A few passages in Genesis record early instances of sacrifices on isolated altars by
patriarchs. However, the bulk of Old Testament information regarding sacrifices is found
in pentateuchal texts that present the complex system of rituals at the Israelite
sanctuary in the wilderness. Therefore, this section of the present article is the most
extensive. Other biblical books, including historical, prophetic, and wisdom literature,
attest to sacrificial practices throughout the rest of the Old Testament period, but
without the relatively comprehensive (although not exhaustive) details provided by the
4.3 Theology of Israelite sacrifices
Each kind of sacrifice had a unique procedural element that correlated with its
distinctive significance. Except for the reparation offering, the unique elements
involved treatment of the flesh or blood. The flesh of the burnt offering was completely
burned; the offerer(s) ate meat from the well-being offering; the blood of a
purification offering almost always went on the horns of an altar; the reparation
offering required prior non-sacrificial reparation; and the non-animal grain, drink, and
incense offerings had no blood or flesh at all.
4.3.1 Burnt offering
The importance of the burnt offering is shown by its position as the first sacrifice
in Leviticus, the designation of the outer altar as ‘the altar of burnt offering’
(e.g. Exod 30:28; 40:7), and the role of the burnt offering as the regular morning and evening
sacrifice (29:38–42; Num 28:1–7) that was to be continually burning on the altar.
The Hebrew label translated ‘burnt offering’ is ‘ōlâ, from the root ‘-l-h, the verb of
which means ‘go up’. When the victim was a herd or flock animal sacrificed at the
Israelite sanctuary, the officiating priest tossed the blood against the outer altar
in the courtyard (Lev 1:5, 11) and burned the entire victim on the altar so that it went up in smoke (1:9, 13) – except for the hide, which belonged to the priest (7:8). In patriarchal sacrifices, the hide was likely burned up as well. Parts of
other kinds of sacrifices were burned on the altar, but the ‘ōlâ was the quintessential ‘ascending sacrifice’ in which all meat
portions were burned up for the deity. As such, it is can be characterized as the
‘burned up’ or ‘burnt’ offering.
The word for burning the burnt offering and portions of other sacrifices on the altar
is the hiphil of q-ṭ-r, which means ‘make smoke’ (e.g. Lev 1:9, 13; 2:2, 9; 3:5, 11), related to the noun qeṭōret, ‘incense’ (e.g. Exod 30:7, 35, 37; 40:27). So the smoke of Israelite sacrifices, especially the burnt offering that
would have produced the most smoke, ascended like incense as a ‘pleasing aroma’ (e.g. Lev 1:9, 13; 2:2, 9; 3:5, 16) to God in heaven (cf. Gen 8:21). The direction of the smoke – towards the sky/heaven – ‘indexed’ the recipient
of the transaction as a celestial being. This, combined with the multi-functionality
of the burnt offering already exhibited during the patriarchal period (see above),
suggests that the burnt offering served as a powerful ‘invocation’ of the deity
(Levine 1989: 5–6; 2002: 134). A burnt offering could invoke Yhwh
to demonstrate gratitude to him, expiate for sin, call for divine aid at a time of
danger (1 Sam 7:9), fulfil a vow, or serve as a freewill sacrifice (Lev 22:18).
The goal of a burnt offering was to serve as a token ’iššeh, ‘food offering’ (Lev 1:9, 13, 17 ESV; cf. leḥem, ‘food’, in Lev 21:6, 21; Num 28:2). As such, it comprises a social analogy that explains how this one category of
sacrifice could carry more than one function: a meal provides a setting in which various kinds of interpersonal
interactions can take place (e.g. Gen 18). Notice that in Leviticus 1, the goal of the
burnt offering is accomplished by the entire ritual process that culminates in burning
the victim; in other words, it is not accomplished only through the slaughter and
application of blood to the altar (cf. Eberhart 2002: 303–308; 2011: 29; Gane 2004b: 79–82, 90, 341). Accordingly, the efficacy
of expiation is mentioned in verse 4 with regard to the burnt offering as a whole,
rather than in verse 5, which prescribes the slaughter and blood application.
The nature of the sin that requires expiation is left unspecified in Lev 1:4. Therefore, the expiatory scope of the burnt offering remains open, which
correlates with its wide range of functions during its earlier history (see Appendix).
This answers an important question. The purification and reparation offerings remedied
a limited range of sins: inadvertent and other minor sins in the case of the purification offering,
and sins of sacrilege in the case of the reparation offering (see below). What was the
remedy for all the other deliberate sins that presumably were expiable because they
were not ‘high-handed’ (i.e. defiant; cf. Num 15:30–31)? The most plausible answer is the burnt offering, which was performed long
before the purification and reparation offerings were introduced for special kinds of
cases (cf. Appendix).
