The first recorded commandment to Adam and Eve after the expulsion from Eden was “that they should worship the Lord their God, and should offer the firstlings of their flocks, for an offering unto the Lord” (Moses 5:5). The law of sacrifice was thus one of the first recorded ordinances revealed to man.
Why was this ordinance given first? Because separated from God, the “natural man” (see Mosiah 3:19) would eventually turn from Deity. Man’s life would center in earthly things, for it would appear that his wants, his needs, and even his existence were supplied by the earth. He would feel a need to know but one law: self-preservation.
What, then, would lead him to a godlike life? With profound insight, President David O. McKay has supplied an answer:
“The divinity within him, I grant you, would be ever urging him to rise above himself. But his reverence for the Infinite could express itself only in a worship of the manifestations of Divine power—the sun, the moon, the thunder, the lightning, the cataract, the volcano, etc. …
“The Lord [through his loving grace] revealed to man the Gospel, and one of the very first commandments given superseded in essence the self-preservation law. It was the law of sacrifice. The effect of this was that the best the earth produced, the best specimen in the flock or herd should not be used for self, but for God. It was God, not the earth, whom man was to worship” (“The Atonement,” Instructor, Mar. 1959, pp. 65–66).
In other words, man was to put his trust in God; from God he would draw sustenance. Offering his best to the Lord became the symbol of his total faith in Jehovah as the giver of both mortal and eternal life.
For the next four thousand years this ordinance would be prominent among those ordinances associated with covenant making, covenant keeping, and covenant renewal. It would therefore be an integral part of ordinances performed in the house of the Lord. Contrary to what some may have assumed, the ancient law of sacrifice was an inspiring, uplifting, sacred, holy ordinance; its purpose was to reveal the nature and mission of Christ.
The Old Testament talks about many different kinds of offerings, as well as grades within each offering. However, each offering was not an ordinance in and of itself. All were part of one ordinance called “the law of sacrifice.” This ordinance, revealed by God, joined with all ancient ordinances to fulfill a divine purpose: to transform the natural man into a son of God. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that “being born again, comes by the Spirit of God through ordinances” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1977, p. 162). Thus, the sacrificial law was a means by which one enjoyed the Holy Spirit; and, as Paul taught, he could become “a new creature” (2 Cor. 5:17). The faithful Hebrew practicing the rituals found “an infusion, a new—and continual—creation from above” in which he acquired the divine nature (Truman G. Madsen, “The Meaning of Christ,” BYU Studies, vol. 15, no. 3, Spring 1975, p. 286).
However, the ritual itself did not cause this transformation. What changed it from a rite into an inspiring, uplifting ordinance was the spirit in which it was revealed and practiced. Faith was an indispensable prerequisite. Only through this “assurance of things hoped for, [and] evidence of things not seen” (JST, Heb. 11:1) could the participants understand what they were doing, conform their lives to the covenant, and receive the spiritual power it was designed to bring.
Christ was the focus of the law of performances and ordinances. After Adam had obediently, if ignorantly, practiced the ritual for “many days,” an angel explained: “This thing is a similitude of the sacrifice of the Only Begotten of the Father, which is full of grace and truth.
“Wherefore, thou shalt do all that thou doest in the name of the Son, and thou shalt repent and call upon God in the name of the Son forevermore” (Moses 5:7–8).
Joseph Smith emphasized this point: “Certainly, the shedding of the blood of a beast could be beneficial to no man, except it was done in imitation, or as a type, or explanation of what was to be offered through the gift of God Himself” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 58).
From the days of Adam to the days of Jacob, this ordinance renewed man’s covenant relationship with the Lord. It was not the elaborately detailed ceremony later revealed to Moses. Rather, it seems to have consisted of just two types of sacrifice: burnt offerings and slain offerings (see C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976, 1:268–69).
The burnt offering. The first sacrifice revealed was the burnt offering. By it the offerer became acceptable to God, doing that which would satisfy God and make the offerer’s life sweet to Him. In this way the benefits of the Atonement would befall him, and he would enjoy the companionship of the Spirit. (See Lev. 1:4.) Thus the sacrifice was “an offering made by fire, of a sweet savour unto the Lord” (Lev. 1:9). The Lord allowed for different animals to be used as sacrifices in nearly all offerings. This ensured that all, no matter how poor, could make an offering. The offering of the animals followed a general format, though there were some unique differences from animal to animal.
Animals accepted as a burnt offering were bullocks, male lambs and goats, and turtle doves. The animal was brought to the north side of the altar, where the offerer placed his hands on its head and then slaughtered it. The priest caught its blood in a bowl and then swung it against opposite corners of the altar, symbolizing that all sin was covered by the death of the Lord. The offerer skinned the animal and gave the skin to the priest. Priests could use these skins for their own use or sell them to sustain themselves. Then the offerer cut the carcass into pieces consisting of the head, legs, inwards and fat, and the body. The inwards and legs were washed with water, after which the priest arranged and burnt all the pieces upon the altar.
