Deciphering the Symbolism of the Burnt Sacrifice

Whenever I teach a class on Leviticus, inevitably my students ask: “What is the psychology that inspires one to offer a sacrifice in general, and the burnt offering in particular? Why is the burnt offering mentioned first in the opening chapter of Leviticus?”

To the modern mindset, the mentality that believed in animal sacrifices must seem very strange. Even Maimonides viewed sacrifice as a form of retrogressive religion, tolerated in the Torah only because of the unsophisticated spiritual maturity of the Israelites.

Ironically enough, in Israel, today many students are studying Maimonides’ Laws of Sacrifice on the hope and expectation that Jews will at some point rebuild the Temple and offer the animal sacrifices just like their ancestors did in ancient times. Right . . .

I can just imagine Maimonides turning over in his grave. Maimonides would have undoubtedly have been surprised to see that we have evolved so little over the past 800+ years.

If you think the money changers made a killing when Jesus created a ruckus that chased them out (obviously, many other pilgrims must have felt the same way), just imagine what today’s Haredi rabbis would do today if he had a new Temple, replete with animal sacrifices.

No thanks, but no thanks.

An anthropological approach demands that we view a society’s customs through the eyes of those individuals who practiced animal sacrifice. There is a symbolism and significance that moderns can learn and may even apply in their own spiritual formation and development.

An analogy from human behavior might serve to answer this question. The giving of a gift, even between human beings, is not a purely external transaction but at the same time establishes a personal relation between giver and recipient. This would explain why bribery is morally offensive; by accepting a bribe  the judge becomes, at the very least, psychologically beholden to the litigant  (cf. Gen.32:14-19).

Many scholars in the field of anthropology note that archaic man often offered sacrifices as a bribe to the gods for personal enrichment; or to placate the gods from harming the worshiper. Think of it as a form of divine “protection money.” Personally, I think that in the story of Noah, Noah offers the olah shortly after the ark rests upon dry land. He brings the olah as bribe because he is uncertain whether God might change His mind and will eventually bring a new flood on Noah’s descendants.

Perhaps the most forceful antecedent to the Israelite practice of the burnt sacrifice is from Isaac’s near sacrifice of Isaac at Mt. Moriah (Gen. 22ff). Illustrating this eternal truth, God beckons Abraham to offer Isaac “as an olah.” More than any other incident in Abraham and Isaac’s life, the Akedah taught both of them how to be wholly given over to the Divine.

Over the centuries, as the worshippers brought their olah offerings to the Temple, the olah rekindled ancestral memories of how Isaac was prepared to give his very life to God. As the body of the animal dissolved into vapor and ascended heavenward, the worshiper inferred that he too must be prepared to subordinate every aspect of his body, mind and soul, not to mention whatever belongs to him, are subject to the authority of God. Indeed, the martyrdom of countless Jews over the last 2000 years bears this truism out.

It was only natural, that the olah offering came be seen as a means of honoring the Divine. Philo of Alexandria regards the burnt offering as rendering honor to God apart from any other motive or self-interest. Philo explains, “Therefore the law has assigned the whole burnt offering as a sacrifice adequate to that honor which is suited to God, and which belongs to God alone, enjoining that what is offered to the all perfect and absolute God must be itself entire and perfect, having no taint of mortal selfishness in it.”[1]


[1] Special Laws I, XXX VI, 196.

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