The Law of Sacrifice
June 1998

“The Law of Sacrifice,” Ensign, June 1998, 25

Old Testament

The Law of Sacrifice

Mosaic sacrifice prefigured the Lord Jesus Christ’s Atonement and prepared a people to embrace teachings of the gospel.

Among the most intricate parts of the law of Moses in ancient Israel was the system of sacrifices, set forth chiefly in the book of Leviticus. We as Latter-day Saints—a “modern Israel” called to live another system of sacrifice also taught by Jesus Christ—may see great contrast between the numerous and complex rites of ancient Mosaic law and our own religious obligation to offer up to God a “broken heart and a contrite spirit” (3 Ne. 12:19). As a result, we may not fully appreciate the spiritual dimension of the law of sacrifice among the ancient Israelites.

Part of the value of the book of Leviticus for us today is its emphasis on the absolute need for an atonement to cleanse people from sin and bring them into communion with their God, who is likewise pure and holy. We are reminded that every sin is offensive to God and carries a penalty that must be paid in the manner prescribed by him. This suggests the vital importance in our daily lives of placing faith in the Savior’s own “great and last” atoning sacrifice for the sins of all mankind (Alma 34:14).

A perspective that may help us understand the spiritual nature of the law of sacrifice is to view ancient sacrificial law not as mere outward forms but as a law containing constant, vivid reminders of God’s expectations regarding the inner, spiritual condition of his chosen people. Although Israel’s divinely instituted sacrificial system was “adapted to a lower spiritual capacity than is required for obedience to the gospel in its fulness” (Bible Dictionary, s.v. “law of Moses”), it served a high purpose. This purpose was to help prepare the people to receive Jesus Christ and his gospel. As will be shown, many features of the law foreshadowed gospel teachings such as personal purity, gratitude to God, and especially the Atonement.

The Call to Holiness

Time and again in the Old Testament, God commanded Israel to be holy and pure: “Ye shall be holy: for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2; compare Lev. 20:7; Lev. 21:7–8). The people were taught that transgressions of the law of Moses resulted in pollution that, like a mist of darkness, would spread to contaminate Israel’s holiest sanctuary, its tabernacle or temple.1 According to one scholar, the “graver the offense, the more the resultant impurity penetrates into the sanctuary.”2 Sacrifices in ancient Israel were designed, among other purposes, to eliminate that pollution and to restore holiness.

What constituted sins and transgressions in ancient Israel? The violation of any law given by God to the Israelites, whether it was ethical (such as the Ten Commandments) or ritual (as with laws of dietary purity). Such trespasses were paid for through specific sacrifices or offerings, accompanied by practices of penitence signifying the inner regeneration required of the society or of the individual. These practices of penitence included fasting (see Deut. 9:18; 1 Sam. 7:6; 1 Kgs. 21:27; Ezra 10:6; Neh. 9:1; Joel 1:14), confession of sin (see 1 Sam. 7:6; Neh. 9:2–3; Isa. 64:5–9), and sackcloth and ashes (see 1 Kgs. 21:27; Neh. 9:1; Jonah 3:5–8).

“Sacrifices were … instructive as well as worshipful. They were accompanied by prayer, devotion, and dedication, and represented an acknowledgment on the part of the individual of his duty toward God, and also a thankfulness to the Lord for his life and blessings upon the earth” (Bible Dictionary, s.v. “sacrifices”). It is evident that sacrifice, along with fasting, confession of sins, and sackcloth and ashes, was definitely not a mere outward sign that replaced a person’s genuine remorse and desire for change. Thus taught Israel’s prophets, who took great pains to remind the people that it is a changed heart, not outward acts, that is the decisive factor in the repentance process. For example, Hosea admonished a straying Israel, “For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6). In a similar vein, Joel declared, “Rend your heart, and not your garments.” He also said, “Turn ye even to [the Lord] with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning” (Joel 2:12–13).

Kinds of Sin Offerings

Once a person’s heart was in place, he was ready to offer meaningfully one of the prescribed sacrifices. In Leviticus the sacrificial offerings for sin fall into two categories, those designed to atone for unintentional transgressions and those that atoned for willful sins.3 The former included the burnt offering (see Lev. 1:1–17; Lev. 6:8–13), the sin (purification) offering (see Lev. 4:1–5:13; Lev. 6:24–30), and the guilt (trespass) offering (see Lev. 5:14–6:7). Each of these sacrifices was performed by the transgressor himself in the tabernacle or temple anytime during the year.

Because these different offerings shared many common features, the procedure for making a burnt offering was typical of the requirements for making other sin offerings. The animal used in the burnt offering was a male bullock, sheep, or goat “without blemish” (Lev. 1:3). Two turtledoves or young pigeons were acceptable for persons of lesser means. After the offerer had symbolically laid hands on the animal’s head (to dedicate the animal to God as the offerer’s substitute) and after the officiating priest had accepted the offering, the animal was killed, skinned, and cut into pieces by the offerer. The priest then sprinkled some of the animal’s blood on the outer altar and placed the animal parts on the fire, where they were consumed, the smoke ascending to heaven.