Even a bird could serve as a burnt offering, achieving the same goal as a more
expensive sacrifice (Lev 1:14–17; cf. vv. 9, 13). Thus, the ritual system made it possible for everyone,
including the poor, to interact with Yhwh and receive the resulting benefits (cf. Lev 5:7–13; Deut 16:17). Notice that there is no biblical evidence for hand-leaning (see section 3)
when the offering material consisted of a bird or grain item, because the offerer
would hand such sacrifices directly to the priest, allowing for no possible ambiguity
regarding the identity of the offerer.
4.3.2 Well-being offering
The well-being offering is a kind of zebaḥ,
‘sacrifice’. This noun is derived from the root z-b-ḥ, of which the verb carries the basic meaning ‘slaughter’, including
for meat (e.g. Deut 12:15, 21). In a zebaḥ sacrifice at the sanctuary, a
priest tossed the blood against the altar and burned only the fat (suet) on the altar
for the Lord (Lev 3). The priest raised the breast in a ritual gesture of dedication
to Yhwh that transferred it to his ownership; nevertheless, Yhwh assigned the meat of
the sacrifice to his priests, and the right thigh was a contribution that belonged to
the officiating priest (Lev 7:30–36; cf. Milgrom 1991: 461–478). The
offerer received the rest of the meat to eat (Lev 7:15–21) and could share it with others in a communal meal (Gen 31:54; 1 Sam 9:13). This accords with the opinion of Baruch A. Levine that the term zebaḥ is cognate with Akkadian zibū, ‘meal’ (Levine 2002: 127). Portions of the same animal went
both to God and to the offerer(s), thereby ‘indexing’ a connection between them.
However, there is no biblical evidence that this constituted a shared meal with the
deity (Milgrom 1991: 221).
The Passover is labelled a zebaḥ in Exod 12:27, even though the Israelites consumed all of their Passover lambs in a communal
meal (vv. 4, 8–10) without offering any part of them to Yhwh on an altar, or even
performing a blood manipulation gesture in the direction of a place that was sacred to
the Lord (cf. Num 19:4). In this sense, it appears that the ritual was not really a sacrifice at that
time (Eberhart 2011b: 20, 30) but became a sacrifice
later when it was offered at the sanctuary (Deut 16:2, 5–6; implicit in Lev 17:3–9).
Exodus 20:24 speaks of an altar on which to sacrifice burnt offerings and šelāmîm offerings. English versions commonly render šelāmîm as ‘peace offerings’ because this plural (apparently
abstract) term is derived from the same root (š-l-m)
as the well-known noun šālôm, ‘peace’. However, the
meaning of šālôm encompasses the idea of
‘well-being/welfare’, which is broader than ‘peace’ in the sense of absence of
conflict. Compare the verb from the same root, which means ‘be complete/whole’.
Milgrom has rendered šelāmîm as ‘well-being offering’
(Milgrom 1991: 217–222).
The šelāmîm sacrifice was consumed by the
offerer(s), so it was closely associated with the zebaḥ sacrifice. In Exod 24:5, the two terms are in apposition: ‘they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed bulls as zebaḥ sacrifices [plural of zebaḥ], well-being offerings [šelāmîm]
to Yhwh’ (author’s translation). However, in Lev 7:11, zebaḥ is in construct with šelāmîm – ‘zebaḥ sacrifice
of well-being’ – with ‘well-being’ specifying a kind of zebaḥ sacrifice. Verse 11 introduces the unit that contains instructions
regarding thank offerings, votive offerings, and freewill offerings (vv. 12–16),
implying that they are sub-categories of ‘zebaḥ
sacrifice of well-being’.
Whatever the precisely correct interpretation of the term šelāmîm may be, the well-being offering is associated with positive
concepts, as indicated by several factors: (1) positive meanings of words from the
root š-l-m; (2) motivations of thanksgiving, the need
to make and fulfil a vow, or the simple freewill desire to offer such a sacrifice; (3)
lack of expiation for a particular wrong as a motivation for a well-being offering;
and (4) mention of votive and freewill offerings with rejoicing before Yhwh in Deut 12:17–18; 16:10–11.
