The book of Leviticus opens with God calling to Moses from the Tent of Meeting. God wants Moses to instruct the Israelites how to bring offerings to Him, now that the tabernacle complex (God’s home among the Israelites) has been constructed. Remember that offerings had been made to God as early as Abraham, so it wasn’t that God was introducing new kinds of offerings to the people, but He was instead teaching them how to do these offerings now that there is a new covenant between them (represented by the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments).
There are five kinds of offerings that are regulated in Leviticus: burnt, grain, fellowship, sin, and guilt. We will only dig into the burnt offering, as it is the most important and the first to be regulated.
The person who wants to give a burnt offering to God may choose between 3 kinds of domesticated animals: 1) cattle, 2) sheep or goats, or 3) doves and pigeons. Cattle were worth more than sheep and goats, but sheep and goats were worth more than doves and pigeons. Which animal was offered depended on the relative wealth of the person giving the burnt offering. In each case, however, the offering was a significant economic sacrifice. These domesticated animals provided food, clothing, and many other essential things for people living at this time. To give up one of these animals was painful.
In verses 3-9, the instructions for the sacrifice of cattle is given. These verses teach us important truths about the process. First, in verse 3, we see that the cow must be a male without defect. Male cattle (bull) were more valuable than female and a bull without defect was worth more than a bull with defects. Only the best was allowed for the burnt offering to God.
Continuing in verse 3, the person making the sacrifice is to bring it to the entrance of the tabernacle courtyard (“entrance curtain” in this illustration – http://www.karbelmultimedia.com/portfolio/the-tabernacle/).
In verse 5, the person offering the bull must place his hands on the head of the bull so that the bull’s sacrifice can make atonement for the offerer. What does atonement refer to here? According to Gordon J. Wenham in The Book of Leviticus (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament), “The worshipper acknowledged his guilt and responsibility for his sins by pressing his hand on the animal’s head and confessing his sin. The lamb [or bull or bird] was accepted as the ransom price for the guilty man.”
Verses 5-9 dictate that the person giving the burnt offering must kill the bull himself, skin the bull, cut the bull into pieces, and then wash the parts of the bull in water. The Levite priests will capture dripping blood from the animal and sprinkle the blood on the brazen altar (see illustration above). After the offerer has completed the above steps, the priests will arrange the pieces of the bull on the brazen altar and burn all of it.
Gordon Wenham explains the significance of the ritual to those participating:
Using a little imagination every reader of the OT soon realizes that these ancient sacrifices were very moving occasions. They make modern church services seem tame and dull by comparison. The ancient worshipper did not just listen to the minister and sing a few hymns. He was actively involved in the worship. He had to choose an unblemished animal from his own flock, bring it to the sanctuary, kill it and dismember it with his own hands, then watch it go up in smoke before his very eyes. He was convinced that something very significant was achieved through these acts and knew that his relationship with God was profoundly affected by this sacrifice.
The rest of Leviticus 1 explains similar processes for the offering of goats, sheep, doves, and pigeons. The only difference for the birds is that because they are so small, the priests end up performing most of the ceremony.
So what is the overall purpose of the burnt offering? Wenham summarizes for us:
The burnt offering was the commonest of all the OT sacrifices. Its main function was to atone for man’s sin by propitiating God’s wrath. In the immolation of the animal, most commonly a lamb, God’s judgment against human sin was symbolized and the animal suffered in man’s place. The worshipper acknowledged his guilt and responsibility for his sins by pressing his hand on the animal’s head and confessing his sin. The lamb was accepted as the ransom price for the guilty man.
The daily use of the sacrifice in the worship of the temple and tabernacle was a constant reminder of man’s sinfulness and God’s holiness. So were its occasional usages after sickness, childbirth, and vows. In bringing a sacrifice a man acknowledged his sinfulness and guilt. He also publicly confessed his faith in the Lord, his thankfulness for past blessing, and his resolve to live according to God’s holy will all the days of his life.