Know Your Bible Lesson 6: The Sacrificial System


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In this lesson, we will continue our study of the four books which comprise the second major time period in the Bible: Slide2Now when you read about the sacrificial system in these books, it’s very easy to get confused and overwhelmed. Leviticus is the book that really gets into the details about how various types of sacrifices were to be processed, and much of the instruction in Leviticus was directed at Levite priests.  Yahweh was quite particular about what kinds of offerings He would accept and about how those sacrifices were to be handled.  Since the goal of this post is to simplify these concepts and help you identify important principles, we’re not going to bog you down with the graphic details of which anatomical parts Yahweh wanted the priests to dig out of various animal carcasses. What you need to understand is that this was very hard, messy work. It required a man to be in good physical condition and it was the kind of job that never let up. With Yahweh creating so many reasons for people to have to bring sacrifices and with just one processing center (the Tabernacle) available to service millions of people, the priests were always busy.

In this lesson, we’ll take a brief look at the different kinds of sacrifices Yahweh required. We’re just going to look at the main ones that are going to come up over and over again throughout the rest of the Bible. After we get familiar with these key sacrifices, we’ll learn about how the system of sacrifices was abused by both the people and the priests.


Here is a key principle to understand: sacrifices were about worship and reverence. Many Christians think sacrifices were just for the atonement of sin and earning God’s forgiveness. But resolving sin was merely a side issue, not the main point. The far more important goal of the sacrificial system was to develop God honoring soul attitudes in Yahweh followers.  It also served to give believers a way to express their devotion to Yahweh. The committed Yahweh follower didn’t hate giving sacrifices—he was eager to do it. For him, it was refreshing to the soul. In the book of Psalms we find the sacrificial system praised over and over again as various Jews describe how eager they are to express their devotion to God through these physical rituals.  When we Christians look back on this era and see only a bunch of drudge work and rules, it’s because we’re looking at it with our own cultural bias.  While Christians in America today associate modern day animal sacrifices with satanic cults and dark magic, in Bible times, animal sacrifices were totally normal things.  Sincere believers back then enjoyed bringing sacrifices to Yahweh as much as modern day Christians enjoy their corporate worship times. Listen to the language used in these excerpts from various psalms and ask yourself if the Jewish authors are viewing the sacrificial system positively or negatively.

I will sacrifice a voluntary offering to You; I will praise Your Name, O Yahweh, for it is good. For You have rescued me from my troubles and helped me to triumph over my enemies. (Ps. 54:6-7)

O nations of the world, recognize Yahweh; recognize that Yahweh is glorious and strong. Give to Yahweh the glory He deserves! Bring your offering and come into His courts. Worship Yahweh in all His holy splendor! (Ps. 96:7-9)

At His sanctuary I will offer sacrifices with shouts of joy, singing and praising Yahweh with music. (Ps. 27:6)

Let them praise Yahweh for His great love and for the wonderful things He has done for them! Let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving and sing joyfully about His glorious acts! (Ps. 107:21-22)

These excerpts make it obvious that the ancient peoples viewed the slaughtering of animals quite differently than we do.  While it sounds quite repulsive to many of us today for a priest to dig around in an animal’s carcass and drain blood from its neck, we have to remember that our view of the world and our definitions of “good” and “gross” were taught to us by the cultures we grew up in.  When we judge the Old Covenant Laws from the totally biased and radically different perspective of our modern day cultures, we end up drawing all kinds of very negative and wrong conclusions about God’s Character.  This is why it’s so important that we listen to the perspective of the Jewish writers who penned the various documents in the Bible.  As our samples from various psalms demonstrates, the sacrificial system with all of its gore and grunt work brought a lot of sincere joy to Yahweh followers.

