is also the second aspect of the command found in Exodus 20:24, “sacrifice thereon thy burnt offerings, and thy peace offerings.” An acceptable sacrifice seems to be a very critical part of altar worship. Beginning with Adam, God has always required of mankind a sacrifice for the expiation of our sinful nature.

In order to better understand the element of sacrifice, it’s essential to look at its use in a very broad context. There are three frames of reference necessary to be looked at that will help us develop a more complete picture of a proper sacrifice. The first is the offering of sacrifices in the OT. The second is sacrifices of the NT. Third is sacrifice as it is required of us today for a complete altar experience. Time and space will not allow for an exhaustive look at each of these frames of references as a whole. However, looking at these frames of reference in the context of the whole picture will hopefully give us a greater sense of the responsibility that we have today in terms of sacrifice.

Within the OT, we will begin by looking at the earliest references of sacrifices. Let us first of all look at the Hebrew words that have been translated into the English word sacrifice. In the majority of references from the OT text, there are two Hebrew words which are translated to the English word sacrifice. The first and most commonly used is the Hebrew word zebach, meaning “to slaughter, i.e. the flesh of an animal; by implying a sacrifice; or the offering of a sacrifice.” The second word is the primary root of zebach, which is zabach. The meaning of zabach is “to slaughter an animal (usually in sacrifice): kill, offer, (do) sacrifice, slay.” Therefore, the Hebrew words used in the translation to the English text fundamentally share the same meaning and purpose, that purpose being to cause the death of an animal for a gift to a deity. So we can conclude that when looking at OT references we are generally referring to animal sacrifices. This further explains the use of the term “sacrificial altar” used by OT scholars when referring to the outer altar, making a distinction between the outer altar for sacrifices and the inner altar of incense which was located in the “Tent” or the “Holy of Holies.”

Beyond the general etymology of the word(s) translated to mean sacrifice in the English are the types of sacrifices. This will help guide us through the OT as we take a closer look at the use of sacrificial altars. The type of sacrifice brought for an offering also helps define the end purpose of making the sacrifice. In talking about sacrifices in the OT, there is a further distinction that needs to be made, that being the basic distinction between sacrifices and offerings. “Thomas Aquinas defined the distinction between offering and sacrifice as one of ‘genus’ and ‘species.'” Offering constitutes the more general category of gift or oblation, while sacrifice is a specialization of this category which entails a more specific means of delivery to the deity. It should be noted that there is no single team which defines how or in what manner an offering becomes a sacrifice. That said, there appears to be two basic Hebrew terms used for offerings in the OT. From non-“P” sources the term minha is used to mean “gift.” In the “P” source we find the term qorban which seems to imply something brought near (as in near to the altar). “These words are generic terms which include every type of sacrifice or oblation.”

Based on the definitions used above, we see a definite correlation of terms and meanings from various sources. Further clarity is provided when we look at the primary root word for sacrifice, as it relates to the primary root word for altar. The basic OT biblical term from the Hebrew language for sacrifice is zabach, meaning “to slaughter.” The word zabach comes from the same root word zbh as does the Hebrew word mizbeah, for altar. “Although the term literally means ‘the place of slaughter,’ it functions in the OT to designate the spot where each sacrifice is formally offered.” More specifically, it defines the spot where sacrificial animals are slaughtered, the liquids poured out, and grains are burned. Some make the distinction that biblical sacrifices are those oblations which are burned (wholly or partially) at the altar. Thus, all other types of sacred donations would be classified as general offerings as long as they were not burned in any way at the altar, including those presented at or near the altar. In this context, the following would be considered to be sacrifices: the burn offering “ola, the peace offering selamim, the grain offering minha, the purification offering known as hattat, and the reparation offering asam. These sacrifices are also referred to as having a higher sanctity or being “most holy.” The remainder of the offerings would then be classified “holy.” They are the tithe offering ma�aser, the offering of firstfruits bikkurim, the wave offering tenupa, and the heave offering teruma.

For the purpose of this examination, we will only be looking at the OT sacrifices offered on the sacrificial altar, classified as “most holy.” This encompasses the Israelites’ sacrificial altar worship from the patriarchal period to its conclusion in the beginning of the second Temple period under the priesthood of Ezra and Nehemiah. In order for us to assess the function of biblical sacrificial worship within the culture of ancient Israelites, two original sources of information have a significant bearing on the subject. The first, and probably most controversial, is the “P” source or the “P” document. While there is still much debate as to the exact dating and redaction of “P”, the contents of the source have greatly enhanced modern scholars’ ability to take a deeper look into the day-to-day priestly duties in regard to the sacrificial altars of the OT. The “P” document is widely recognized as a priestly code of conduct crafted from a variety of materials and from different time periods of the OT. Most notably, Jacob Milgrom’s extensive examination and interpretation of the “P” document has provided the most insightful results from his assumption that the source material of “P” cannot be reconstructed and that the material presents itself, on the whole, as a complete system. Milgrom bases his interpretation of the sacrificial code from the final redaction form of the “P” source.

