The Burnt Offering & Why It Matters Today

offering of grain in containers

The burnt offering is the first sacrifice mentioned in the book of Leviticus. What is meant by burnt offering in the Bible and what does it mean for us today?

What is the Burnt Offering?

In Leviticus 1, God called Moses and gave him a series of offerings that could be made by the children of Israel.

There were three options for the burnt offering:

  1. Of the herds of cattle (Leviticus 1:3-9)
  2. Of the flocks of sheep or goat (Leviticus 1:10-13)
  3. Of the birds, specifically turtledoves or pigeons (Leviticus 1:14-17)

In each case, the offering was to be made of an individual’s free will. In the case of the animals, they should be males without blemishes.

When giving of the herd or the flock, the giver would put his hand on the head of the animal and the sacrifice would be accepted on his behalf (Leviticus 1:4).

What was the purpose of the burnt offering in Leviticus?

When humanity sinned, the penalty required was death (Romans 6:23). However, God provided an alternative in the form of animal sacrifice.

The burnt offering was intended as an atoning sacrifice.  The individual recognized that their action should have resulted in death. This is why they touched the head of the animal: it was a necessary and symbolic transfer of their sins unto the innocent creature.

The animal would die in their place thus paying their penalty for sin.

Why is it called burnt offering?

If you read the description of the various sacrifices in Leviticus, you’ll realize that with the exception of the offering of the first fruits, every offering was burned on the altar (Leviticus 2:12). So why is there a sacrifice specifically called the “burnt offering “?

The word translated as “burnt offering” is the Hebrew word ʻôlâh or ʻôwlâh ( pronounced o-law’). It literally means a step or (collectively, stairs, as ascending); usually a holocaust (as going up in smoke). This sacrifice went up to God as a step.

A good way of thinking about the ʻôlâh is to think about the ladder in Jacob’s dream (Genesis 28:12-13). The burnt sacrifice made atonement for sin so that there was a renewed connection between God and man.

The burnt offering is so-called because it was completely destroyed on the altar.

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The Law of the Burnt Offering

When God explained the various sacrifices to Moses, He indicated that there should be morning and evening burnt offerings.

In other words, there was to be a burnt offering on the altar at all times.

“Command Aaron and his sons, saying, ‘This is the law of the burnt offering: The burnt offering shall be on the hearth upon the altar all night until morning, and the fire of the altar shall be kept burning on it. A fire shall always be burning on the altar; it shall never go out’ (Leviticus 6:9, 13).

The burnt offering was offered as an atonement for sin. It went up as a sweet-smelling savor before the Lord (Leviticus 1:17).

The altar of burnt offering

The altar of burnt offering was built according to the specifications given to Moses by God (Exodus 27:1-8). This altar was to be overlaid with bronze (this is not the same as the altar of incense which was smaller and overlaid with gold).

The altar of burnt offering reminded Israel of their need for atonement.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, atonement is the action of making amends for a wrong or injury. As it relates to Christian theology, atonement is the reconciliation of God and mankind through Jesus Christ.

Sin Offering vs Burnt Offering

While the sin offering was a burnt offering in that it was burnt on the altar, there were some differences. But let’s look at the similarities first.

Both sin and burnt offering were atonement sacrifices. They were intended to enact a reconciliation between God and man.

The main difference between the two offerings is that the burnt sacrifice was completely obliterated on the altar whereas the burnt sacrifice was not.

A Sweet Savor

One of the phrases used to describe the sacrifices made to the Lord was “a sweet-smelling savor (Numbers 29:2).”

And the question you’re probably asking is, “Why would the smell of blood and burnt animals be pleasing to God?’ It wasn’t. It was all about the heart of the person offering the sacrifice. That’s the smell that God loves – a surrendered heart.

Let’s look at one of the first instances that God mentioned that an offering was a “sweet/soothing smell” to him. In happened in Genesis 8:21: there was a flood. The people had been evil, so wicked and corrupt that God regretted that he had ever created humanity.

But there was one man who was considered righteous in God’s sight and for that reason, he was earmarked for delivery. Fast-forward a few hundred years, the flood destroyed the earth but this man and his family were saved.

Related: 3 Lessons About Commitment from Noah

One of the first things that Noah did after leaving the ark was to build an altar and offer a sacrifice to the Almighty God. The God who had kept him through the flood. The God whose hand had kept the ferocious wild animals from destroying him and those he held dear. The God who had kept the food and him and his family (not to mention all those animals) fed and watered for over a year.

Noah had a lot to be thankful for and his gratitude had a smell:

The LORD smelled the soothing aroma; and the LORD said to Himself, “I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done.

Because Noah was so grateful for all that God had done for him, he took the time to offer a sacrifice to God. It was like him saying, “I should have been dead. Had it not been for you Jehovah, I would have been. So accept this innocent, blameless lamb in my place. Thank you for all you’ve done.”

Did the sweet-smelling aroma end when we stopped offering animal sacrifices? Did the coming of the Messiah abolish the need to offer a soothing aroma before God? No, it didn’t.

On the contrary, the fulfillment of the Messiah’s role kicked it up a notch. Now we are to offer our bodies, our lives as a living sacrifice to God (Romans 12:1):

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice–the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him (NLT).

Basically what Paul was saying is, “God has done so much for you that you ought to live your life as if you owe him a debt. Be so grateful to him for saving you that you have to let everyone know what he has done for you.” Our lives should be sweet savors. Our gratitude should be reflected in our attitude.

The Burnt Offering & Why It Matters Today

What the Burnt Offering Means Today

The sacrificial system had been given to the Jewish people as a reminder that sin required death.  But the blood of lambs could not pay the penalty for sin. It was intended to highlight our need for a Savior.

The death of Jesus, the perfect Lamb of God, negated our need for burnt sacrifices. Instead,  we’re told that we should be living sacrifices (Romans 12:1-2). Since God lives in us in the person of the Holy Spirit, we are His temple.

It is our lives that go up to heaven as sweet savors and not the scent of burnt animals.


Lord, I commit my life into your hands. I am but dust but if you take me and mold me into your image I will become a living sacrifice unto you. I want my life to be a pleasing aroma so consecrate me now for I ask it in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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