Home » Two Sacrificial Offerings in the Hebrew Scriptures That Will Completely Revise How You View Forgiveness of Sins

Two Sacrificial Offerings in the Hebrew Scriptures That Will Completely Revise How You View Forgiveness of Sins

by Dr. Eitan Bar
9 minutes read

You don’t often hear sermons about Leviticus, the third book of the Pentateuch. Leviticus is a book dedicated to offerings and sacrifices. Atonement is mentioned about fifty times, almost always in connection to blood. The very opening of Leviticus starts in this way:

 The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting. (Leviticus 1:1)

The book of Leviticus, dedicated to sacrifices in the Old Testament, begins with a call from God, who dwells within a sinful nation, summoning its sinful leader to come and fellowship with Him. In the center of the book lies the Day of Atonement, which unites the entire book. The book explores the three primary ways in which God helps Israel, a sinful nation, live in his presence. It describes the rituals Israel had to practice and the seven annual feasts, with priests serving as guides and mediators between God and Israel. The book emphasizes Israel’s purity to avoid defiling the Tabernacle and its surroundings. The most relevant part of the book to our discussion is the one about sacrifices and offerings. These were the primary ways in which Israel thanked God and sought forgiveness. Most importantly, sacrifices purified God’s dwelling place, and eight chapters are dedicated to keeping Israel pure,[1] as God demanded his dwelling place among Israel be constantly disinfected. Israelites could become impure and defile the Tabernacle in various ways, including contact with reproductive fluids, skin diseases, mold or fungus, and touching a dead body,[2] all associated with death and mortality, which plague the entirety of creation yet have no hold on God, who is the opposite of death, he is life!

Metaphorically, Israel was a hospital, the Tabernacle was the operating room, the altar was the operating table, and the priests were the surgeons. The closer a person gets to the altar, the more severe their transgression will be if they do not comply with the rules. For this reason, the “operating table” is called the “holy of holies” because of its uniqueness. Remember, God is holy (unique, different), meaning that the place where he dwells is also sacred. Therefore, if Israel brings impurity and contaminates that site, it is no longer distinct and unique (holy) from any other place.

The sacrifices in the Law can be divided into four to eight categories, depending on who you ask.[3] These categories can then be further divided into 20-30 secondary types or kinds. However, the sacrifices dealing specifically with sin were in the minority. 

Three main Hebrew words (that sometimes get translated into the same one word in English) form the linguistic basis for the doctrine of atonement in the Hebrew Scriptures: GAAL[4] (redeem, kinsman); PADAH (liberate, redeem); KAPHAR[5] (atone, forgive). Again, these words sometimes get mixed up and translated as the same word, even though they can have different meanings depending on context. The Hebrew Scriptures use these words differently, mainly concerning buying something or someone back. A few examples are when someone redeems a commitment of the family to pay a debt; A relative who redeems family property owned by another; Liberating someone (animal, slave) by paying for their freedom; Giving payment as a substitute for your life or someone else’s.

From the three, the Hebrew verb KAPHAR (atonement) is perhaps the most relevant to our discussion on atonement. It appears more than a hundred times in the Hebrew Scriptures. KAPHAR is also where YOM KIPPUR (Day of Atonement) comes from. The word means one of two things. And no, neither one is related to wrath. Some scholars believe the verb indicates “to void,” “to wipe away,” or “to remove.” Others believe the meaning is “to cover” or “to hide.”

Each of the two explanations paints a different picture of the act of atonement. If atonement means remove/void, then it nullifies the existence of sin and returns the sinner to his previous state. On the other hand, if atonement means to cover/hide, the sin still exists, but its concealment allows the sinner to avoid sanctions. Perhaps we are not supposed to choose. The Old Testament sacrifices covered our sins. It is the New Testament sacrifice that removes them altogether.

As previously mentioned, sacrifices in the Hebrew Scriptures are many, yet they all serve as a shadow and point to Christ. For example, the Peace Offering symbolized harmony, communion, peace, and more. The word for peace in Hebrew is SHALOM. For the Hebrew speaker, it means much more than just peace. In Hebrew, SHALOM means “whole,” “complete,” “perfect,” and “payment.” They all share the same root/word (depending on punctuation). In Jesus, we find peace. We are whole again. He paid our debt.