In addition to the “P” source, there is a second group of documents that deserves great attention when examining the sacrificial altar worship of the ANE Israelites. This group of documents offers a biblical exegesis of the biblical texts. They are known as the book of Jubilees, the Temple Scroll, and the Mishnah (the fifth division, sacred offerings), the most insightful of these works being the Temple Scroll. The Temple Scroll emanated from Qumran Cave 11 (hence its designation 11QTemple). Other fragments and manuscripts which are attributed to or make reference to the Temple Scroll are still awaiting publication. Like the “P” source, exact dating of the Temple Scroll is still in question. It is the content that remains important. A general summation of its content is best described by Lawrence H. Schiffman in the Anchor Bible Dictionary. Schiffman writes, “The scroll does not simply recapitulate the prescriptions of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. It collects together the various pentateuchal (and sometimes prophetic) material relevant to the issue at hand and weaves together a unified, consistent text. In this respect it can be said that the text redact the Torah, combining all materials on a single topic together. In many cases, statements in the canonical Torah referring to God in the third person are shifted into first-person-divine direct address. In this way the intermediacy of Moses is eliminated and the contents of the scroll are presented as the direct revelation of God to Israel at Mount Sinai. Yet, the scroll goes further to reconcile the differences between the various pentateuchal texts so as to create a unified and consistent whole.”

In a 2002 interview with the chief editor of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Emanuel Tov, indicates that the final volume from the findings at Qumran is being published. Views from these sources are sometimes referred to as “the scripturalization” of the Israelites. However, none of the sources mentioned above should be considered or used exclusively when attempting to define the sacrificial worship of the ANE Israelites. Instead, each of these documents should be consulted as referene material in the context they were written before drawing conclusions concerning sacrificial worship. It is in the biblical context and confines of the OT that we will look at the sacrifices offered on the sacrificial altar, allowing for the support and input from the above sources. Additionally, other sources will be interjected as needed.

As mentioned in previous chapters and alluded to in others, the need for sacrifice began with Adam in the Book of Genesis. This, of course, was prior to any known written word instructing Adam as to how and why he should offer a sacrifice to his God, the Creator. Furthermore, it is not entirely clear form the biblical text how Adam’s sons, Cain and Able, knew to make an offering unto the Lord (Genesis 4), Some have suggested that when God walked in the Garden of Eden after the sin of Adam and Eve, God killed the animals for their clothing in their presence and covered them before banishing them from the garden. Thus, Adam was able to pass on to his sons a means of sacrifice unto God. What is clear from the scriptural text is that a desire was present in Cain and Abel to make offerings to God. This emotion of desire that was inherently created in us by our Creator has been a driving force in keeping the altars alive with sacrifices throughout the ages.

Outside of the influence of other ANE cultures of his day, how did Noah know how he should make an offering unto the Lord? Why did Noah offer one of “every clean beast, and of every clean fowl” (Genesis 8:20) to the Lord as a burnt offering? We may never know the answer to these questions. We do know from verse 21 that God was pleased with Noah’s effort. In fact, God was so pleased with Noah’s offering that we today reap the benefits of that single sacrifice. No more will God curse the land as HE had done, and never again will God destroy the earth by water, all because of one man’s obedience and sacrifice unto the Lord. Over and over again, the story of Noah is told with the greatest emphasis on what a sacrifice it must have been for Noah to build the ark. However, it wasn’t until after Noah built the altar and offered up a burnt offering that the curse was lifted and the blessing came. The potential sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham in Genesis 22 gives us another example of sacrifice and blessings. The binding of Isaac has tremendous significance to the Jews and modern-day Judaism. The story of Abraham and Isaac is shared with a required story, and practice, of circumcision in Genesis 17. Some even insist that this is the first biblical account of God commanding mankind to sacrifice a burnt offering. While we know that there were other ANE cultures that practiced human sacrifice around the time of Abraham, this was not the intent of God’s command in Genesis 22. Most scholars and Bible students agree that the command by God to offer up Isaac was the first prophetic account of Jesus Christ dying upon the cross (Isaac carrying the wood for the altar, Genesis 22:6). Yet three additional points should be considered. First, this particular sacrifice would consummate the covenant promise Abraham received at the age of ninety in Genesis 17. Second, the blessing of obedience to God’s command would be fulfilled in Isaac carrying on the covenant promise to the next generation. Third, the ram caught and used as a substitute for Isaac was not only the foreshadowing of the cross but also a foreshadowing of the three required elements of complete altar worship (i.e. altar, sacrifice, fire). Once again, obedience to God’s command and a sacrifice by one man brought the blessings of God that are still enjoyed by His chosen people today.

From the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Moses received the command of Exodus 20:24 to sacrifice. The two categories of sacrifices mentioned in the text are burnt offerings and sacrifices of well-being. The verse continues with “thy sheep, and thine oxen.” Generally speaking, the animals used for sacrifices were domestic animals. These were owned by the person bringing the sacrifice and were of value to the owner. At the very least, the animals required for sacrifice were made available or provided by God. Animal sacrifices can be divided into two general categories: “those sacrifices that specifically required a particular animal for each and every sacrificial occasion, and those which required a range of different animals depending on the social standing or economic status of the individual making the offering. In the former class we can place the burnt offering, the peace offering, and reparation offering, while in the latter class we would place the two forms of purification offerings.”

With regard to the laws and procedures of sacrifice, the Temple Scroll and the priestly code being with the Israelites at Mount Sinai and the Sinaitic covenant. The Temple Scroll presents itself as a rewritten Torah which begins with the renewal of the Sinaitic covenant in Exodus 34 and then turns to the building of the Tabernacle in Exodus 35. The priestly code begins with the Sinaitic covenant as well; therefore, “all of the sacrificial law was given in reference to the tent of meeting or tabernacle that was erected there (Exodus 35-39). In eyes of the “P” source, all this material was thought to be equally applicable to the domain of the temple.” The command for sacrificing on the altar was given in Exodus. The specific rules and procedures for making the proper sacrifices are given to us in the Book of Leviticus. Secondary parallel recordings of these rules and procedures by Moses in Numbers and Deuteronomy are referred to by scholars as “doublets.” Some of the parallel text actually enhances the meaning and provides additional clarity for more accurate interpretation. These “doublets,” along with additional accounts throughout the Bible, help to show a unity of the whole text.

