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Soon after Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden, the Lord gave them the law of sacrifices, which included offering the firstlings of their flocks in a similitude of the sacrifice that would be made of the Only Begotten Son of God (Moses 5:4–8). Thereafter, whenever there were true believers on the earth, with priesthood authority, sacrifices were offered in that manner and for that purpose. This continued until the death of Jesus Christ, which ended the shedding of blood as a gospel ordinance. It is now replaced in the Church by the sacrament of the bread and the water, in remembrance of the offering of Jesus Christ.

Sacrifices were thus 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 (see Gen. 4:3–7; 8:20; 22:1–17; Ex. 5:3; 20:24).

Under the law of Moses, sacrifices were varied and complex, and a multitude of rules were given to govern the procedure, in keeping with the general character and purpose of the Mosaic law. Under the law offerings made to God must be the offerer’s own property, properly acquired (Lev. 1:3). Altar sacrifices were of three kinds: sin offerings, burnt offerings, and peace offerings.

In all the animal sacrifices of the Mosaic law there were six important acts: (1) The presentation of the sacrifice at the sanctuary door by the sacrificer himself, as his personal act. (2) The laying on of hands (Lev. 16:21) dedicated the animal to God and made it the sacrificer’s representative and substitute (Lev. 1:4; Num. 8:10). (3) The slaughtering of the animal. The sacrificer himself slew his sacrifice (at the north side of the altar), and thus carried out actually the dedication to God that he had ceremonially expressed by the laying on of hands. A later custom was for the Levites or priests to slaughter the victims. (4) The pouring out or sprinkling of the blood. The priest collected the blood of the animal in a vessel and applied it in various ways and places to make an atonement (Ex. 30:10; Lev. 8:15; 16:18; 17:11). (5) Burning the sacrifice on the altar. After the priest had properly prepared the sacrificial victim he offered it (the whole or the fat only) upon the altar of burnt offering. This act symbolized the consecration of the worshipper to Jehovah. (6) The sacrificial meal (in the case of the peace offering only). The fat having been burnt and the priests’ pieces removed, the rest of the flesh was eaten by the sacrificer, his household, and the poorer Levites at the tabernacle.

The fundamental idea of the sin and trespass offerings was atonement, expiation. They implied that there was a sin, or some uncleanness akin to a sin, that needed atoning for before fellowship with Jehovah could be obtained. Sins committed with a high hand, and for which the punishment was death, did not admit of expiation under the Mosaic law (Num. 15:30–31). Atonement could be made for (1) unconscious, unintentional sins (Lev. 4:2, 22, 27; 5:15, 17); (2) noncapital crimes (such as theft), after punishment had been endured (Lev. 6:2, 6; 19:20–22); (3) crimes that a man voluntarily confessed, and for which he made (if possible) compensation (Lev. 5:5).

Trespass or guilt offerings were a particular kind of sin offering. All sins were transgressions of the laws of the covenant; but certain sins might be regarded as robbery, or a violation of right, or an injury, whether in relation to (a) God directly, regarded as King of Israel, by neglecting some rites and services, payments, and offerings; or (b) man directly (whether Israelite or foreigner), by depriving him of some just claim and right. In either case these sins were regarded as breaches of the covenant between Jehovah and His people, requiring compensation. This compensation was made (1) ethically, by the trespass offering (Lev. 5:15); (2) materially, by making restitution. The holy thing kept back from God, or the property stolen or withheld from man, was restored, a fifth part of their values being added in each case.

The burnt offering got its Hebrew name from the idea of the smoke of the sacrifice ascending to heaven. The characteristic rite was the burning of the whole animal on the altar (Lev. 1:9; Deut. 33:10). As the obligation to surrender was constant on the part of Israel, a burnt offering, called the continual burnt offering, was offered twice daily, morning and evening.

Peace offerings, as the name indicates, presupposed that the sacrificer was at peace with God; they were offered for the further realization and enjoyment of that peace. The characteristic rite was the sacrificial meal. A feast symbolized fellowship and friendship among all its partakers and providers, and also a state of joy and gladness (Ps. 23:5; Matt. 22:1–14; Luke 14:15).

The ritual of the three different kinds of animal sacrifices was identical in regard to the presentation, the imposition of hands, and the slaughtering by the offerer himself. The differences related to the blood and the method of appropriation of the offering by Jehovah. The blood of the sin offering (except in the particular case of the trespass offering) was put (smeared) upon the horns of the altar of burnt offering in ordinary cases. It was sprinkled against the veil seven times and put upon the horns of the altar of incense in the sin offerings of the high priest and the whole congregation. It was also sprinkled on the front of the mercy seat in the sin offering of the Day of Atonement. The remainder of the blood was poured out at the bottom of the altar of burnt offering. The blood of the trespass, burnt, and peace offering was sprinkled on the altar of burnt offering round about.

The fat of the sin offering, as the choicest part of the flesh, was in every case burnt upon the altar. The remainder of the flesh was eaten in a holy place by the priest and his sons. The whole of the burnt offering, after the skin (the priest’s perquisite) had been removed, was burnt upon the altar. The fat of the peace offering was burnt upon the altar. The wave breast (the portion of the priests generally) and the heave thigh (the portion of the officiating priest) were eaten by their sons and their daughters in a clean place. The rest was given back to the sacrificers for them with their families and the Levites to eat at the Sanctuary in a sacred feast.

The sin offering was a young bullock for priests as individuals or as representatives of the people: a he-goat for the people collectively and on the holy days, and for a prince of the congregation; a she-goat or she-lamb for ordinary persons; two turtle-doves or two young pigeons for purification from uncleanness, and for the poor instead of a lamb; the tenth part of an ephah of fine flour for those unable to bring doves or pigeons. The trespass offering was a ram; except in the cases of lepers and Nazarites, when it was a lamb. The burnt offering might be made with male bullocks, rams, or he-goats without blemish; turtle-doves or pigeons of either sex in cases of poverty. The peace offering might be made with oxen, sheep, or goats without blemish, whether male or female. Meal offerings or Minchahs were offered along with burnt and peace (but not sin) offerings.

In the rite of the peace offering, the ceremonies of waving (the breast) and heaving (the shoulder or thigh) should be noticed.

It is noteworthy that when the three offerings were offered together, the sin always preceded the burnt, and the burnt the peace offerings. Thus the order of the symbolizing sacrifices was the order of atonement, sanctification, and fellowship with the Lord.

The word Minchah, used frequently of gifts made to men (Gen. 43:11), and occasionally of bloody offerings (Gen. 4:4), specially denotes an unbloody or meal offering. (See Meat offering.) The essential materials of the Minchah were corn and wine. The corn was either (1) corn in the ear, parched and bruised, or (2) fine flour, or (3) unleavened cakes. Oil was never absent from the Minchah, but whether as an essential or accompanying element is not clear. It was always seasoned with salt (Lev. 2:13) and was offered along with incense. Leaven and honey, as fermenting substances, were excluded from its preparation. The Minchah could not be offered with a sin offering; on the other hand, no burnt or peace offering was complete without it. A portion of the Minchah, called the memorial, was placed on the altar of burnt offering; the remainder was eaten by the priests in a holy place.