A lot can be said about sacrifices in Leviticus, but for the sake of our discussion, we will limit ourselves to those related to sin. There are only two kinds of sacrifices offered concerning sin. They also overlap one another: HATA’AT and ASHAM. This discussion might sound a bit technical, but once we understand what these two offerings were, we can understand the central errors of Divine Abuse regarding sacrifices and sin.

“Sin” or “Purification” Offering (HATA’AT)

HATA’AT is a category of sacrifices that can be further divided (chicken or beef, personal or communal, internal or external, etc.) The Hebrew word HATA’AT is confusing to scholars because it comes from either of two words that share the same root: ‘HET,’ meaning “sin.” Or ‘HITE,’ meaning to “disinfect, cleanse; purify; sterilize.” In English, HATA’AT is translated both ways; therefore, you sometimes see “Sin Offering” while other times, “Purification Offering.”[6] However, most Hebrew scholars and Jewish commentators[7] side with the second option, purification. They would argue that the context[8] and primary uses of that offering in the Law make a case for purification. I also side with the option of purification. Even when sin was involved, the Purification Offering’s blood was used to clean and purify the altar/sanctuary/tent of meeting and instruments. Remember, blood was like a sanitizer or detergent. This is why the HATA’AT was sprinkled inside the tent and on the instruments. It was just like sanitizing the hospital’s operation room and surgical instruments or purifying wounds so they could heal and won’t spread. Likewise, the blood of the HATA’AT would act like a sanitizer or detergent, purifying the defilement caused by Israel.[9] The purification offering was not about God’s wrath being poured on the poor animal or a way for God to relax his anger. It was about the blood (life) of the sacrifice being used to clean the sins (death) of Israel. Blood was even able to sanctify people.[10] Bible scholar Scott Starbuck comments:

The two elements of purification, the cleansing of the sanctuary and the sending away of impurity, can be observed in the ritual purification of a leper by the ritual manipulation of two birds. One bird was sacrificed, and the other was set free after it and the leprous person were sprinkled with the blood of the slaughtered bird (Lev 14:2–8, 49–53).[i]

The point of the HATA’AT is not the animal’s death (as punishment due to God’s wrath) but about its blood being used to purify.

There is one sacrificial blood in specific which is like a magic potion, so to speak. A kind of blood that can wash bloody robes white and clean (Revelation 7:14). The only way to understand how bloody robes can be turned white using more blood is by understanding Jesus’s blood to be like the HATA’AT. The blood of Jesus does to our clothes what the blood of the HATA’AT did with Israel. It is a detergent that purifies and makes it new. Christ’s blood can clean whiter than snow:

Our sins are washed away and we are made clean. (Hebrews 10:10)

The blood of Christ enables not only the priests to come into God’s dwelling place. It’s a detergent that cleans anyone who believes and allows them to enter.[11]

To summarize, HATA’AT sees sin as causing a stain or defilement and offers a way for it to be cleansed and purified. Wrath, anger, abuse, or torture were never part of this concept. For the Israelites, these would be modern ideas utterly foreign to them.

Guilt Offering (ASHAM)

The Hebrew word ASHAM means guilt. A Guilt Offering was basically compensation given due to sin. Unlike other sacrifices which took care of Israel as a community, the ASHAM was an offering made by an individual only, amending for his sins. Old Testament professor Rabbi Yonatan Grossman explains it in this way:

In regard to a guilt offering, the Law focuses on the financial aspect: an animal with a certain monetary worth is required.[ii]

Scott Starbuck elaborates further:

The term can be used to indicate human culpability (Gen 26:10; Jer 51:5; Psa 68:22).
It is also a sacrifice of expiation. But an added and essential aspect of this offering is its aim at also making reparations to parties wronged by the guilty.[iii]

The substitutional value is clear- your sins exact a price that needs to be paid- just as you would have to pay a fine for parking in a no-parking area. Guilt offering saw sin as stealing from God — a breach of trust between God and men — and, therefore, the need to compensate. However, no element of abuse, wrath or violence was included.