Noted writer and scholar, B. Levine, concludes that the phrase, “thy burnt offerings, and thy peace offerings” (Exodus 20:24), reflects the entire sacrificial system. While the ritual rules and procedures in some ways resemble those of the other ANE cultures, there are some significant differences. We will not go into each of those differences here, with the exception of the most important difference, that is, the availability and responsibility of each individual to follow all of the commandments of the covenant. Keep in mind, the “Book of the Covenant” given to Moses was to all the Israelites (Exodus 20:22). This individual requirement also represents a change from the biblical encounters of God with the patriarchs. As H.H. Rowley explains, “Worship in the patriarchal age, then, was simple and individual, and its known forms we so often think of, yet it rose to heights of fellowship with God seldom surpassed.” Prior to the revelation at Mount Sinai, God had appeared to His chosen leaders only sporadically or as desired. Afterward, God made available His divine presence, which could be accessed on a regular basis through the daily function of the altar. Thereby, His chosen people could fulfill the command of Exodus 20-24 through obedience to His Word. Moreover, God made individual participation in altar worship available to all.

At the beginning of the first century A.D., or perhaps earlier, the Torat Kohanim or “The Priestly Torah” was applied to the Book of Leviticus. It is also usually referred to in Hebrew, by its first word, Vayika, “And He Called.” The Greek translators called it to Leuitikon, “the Levitical book,” and the Latin version of this name is Leviticus. This, of course, refers to the duties of the priests which were from the tribe of Levi, known in the Bible as the Levities. In this book of the priestly code, we find the biblical “Laws of Sacrifice.” The rules and procedures which make up the laws of sacrifice are detailed for us in Leviticus chapters 1-7. The laws of sacrifice are followed in chapters 8-10 with the dedication of the Tabernacle and the ordination of the priests. These are the chapters we will draw from in this narrative.

When examining the laws of sacrifice in Leviticus or throughout the Bible, keep in mind that many references and sources make up the complete sacrificial system. That said, a general understanding of the system is all that is required for practical application today. To assist us in developing a general understanding, we once again turn to the expertise of noted scholar B. Levine. Levin has “distinguished himself as an especially sensitive interpreter of OT sacrificial ritual against the ANE environment.” He proposes that the study of the OT sacrificial system of instruction could be broken down into two types of text, the descriptive text and the prescriptive text. “Descriptive texts describe what transpired at a specific occasion. As a result, these texts exist in a narrative format. Prescriptive texts, on the other hand, do not describe an actual ritual; rather they legislate what must be brought for a certain ritual.” This concept provides further clarity in our understanding of why the chapters on sacrifice (8-10) are proceeded by chapters 1-7, which contain rules and procedures for the various types of offerings.

In a very broad context, sacrificial altar worship at this point required the participation of the individual bringing the offering and the priest. Thus, there are two categories of responsibilities in the performance of altar worship: those for the layperson who offered the animal and those duties restricted to the priests. In general, the sacrificial act consisted of six basic steps. “Laypersons were responsible for (1) bringing the animal to the sanctuary, (2) laying hands on the animal, and (3) slaughtering the animal. The priests were responsible for (4) tossing the blood, (5) burning the animal (or part of the animal), and (6) disposing of the remains. The first three actions of the layperson took place at the opening of the tent of meeting, a spot where the laypeople could also witness the Lord’s consumption of the sacrifice (Leviticus 9:23-24).” The actions of the priests were actions which had to occur at the altar. As a part of the priest’s responsibilities, the blood manipulation from the sacrifice varied from sacrifice to sacrifice. The blood from the purification offering was required to be daubed on the horns of the altar, and the rest poured out at the base of the altar. Whereas, the blood from the sacrifice of the burnt, reparation, and peace offerings had to be tossed around the altar. As mentioned above, the disposal rites were exclusively the obligation of the priests. The accurate completion by both parties of their responsibilities was the culmination of individual and corporation worship designed by God. Obedience and the bringing of a proper sacrifice removed the sin and guilt of the people and wrought individual and communal blessings.

Blood represents life. Therefore, “the most holy element in the sacrificial ritual is blood.” As indicated to us in the book of Leviticus, blood is the only element which can ensure atonement. “For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul” (Leviticus 17:11). For the Israelites, the handling of the blood from the sacrifices were considered a crucial element of the rituals. “In every blood sacrifice, whether for atonement or not, the tradition is very strict about handling of the blood from the moment of slaughter to its sprinkling on the altar. The four principal acts of service are all blood-rites: (1) slaughtering the animal and removing sacrificial portions; (2) catching the blood in holy vessels; (3) conveying the blood to the altar; and (4) tossing the blood on the altar and into the drains below.”

Each sacrificial offering is detailed separately for us in Leviticus 1-7. However, only rarely did an Israelite offer a sacrifice singly. There were combinations of sacrificial offerings made to comply with certain rituals. “Biblical sacrifices were both communal and individual. The communal sacrifices were almost all mandatory: the burnt offerings brought daily at morning and evening and the additional sacrifices for Sabbath and holy days.”

