September 2022 | Jesus, the Door

Thanksgiving: Old Testament Sacrifices

Thanksgiving: Old Testament Sacrifices

Dr. K. B. Georgekutty

Sacrifices are the ritualistic aspect of Israelite worship widespread in the Hebrew Bible, and it was central to their faith. Sacrifices were brought as gifts to God. The first act of worship outside the garden of Eden was the presentation of offerings and sacrifices to Yahweh (Gen 4:1-4). For the ancestors of Israel and for primeval human kind, sacrifices restored broken relationships between God and human kind and between human and human. Hebrews believed in the essential nature of these sacrifices for their existence. This paper is an attempt to look at the sacrifices in the Hebrew Bible in brief and the element of thanksgiving in it. 


The terms used in the Hebrew Bible for sacrifices are numerous. One term for an offering in general is Hebr. 'qorban' "thing brought" (Lev 2:1).The noun 'qorban' occurs 80 times in the Hebrew Bible. All those occurrences associate the term with the language of the priestly cult, an observation already made with respect to the verb 'qarab'. The intention is to mention a gift. In secular context 'qorban' refers to the material of the offering. The word may have originally rooted in the realm of friendly, peaceful intercourse, where the offering of gifts signalled respect ( Judg 3:17-18). The general term for the burnt offering is 'œlâ' go up. 

The term, 'zebach' means "slaughtered animal" or  a "sacrifice". It is a general term for animals used in sacrifice, including burnt offerings, peace offerings, thank offerings, and all sacrifices offered to the Deity and eaten at the festivals. More particularly it refers to the flesh eaten by the worshippers after the fat parts had been burned on the altar and the priest had received his portion.

A 'zebach' honours Yahweh (Isa. 43:23, Psa. 50:15, 23). As a form of private worship the zebach is a natural expression of private devotion (Psa. 4:6). It is always possible to worship Yahweh spontaneously with a zebach (Lev 7:16). Whoever acknowledges Yahweh expresses his devotion by celebrating zebachim (2 King 5:17). Even a non Israelite can honour Yahweh at least outwardly with a zebach. Yahweh is also honoured by a zebach in response to a divine encounter experienced in a miracle (Judg 2:1-5, Ex 3:18, 5:3), or in divine aid in one’s personal life (votive offering Lev 7:16, 2 Sam 15:7ff). 

The term 'kipper' means "make atonement".  In Leviticus the verb 'kipper' often describes the purpose and result of sacrifices and offerings. The meaning of 'kipper' itself has been difficult to ascertain. It may mean simply "to cover", "to wipe away", "to ransom by substitution" etc. The last meaning seems to suit the biblical context best. The Septuagint used 'hiláskomai' which means "atone," "expiate," or "propitiate." Whatever meaning is understood, it appears that the whole ritual had to be pleasing to Yahweh before atonement occurred. All of it together resulted in 'kipper' for the offerer by the priest and forgiveness by Yahweh. In fact, all the major sacrifices (burnt, cereal, peace, sin, guilt) are specifically said to atone (Ex 29:33). Rendtorff has pointed out that although there is a close relationship between the blood rites of sacrifice and 'kipper', "atonement," it is also true that the same can be posited, although less clearly, for other aspects and materials of the sacrificial ritual: laying on of hands, meal, oil, and incense.

In addition to these above said terms Hebrew Bible uses number of other terms to represent sacrifice. 

Origin and nature of sacrifices 

It is very difficult to find out the original intention of the Hebrew sacrifices, as it is difficult to find out its origin. The earliest narrative in Genesis (4:1-4) records the fact, but gives no account of the origin and primary idea. The custom is sanctioned by the sacred writings, and later on systematized in the Mosaic Law. The practice was almost universal. The Vedas have their elaborate rituals. Some Semitic peoples, Greeks, Romans, Africans, and Indians of Mexico offered human sacrifices.

Various theories have arisen to deal with certain issues related with the nature of these sacrifices. Feuillet and Cazelles suggest three principal hypotheses to explain the nature. The first considers the sacrifice to be the food of the god(s). But the Hebrew Bible does not support such a view rather mock at such an idea (Ps 50:13). But it accept the fact that God accepts the offering as pleasing to Him (Gen 8:20).