One thing worth noting is that there were no offerings that dealt with deliberate or intentional sins in the Old Testament sacrificial system. All the sacrifices and offerings were for unintentional sins. This is why we read in Hebrews 10:4 that it is “impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Despite the multitude of sacrifices, no one was ever forgiven or saved through them. It was only through faith that people in the Old Testament were saved (Genesis 15:6; Habakkuk 2:4). I believe that nothing has changed, and this is still true under the New Testament. The object of faith is now Jesus Christ.

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[1] Chapters 11-15 and 18-20.

[2] Also, by eating certain animals, but there’s a debate as to why they are unclean and what it means.

[3] For example, some divide sacrifices/offerings into five main types: The burnt offering (Leviticus 1; 6:8–13; 8:18-21; 16:24), the grain offering (Leviticus 2; 6:14–23), the peace offering (Leviticus 3; 7:11–34), the sin offering (Leviticus 4; 5:1–13; 6:24–30; 8:14–17; 16:3–22), and the trespass offering (Leviticus 5:14–19; 6:1–7; 7:1–6). Others suggest other ways to divide.

[4] Strong’s 1350, not to be confused with the other GAAL (1351).

[5] Strong’s 3722, not to be confused with the other KAPHAR (3723).

[6] For example, the NAB translation translated HATA’AT in Leviticus 4:3 to “purification offering”, while most other translations had “sin offering.” The NIV added the following footnote to “Sin Offering”:
“Or purification offering; here and throughout this chapter.”

[7] Such as: Saadia Gaon, Samuel David Luzzatto, Jonathan Grossman, Jacob Milgrom, Yehezkel Kaufmann, and more. Samuel David Luzzatto wrote: “it’s called ‘Hat’at’ due to the Hituy [disinfecting] for which it’s used on the corners of the alter, and since the sprinkling which is performed with the sacrifice is called ‘Hituy’, as is written: “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean” (Psalm 51:7), that is why the sacrifice is called ‘Chata’at’, not because it was intended for sin (‘Chet’)”. (Samuel David Luzzatto’s interpretation to Lev. 4:3). Jewish Bible scholar, Yehezkel Kaufmann, phrased it similarly: “if we check the sin offering (Chata’at), we will see that its main purpose was to purify from defilement or that its connected at its roots to impurity. It disinfects articles and sanctifies them (Lev. 15, 16, 18-20, 33), and not just articles that were used in the past for holy purposes, but articles that weren’t used previously and could not be defiled (Ex. 29, 36-37).” Toldot Ha-Emuna HaIsraelit, part 1, p. 567.     

[8] Also, some would argue that as some of these hata’at-offerings would be eaten by the priests (Exodus 29:33), therefore it would make it hard to believe that the animal absorbs the sins of the people, as they would become defiled and not allowed to be eaten.

[9] There is a debate whether the defilement (TOMAHA) is an actual condition, either physical or even demonic, or just a figure of speech, an idea meant to illustrate distancing from God. 

[10] Even before Leviticus, at mount Sinai: “Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, `This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.`” (Exodus 24:8). The text does not say what kind of sacrifice it was. Interestingly, In Targum Onkelos (2nd century, the most important translation of the Old Testament to Aramaic), the phrase “to atone” was added to Ex. 24:8, in order to emphasize the blood was given to atone: “and Moses took the blood and threw it on the alter to atone for the people.”

[11] 1st Corinthians 3:16; 6:19-20; 2nd Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:22; 1st Peter 2:5.

[i] Scott R. A. Starbuck, “Sacrifice in the Old Testament,” Lexham Bible Dictionary, ed. John D. Barry et al. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

[ii] Prof. Grossman, in “Asham Ve Gezel Gavoha”. Translated from Hebrew.

[iii] Scott R. A. Starbuck, “Sacrifice in the Old Testament,” Lexham Bible Dictionary, ed. John D. Barry et al., (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

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Dr. Eitan Bar
Author, Theologian, Activist