Those who offered well-being offerings related to the deity as a person with whom
they were in a basically healthy relationship. This does not mean that such sacrifices
were necessarily restricted to joyful contexts. In Judg 20:26 and 21:4, the Israelites sacrificed burnt and well-being offerings when they were
distressed and in need of divine aid during and in the aftermath of their war with the
tribe of Benjamin. In these instances, their well-being offerings presumably would
have affirmed their existing connection to Yhwh as a basis for seeking his
The well-being offering was not an expiatory sacrifice in Leviticus 3 and 7. However,
in 1 Sam 3:14, Yhwh told Samuel that the iniquity/culpability of Eli’s household (referring
to Eli’s sons) could never be expiated by zebaḥ
sacrifice or minḥâ forever. The combination of these
terms here can be understood as ‘a synecdoche referring to all sacrifices (for
minḥâ as a blood offering, see 1 Sam 2:17, 29)’ (Milgrom 1991: 222). This seems
to attribute expiatory efficacy to zebaḥ sacrifices
that they lack in Leviticus (cf. Ps 51:18 [Eng. v. 16]), but the point is that no sacrifice at all could remedy the
egregious crimes of Hophni and Phinehas.
Leviticus 17:11 does indicate that the blood of well-being offerings (cf. vv. 5–6, 8) applied
to the altar, like the blood of other sacrifices, accomplishes something that is
expressed by the piel of k-p-r, which often denotes expiation (see above). However, here the
indirect object of the verb is the lives (plural of nepeš) of the offerers. This expression refers to ransoming life, as
shown by comparison with Exod 30:12, 15–16. Ransom for life in Lev 17:11 involves substitution of the life of an animal for the offerer’s life. Ransom
for life is related to expiation, which is the removal/purification of evil (cf.
Sklar 2005: 2008), but it is not the
same. In Lev 17:11, ransom for life is effected by blood manipulation alone, rather than
comprising the goal of a sacrifice as a whole. Thus, a person needs blood ransom even
to offer happy, non-expiatory well-being offerings of thanks or praise (cf. Gilders 2004: 175–176). The offerer is not guilty of an offence that is punishable by death
under Israelite law, but Lev 17:11 points to the larger reality that the ultimate penalty for any sin is death
(cf. Gen 2:17; Rom 6:23).
Leviticus 17:11 supplies the rationale for the prohibition of eating meat from which the blood
has not been drained out at the time of slaughter (vv. 10, 12). Milgrom has argued
that this verse applies only to the well-being offering, the only kind of sacrifice
from which the offerer is permitted to eat. According to Milgrom, the blood on the
altar ransoms the life of the offerer, who is otherwise guilty of murder for
slaughtering an animal (cf. vv. 3–4; Milgrom 1971). However, Leviticus 17 is not only concerned with well-being offerings; it also mentions the
burnt offering, which similarly must be performed at the sanctuary (v. 8). Although
nobody is permitted to eat a burnt offering, Yhwh has assigned its blood on the altar
too (1:5, 11). This explains why, like the well-being offering, the burnt offering
must be presented at the sanctuary. The function of sacrificial blood is divinely
designated as ransom for life, supplying a rationale that has broader application than
the well-being offering. The connection between blood and life, which underlies the
function of blood on the altar (17:11), carries still broader implications beyond
sacrifice (cf. Gen 9:4). Therefore, the principle of blood ransom articulated in Lev 17:11 would also operate in purification and reparation offerings, as well as burnt
offerings (cf. Rendtorff 1995: 27, ‘referring to
the relevance of sacrificial animal blood in general’).
William Gilders maintains that because Lev 17:11 is in the ‘Holiness’ (H) portion of Leviticus (which he and other scholars now
regard as later than the ‘Priestly’ [P] section of the book), the rationale expressed
in this verse does not necessarily apply in ‘P’ texts such as Leviticus 1–16
(Gilders 2004: 13, 25; cf. Knohl 1995 on ‘H’ as the
redactor of ‘P’). It is true that meanings of ritual actions can change over time, but
in this instance Lev 17:11 may explicitly bring into the foreground a function of sacrificial blood that
was previously only in the background, implied by the common association of blood with
life (e.g. Gen 4:10; 9:4–5) and the paradigmatic substitutionary ransom of Isaac’s life by that of a ram (Gen 22:13).
4.3.3 Purification offering, including on the Day of Atonement
The Pentateuch provides more information regarding the functions of the expiatory
purification (ḥaṭṭā’t) and reparation (’āšām) offerings, introduced with the founding of the
Israelite ritual system, than it does concerning the older kinds of sacrifices
discussed above. Purification and reparation offerings related to the sanctuary in two
different and unique ways. Purification offerings expiated two categories of problems:
(1) relatively minor violations of divine commands, including inadvertent sins, sins
of forgetfulness, and failure to identify oneself as a witness to a crime (Lev 4:1–5:13); and (2) severe physical ritual impurities that could not be removed by
ablutions alone (Lev 12; Lev 14–15; Num 19). The purification offering was the only kind
of sacrifice that dealt with such impurities. Reparation offerings remedied sins of
sacrilege involving loss of material things that had to be restored (Lev 5:14–16, 20–26 [Eng. 6:1–7]) and unknown sins that possibly could be cases of sacrilege (5:17–19).