Unlike us, Yahweh fully understood the perspectives of the people He was working with.  So what does it tell us about Yahweh that He intentionally set up a system of sacrifices that would be such a blessing to those who were sincerely seeking Him?  Maybe you hate the whole idea of offering animals to God.  But He isn’t asking you to bring Him sacrifices, because today you’re living under Yahweh’s New Covenant in which no sacrifices are required.  See how it works out?  Back in ancient times, when He knew people would find joy in worshiping Him through the slaughtering of various animals, Yahweh came up with an elaborate system of sacrifices.  Many centuries later, He threw the whole thing out, and today God relates to you in a way that you are culturally comfortable with.  Our Gods meet us where we are at: this is an important lesson we learn by studying the Bible.  As we move through this Know Your Bible Series, we’re going to discover that Yahweh and Jesus are making a pointed effort to relate to the ancient Jews within the context of their particular culture.  When talking to ancient Jews, our Gods use ancient Jewish sayings, They refer to ancient Jewish beliefs, and They use metaphors that are relevant to ancient Jewish society.  How awesome is it that our Gods should interact with us in such personal ways?

Today we Christians read over the hundreds of commands in the books of Moses and we feel burdened and beat down.  “How can anyone keep track of so many rules?” we ask.  “What a frustrating burden it must have been to be stuck under the Old Covenant!”  But here again, we’re jumping to wrong conclusions because we’re stuck in our own cultural frame of reference.  If you want to know how Yahweh followers in the Old Testament really viewed Yahweh’s Laws, you need to listen to someone who was actually there.  Here again, the book of Psalms provides surprising insights.

How I love Your law! I think about it all day long. Your commandment is with me all the time and makes me wiser than my enemies. I understand more than all my teachers, because I meditate on Your instructions. I have greater wisdom than those who are old, because I obey Your commands. I have avoided all evil conduct, because I want to obey Your word. I have not neglected Your instructions, because You Yourself are my Teacher. How sweet is the taste of Your instructions— sweeter even than honey! (Ps. 119:97-103)

Oh, the joys of those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or stand around with sinners, or join in with mockers. But they delight in the law of Yahweh, meditating on it day and night. They are like trees planted along the riverbank, bearing fruit each season. Their leaves never wither, and they prosper in all they do. (Ps. 1:1-3)

It’s studying Yahweh’s Old Covenant Laws which is giving these Jewish believers such a thrill, and that means they are studying the four books of Period 2. Slide4It is only in Period 2 that Yahweh lists out all the Laws of His Covenant with Israel, which include describing the entire sacrificial system. The Jews who are celebrating Yahweh’s Laws in the book of Psalms are not talking about the Bible we have today, and they’ve never heard of the New Testament. When we realize how excited and blessed someone is feeling by studying the books of Period 2, yet we find ourselves feeling utterly bored slogging through all of Yahweh’s commands, then obviously we’re missing something. We’re not seeing what the ancient Jews saw if we’re feeling frustrated while they’re feeling joyfully excited. So where can we go to get our perspective adjusted? We can go to Yahweh Himself and ask Him for help.

Yahweh’s first system of Laws was not about making people feel burdened and drained. To understand Yahweh correctly, we need to realize that the Covenants really aren’t as different as they appear at first glance. Both of them boil down to one thing: soul attitude. If you sincerely care about pleasing God today, you would have done fine under the Old Covenant. The Laws would not have gotten in your way—they would have just given you a different form of worship. Back then, Yahweh asked for certain rituals that He no longer asks for today. To King David, not having any sacrificial system would have sounded like a terrible deprivation. To take away sacrifices from a devout Yahweh follower in the Old Testament would be like telling a committed, extroverted Christian today that he can no longer sing his heart out in corporate worship services. It would feel stifling and frustrating. To the true believer, the sacrificial system was a way to express worship and reverence to God in a public, hands on way. It was a joy. It was nourishing to the soul.

If Yahweh wanted us all to live with Him in eternal bliss, there’s nothing stopping Him from whisking us all off to Heaven when we die. He didn’t have to make up a bunch of rules and then say we would be in trouble if we broke them. The point of our Gods putting us through this whole earthly experience is to give us humans a chance to decide how we want to respond to our Creators.  We were designed to be creatures of choice. Our Gods are only interested in having a long-term relationship with us if we are sincerely interested in knowing Them and willing to submit to Their Authority. If we choose to defy Them instead, then They will damn us to Hell and enjoy torturing us forever.