Let’s take a brief look at the different types of sacrificial offerings referred to in Exodus 20:24. For easier reference, we’ll look at these offerings in their chronological order in the Book of Leviticus. Before any specific details of sacrificial offerings are given, the type of sacrifice required is explained in 1:2-3. “If any man of you bring an offering unto the LORD, ye shall bring your offering of the cattle, even of the herd, and of the flock. If his offering be a burnt sacrifice of the herd, let him offer a mal without blemish: he shall offer it of his own voluntary will at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation before the LORD.” Only a healthy, normal animal was fit for sacrifice. The prophet Malachi denounced those who brought to the Temple sick, blind, or lame animals which they would not have presented to a political ruler (Malachi 1:8).

Burnt Offering

In Leviticus 1:1-17, the first sacrificial offering we will look at is probably the most widely recognized. That is the olah (English word) sacrifice, or the “burnt offering.” The Hebrew term for burnt offering is ola, literally meaning “an offering of ascent” or “an ascending offering.” The noun is used with its cognate verbal root ha aleh  ola, “to make ascend an  ola.” Except for the hide, the entire animal was placed on the altar and consumed by fire. This offering had a high degree of sanctity. The ola was a sacrifice that was offered daily, once in the morning and once in the evening, by the priest. A lamb was offered along with a cereal (or grain) offering and a drink offering. Jacob Milgrom believes the  ola offering represents the earliest form of sacrifice in biblical text.

This particular sacrifice was seen as a very distinctive sacrifice, yet very significant to the Jews. First, the offering in its entirety was considered a gift to God. Second, by being offered twice daily; the  ola kept the altar active maintaining “the holy fire, signifying Israel’s continuing relationship with the Holy One. Its main function is to secure the congregation’s continuing daily access to God.” The symbolism of this offering is also very significant for us today. “Like the burnt offering which was totally incinerated on the altar, and in imitation of Jesus, Christians are exhorted to offer themselves as ‘holy offerings,’ that is, their lives, for the continuance of the faith; life itself is an ongoing sacrifice (Romans 12:1; see also 15:16; 2 Timothy 4:6).”

Meal Offering

Leviticus 2:1-16 describes for us the minchah, or the “meal offering.” As mentioned earlier, the term minchah (sometimes spelled minah) in the Bible is interpreted as “gift,” “tribute,” or in general, “sacrifice.” However, in this reference in Leviticus and throughout the “P” document, it specifically means an offering prepared from grain. The meal offering was brought along with certain animal sacrifices as an accompaniment offering, but at other times brought as a separate offering. It was also customary to place frankincense of top of the meal offering just prior to bringing the offering to the altar. This offering “has three principal components: flour, oil, and frankincense” (Leviticus 2:1-3).

Well-being Offering

The next type of sacrifice we find is the zevach shelamim, or the “sacrifice of well-being.” This offering is described for us in Leviticus 3:1-17. It is important not to confuse these two words and draw inaccurate conclusions. We know from previous reference that the root meaning of the word zevach is “to slaughter.” However, this word should not be used to refer to any slain sacrificial animal. Rather, when joined with the  ola, the full term zevach shelamim is accurately used. (See also Exodus 18:12; Deuteronomy 12:6; Jeremiah 7:21.) The “P” document is found to use the full term most often. The second part of this term has often been associated with the word shalom, from the Hebrew root word slm, which is interpreted as “peace.” Therefore, some translate the phrase zevach shelamim to mean “peace offering.” There are three types of offerings that could be offered as a sacrifice of well-being: “a sacrifice of thanksgiving (toda); a vowed sacrifice (neder); or, a freewill offering (nedaba).” The sacrificial offerings mentioned, thus far, were to be brought voluntarily. We now turn to obligatory sacrifices, which primarily serve to expiate for sin.

Sin Offering

We turn our attention to the chatat, or “sin offering.” In Leviticus 4:1-35, we read of the sacrifice which was to relieve the troubled conscience. To this day, Jews involved in the Yom Kippur confession ask forgiveness for “the sins we have sinned before You under duress or through choice” unwittingly or defiantly.  The word chatat (sometimes spelled hatta t) has also been referred to as the “offering of purgation.” Both translated meanings seem to apply. The verb chata meant primarily “to miss the mark.” In Scripture this term takes on the meaning of “to commit a sin or a crime.” If the noun chet means “sin” or “guilt,” then one may accurately conclude that the noun chatat means “sin” or “guilt.” This sacrifice differed from the other offerings through the manipulation of the blood by the priest. If the sacrifice was for the sins of the anointed priest or for the expiation of the community, the blood was taken from the sacrificial altar into the Holy Place by the priest. Some of the blood was placed on the horns of the incense altar, and some of the blood was sprinkled toward the Holy of Holies. The carcass of the animal was burned outside the camp. For the sins of a commoner or secular ruler, the sacrificial blood was daubed on the horns of the sacrificial altar, and the meat was eaten by the priests. In both cases, the usual fat parts were burned on the sacrificial altar. It should be noted here that depending on a variety of circumstances, the animal brought for a chatat could be a bull, sheep, goat, fowl, or in some cases a meal offering.

On the day the chatat sacrifice was made, “Day of Atonement,” the priest became the intercessor between the people and God for the sins of the entire nation. This day was considered a national day of repentance. Therefore, “confession and repentance were preconditions for an effective sin offering. A sinner must verbalize his guilt to God and also to anyone he has injured.” Likewise, confession and repentance are still essential elements in the New Testament plan of salvation for us today (Acts 2:38). The apostle Paul made reference to Jesus as the sin offering when he said, “For he [God] hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21). The words of Jesus in Matthew 26:28 provide further clarity when He said, “For this is my blood for the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” Thus, His death on the cross signifying the final sacrifice (literal shedding of blood) for sin.