The purification offering was the most complex category of Israelite sacrifice,
having the greatest variety of offering materials and ritual activities (especially blood
applications). Its unique dynamics enacted more aspects of theology than the other
kinds of sacrifices. Materials for purification offerings could be male or female herd
or flock animals, and poor people could offer birds or even grain (Lev 4:1–5:13; Num 19:1–10).
If a priest officiated a purification offering on behalf of an individual other than
the high priest, the priest would daub blood on the horns of the outer altar, burn the
fat on the altar, and eat the meat (Lev 4:22–35; 6:19, 22 [Eng. vv. 26, 29]). However, a purification offering to expiate the sin of the
high priest or the entire Israelite community required the high priest to apply blood
in the outer room of the tabernacle – sprinkling blood seven times in the area in
front of the inner veil and putting blood on the horns of the incense altar. Then the
high priest was to burn the fat on the outer altar, but he was not allowed to eat the
meat because he was the offerer or part of the community that comprised the offerer.
Thus, the rest of the animal was incinerated outside the Israelite camp (Lev 4:3–21; cf. 6:23 [Eng. v. 30]).
Special purification offerings on behalf of the priestly household and the
non-priestly community on the Day of Atonement included blood applications in the
inner and outer sanctums, as well as on the outer altar, in order to purify the whole
sanctuary (Lev 16:14–16, 18–19). The red cow purification offering, unlike other
sacrifices in the ritual system centred at the Israelite sanctuary, was performed
outside the camp to produce ashes that would be mixed with water in order to remedy
problems that had not yet occurred: future ritual impurities caused by corpses (Num
19; cf. 8:7 ‘water of the purification offering’ [author’s translation], supported
by Milgrom 1990: 61).
The term ḥaṭṭā’t, ‘purification offering’, is the
same as a noun for ‘sin’. This noun is derived from the same root ḥ-ṭ-’ as the qal verb ‘(to)
sin’, as in Lev 4:3:
‘If it is the anointed priest who has sinned [qal verb from the root ḥ-ṭ-’], making
the people guilty of sin, he must present to the Lord a flawless bull from the herd as
a purification offering [ḥaṭṭā’t] for the sin
[ḥaṭṭā’t] he has committed [qal verb from the root ḥ-ṭ-’]’ (CEB,
words in brackets supplied; cf. v. 14; 5:6, 11). Thus, ancient and modern translations
have rendered the ḥaṭṭā’t sacrifice as ‘concerning
sin’ or ‘sin offering’ (Septuagint, Vulgate, KJV, NKJV, NJPS, NRSV, NIV 2011, ESV, NET
Bible, etc.; NJB, ‘sacrifice for sin’).
It is true that this kind of sacrifice remedied sins, i.e. moral faults/commandment
violations, in Lev 4–5:13 and Num 15:22–29. However, other expiatory sacrifices also dealt with sins. Moreover, the
ḥaṭṭā’t sacrifice also expiated physical ritual
impurities, which were not moral faults – as shown by passages in which offerers of
such sacrifices received purification, not forgiveness (Lev 12:6–8; 14:19–20, 30–31; 15:14–15, 19–30; cf. Num 19). The rendering ‘sin offering’ in these instances wrongly conveys
the impression that physical impurities are sins. As such, a better translation is needed.
Some occurrences of the piel verb of the root
ḥ-ṭ-’ suggest another possible rendering of
ḥaṭṭā’t. When the direct object of this verb is the
beneficiary of a ḥaṭṭā’t sacrifice, the verb refers
to removal of some kind of impurity. Thus, in Num 19:19, a ritually pure person sprinkles water mixed with some ashes of the red cow (a
ḥaṭṭā’t sacrifice; v. 9) on a person undergoing
purification for coming into contact with a corpse, and in so doing purifies (piel of ḥ-ṭ-’) him. In Lev 8:15, Moses’ application of the blood of a ḥaṭṭā’t
sacrifice to the horns of the altar purifies (piel of
ḥ-ṭ-’) it (cf. Ezek 43:20, 22, 23; 45:18). This indicates that the function of a ḥaṭṭā’t sacrifice is to purify, so it can be translated ‘purification
offering’ (Milgrom 1991: 253–254).