This issue of soul attitude is extremely important to our Gods. From the very beginning, eternal salvation has been granted as a reward for sufficient soul submission. It is reverence which motivates us to submit to our Creators and obey Their convictions. It is our soul attitudes which we are judged by, not how many sacrifices we bring (see Jesus vs. the NT Jews: What it Means to Please God).


Now that we understand that the sacrificial system was a positive way for sincere believers to express their devotion to and reverence for God, let’s look at some of the specific kinds of sacrifices that Yahweh required. In our last lesson, we learned about the basic layout of the Tabernacle—how it was a two room tent sitting in a large courtyard. The tented house was broken into two sections: the Holy Place in the front, and then the Most Holy Place in the back where the Ark of the Covenant was kept.


The Tabernacle had three areas: the courtyard, the Holy Place, and the Most Holy Place. Different offerings were performed in each of these places, but most of the sacrifices were done in the outer courtyard. There we find two special items: a large bronze basin of water called the laver and a large bronze barbecue called the bronze altar. Whenever you read about burnt offerings being done “on the altar” in Period 2, it’s referring to the bronze altar.


Now let’s look at the different kinds of offerings that were offered up to Yahweh on the bronze altar. Two of the most common types of sacrifices were the burnt offering and the guilt or sin offeringSlide7Slide8

What do these requirements tell us about Yahweh? Well, notice the range of animals He will accept. A bull is far more expensive than birds and flour. Yahweh knew that not everyone could afford to give such a large animal. There were richer people and poorer people, so Yahweh came up with multiple options which would allow everyone to satisfy His requirements without having to starve themselves and their families. Yahweh is kind and compassionate. He meets individuals where they are at. Sacrificing a bull didn’t buy a rich person more atonement, and the poor man wasn’t looked down on by Yahweh because he could only afford a bird. In Yahweh’s system, everyone could give in proportion to their means and they would all be accepted.

Two other very common sacrifices were the grain or gift offering and the peace or fellowship offering.Slide9Slide10We learn here that not all sacrifices were about atoning for sin. Yahweh didn’t want people to only come to Him when they’d done something wrong. He didn’t want His Tabernacle to be viewed like the principal’s office at school. He wanted it to be a place of joy where people could come not only to restore their relationship with Him, but also just to express their love for Him and worship Him in some tangible way.

So what’s with all the barbecuing? It’s not like God is hungry. In this system, the focus was not on what was burning but rather the smoke that it created. As the smoke drifted up towards the sky, Yahweh taught His people to picture Him enjoying its pleasing aroma.

“Burn the whole ram on the altar; it is a burnt offering to Yahweh. It is a pleasing aroma, a fire offering to Yahweh.” (Ex. 29:18)

There were many different kinds of offerings and rituals required for various circumstances. After introducing these basic types and then giving detailed instructions as to how they were to be offered, Yahweh then came up with combinations. For example, whenever burnt offerings were made, Yahweh also wanted some grains and wine to be offered as well. Wine was simply poured out in what was called a drink offering, and it was a common addition to many types of sacrifices. Later on in Period 8 the Jewish apostle Paul will say:

“But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all.” (Philip. 2:17)


With Yahweh requiring sacrifices for so many things, the priests had a full time job just trying to keep up with all of the offerings being brought to them. On top of processing all of the incoming sacrifices, the priests had extra duties they had to perform on a daily basis as part of showing reverence for Yahweh and keeping His Tabernacle a place of continuous worship. First, they had to do daily sacrifices: Slide11Then, inside of the Holy Place, there were three decorative items that had to be properly tended to.


The golden lampstand was a really large menorah.  It had seven oil lamps that Yahweh wanted to be kept burning at all times. This meant checking to make sure they were filled with oil and had plenty of wick. On the special table, fresh bread had to be put out every day as a way of honoring God.  That bread was called the Bread of the Presence.


