Usually when we talk about Old Testament sacrifices, we end up exploring how they are precursors to Jesus’ death on the cross. His is the ultimate, all-atoning sacrifice, covering sins for all time.
The kind of sacrifice we see described in Leviticus 1:1-9, what we sometimes call “the whole burnt offering,” takes us there, but in a roundabout way. Like the other sacrifices described in Leviticus, it is an ancient practice, a Bronze Age ritual filled with blood and fire. The only similar experience we might have today involves smell—at some point in the process, that bull on the altar must have given off an aroma like steaks on a grill.
The point of the whole burnt offering still resonates today, though. For the one making the offering, it was an act of deep commitment.
Note again what was required to make this offering: an unblemished bull, what today would be a prize winner at the county fair. (People also could bring a male sheep or goat, or if they were poor, a bird. We’re going to focus on the bull today, however.) Such a well-formed beast usually represented years of careful breeding, hard work and what we might call a little luck.
The bull was valuable, not just for what it represented on the hoof, but more for what it represented in offspring for years to come. Bred with the right cows, it could make its owner and his family comfortable, well-off or even wealthy. With such a bull roaming his fields, a man might feel a little more secure in his future.
Instead of leaving it to do what bulls do, however, the owner chose instead to take this prize bull and have it turned into ashes and smoke. Unlike the other types of offerings, there was not the opportunity for the owner or even the priests to consume any of the meat. The priests were entitled to the skin only.
When the time came, the owner would stand before the bull and lay his hands upon the animal’s head. There must have been a sobering moment when the owner could feel the life in the animal, its pulsing, its twitching, perhaps its nervousness at the strangeness of the surroundings. Then, if the ritual were performed as it was typically done throughout history, the owner would slaughter the animal himself, cutting its windpipe and esophagus quickly and deeply with a very large, sharp knife.
Blood would have flown, of course, with the priests catching it and flinging it against the altar. The bull, so alive in one moment, would have buckled and fallen before the owner who had fed it and tended it with such care. It would then be cut up and burned according to the prescriptive details we find in Leviticus.
Certainly, it was an act of atonement, but the whole burnt offering was different from the sin offerings in one particular way. It was far less about blood and much more about establishing a right relationship with God. Or think of it this way: It was less about what a person had done and more about how a person intended to live.
First, if you haven’t picked up on it by now, the bull was intended as a gift to God. It was turned to smoke as much as possible because that is how Bronze Age Israelites perceived offerings going to God, by way of smoke, up into the heavens. A gift was a formal expression of a desire for solidarity, or even friendship.
Second, it was an act of dependency. The one making the offering was saying, “God, I need you more than I need this bull. God, I trust you more than I trust in my own ability as a breeder,” or whatever other occupation might make a person well-off enough to own such an animal.
And despite the seeming primitiveness of the whole burnt offering, we should be able to connect with what was happening in the heart of the worshiper when such a sacrifice occurred.
In fact, it is easier for us to reach that place where we no longer stand in cringing fear of God because of sin. God has made it easier. We simply claim Christ as our own, and the claim sin has on us vanishes. Through Christ, the path to a loving relationship with God has been made clear and simple.
What remains for us is a response to the gift of eternal life we’ve been given. What kind of gifts do we give to the one who has done so much for us already? How do we acknowledge our dependency?
Perhaps we need to determine what our bull in the field is. What might we have bred and grown for our own security, and how might we release that to God, demonstrating our trust in him?
For each person, the answer will be different. The question is well worth considering, however, particularly when so much ministry in the world is needed.