Guilt Offering

Leviticus chapter 5:1-19 deals with both the chatat (sin offering) and asham, or the “guilt offering.” The first half of this chapter deals with four specific cases that would require a chatat. In verses 14-16, the sacrifice of asham is brought to our attention. The word asham is translated to mean “guilt offering” or “penalty offering.” This sacrifice is very similar in form to the chatat sacrifice, except for the animal used. It was mandatory to sacrifice a ram for the asham. Some scholars have suggested that the proper scriptural translation of asham indicates that this sacrifice was for the “misappropriation of property.” Thus, the sinner must first restore what he had taken plus twenty percent, then bring the asham sacrifice and be fully restored to divine favor. Still others believe there are various additional expressions drawn from the word asham. These include one who “finds himself culpable,” one who “realized his guilt,” and “his penalty.”

There is commentary relative to the guilt issue that should be inserted here. First of all, with regard to the text of Leviticus 5:5-6, we read of the requirement for confession of one’s sin when it is “realized.” Confession was, and still is, an integral part of the act of repentance. In fact, we can conclude that the ritual act of repentance, through the offering of a sacrifice, was incomplete without a confession. If the absoluteness of confession was essential to the removal of one’s sin, then the sinner must first experience a guilty conscience. An excerpt from the Jewish Halachah views guilt in this light: “One’s guilt could be purged away in time only by continued repentance, observance of the Day of Atonement, and the acceptance of punitive suffering, or by death.” The seriousness of guilt from sin is further captured by a Haggadah commentary, “Whatever is in your power to do, do with all your might (Ecclesiastes 9:0). While you have strength, fulfill the commandments, do charity, turn back to God. While the lamp is still burning, replenish the oil so that it does not go out. If you have sinned, do not persist in defiance; repent, and the Holy One will accept you. If you have sinned a little, let it seem much to you, even if the fault was unwitting.”

Leviticus chapters 6-7 repeat for us much of the information concerning sacrificial offerings previously discussed in chapters 1-5. There is, however, some new information shared in these chapters that may be useful. In chapter 6:9, for instance, we are told that the burnt offering must stay on the altar all night until the next morning. Furthermore, “the fire on the altar shall be burning in it,” or “the fire on the altar is kept going on it” (6:2 JPS). The sacrifices were all performed during daylight hours. Therefore, the altar portions of the sacrifices that had not been consumed before nightfall must be left on the altar through the night. The first order of business for the priest the following morning was to remove the ashes from the night before and place them beside the altar (6:10, see also 6:3 JPS). Next we read concerning the fire on the altar (6:12-13), which will be discussed in the next chapter. This is followed by clarification of the minchah offering, its consumption, as well as other offerings considered to be “most holy” (14-18). Verses 18-30 (6:11-22 JPS) of chapter 6 explain for us the importance of tangible things becoming “most holy” by mere physical contact with a sacrifice. “[Anything] that toucheth them shall be holy” (6:18), including meat, meal, blood, garments, and earthen vessels. Chapter 7 of Leviticus offers further details and clarification of the “Laws of Sacrifice” concerning the various offerings of zevach shelamim.

This very brief overview of the OT sacrificial system does not even scratch the surface of a most complex set of ANE rituals. Volumes of exhaustive works on the subject have been written and are available for further study. Compounding the complexity of the subject are the annual festival celebrations where a variety of other types of offerings were made. These festivals were and are the center of the Jewish calendar and should not be confused with communal and individual sacrifices for sin. However, from these basic tenets of the sacrificial system, it’s clear the ancient concepts of sacrifice differ greatly from our concept of sacrifice today. In the most basic sense, we are so far removed from the life and death struggles of an agrarian culture, most would be repulsed at the very mention of a physical sacrifice. To the ANE Israelites, the bringing of sacrifices was their form of religious worship. The worship was sometimes viewed as a joyous occasion. Within the ritual of sacrifice by obedience was the expression of reverence and thanksgiving to God of how He had provided for them.

Throughout the OT Bible period and for centuries thereafter, sacrifice was considered both proper and necessary. More importantly for the Israelites, sacrifice was obligatory and the act was a sign to the community of one’s obedience to God’s commands. Due to the seriousness of OT sacrifice to the Israelites, it was essential to bring the sacrifice with a sincere mind and a pure heart. These “Laws of Sacrifice” given to Moses at Mount Sinai continued to be followed and practiced through the wilderness right up to the crossing of the Jordan and into the Promised Land. Moses dutifully reminded us over and over again in the Book of Deuteronomy of the dangers in forgetting and forsaking the covenant teachings. Moses� personal assistant, Joshua, was responsible for establishing the rituals of sacrifice in a more permanent temple in the Promised Land. Not long after the Israelites entered the Promised Land, struggle ensued among the tribes of Israel concerning the proper place for the temple and how to worship. Throughout the reign of the judges and the various kings over Israel, the Mosaic covenant was largely ignored, with the exception of a chosen few.

King David was able to look at the historical demise of Israel and see the plight of its people for not following the divine will of God. David desperately wanted to establish the Temple in Jerusalem and reinstitute the practices of sacrifice according to the Mosaic covenant. He even began accumulating the materials for the building of the Temple, but there was blood on David’s hands. Therefore, it would be up to David’s son Solomon to finish the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Disobedience and the lack of sacrifice had left only a remnant of people, but there were prophets and priests who were anxious to worship through sacrifice as God had commanded.