Third, the golden incense altar was for burning incense. It was very close to the Ark of the Covenant—on just the other side of the veil. It was considered super holy, and only a specific blend of incense could be burned on it so that a pleasant aroma would always be drifting up to Yahweh. To keep the incense always burning, it had to be refueled every morning and evening when the golden lamps were checked.


All of these duties were very sacred and special in the mind of a serious worshiper. They were visual reminders to the priests that Yahweh’s Presence was with them in those sacred rooms, and they were ways of expressing continuous reverence. In Psalm 141:2, David is referring to these special priestly duties when he says:

“May my prayer be counted as incense before You; The lifting up of my hands as the evening offering.”


Once a year, the high priest had to perform special rituals to atone for the sins of the entire community. This was called the Day of Atonement. Here is a simplified list of steps:


The Day of Atonement and all the other sin offerings served as moving metaphors of Yahweh’s grace and mercy. Instead of punishing people for their own sins, God allowed the people to sacrifice animals in their place. In other words, the animals substituted for the sinners—they bore the punishment for disobeying Yahweh even though they hadn’t done anything wrong, and that punishment was death. By making His followers practice centuries of substitutionary atonement sacrifices, Yahweh was theologically preparing His followers for the concept of Jesus being an atonement sacrifice for not just one nation, but the entire world.


Now because the priests were so busy taking care of Yahweh’s requirements, they had no time for side jobs or working family farms, and that meant they had no way to make a living. But Yahweh is very generous, and He made sure His priests had more than enough to keep them healthy, strong, and well fed. There were certain portions of the incoming sacrifices that the priests were allowed to eat—that included bread and meat. In many cases, Yahweh insisted that the priests eat their designated portions the same day the sacrifices were made. That meant the priests had to take meal breaks which would also give them a chance to rest. Yahweh also designated certain portions of sacrifices to be given to the family members of priests—both males and females—so that they would be provided for as well. In addition, the priests got to have the tithes that the people were required to give to Yahweh. That meant the priests received a tenth of all the people’s harvests, produce, and animals. That meant grains, wines, oil, honey, fruits, vegetables, and living herd animals. This was plenty to keep them and their families very well provided for. This was Yahweh’s generous way of rewarding them for all the work they did for Him.

“To the sons of Levi, behold, I have given all the tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service which they perform, the service of the Tent of Meeting.” (Num. 18:21)


Sacrifices included many kinds of ingredients, and Yahweh demanded that all of these things be the best of the best. Animals had to be in perfect health—without any flaws, wounds, or illnesses. Flour had to be ultra-fine, and that required extra work. Oil and wine had to be of high quality as well—there was no giving God the dregs.

Let’s remember that the sacrificial system was about worship and reverence. Once people start giving Yahweh their garbage, old leftovers, and dying animals, what is going to happen to the spiritual atmosphere of the community? With such blatant disrespect for Yahweh being tolerated, sin will abound, crime will increase, and the whole nation will soon be wallowing in carnal corruption. This is what we see happen throughout the rest of the Bible. Instead of treating the sacrificial system as a means of expressing worship and reverence for Yahweh, people will find ways to exploit it for their own selfish gain.


There are two main groups involved in performing sacrifices: the people and the priests. Both of them had the power to corrupt the system because they both depended on each other. Slide18In 1 Samuel (which is part of Period 4), we learn about a corrupt priest named Eli and his two evil sons who are intentionally messing up people’s sacrifices. As a result, the people are very distressed until Yahweh intervenes and kills the rebellious priests. Before He does, Yahweh tells all three men that their sins will never be forgiven—in other words, they’re going to Hell. Mishandling the sacrifices offered to God was serious business.

In Period 6, we will find many cases of the common people being the ones to do the abusing. In Nehemiah, the people keep refusing to bring any tithes to the Temple. This leaves the priests strung out with no income. As a result, the priests pack up and go home, and the whole sacrificial system is shut down. It is this rebellious behavior on the part of the people that Yahweh is addressing in this famous passage from Malachi 3:

“Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing Me! But you say, ‘How have we robbed You?’ In tithes and offerings. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing Me, the whole nation of you! Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My House.” (Mal. 3:8-10)

You’ve probably heard the last line of this passage described as a happy promise from God to Christians in which He promises to give us back far more than we put into the offering plate.  Yet while Christian leaders today love to use Malachi 3:10 out of context to try and squeeze extra money out of Christians, this isn’t at all what Yahweh was talking about.

