Sacrifice in Ancient Israel by William K. Gilders

One way to think about ancient sacrifices is as “gifts” given to God. When they performed sacrifices, ancient Israelites gave to God some of what they believed God had given them, expressing their close relationship with God and seeking to deepen that bond.

In the Hebrew Bible, sacrifice always involves transformation. One of the most common ways to transform something is to destroy it. Destruction removes the animal from the ordinary realm and transfers it to a transcendent one. Biblical texts tell us that God received the smoke of the burning sacrifice as a “pleasing odor” (see, for example, Lev 1:13). In so doing, God enjoyed a fellowship meal with human beings in God’s dwelling on earth—the temple.

The temple was a domestic setting, the place of God’s presence with the nation. One of the most common terms for the temple was ”house,” and it had furnishings, such as a lamp and a table. The altar was a cooking surface, a barbecue, so to speak, where the sacrificial animal was “cooked.” Burning up or “over-cooking” the sacrifices in the altar fire marked out the specialness of the food offerings.

Instructions for the performance of various types of sacrifices are found in the first seven chapters of the book of Leviticus. There are five main types of grain and animal sacrifice:

  • Burnt offering (Hebrew, ‘olah; literally, “ascending offering”; Lev 1, Lev 6:8-13) could be a herd or flock animal (bull, sheep, or goat) or a bird (dove or pigeon). The whole animal was burned in the altar fire. It was the most extravagant sacrifice because the entirety was given to God.
  • Grain offering (Hebrew, minhah; literally, “gift”; Lev 2, Lev 6:14-23) was an offering of fine flour or unleavened baked goods, mixed with oil. A handful of the offering was burned (with incense) in the altar fire. The rest went to the priests.
  • Sacrifice of well-being/fellowship offering (Hebrew, zevah shelamim; Lev 3, Lev 7:11-35) could be a herd or flock animal. Innards (fat, kidneys, and part of the liver) were burned in the altar fire. Most of the animal was eaten, divided between the priests and the offerer. This sacrifice was associated with feasting and well-being.
  • Sin/purification offering (Hebrew, hatta’t; Lev 4:1-5:13, Lev 6:24-30) dealt with disruption in the relationship between human beings and God. The offering depended on the identity and status of the person required to make it. The chief priest, for example, had to bring a bull, whereas ordinary Israelites brought a female goat or lamb. Those who were too poor to afford a goat or sheep could offer birds, and an offering of grain flour was acceptable from the very poor.
  • Guilt offering (Hebrew, ’asham; literally, “responsibility”; Lev 5:14-6:7, Lev 7:1-10) dealt with distinct categories of wrongdoing that disrupted the divine-human relationship, such as unintentional desecration of sacred things. The prescribed sacrifice was a flock animal. As with the sacrifice of well-being and the sin offering, innards were burned in the altar fire; the animal’s flesh was eaten by the priests.

These five varied sacrificial offerings have one element in common: the burning of some portion in the altar fire to transform the offering into smoke or a “pleasing odor” that God could enjoy.

Sacrifice is not a do-it-yourself activity in Leviticus. Rather, priests are required to bring about the transfer and transformation of the offering. Not only are they expert in the proper procedures, but they also bear the risk of moving into God’s presence.

Every animal sacrifice includes special treatment of the animal’s blood, which various biblical passages identity with the life force of the animal (see, for example, Gen 9:4, Deut 12:23). Despite the clear importance of this ritual use of blood, only one verse in the entire Hebrew Bible appears to explain its significance (Lev 17:11). This debated but crucial verse concerns life, not death; animal life on the altar preserves and enhances human life.

William K. Gilders, "Sacrifice in Ancient Israel", n.p. [cited 4 Dec 2022]. Online:



William K. Gilders
Associate Professor, Emory University

William K. Gilders is an associate professor in the Department of Religion at Emory University. His research and teaching focus on cultural history, especially its religious dimensions, ranging from the ancient Mediterranean world to twenty-first century North America. He is the author of Blood Ritual in the Hebrew Bible: Meaning and Power (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004) and several articles on ancient Israelite religious practice interpreted from the perspective of anthropology and ritual theory.

The ritual killing and offering of animals to deities, often on an altar and intended as good for the gods.

The anointed high priest who enjoys a status above that of regular priests; the chief priest is the only priest allowed to enter the innermost sanctum of the tabernacle or temple, the holy of holies.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

The artistic and sometimes symbolic public communication of social, political, or religious events, more common in oral cultures.

The means of cleansing oneself of any ritual impurity that would prevent participation in religious observance such as sacrifice at the temple.

Collective ceremonies having a common focus on a god or gods.

Relating to the system of ritual slaughter and offering to a deity, often performed on an altar in a temple.

made without a leavening agent, such as yeast or baking powder

Lev 1:13

13but the entrails and the legs shall be washed with water. Then the priest shall offer the whole and turn it into smoke on the altar; it is a burnt offering, a ... View more

Lev 1

The Burnt Offering
1The Lord summoned Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying:2Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When any of you br ... View more

Lev 6:8-13

Instructions concerning Sacrifices
8 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:9Command Aaron and his sons, saying: This is the ritual of the burnt offering. The burnt of ... View more

Lev 2

Grain Offerings
1When anyone presents a grain offering to the Lord, the offering shall be of choice flour; the worshiper shall pour oil on it, and put frankince ... View more

Lev 6:14-23

14This is the ritual of the grain offering: The sons of Aaron shall offer it before the Lord, in front of the altar.15They shall take from it a handful of the c ... View more

Lev 3

Offerings of Well-Being
1If the offering is a sacrifice of well-being, if you offer an animal of the herd, whether male or female, you shall offer one without b ... View more

Lev 7:11-35

Further Instructions
11This is the ritual of the sacrifice of the offering of well-being that one may offer to the Lord.12If you offer it for thanksgiving, you ... View more

Lev 4:1-5:13

Sin Offerings
1The Lord spoke to Moses, saying,2Speak to the people of Israel, saying: When anyone sins unintentionally in any of the Lord's commandments about ... View more

Lev 6:24-30

24The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:25Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying: This is the ritual of the sin offering. The sin offering shall be slaughtered before th ... View more

Lev 5:14-6:7

Offerings with Restitution
14The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:15When any of you commit a trespass and sin unintentionally in any of the holy things of the Lord, ... View more

Lev 7:1-10

1This is the ritual of the guilt offering. It is most holy;2at the spot where the burnt offering is slaughtered, they shall slaughter the guilt offering, and it ... View more

Gen 9:4

4Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.

Deut 12:23

23Only be sure that you do not eat the blood; for the blood is the life, and you shall not eat the life with the meat.

Lev 17:11

11For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that mak ... View more

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