Solomon’s Temple (first Temple) was the first permanent place of altar sacrifice established in Jerusalem. Sacrificial worship continued there until the destruction of the Temple around 586 B.C. by Babylon. Small groups of Jews began returning to Jerusalem from Babylonian exile under the rule of Cyrus of Persia. Zerubabbel and Joshua (son of the last high priest of the Temple) are credited with building the first altar on the site of the first Temple where sacrifices were renewed (circa 538 B.C.) The Temple (second Temple) was rebuilt under the guidance of the prophets Haggai and Zachariah. Portions of the Temple were later rebuilt under the instruction of Ezra and Nehemiah. Once again, Israel had a permanent central place for sacrificial worship. However, due to the power shifts and control over Jerusalem from one kingdom to another, and the relationship of various leaders to the Jews, during the second Temple period there were periods of years when the actual practice of sacrifice (cultic ritual) was ceased. Also sacrifice in the second Temple era became, “as much as textual enterprise as one of actual practice; the study of the sacrificial system begins to develop a level of significance independent, though not inseparable, from cultic practice.” Nearly all of the laws concerning sacrificial worship ceased to function after the destruction of this Temple (referred to by some as the third Temple) in Jerusalem in A.D. 70 by the Romans. When the Romans burned the Temple, they never permitted it to be rebuilt. However, the need for individual and communal worship through sacrifice did not cease!

“In the century before the Christian era, religious leadership in Palestine passed largely from the hereditary priests to a group of learned layman known as the Pharisees.” The Pharisees gained enough popular support among the Jews to make certain changes in Temple procedures. As we have seen, the details of the sacrificial system in Leviticus is at best hard to understand and harder yet to follow. Thus, the Pharisees established a new form of worship for the (first-century) NT Jews. This new form of worship primarily consisted of daily prayer and studying of the Torah in the synagogues, which became the foundation for modern-day Judaism. As can be imagined, many petitioned for the rebuilding of the Temple and the restoration of sacrificial worship. These petitions were added to the regular synagogue prayers. In fact, prayers for the restoration of the Temple are still included in the Orthodox prayer book. Orthodox belief maintains that we are experiencing a brief interruption of Temple worship and that, “When messiah comes, the Temple will be rebuilt and the sacrificial worship will resume.”

The Temple lay in ruins as Jesus Himself had predicted in Matthew 24:1-3. After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the rabbis (successors to the Pharisees) did establish in the synagogues a few of the practices formerly associated with the Temple. However, these practices did not allow for sacrifice. Instead, a substitute form of worship replaced the offering of sacrifices. “Prayer took precedence over sacrifice.” Over the centuries, the rabbis who formed modern-day Judaism were uncertain as to whether or not the Temple and its sacrificial worship would ever be restored. “It was only with the rise of Reform Judaism at the end of the eighteenth century that believing Jews renounced the hope of restoring sacrifice. The Reformers said plainly that, whatever purpose sacrifice may have served in ancient times, it is now obsolete and without meaning for the future. They therefore eliminated from the synagogue service the traditional prayers for the restoration of the Temple.”

The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem also symbolized the destruction and fall of the first covenant in its physical form. “The sacrificial material of the OT had value only insofar as it pointed allegorically or typologically to the atoning death of Jesus of Nazareth and the new covenant His resurrection gave birth to.” “Philo was a Diaspora Jew with no direct contact with the Temple {Lived in Alexandria at the beginning of the Christian era]. He interpreted the OT references to sacrifices in allegorical terms and took them to refer to inward process of the soul.” Prior to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it was almost inconceivable to think of worship without a sacrificial altar. It was just hard for the Jews to envision, even in the face of prophetic utterances from OT prophets such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and others. God said to Hosea concerning the Jews, “For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6). Numerous OT passages warned Israel of the final destruction of the Temple and prophesied the coming of Jesus Christ and the new covenant. That is why God had to robe Himself in flesh and come to this world to offer the fleshly man as the final sacrifice for the sins of mankind. Still, it was next to impossible for the Jews to accept Him as the Messiah and the final literal sacrifice for sin. In the words of the apostle John, “He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not” (John 1:10-11).

The words of Jesus remind us in Matthew 5:17 that He came to this earth to fulfill the law, not to destroy the law. Therefore, as the supreme sacrifice for a final sin offering, Christ must follow the teachings of the law in death. On the cross, Christ fulfilled not only the altar command of Exodus 20:24 but the sacrifice requirement as well. As previously discussed, the sacrifice had to be a male of the flock and without blemish. Jesus Christ was born here on earth among the people (flock) for whom He was to be the sacrifice. Furthermore, He was without sin, the only One pure enough to be offered for the sins of mankind (II Corinthians 5:21). Christ gave up his life on the cross; therefore, it was not necessary (as the paschal lamb of the OT) for the soldiers to break His legs (John 19:30, 33, 36). The site of His death, Calvary (or Golgotha), was outside the city, thus mirroring the placement of the carcass of the sin offering. Jesus Christ suffered death on the cross on the day before the Passover (John 18:28; 19:14, 31) at the same hour the lambs were being slaughtered for the Passover meal in the forecourt of the Temple. In the OT Tabernacle and in the Temples, the final stage of the atonement ritual took place concealed within the Holy of Holies. Now, the atonement was in the open for all the world to see. “Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom” (Matthew 27:50-51). He no longer wants to be housed only in temples made by hands (Acts 7:48; 17:24).