Without people bringing their tithes to the Temple, the Levites had no way of supporting themselves and the whole sacrificial system came to a grinding halt. Today, preachers do not spend all day slaughtering animals and maintaining a sacred sanctuary. If they are actually obeying God (and many are not), then it is right for the congregation to help support them financially. But today it is not right for preachers to pocket all of the money that Christians put in the offering plate, nor should you let some human being tell you where you ought to give your money. Everything you have is God’s property and under the New Covenant, He does not give any specific instructions about tithing. This is a different Covenant with different rules, and you need to look to the Holy Spirit to guide you about when and where to give money. Don’t give just because some greedy human is pressuring you into it.


Although God spends a lot of time setting up the tenants of His grand sacrificial system here in Period 2, He will then emphasize throughout the Bible that it is soul attitude which is most important to Him. The sacrifices are merely a means of expressing reverence and love for God. Without proper soul attitudes, they become utterly meaningless. King David understood this, which is why he wrote:

“For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; You are not pleased with burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” (Ps. 51:16-17)

It’s the same today: anyone can say a prayer and claim to be submitting to God.  But if their souls aren’t truly submitting to God, then their prayer will accomplish nothing.

Remember that most of the Jews here in Period 2 have very foul soul attitudes. They don’t care about Yahweh, and they aren’t excited about honoring Him with all of these rituals. While David will write reams of poetry in Period 4 celebrating God’s Laws and describing the thrill he gets in going to the Tabernacle to offer gifts to his glorious Maker, he is a rare exception. Most of the Jews from this point forward will put far more effort into breaking Yahweh’s Laws than keeping them. Some will blow off the sacrifices altogether while others will maintain a false pretense of caring. Yahweh will have plenty of angry things to say to both groups through the mouths of His Old Testament prophets.

When we don’t study the Bible in order and just focus on the last two periods (the New Testament), it’s easy to come away thinking that what makes the New Covenant “new” is that it puts such a strong emphasis on grace. And yet we are going to discover that grace is a major theme throughout the entire Old Testament. Yahweh didn’t become nicer over time and then finally soften up enough to send Jesus. Since the very beginning, He has loved us, wanted us, pursued us, and made it oh so easy for us to please Him. Yahweh has never demanded perfect behavior—only souls that sincerely care about pleasing Him. The souls who understood this fell deeply in love with God and cherished everything He said, which is why we find David writing things like:

The commandments of Yahweh are right, bringing joy to the heart. The commands of Yahweh are clear, giving insight for living. (Ps. 19:7-8)


So far in this period we’ve learned about the Tabernacle, the sacrificial system, and Yahweh’s Laws. We’ve learned about Yahweh’s original plan for Israel: how He wanted her to stand out as shockingly different so that other people would be attracted to her. Here in Period 2, Yahweh establishes a verbal contract with Israel—what we call the Old Covenant today. According to the terms of this agreement, if Israel obeys Yahweh and shows Him the reverence He demands, He will bless her beyond her wildest dreams. He will bless her so much that her earthly life will be sheer bliss: free of disease, poverty, war, and strife of any kind. But if she refuses to obey Him, then He promises to do just the opposite: to plague her with problems and make her very miserable.

Unfortunately, Israel is going to choose the path of rebellion right from the beginning. Even though she treats Yahweh terribly in Period 2, He still shows great patience and mercy, giving her many undeserved chances to improve her ways. Yet while He is being gracious, He also has boundaries, and it is in this period that we see some very sobering displays of God’s wrath.

Because this period is so foundational to the rest of the Bible, it’s important that we gain a basic understanding of Israel’s journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. It took her a lot longer to get there than it should have—over forty years to cross a simple desert. In the next lesson, we’ll find out why.

UP NEXT: Know Your Bible Lesson 7: The Wilderness Journey

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