Nevertheless, the evidence that the same kind of sacrifice could expiate either sins
or physical impurities indicates a close connection between these evils. Physical
ritual impurities resulting from contact with carcasses of some impure animals (Lev 11:24–40), skin disease (Lev 13–14), genital flows (Lev 15), or corpse impurity (Num 19) were symptoms of the birth-to-death cycle of mortality (Maccoby 1999: 60) that results from sinful action (Gen 3; Rom 6:23). In this sense, physical impurity represented the state of sin, which a
ḥaṭṭā’t sacrifice could ‘unsin’ (Gray 1903: 81; cf. Hieke 2014: 88–92, translating ḥaṭṭā’t as Entsündigungsopfer).
Milgrom argued that the purification offering never purified its offerer; it only
purified parts of the sanctuary, such as the outer altar, to which the priest applied
the blood of the sacrifice. This blood functioned as a ‘detergent’ to remove pollution
resulting from a sin or serious physical ritual impurity that had already contaminated
the sanctuary from a distance when it was committed or incurred, as in Lev 20:3 and Num 19:13, 20 (Milgrom 1991: 254–258).
Certainly, the blood of special purification offerings on the Day of Atonement purged
the parts of the sanctuary from sins and physical impurities (Lev 16:16, 18–19), thereby restoring its initial purity (cf. 8:15). However, there is clear evidence that purification offerings throughout the
year removed sins or serious physical impurities from those who offered these
sacrifices (Gane 2005: 106–143;
First, the concluding formulas of several instructions for purification offerings
contain the privative preposition min, which
explicitly indicates removal of sin or impurity from the offerer (Lev 4:26; 5:6, 10; 12:7; 14:9; 15:15, 30). Second, some such formulas concerning expiation for sin explicitly state that
it is the sin committed by the offerer that is removed (4:35; 5:10, 13), not the resultant contamination of the altar (cf. Maccoby 1999: 178–179). Third, an assistant who
incinerates the carcasses of the purification offerings that purge the sanctuary on
the Day of Atonement must undergo ablutions before re-entering the camp (16:28),
indicating that the carcasses bear defilement removed from the sanctuary, which
contaminates the assistant. By contrast, an assistant who incinerates purification
offering carcasses on other days of the year needs no such purification (4:12, 21).
Fourth, the applications of blood from the purification offering that purge the
sanctuary on the Day of Atonement move progressively outward: from the cover on the
ark in the holy of holies to sprinkling blood seven times in front of it (16:14–16a)
and afterwards to applications on the outer altar (vv. 18–19). Therefore, the
abbreviation in 16:16b – ‘and he shall do the same for the Tent of Meeting’ (NJPS) –
means that in the outer sanctum the high priest must first put blood on the horns of
the altar of incense (cf. Exod 30:10) and then sprinkle blood seven times in front of it. This reverses the order,
and therefore the direction, of blood manipulations in the outer sanctum when
purification offerings expiate sins of the high priest or the entire community on
other days. First the high priest sprinkles blood seven times in front of (’et-penê) the (inner) curtain (Lev 4:6, 17) – that is, in the area of the outer sanctum that is bounded by the curtain.
Then the high priest daubs blood on the horns of the incense altar (Lev 4:7, 18), closer to the ark. It appears that this reversal – into the sanctuary toward
the ark in Leviticus 4 and out of the sanctuary away from the ark in Leviticus 16 –
indexes a reversal of function: sins move into the sanctuary and then they are brought out of it on the
Day of Atonement.
Leviticus 6:20–21 (Eng. vv. 27–28) support the idea that purification offerings throughout the
year carried a residue of sins and physical impurities into the sanctuary as a
side-effect (not the purpose) of expiating (piel of
k-p-r) these evils from the offerers (Gane 2005: 165–180). If some blood from a purification
offering splashed on a garment, the bloodstain was to be washed off (v. 20 [Eng. v. 27]). A pottery container in which the flesh of a purification offering was boiled so
that the officiating priest could eat it (v. 19 [Eng. v. 26]) was to be broken, but if
the container was (non-absorbent) bronze, it could be reused after it was scrubbed and
rinsed in water (v. 21 [Eng. v. 28]). Such washing, breaking, and scrubbing would
remove defilement (cf. Lev 11:32–33, 35; Num 31:23–24) that had been transferred from the offerer to the animal and from there to the
garment or vessel. So when the priest applied some blood from the same animal to part
of the sanctuary (such as the outer altar; Lev 4:25, 30, 34) and placed its fat on the altar (vv. 26, 31, 35), the altar similarly would
receive some defilement that originated with the offerer. In this way, pollution would
accumulate at the sanctuary throughout the year until it, including ‘all’ of the
ḥaṭṭā’t sins, would be purged from the sanctuary on
the Day of Atonement (16:16).