Sacrificial worship is to be offered in the temple. Through the life and death of Jesus Christ, the structure of the temple changed. Jesus tried to explain the new temple concept to the Jews in John 2:19, but they did not understand that He “spake of the temple of his body” 9verse 21). It was the apostle Paul who best understood the new temple concept. Paul exhorted the church in Rome, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service” (Romans 12:1). To the church at Corinth Paul wrote, “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are” (I Corinthians 3:16-17). With further reproof, Paul added, “Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you?” (6:19). The apostle Paul was a Jew and knew the Jewish customs of the day. This prior knowledge, the power of his conversion, and his observance of Jesus’ life allowed Paul to draw a complete picture of what true sacrifice was all about. Clearly, from these scriptures, if our bodies are to be the temple, then we must daily sacrifice everything necessary to become like Him!

On several occasions in the NT, we find Jesus going to the synagogues or traveling to Jerusalem in order to celebrate the Jewish feasts (John 2:13; 5:1; 7:14; 10:22-23; 12:1; 12, 20). There is no question from other passages already referred to that Jesus, born and raised as a Jew, was aware of the past practices of sacrificing on the altar of the Temples. Yet nowhere do we find Jesus performing this ritual. Instead, we find Him sacrificing thirty-three and a half years of His life to bring others to salvation. Daily He went to the synagogues or the Temple to pray and study as was the Jewish custom of the day. This was the “living sacrifice” that Paul proclaimed we should follow in Romans 12:1. Jesus Christ came to this world to show us that we must obey the principles He commanded in the OT, but in a more perfect way. The question then becomes: how does this apply to our everyday lives today?

The command of Exodus 20:24 is still applicable today. We are still required to offer the daily sacrifice of worship in order to enter into His presence. This sacrifice of worship keeps His spirit alive in our temples! Writing on the nature of sacrifice, J.J. Castelot said, “Sacrifice was the external expression of man’s personal response to a personal God. It was not a mechanical, magic gesture with an efficacy unrelated to the interior dispositions of the one offering it. If sacrifice was not motivated by sincere interior dispositions, it was empty formalism, a mocking of true divine-human relationship” Israelite sacrifice was not a simple concept: It was not uniquely the offering of a gift to God to acknowledge His dominion, nor uniquely a means of effecting union with Him, nor uniquely an act of expiation. Simultaneously it was all three and more.” H.H. Rowley characterizes OT sacrificial worship in this manner, “The form of the sacrifice is passed over lightly, and attention is rather drawn to their spirit of response to the approach of God to them or to their desire to approach God in calling upon His name. Their sacrifice was not a mere form of worship, but a genuine expression of their spirit and sense of God’s presence.” Therefore we can conclude that the sacrificial worship of Exodus 20:24 is a mutual desire for communion between God and man, thereby providing a daily nourishment for our intimate relationship with Him.

It is our inherent desire for communion and nourishment from God that obligates us to obey His word. The “Book of the Covenant” was not given by God to the Israelites as a form of oppressive sacrificial worship but to demonstrate through set rituals the importance of obedience via sacrifice. Again, H.H. Rowley states, “Worship is thus conceived as communion, not simply symbolized in the eating of a meal after part of the animal eaten had been offered on the altar, but expressing itself also in prayer. Obedience in the fulfillment of the Ten Commandments is also the service of God and therefore worship, for in Hebrew serve and worship are expressed by a common word.” It was Samuel who realized that through the continued disobedience of Israel to God’s word, communion was lost. Samuel tried to rekindle their confidence in God and restore national loyalty of the faith through renewed obedience of the covenant. We find the summation of this issue in I Samuel 15:22-23, “And Samuel said, Hath the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry.” Our failure to obey His Word is as sin to us. Therefore, we must seek to obey His word daily or seek repentance for the sin of disobedience.

In order for us to obey the Word of God and live by the example that Jesus Christ set before us, we are required to sacrifice daily in communion and worship. How can this be accomplished in our modern society? The apostle Paul told the Corinthian church that it was necessary for him to “die daily” (I Corinthians 15:31). Paul understood that within himself were two aspects of man at war with each other, the carnal man and the spiritual man. IN this passage, Paul referred to the daily dying of the carnal man to its desires and lusts. This can only be accomplished by sacrificing ourselves daily in communion and worship at an altar. The physical man must come into subjection to the spiritual man. It is in worship that the altar that the spiritual man encounters the Spirit of God and is nourished. The carnal man is humbled and brought into subjection by our coming and placing ourselves on the altar as a “living sacrifice.” Thus, the spiritual man becomes the ruler of our lives, and not the carnal man. Therefore, through our daily obedience to God’s Word, the Spirit of God gives us the renewal of power necessary to overcome the carnal man. Like Samuel before him, King David understood the importance of obedience in relation to sacrifice. The psalmist wrote, “For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broke and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (Psalm 51:16-17). That is why both the OT and the NT plans for redemption require the voluntary bringing of a sacrifice to the altar. Both begin with the humility of confession at the altar. In the OT, confession was made to the priest. In the NT and today confession is made directly to God at the altar. Confession in both instances acknowledges our sinful condition (even if the sin was inadvertent) and acknowledges our need of a savior. We see throughout the OT and NT the importance of coming to God with reverence and humility. In the words of Jesus as recorded by the apostle John, “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). This scripture confirms for us that obedience to the Word, and the spirit in which we worship are equally important.

In the OT, it was necessary to have a priest to offer the sacrifice on the altar. Since the resurrection of Jesus Christ, those who have obeyed His Word have become “a royal priesthood” (I Peter 2:9). No longer do we need a priest to offer a sacrifice for us on the altar. It is the repentant individual’s responsibility to make an altar and seek forgiveness from God by himself. Through repentance, water baptism in Jesus’ name, and the infilling of the Holy Ghost, we are “in Him.” According to the writer of Hebrews, we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ on the cross, and the Holy Ghost living in us is the witness of that sanctification (Hebrews 10:10-18). If we, therefore, are “in Him” and sanctified by Him, it seems only natural then, that the sacrifice of daily communion with our Redeemer is essential. How is it that Jesus Christ paid the “blood price” to redeem us, yet we neglect to sacrifice ourselves daily at an altar?