The unique aspect of the burnt offering was the dividing of the animal and the washing with water. These gave this sacrifice a dimension and meaning apart from others. Each part of the animal’s body can be seen as a similitude for various aspects of a person’s life. The head is the emblem of the thoughts; the legs are the emblem of the walk; and the inwards symbolize the feelings and affections of the heart. The fat represents the general health and vigor of the whole animal (see Andrew Jukes, The Law of the Offerings, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Pubs., 1976, p. 63). The washing of the inwards and legs suggests the need for one to be spiritually pure not only in what he does but also in what he desires (see Eph. 5:26; see also Jukes, The Law of the Offerings, p. 71). Taken together, these things reveal the quality of the life which the Lord lived. The Lord’s feelings, thoughts, activities—his total life—were placed in submission to God. At the same time, the sacrifice stressed the idea that only when the offerer yields himself to God is his life sweet or satisfying to the Lord.
The slain offering. The slain offering was a token of the covenant fellowship between various patriarchs and Jehovah. The offerer kept a share of the sacrifice. Only a portion of the offering was burned; the remainder was cooked and eaten by members of the offerer’s household. This represented living fellowship or communion between God and man.
This explains why Jacob offered a slain sacrifice before taking his family into Egypt (see Gen. 46:1). He was asking the Lord to preserve the covenant among Israel’s children while they sojourned in this foreign land. He entered Egypt only after receiving the assurance that it would be so. (See Gen. 46:2–4; Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary, 1:268–69.)
However, during the four hundred years in which Israel became a mighty people in Egypt, their covenant relationship with Jehovah was greatly strained. Many Israelites adopted the false religion of the Egyptians. Even slavery did not humble them sufficiently to bring them back to God (see Ezek. 20:6–8).
At Sinai, God tried to renew the covenant and cleanse the people, but they rebelled. In mercy, he designed a law that would bring them to him. It was of necessity a strict law which required the daily practice of performances and ordinances “to keep them in remembrance of God and their duty towards him” (Mosiah 13:30). The system was so constructed that the people were required to pledge new allegiance to God each day (see Bruce R. McConkie, The Promised Messiah, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1978, p. 426). However, the law also served another purpose: God taught the people about his coming and his atoning sacrifice. This was done with types and symbols which the Lord wove into every aspect of the law (see 2 Ne. 11:4). He said: “I have also spoken by the prophets, and I have multiplied visions, and used similitudes” (Hosea 12:10).
Elder Bruce R. McConkie has explained God’s use of similitudes:
“To crystallize in our minds the eternal verities which we must accept and believe to be saved, to dramatize their true meaning and import with an impact never to be forgotten, to center our attention on these saving truths, again and again and again, the Lord uses similitudes. Abstract principles may easily be forgotten or their deep meaning overlooked, but visual performances and actual experiences are registered on the mind in such a way as never to be lost” (The Promised Messiah, p. 377).
In the ordinances of the law of Moses, a faithful Israelite retained hope in eternal life through faith in the atonement of Christ. He did this by relying on the spirit of prophecy which was at the heart of all Mosaic rituals. The prophet Mormon explained:
“But notwithstanding the law of Moses, they did look forward to the coming of Christ, considering that the law of Moses was a type of his coming, and believing that they must keep those outward performances until the time that he should be revealed unto them.
“Now they did not suppose that salvation came by the law of Moses; but the law of Moses did serve to strengthen their faith in Christ; and thus they did retain a hope through faith, unto eternal salvation, relying upon the spirit of prophecy, which spake of those things to come” (Alma 25:15–16).
This “spirit of prophecy” that Alma referred to enabled the Israelites to have access to some of the details of the Messiah’s future work, as it related to their personal redemption (see Jukes, The Law of the Offerings, p. 13).
Through the spirit of prophecy, the Hebrews could see in each ordinance something that typified the eternal ministry of Christ. “The performance of all such ordinances or acts, from Adam to Christ, falls thereby into the category of Messianic acts and performances” (McConkie, The Promised Messiah, p. 378). “Hence, everything connected with the lesser law pointed to Christ and his gospel. Each Mosaic performance was so arranged and so set up that it was a type and a shadow of what was to be” (McConkie, The Promised Messiah, p. 416).
The Mosaic ordinance of sacrifice consisted of two categories of offerings: the voluntary (burnt offering, peace offering, and meat or cereal offering) and obligatory (sin offering and trespass offering). Though their performances differed, they shared common elements: an offering, an offerer, a place of offering, a laying on of hands, a priest, salt, fire, and blood.