Defilement that came to one part of the sanctuary affected all parts of it, which
included the inner and outer sanctums and the outer altar (cf. Lev 16:20, 33). Thus, for example, physical impurities had to be removed from the inner
sanctum on the Day of Atonement (v. 16), even though nobody was permitted to even
enter there on other days (v. 2) and the blood of purification offerings for physical
impurities of individuals was only ever applied to the horns of the outer altar (e.g.
implied in 12:6, following the procedure for birds in 5:9). Conversely, application of purification offering blood at one point in a
certain part of the sanctuary purified that whole part. For instance, daubing blood on
the horns of the incense altar on the Day of Atonement purged the entire altar (Exod 30:10).
Some scholars have objected to the idea that purification offerings could transfer
defilements to the sanctuary. Such a sacrifice was most holy (Lev 6:18, 22 [Eng. vv. 25, 29]) and whatever touched its flesh became holy (v. 20 [Eng. v. 27]), so only the consecrated priests were allowed to eat it in a ‘holy place’ (v. 19 [Eng. v. 26]; i.e. in the sanctuary courtyard). Elsewhere in the Israelite ritual
system, something holy – that is, associated with God, the source of life (Gen 1–2) – was not to come into contact with something impure (e.g. Lev 7:20–21; 15:31), which was associated with mortality (cf. above). Therefore, some interpret
the washing of part of a garment in Lev 6:20 [Eng. v. 27]) as removal of contagious holiness from the clothing (e.g.
Nihan 2015: 115–118).
The theory of removing holiness fails for two reasons. First, the text does not
specify the offerer’s garment, and if it is the garment of a priest, why should
holiness on it be a problem? Furthermore, why would the cooking vessels in v. 21 (Eng. v. 28) be broken or cleaned to remove holiness, given that their function is in the
sanctuary? Second, the rules for washing garments and breaking or cleansing vessels
only apply to the purification offering, the function of which is to remove sins or
physical impurities. If these rules concerned removal of holiness, they would also
apply to other most holy sacrifices (Milgrom 1991: 405; Wright 1987b: 96, note 8; 130–131), which also touched the
most holy altar that consecrated everything that touched it (Exod 29:37).
We are left with a paradox. Purification offerings must carry defilement in order to
remove the defilement from offerers throughout the year and then from the sanctuary on
the Day of Atonement, even though the sacrifice is most holy (Gane 2019: 116–122). Defilement from each purification
offering that affects the sanctuary is slight because the causes, such as inadvertent
commandment violations (Lev 4), are minor and contact with the sanctuary is secondary
(through the victim). Such pollutions do not make the sanctuary unholy, but they must
be purged out once a year so that they do not excessively accumulate and cause Yhwh to
leave (cf. Ezek 8–11; Milgrom 1991: 258–261).
The theological point of all this was a ritual enactment of theodicy (Gane 2005: 305–333). The sanctuary was Yhwh’s
residence and earthly headquarters where his identity, involving his authority,
character, and reputation/name, was located (cf. Deut 12:5, 11, 21; Ezek 36:20–23). An individual who had violated one of his commandments was freed from
culpability (‘āwôn, usually rendered ‘iniquity’) by
expiation through a purification offering (e.g. Lev 5:1, 6), which was the remedy that Yhwh had established. Thus, Yhwh forgave that
person (4:26, 31, 35; 5:10, 13) as Israel’s judge (cf. Deut 17:12).
Justice requires that a judge acquit/vindicate the innocent or condemn the guilty
(Deut 25:1; 1 Kgs 8:32), not absolve the guilty. By mercifully freeing guilty people from
condemnation, Yhwh overstepped the bounds of pure justice. Therefore, he bore judicial
responsibility as an Israelite king who, acting as judge, would bear culpability
(‘āwôn) if he failed to punish a guilty person (cf. 2 Sam 14:9; cf. 1 Kgs 2:31). Yhwh’s liability for absolving the guilty was ritually represented by the
defilement of his sanctuary (cf. 2 Sam 14:9,
‘the king and his throne’). It was also represented by the culpability
(‘āwôn) borne by priests who ate the meat of
purification offerings that they officiated for others, which was their portion (Lev 10:17; cf. 6:19 [Eng. v. 26]), reflecting Yhwh’s bearing of ‘āwôn when he forgives sins (Exod 34:7).
Yhwh’s liability could be removed by a judgment that vindicated his justice by
demonstrating that he was right to pardon those who subsequently showed their
continuing loyalty to him. This judgment was ritually enacted on the Day of Atonement,
when those who showed loyalty by practicing self-denial and abstaining from work
received moral purification at a second stage of expiation (Lev 16:29–31), beyond the earlier expiation that was necessary for forgiveness (4:26, 31, etc.). Their loyalty did not earn moral purification. Rather, it was the
means by which they received moral purification as a gift that resulted from the
purgation of the sanctuary (16:30; cf. Milgrom 1991: 1056;
Gane 2005: 310–316). On the other hand,
those who disloyally failed to practice self-denial or abstain from work on the Day of
Atonement were condemned to the divine penalties of ‘cutting off’ or destruction
(23:29–30). Purgation of physical impurities from the sanctuary on the
Day of Atonement (Lev 16:16, 19) also taught about God: another outcome of Israel’s judgment day was to remove
the burden of the accumulated effects of the mortality of Yhwh’s people, which
surrounded and affected his sanctuary (v. 16b).