A burnt offering sacrifice was required twice a day in the OT, morning and evening (see Exodus 29:38-39). Today, we too are required to bring ourselves (our whole being) twice a day to the altar to be renewed. This concept is confirmed in God’s further instructions to Moses in Exodus 29:42, “This shall be a continual burnt offering throughout your generations at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation before the LORD:” and if we obey this command, God has promised that at the altar is, “where I will meet you, to speak there unto thee.” Therefore, today we are not exempt from the offering of sacrifices unto God. As we have seen earlier in this chapter, for certain sacrificial offerings in the OT, only part of the animal or offering was consumed on the altar. Usually though, it was in conjunction with a burnt offering. It appears then, that along with bringing our whole bodies daily to the altar, we should also bring those parts of us that need to be consumed on the altar, those parts that seem to weigh us down or make us unclean, unholy, or unrighteous. For Jesus Christ is the only one who can cleanse us and make us whole again.

According to Exodus 20:24, we are commanded to bring not only our burnt offerings to the altar but also our offerings of well-being. We are to bring our sacrifice of praise continually to Him for all the blessings in our lives (Hebrew 13:15). Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness brought sacrifices from a part of their everyday life that God had provided from them. The animals (primarily domestic), the food, and the drink were the only resources available. These resources were given to the Israelites by God, and they in turn sacrificed them back to God. As we have seen, not all of the sacrifices offered on the sacrificial altar were for sin. Some were for thanksgiving and the peace God provided for them. It is therefore important that we spend a portion of our daily altar time in sacrificial praise and worship to God for who He is and for the blessings He has wrought into our lives.

As for the Israelites, and for us today, God would never expect or ask for a sacrifice from us that we are not able to give. God provides for Himself the sacrifice, whatever may be required. It is up to us to willingly offer the sacrifice. Daily communion with God is essential in establishing an intimate relationship with Him. The Israelites built an altar and sacrificed what they had and were subsequently blessed. When was the last time that you felt the need to lay everything aside, get alone with God (build an altar), and offer Him the sacrifice of praise, worship, and intercession? If we will sacrifice our time, our finances, our so-called material blessings, and give them back to God, we too will receive His eternal blessings. Take a moment right now, and look around you. How much time have you sacrificed lately to commune with God? When was the last time you gave sacrificially to help spread the gospel? What God-given talents do you possess that God is wanting you to use? Can you remember the last time you took the time to intercede for a friend, relative, family member, neighbor, co-worker, an enemy, your country, your church, or your pastor? Do you pray without ceasing?

At this point you may be asking yourself, “Do I have to sacrifice?” or, “Is sacrifice really applicable to my spiritual growth?” The answer to both questions is a resounding YES! Not only is sacrifice a biblical command, it determines your spiritual growth or your spiritual death! Perhaps we should look at a more modern-day example to solidify this point. Sacrifice is occurring right this very moment all around us. In fact, our physical bodies are living due to the principle of sacrifice. Inside each human being the process of self-sacrifice occurs on a continual basis to keep us alive!

For this analogy we will use the expertise of leprosy expert Dr. Paul Brand. In very simplistic terms, the individual cells that make up a complete human being (the temple) are either alive, living, renewing, or replenishing. The other cells are dead, dying, or have a life of their own such as parasites or cancer cells. In order for cells to live, grow, and replenish, a support system must ensure that this occurs. The support system for continued life is found in the white cells. Dr. Brand explains:

“In the body’s economy, the death of a single white cell is of little consequence. Most only live several days or several weeks, and besides the fifty billion active ones prowling the adult human, a backup force one hundred times as large lies in reserve in the bone marrow. At the cellular level, massive warfare is a daily fact of life. Fifty thousand invaders may lurk on the rim of a drinking glass, and a billion can be found in a half-teaspoon of saliva. [When the body is invaded by an infection, injury, or foreign bacteria, the white cells], using their unique shape-changing qualities-hurry through tissue via the most direct route. When they arrive, the battle begins. Like a blanket pulled over a corpse, the cell assumes their shape. But the white cell contains granules of chemical explosives, and as soon as the bacteria are absorbed the granules detonate, destroying the invaders. In thirty seconds to a minute only the bloated white cell remains. Often the task is a kamikaze one, resulting in the white cell’s own death.”

As important as the white cell is to the survival of the human body, so the altar is to the spiritual life of every believer. It is a matter of life and death. If we, like white cells, and members of Christ’s body, follow the prescribed guidelines of daily sacrifice and worship, we will live, grow, and be replenished “in Him.” Otherwise we become useless to ourselves and ineffective in our function as priests in the body of Christ.

God has provided each of us with a means of sacrifice; we must be willing to offer it back to Him. If you make a physical altar, regardless of how beautiful and ornate it may be, what good is that altar without a sacrifice? Beautiful temples (our bodies) are not a prerequisite for sacrificial worship (Exodus 20:24). What is required is a broken and contrite heart (Psalm 51:17). When the proper sacrifice is offered upon the altar, God has promised to send His Spirit in the fire (Leviticus 9:23-24; Acts 2:38) to complete the transformation that is needed.

Where is your altar?

The above article, “A Sacrifice For The Altar,” is written by Timothy K. Cain. The article was excerpted from the fifth chapter of Cain’s book Building an Altar Unto Him.

The material is most likely copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.