The offerings. The offerings were animals of the flock or herd, certain birds, and grains or grain products. A sacrificial animal had to be one that God had declared to be clean and that also served as food (see Lev. 11:1–12; Deut. 14:4). It had to be domesticated (see Lev. 1:2–3, 10; Lev. 22:21; Num. 15:3) and free from physical flaws (see Lev. 22:19–20). The grains had to be ground into flour, roasted, or parched.
The offerer. The offering served as a symbol not only of the Savior but also of the offerer. It is obvious that the sacrificial animal was a type (foreshadowing or model) of the Lord, its unblemished perfection representing the purity of the Savior. Yet the symbolism does not stop there. The ritual focused on the individual’s need to be acceptable before God so he could benefit from the covenant. As he symbolically yielded his life to the Lord, he became a type of Christ. The Savior made of himself an acceptable offering through his mortal mercy and faith, through which reconciliation came (see Heb. 2:17 and Heb. 2:9). By likewise giving himself to God’s purposes, the Israelite was reconciled to God.
The priest. Though each individual prepared the sacrifice for himself or his family, he could not approach the altar. Until expiation (the act of atonement) was made, he was considered sinful and therefore was barred from holy areas. He stood in need of a mediator, a priest who could intervene and minister in his behalf. Only the priest could approach the altar to offer the sacrifice which would make the Israelite clean and acceptable. In this role the priest was in similitude of Christ, who is the great mediator between God and man.
The altar. Though the tabernacle and, later, the temple were the abode of Deity, the altar was where Jehovah promised to meet with his people, speak to them, and reconcile them to him (see Ex. 29:42).
The altar housed a fire. The fire in the original altar of Moses and Aaron had been kindled by Jehovah (see Lev. 9:23–24). A duty of the priest was to keep the fire burning, symbolizing the continuation of the covenant which made the ordinance of sacrifice efficacious.
In the scriptures, fire often symbolizes two things: the purifying action of the Holy Spirit and the torment of damnation. This comes from the power of fire to destroy that which is perishable and corrupt, and to purge and purify that which is imperishable (see Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary, 8:280). “All the fires on all the altars of the past, as they burned the flesh of animals, were signifying that spiritual purification would come by the Holy Ghost, whom the Father would send because of the Son” (McConkie, The Promised Messiah, p. 432). All sacrificial slayings were performed in the inner court of the tabernacle or temple, so they would be near the altar and the fire.
The laying on of hands. Before the animal was slain, the offerer placed his hands upon its head. This symbolized one of two things, depending on whether the offering was voluntary or obligatory. If the offering were obligatory, the laying on of hands was accompanied by the offerer’s confession of his sins. In this way the offerer’s sins were symbolically imputed to the animal. The sacrificial animal then became a symbolic substitute for the individual and suffered the consequences of sin, the wages of sin being death (see Rom. 6:23; Jukes, The Law of the Offerings, p. 46). In this way sacrifice taught the vicarious nature of forgiveness for sin.
If the offering were voluntary, the offerer prayed as he placed his hands on the animal’s head. This symbolized the feelings which impelled him to bring the gift to the Lord. In this way the offerer demonstrated self-surrender to the will of God. It was this dedication that made these offerings a “sweet savor” (Lev. 1:9) or, more literally, a “pleasing odor” to God. In other words, those who are willingly submissive and obedient to God bring him satisfaction, (See Keil and Delitzsch, 1:279, 283; Jukes, p. 46.)
The salt. Salt was added to every offering made upon the great altar. Because of its power to enhance and preserve food, salt imparted the idea of an unbreakable covenant. Therefore, the salt was called “the salt of the covenant” (Lev. 2:13). By preserving the covenant, the Israelite not only had his sins forgiven but was strengthened and fortified in his fellowship with Jehovah. (See Keil and Delitzsch, 1:295.)
The blood. Of all the elements of the ordinance of sacrifice, none played a more prominent part than the blood. The manner of its offering was explicitly specified by the Lord. Depending on the offering, the blood was dabbed upon the horns, sprinkled or splashed upon all four sides of the altar, or dumped out at the base of the altar. Blood dramatized the consequences of sin and the process of forgiveness and reconciliation. Therefore, the blood symbolized both life and death (the shedding of blood representing the giving of life). Since death is the consequence of sin, the animal was slain to symbolize what happens when man sins. Also, the animal was a type of Christ. Through giving his life and suffering, Christ made it possible for us to find new life. The shedding of blood brought expiation or atonement (see Lev. 17:11; Heb. 9:22). The Hebrew verb for the English atonement means “to cover.” The connotation is not that the sin no longer exists, nor that the offerer has compensated for sin; rather, it suggests that the sin has been covered by the Redeemer—its power of separating man from God has been taken away (see Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary, 1:276). Thus, the blood becomes a symbol for the whole process by which man becomes reconciled to God. “From all of this it is apparent that those in Israel who were spiritually enlightened knew and understood that their sacrificial ordinances were in similitude of the coming death of Him whose name they used to worship the Father, and that it was not the blood on their altars that brought remission of sins, but the blood that would be shed in Gethsemane and on Calvary” (McConkie, The Promised Messiah, p. 258).