The sins expiated by Israelite sacrifices and then purged from the sanctuary are
called ḥaṭṭā’t (e.g. Lev 4:3; 16:16). However, another kind of sin called peša‘,
‘rebellion’ (cf. verbs from the same root in 2 Kgs 1:1; 3:5, etc.), was also purged from the sanctuary on the Day of Atonement (16:16). How did such sins defile the sanctuary? This can be explained by Lev 20:3 and Num 19:13, 20, where some very serious sins automatically defile the sanctuary when they are
committed. Milgrom generalized this automatic dynamic, which he called ‘aerial’, to
also include all sins expiated by purification offerings throughout the year
(Milgrom 1991: 257–258). However, in Lev 20:3 and Num 19:13, 20 the sinners are condemned to the terminal penalty of ‘cutting off’ (verb
k-r-t), from which they cannot be freed by
subsequent sacrificial expiation (cf. Num 15:30–31, contrasted with vv. 22–29). Such sins affect Yhwh’s sanctuary, representing
his reputation, because they are committed by members of his community. Therefore, the
defilement must be removed from the sanctuary on the Day of Atonement, but the sinners
themselves receive no benefit from this removal; they remain condemned (Gane 2005: 154–7).
Another component of the Day of Atonement is the ritual of Azazel’s goat (so-called
‘scapegoat’). The high priest confesses the sins of Israel over the goat while leaning
both of his hands on its head, thereby symbolically loading them onto the animal, and
then banishes the goat, bearing the sins, into the wilderness (Lev 16:10, 20–22). Lev 16:5 places this ritual under the heading of a ḥaṭṭā’t, but in this case it is a ‘purification ritual’ rather than a
‘purification offering’ because it is not a sacrifice: it is not offered to Yhwh or to
Azazel (Gane 2005: 250–261).
4.3.4 Reparation offering
The reparation offering (’āšām) was to be performed
like the purification offering for individuals other than the high priest, with the
blood applied to the outer altar. Unlike the purification offering, the priest did not
put the blood on the horns of the outer altar but rather tossed the blood around the
sides of it, as in the burnt and well-being offerings (Lev 7:1–7).
Almost all English versions of the Bible render the term ’āšām as ‘guilt offering’. This may appear logical because the same word
can refer to consequential liability for sin, which can be understood as ‘guilt’ (e.g. Gen 26:10; Jer 51:5). However, the translation ‘guilt offering’ is inadequate because it does not
specify a single kind of sacrifice; other expiatory sacrifices also remove guilt (see
Two factors made the ’āšām sacrifice unique. First,
it expiated a sin of sacrilege (verb and noun from the root m-‘-l; Lev 5:14, 21 [Eng. 6:2]; Num 5:6). A sin of sacrilege was committed by desecrating Yhwh’s property or
desecrating his name by misusing it in a false oath to defraud a human being
(Milgrom 1991: 320, 345–61, 363–73). Second,
because property was involved in either case, the sinner was obliged to make material
reparation (restitution of the value of the property, plus one-fifth of its value) to
the wronged party (5:16, 24 [Eng. 6:5]; Num 5:7–8, restitution called ’āšām) before bringing the
sacrifice as further compensation (’āšām) to the Lord
at the sanctuary (Lev 5:15–16, 25 [Eng. 6:6]; Num 5:8). Thus, ’āšām as a designation for a kind of
sacrifice can be translated more precisely as ‘reparation offering’ (Milgrom 1991: 327–330, 339, 342, 345) or ‘compensation offering’ (CEB).
Elsewhere, the term ’āšām can refer to other things
that make reparation/compensation to Yhwh, including golden images of tumours and mice
that the Philistines sent with the ark when they returned it to Israel (1 Sam 6:3–5, 8, 11), as well as purification offerings (Lev 5:6–7). The function of purification offerings in making reparation has confused some
interpreters, who have supposed that Lev 5:1–13, the unit containing vv. 6–7, introduces the ’āšām sacrifice (e.g. Koehler, Baumgartner, and Stamm, HALOT, I: 96, ‘guilt-offering Lev 5:6–25’). However, in this
pericope the required sacrifices are clearly labelled as purification (ḥaṭṭā’t) offerings (vv. 6–9, 11–12).