Sacrifices for intentional sins, however, could be offered only by the high priest, and on only one day of each year—the Day of Atonement. On that day, the 10th day of the sixth month, the high priest entered the Holy of Holies in order to sprinkle the blood of a sacrificed bull and goat in front of and upon the cover of the ark (see Lev. 16:2–3, 14–16; see diagram).

Locations of Sacrifices Based on the Nature of Offenses

Locations of Sacrifices Based on the Nature of Offenses

Then the high priest sprinkled the altar in the Holy Place with the goat’s blood, as well as the altar of the courtyard of the tabernacle or temple with the goat’s and bull’s blood (see Lev. 16:18).4 In addition, the high priest laid hands on the head of a second goat—the “scapegoat”—and “confess[ed] over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgression in all their sins.” This represented the transference of Israel’s sins and impurity, which had penetrated into the Holy of Holies, to the goat. The goat was then sent “by the hand of a fit man” to a “land not inhabited” (Lev. 16:21–22).

All other offerings mentioned in Leviticus were for the purpose of rendering thanks to the Lord or of securing and maintaining his blessings. These offerings—the meat (or cereal) offering, peace offering, thank offering, vow offering, and freewill offering (see Lev. 2:1–16; Lev. 3:1–17; Lev. 7:11–12, 16, 29–36)—suggest that rendering thanks to God was an important teaching prevalent in Israel.

The nature of the sacrificial offerings required by the law of Moses suggests parallels to the gospel. For example, the unblemished condition of the sacrificial animals anticipated Christ’s fitness as a worthy sacrifice, for he redeemed us with his “precious blood … as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Pet. 1:18–19). The “sweet savour” (Lev. 1:17) of burnt offerings rising to heaven and signifying communion with God reminds us of his approval of our own prayers ascending to God with intercessory help from the Spirit and from Jesus Christ (see Rom. 8:26; Mosiah 15:7–9). And the scapegoat turned loose into the wilderness prefigured Christ’s taking upon himself our sins as he suffered “without [outside] the gate” of Jerusalem (Heb. 13:12; see also John 19:16–20).

In addition, the gospel-related ideas of worshiping God and receiving his blessings through thanksgiving and obedience are prefigured in the various offerings designed to demonstrate the Israelites’ gratitude to God and to obtain his blessings (see, for example, D&C 59:10–12, 15–16, 21, 23; compare headnote to Lev. 7; Josh. 1:7–8).

Sacrifice as a Foreshadowing of Jesus Christ’s Atonement

We learn from the book of Moses that after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were commanded to offer “the firstlings of their flocks, for an offering unto the Lord” (Moses 5:5). An angel later explained to Adam that animal sacrifice was “a similitude of the sacrifice of the Only Begotten of the Father” (Moses 5:7). A key purpose of Israelite sacrifices was to purify from sin, which is the central aspect of Christ’s Atonement, as Paul’s epistle to the Hebrews makes clear:

“For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh:

“How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Heb. 9:13–14.)

Just as animal sacrifice was the divinely instituted means of maintaining ancient Israel’s purity and holiness before God, so too the Atonement of Jesus Christ, the Great High Priest, is necessary in order to purify men and women of all ages from sin and to prepare them to come into the presence of God.

Under the law of Moses, sins resulting from one’s ignorance of God’s laws were paid for through an offering performed by the transgressor himself. Although that requirement contrasts with the gospel, in which Christ himself atoned in part for sins committed in ignorance by all mankind, the logic of the Mosaic law is clear: The sacrifice that was required even in the case of unintentional sins reminded the sacrificer that a price must be paid for every infraction of God’s laws.

However, the impurity created by willful sins cannot be eliminated by the transgressor himself. As in the case of our sins for which Jesus Christ atoned, these willful sins had to be removed by offerings made by the high priest on the Day of Atonement—one person at one place on one day of the year. But in contrast to Israel’s purification from willful sins that took place yearly and the other sacrifices for sin that went on constantly, Christ’s Atonement was absolutely unique, since only Jesus was able to atone for sins. Further, Jesus was not to “offer himself often, as the high priest entereth into the holy place every year with blood of others;

“For then must he often have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. …

“So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many … once for all” (Heb. 9:25–26, 28; Heb. 10:10; emphasis added; see Heb. 7:27).

The incompleteness of the priestly sacrifices, being offered annually, stands in contrast to the “infinite and eternal sacrifice” (Alma 34:10) of Jesus Christ, the Great High Priest (see Heb. 3:1), and is further illustrated by the fact that Israel’s priests stood while offering sacrifice, whereas Jesus “offered one sacrifice for sins for ever” and thereafter “sat down on the right hand of God” (Heb. 10:12).