The ordinance of sacrifice, as a type, allowed the faithful Israelite to see the work of Christ. Blood is the symbol of mortality. But the blood of man cannot satisfy justice and bring expiation; only the life of a God can. (See Alma 34:10–15.) Because Jesus was mortal he could give his life. Because he was divine it counted. So the blood of the offering represented the Lord’s mortality while its faultlessness represented his divinity. Without both, the offering could not serve as a true type.
Offering the sacrifice. When God revealed the ordinance of sacrifice he instructed Moses in performing the voluntary offerings and then the obligatory offerings. In actual practice, however, he ordered the latter to be performed first. From this we infer that to God the voluntary offerings are the more pleasing but that the obligatory ones must prepare the way.
The sin offering. Before one could offer any voluntary offering, he first had to be acceptable to Jehovah. This was the purpose of the obligatory offerings. This term was adopted because one was obliged to make such an offering to be forgiven of sin and become acceptable to God.
The obligatory or “sin offering” (Lev. 5:6, 9; Lev. 9:2) focuses on the spiritually destructive nature of sin. Here is dramatized the statement of Paul that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Unrighteousness, intentional or not, brings—or requires—giving up life. In emphasizing the consequence, this sacrifice also taught the essential work of Christ in atoning for, covering and pardoning sin (see Jukes, pp. 137–38).
The sacrifice which the law deemed acceptable for the sin offering depended on the social status of the offerer. For this reason there was more diversity in this offering than in any other. The high priest was required to offer an ox during national holy days, as was the whole congregation of Israel. A king offered a male goat; the common man offered a female goat or ewe sheep; the poor offered two turtle doves; the very poor offered one tenth of an ephah of fine flour (see Lev. 4:3, 22–23, 27–28; Lev. 5:11).
The offering was sacrificed and prepared the same way as the peace offering, but the blood was manipulated differently according to the rank of the offerer. For the priest and congregation the blood was taken into the tabernacle or temple, sprinkled seven times before the veil, dabbed on the horns of the incense altar, and poured out at the base of the great altar. The blood shed for the ruler or common Israelite was dabbed on the horns of the great altar and dumped at the base of the altar. The blood of the turtle doves offered by the poor was squeezed out and splashed against the sides of the altar. The flour given by the very poor was burned on the altar without oil or incense.
The carcass of the sacrifice of the common people and the rulers became the property of the priest. That offered for the whole congregation and the high priest was carried out of the camp or city and burned at a place that was ceremonially clean.
The sin offering did not relate to sin or sinfulness in general but specifically to sins committed “in error” (see Num. 15:13, 22, 27). This does not mean merely sinning through ignorance, hurry, want of consideration, or carelessness, but also those transgressions committed unintentionally (see Keil and Delitzsch, 1:302–3). Therefore, the sin offering covered those sins which arose from weaknesses of the flesh inherent in fallen man.
The significant teaching of this sacrifice is that Christ’s atonement covered not only acts done willingly and knowingly but also those committed in ignorance. If it were not for the Atonement, those “who have died not knowing the will of God … or who have ignorantly sinned” (Mosiah 3:11) would stand condemned before justice.
The burning of an ox outside the camp dramatically illustrated that sin brings not only separation from God and his kingdom but also destruction to the soul. Fat burned upon the altar showed that the offering was perfect and acceptable but was the bearer of the sins. Such was Christ who suffered outside of the city (see Heb. 13:11–13) that man might not suffer if he would repent (see D&C 19:16). Therefore, the blood of the offering was sprinkled on the veil of the holy place, serving as a constant reminder that the sins of those for whom Christ died were covered. Because they were, the covenant fellowship could continue.
The voluntary offering. After the sin offering, a voluntary offering could be made to renew covenants and express submission to God, as explained in the burnt offering and slain offering sections above.
The Apostle Paul said that the law of Moses was a schoolmaster to bring Israel to the Lord (see Gal. 3:24–25). In the ordinance of sacrifice his point is beautifully illustrated. Those with faith (under the influence of the spirit of prophecy) learned of Christ, relied on Christ, and so were drawn to Christ. In the ordinance of sacrifice, as in our own sacrament, Israel could remember God, so that they might have his Spirit to be with them.