Leviticus 5:17 presents a case in which someone sins by violating one of the Lord’s
commandments but does not know what he or she has done wrong. Nevertheless, the person
experiences guilt (verb from the root ’-š-m) and is
culpable. Consequently, the person must sacrifice a reparation offering (vv. 18–19),
but there is no requirement for prior reparation to a wronged party. There can be no
such requirement because the precise sin remains unknown, although the experience of
guilt that is recognized from some kind of negative circumstance, indicating divine
disfavour, has implied that a sin has occurred (Wells 2004: 67–69).
4.3.5 Non-animal sacrifices
Aside from sacrifices of animals, which involved blood and flesh, the Israelite
ritual system included sacrifices of grain and drink, as well as offerings of incense.
The label for the ‘grain offering’ is minḥâ, which
refers to a gift for a superior, such as a homage or tribute (cf. Gen 4:3–5). In Leviticus 2, this is a voluntary, standalone sacrifice. Elsewhere it can
be mandatory and/or accompany an animal sacrifice (e.g. Lev 14:10, 20–21, 31; 23:13; Num 15:4, 6, 9). However, sometimes grain items that are presented with special animal
sacrifices are not called minḥâ (Exod 29:2–3, 23–25, 32–34; Lev 7:12–14; 8:2, 26–28, 31–32; Num 6:15–17, 19–20). Lev 6:13–16 (Eng. vv. 20–23) requires the high priest to offer a regular daily grain
offering to Yhwh through which the high priest would ritually acknowledge his
subordination to the deity every day. The ‘bread of the Presence’ presentation
offering of bread loaves on the golden table in the outer sanctum was to be renewed
regularly every Sabbath (Lev 24:5–9).
Directions for grain offerings in Leviticus 2 allow them to be either raw choice
wheat flour (semolina) with oil and frankincense (v. 1) or baked/cooked in various
ways with oil, but without leaven and with no requirement for frankincense (vv. 4–7, 11). Thus, an Israelite who could not afford frankincense could bring a baked/cooked
grain offering. However, the grain offering brought by a husband for his wife whom he
suspected of adultery consisted only of barley (Num 5:15), a less valuable grain than wheat (2 Kgs 7:1, 16, 18), and did not include oil or frankincense because it was ‘a grain offering of
jealousy, a grain offering of remembrance, bringing iniquity to remembrance’ (Num 5:15 ESV). Just as oil and frankincense were to be excluded in this unhappy
circumstance of suspected sin, these items were also omitted in a purification
offering of grain to expiate for sin, which is not called a minḥâ (Lev 5:11). The implication is that oil (including for anointing human heads) and
frankincense were associated with positive occasions, as expressed in Prov 27:9: ‘Oil and incense make the heart glad’ (CEB).
When the offerer handed his or her grain offering to a priest, he burned a portion of
it on the altar for Yhwh; the rest of the grain item belonged to the priests (Lev 2).
However, if a priest officiated a grain offering on behalf of himself, all of it had
to be burned on the altar (6:16 [Eng. v. 23]). There is no mention of expiation in
Leviticus 2, so here the minḥâ is a voluntary gift to
Yhwh to solemnly but cheerfully acknowledge his lordship. As with the burnt offering,
the possible motivations for the minḥâ grain offering
remain open and unspecified, thus inviting Israelites to bring grain offerings in a
wide range of circumstances. The relatively inexpensive nature of the offering by
comparison with animal sacrifices would make it easy for God’s people to approach him
in this way.
A drink offering to accompany an offering of food for the deity (e.g. Num 15:5, 7, 10, 24) would be poured out on/at the altar in the courtyard (cf. 2 Kgs 16:12–13) or in the outer room/sanctum of the sanctuary (Num 28:7).
An offering of incense was to be burned on the altar of incense in the outer sanctum
every morning and evening (Exod 30:1, 7–8), presumably to sweeten the atmosphere of Yhwh’s ‘palace’ at his twice-daily
‘mealtime’. The high priest was to burn incense, apparently with a smoke-producing
substance, on a portable censer for the apotropaic purpose of shielding himself from
God’s lethal glory when he entered the holy of holies on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:12–13). Aaron used incense on a portable censer to make expiation and/or propitiation
for the Israelite community in order to stop a divinely inflicted plague (Num 17:11–12 [Eng. 16:46–47]). An independent offering of incense was not explicitly called or included in
a qorbān (‘sacrifice’); but frankincense placed on
the ‘bread of the Presence’ served as a memorial portion (presumably to be burned) of
that ’iššeh, ‘food offering’, which was a type of
sacrifice (Lev 24:7).