W. Robertson Smith proposes the second hypothesis. It says, through the participation of the god and his worshipers, communion was established among those sacrificing. This stand is also not convincing. Smith applied this frame-work to the Hebrew Bible. But this communion theory does not sufficiently treat the seriousness involved in the early sacrifices of the Israelites and non-Israelites found in the Hebrew Bible.

E. B. Tylor and  G. B. Gray propose the third concept. It suggests that Sacrifice is a gift offered to the deity.  Undoubtedly this is a part of the total meaning of sacrifice in Israel, but only a part. Some of the terms like 'qorban', indicates that what was brought was a gift.  But H. H. Rowley was certainly correct when he asserted that no single theory accounts for or defines the total meaning and significance of Hebrew Bible’s sacrifice and offering. M. J. Lagrange's definition of sacrifice seems fitting. According to him sacrifice is "The expression made through a solemn act that every-thing belongs to God, and the recognition of this right at the same time as the expression of a desire to approach the deity, this desire being the very base for religious feeling. Thereby understood, the act of sacrifice is the religious act par excellence".

Sacrifices: An act of Thanksgiving:

The entire sacrificial system in the Hebrew Bible was for those who were in the covenant, who did not commit sins that merited death. It was never intended as a penal substitute, because the sins of those in the covenant were not of a penal nature. The sacrifices were "to cover" the sin and defilement of the offerer. It never intends to revert the deserved death-penalty of one who broke the covenant. Sacrifices were not strictly penal. Whatever is the offering, it represented the self-sacrifice of the offerer, and that was the important thing.

In its simplest definition sacrifice is a gift offered to God as a way of thanksgiving. Of course it is an act of worship from the side of the offerer. It may be to attain, restore, maintain or to celebrate friendly relations with the Deity. It is an expression of gratitude, most often directed to God. In the Hebrew Bible the term 'tôdâ' expresses the meaning of thanks.  The fundamental meaning of the Hebrew root is to “confess." It is used in two basic ways: (1) of confessing (declaring) God's attributes and works, and (2) of confessing sins. When it is used in the first sense, the RSV usually renders it "thanks." The Hebrew Bible has no independent concept of "thanks" as distinguished from "praise". In other words, sacrifice meant to thank God, thereby to worship, which is a complex exercise of the soul. Such was Abraham's attempted sacrifice of Isaac. The daily burnt offerings were intended to represent an unbroken course of adoration and devotion, to keep the right relations with the Deity. On particular occasions, special offerings were made to insure this relation which was specially needed at that time.

Ancient Israel, as a nation, was required to make sacrifices to atone for their sins. This involved an animal sacrifice made on behalf of the individual by the priests (Lev. 7:1-5). Following this, another sacrifice is described in verses 11-12: “This is the law of the sacrifice of peace offerings which he/she shall offer to the Lord: If he/she offers it for a thanksgiving, then he/she shall offer, with the sacrifice of thanksgiving, unleavened cakes mixed with oil, unleavened wafers anointed with oil, or cakes of finely blended flour mixed with oil.” This was the offerings that were given when people wanted to thank Yahweh in a special way. These “thank offerings” were among the “peace offerings” that were presented to the Lord and then eaten by the people in celebration (Lev. 7:15).

This passage goes on to describe how the offering should be made and when it should be eaten. It was a sacrifice that the Israelites could make simply as a thanksgiving offering to God. Later, when the nation of Israel had broken apart into the separate kingdoms of Judah and Israel, they strayed from God many times, with intervening years of repentance and obedience. When repenting and turning back to God, they would sometimes offer sacrifices of thanksgiving on the altar. Accounts of this are recorded in 2 Chronicles 29 and 33.

The Hebrew term for cereal offering also means “present”. In Gen 39:19 Jacob offers a large present to Esau to win his favour. It may also mean a tribute as per 2 Sam 8:2.  The burnt offering best gave expression to the sentiments of adoration and devotion, though they may not be excluded from the meal and peace offerings. 