Pointing Souls to Christ

Arraigned before wicked King Noah and his false priests, Abinadi preached a powerful sermon that helps us understand the role of the law of Moses. Abinadi emphasized that “salvation doth not come by the law alone” but through the Atonement of Christ. However, as strict as the lesser “law of performances and of ordinances” was for a rebellious Israel, Abinadi explained, “all these things were types of things to come” (Mosiah 13:28–31). This teaching—that the law of Moses prefigured the Messiah’s saving mission (see Mosiah 13:33–35 and Mosiah 14–16)—helps clarify what the Apostle Paul meant when he referred to the law as a “shadow of good things to come” (Heb. 10:1) and as a “schoolmaster until Christ” (JST, Gal. 3:24). The primary purpose of the law, Nephi taught, was to point souls to Jesus Christ (see 2 Ne. 25:24–25; compare Jacob 4:5; Alma 34:14).

Although observing the Mosaic laws of sacrifice could not “make the comers thereunto perfect” (Heb. 10:1), that system served the Lord’s wise purpose of pointing his chosen people to the salvation and perfection found only in Christ, the “end of the law … to every one that believeth” (Rom. 10:4). Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles explained that “animal sacrifices, standing alone of themselves without more, were imperfect and neither remitted sins nor brought salvation; rather, they had efficacy and virtue only because of Christ’s sacrifice.”5 Elder McConkie also taught that “those of old who kept the law … gained spiritual life through faith in Christ” and that “the faithful compliance of ancient Israel with the laws of the Lord did sanctify them before him, because of the atonement which was to be.”6

A person who had learned from the law of Moses that sins were beyond his own power to atone for could certainly appreciate the inestimable value of Christ’s matchless and infinite sacrifice. Having so learned through the laws of sacrifice the importance of rendering thanks to God and remaining pure, one would have been further prepared to embrace Jesus Christ’s higher laws pertaining to these matters.

In this way, those of old who obeyed those laws were blessed, and even sanctified, as they faithfully practiced what the Lord required of them. And their descendants who had also kept those laws but who later were perhaps more directly and thoroughly instructed in Christ and his gospel—the ancient Nephites (see 2 Ne. 25:24–25) and the Saints of Paul’s day, for instance—were prepared to appreciate in a much deeper way the meaning of Jesus Christ’s Atonement.

The Tabernacle Complex

The diagram shows where, under the law of Moses, certain sacrificial offerings were carried out in the tabernacle or temple complex. In ancient Israel, sacrifices were intended to rid the people and their holy sanctuaries of the pollution of sins and transgressions. It was believed that the more willful and widespread an offense, the greater the threat that contamination would spread to the interior of the tabernacle or temple.

The Tabernacle Complex

Illustrated by James Porter

For example, if a ruler or an individual Israelite committed an unintentional transgression, blood from the sin (purification) offering was placed on the horns of the altar in the outer courtyard of the tabernacle or temple. But when a priest or an entire congregation committed an unintentional transgression, the resultant impurity was believed to penetrate the tabernacle or temple as far as the Holy Place. As a result, blood from the sin (purification) offering was placed on the horns of the altar of the Holy Place inside the tabernacle or temple itself and was sprinkled before the veil separating the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies.

Impurity from intentional, or willful, sins was believed to penetrate the sanctuary all the way to the Holy of Holies. Such impurity could be eliminated only once a year on the Day of Atonement and only by a high priest, who sprinkled blood from a sacrificed bull and goat in front of and on the ark’s cover in the Holy of Holies, on the altar in the Holy Place, and on the altar of the outer courtyard of the tabernacle or temple.


  1. Israel’s first sanctuary was the tabernacle, succeeded by the temple during the reign of Solomon.

  2. Jacob Milgrom, “Sacrifices and Offerings, OT,” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, supplementary vol., (1976), 767.

  3. Milgrom, “Sacrifices,” 767.

  4. Milgrom, “Sacrifices,” 767.

  5. Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols., (1965–73), 3:187.

  6. Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 2:468; 3:188–89.

  • Stephen D. Ricks is a professor of Hebrew and Semitic languages at Brigham Young University.

Illustrated by Robert T. Barrett

Far left: Details from Moses Calls Aaron to the Ministry, by Harry Anderson

Above: All such illustrations by Ted Henninger

Persons offering sacrifices did not approach the altar but needed an intermediator. Thus, the priest ministered in their behalf. The altar housed fire, symbolizing the Holy Spirit’s purifying action. Its ever-burning flame represented the continuation of the covenant.

On the Day of Atonement, the high priest laid hands on the head of the “scapegoat” and confessed over it the people’s iniquities, representing the transfer of sins to another. The goat was then turned loose in the wilderness, prefiguring Christ’s suffering for our sins outside Jerusalem’s gate.

The altar of incense stood in front of the veil to the Holy of Holies. Hot coals were placed on the altar, and each morning and evening the high priest would burn incense. This suggested that a person approaches God through prayer, for incense was used as a symbol of prayer.

The table of shewbread on which each Sabbath 12 large, round loaves were stacked, each loaf weighing about 10 pounds. Traditions note that wine also was placed on the table with “spoons,” known today as vessels or cups. Thus, the items had parallels to the sacrament.