The writer of Psalm 116 may very well have had such an offering in mind when he spoke of offering “a sacrifice of thanksgiving” to the Lord (116:17). This Psalm celebrates God’s goodness. The psalmist has experienced God’s grace in manifold expressions. God has heard his prayers (116:1). God delivered him from death (116:3-6), guided his steps (116:8-9), and freed him from chains (116:16). Therefore, the psalmist loves the Lord and offers him praise (116:1, 19). Moreover, he proclaims to God: “I will offer you a sacrifice of thanksgiving and call on the name of the Lord” (116:17).The phrase “sacrifice of thanksgiving” is mentioned at other five places in the Hebrew Bible. Those are:

1. Lev 7:12 :If he offers it as an expression of thankfulness, then along with this thank offering he is to offer cakes of bread made without yeast and mixed with oil, wafers made without yeast and spread with oil, and cakes of fine flour well-kneaded and mixed with oil. 

2. Lev 7:13 :Along with his fellowship offering of thanksgiving he is to present an offering with cakes of bread made with yeast.

3. Lev 22:29-30 :When you sacrifice a thank offering to the LORD, sacrifice it in such a way that it will be accepted on your behalf. 

4. Ps 107:22: Let them sacrifice thank offerings and tell of his works with songs of joy.

5. Amos 4:5: Burn leavened bread as a thank offering and brag about your freewill offerings boast about them, you Israelites, for this is what you love to do,"declares the Sovereign LORD. 

The danger of sacrifices and rituals is that we are increasingly tempted to believe that we have something to offer God, when the sacrifice is actually meant to demonstrate that we are coming to God as His debtors. We start to assume that God needs what we are presenting to him, an idea as offensive as it is ridiculous. We become like a convicted criminal congratulating himself on his morality as he offers his monetary fine to the judge who gave him a merciful sentence.

Every person of old who brought an offering to God was griping internally at the obligation. It was not easy to bring unleavened cakes mingled with oil, and unleavened wafers anointed with oil.  It took pain to make cakes mingled with oil of fine flour and fry them.  One has to put some time in to make unleavened bread in the middle of the wandering in the Sinai desert.  It cut into one’s provisions to make all of that for the sacrifice.  They all felt needy. They all felt like victims of religious oppression.  Because of their attitudes, God was outraged that they were all so busy worshiping themselves that they cannot find place to worship God.  God wanted one thing from them: he wanted them to stop worshiping themselves.

This is where God implements a “sacrifice of thanksgiving.” God says that “those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honour me.” They are the people who recognize that “every wild animal of the forest is [God’s].” They are the people who know that they can’t give God anything; it all belongs to him already. They are the people who thank God for all his gifts and for his provision for their every need and for the animal that they put on the altar. The people who give thanks for the sacrificial animal also give thanks for God’s sovereignty. They don’t feel they have lost something when they give God what is God’s already. It is in gratitude they return what belongs to God.

Relevance for Church

Heb 13:11-16 says,The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.  For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise — the fruit of lips that confess his name.  And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. 

As Christ has died on the cross and made the eternal sacrifice, no more sacrifices are left for the believers other than the sacrifice of praise. It is the sacrifice of thanksgiving. The Old Testament sacrifice of thanksgiving required fruit of the ground to be offered before God. The New Testament sacrifice of thanksgiving requires the “fruit of our lips”. God requires our thankfulness to Him for our many blessings.The sacrifice of thanksgiving is not a barely audible “Thank you” choked out through tightened lips by a dissatisfied child. We give the sacrifice of thanksgiving when we pray as we are taught by Christ, the one who sacrificed Himself for us on the cross, “Thy will be done”.


The American New Heritage Dictionary lists one meaning of sacrifice as “the act of offering something to a deity in propitiation or homage.” That is what our personal sacrifice of thanksgiving should be. We offer our humble thanksgiving to our Creator for His many blessings.  Hebrew sacrifices were an act of thanksgiving to God. It seems a bit disproportionate to read the detailed Law of Moses given by God at Sinai, and then to hear God say simply through Asaph inPsalms 50, “The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me.” But there is also a refreshing, unburdening confidence that hovers over ones soul when one considers that God is most pleased by simple, humble gratitude.    

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