When speaking of Christ and the OT sacrifices, we typically focus on blood. This is not without good reason. However, this laser focus ironically might blind us to broader dynamics that underscore the significance of blood and the meaning of atonement (the subject of my first post)
The Relationship Between Burning and Atonement
OT scholar Christian Eberhart makes a crucial but neglected observation about sacrifices and atonement. He first poses a question, “What is common to every type of sacrifice?”
Hint: It’s not blood. Eberhard says,
“Rather than the slaughter of animals, the burning rite on the altar is the element common to all types of sacrifice, as well as the feature that distinguishes the sacrifice as an ‘offering for YHWH. . . .’ Indeed, it is the burning rite that accomplishes the goal of biblical sacrifice—namely, communication with God.”
Second, he explains why so many atonement passages emphasize burning. The Pentateuch routinely mentions a sacrifice and then says, “the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven” (Lev 4:20, 26, 31, 35).
A consistent pattern is evident: atonement follows closely after burning.
Did you catch that? This atonement declaration is not made after the shedding of blood; rather, forgiveness and atonement come after the offering is burned on the altar. Leviticus 4:19-21, 25-26 are typical examples. Leviticus 26:31-32 reinforces the point with an implicit contrast, such that God’s not smelling pleasing aromas correlates with his condemnation of Israel.
In Numbers 16:44-48, Aaron burns incense rather than use blood. In so doing, he makes atonement for the people. The writer twice connects lighting incense and atonement. What’s the effect of incense? Atonement. The passage never mentions blood; the act of burning is repeated. As a result, the burning of incense appeases God’s wrath.
(My point is not to deny the importance of blood but to highlight where the text lays explicit emphasis. The shedding of blood is often implicit, left unstated; however, writers repeatedly underscore the link between atonement and burning.)
Does God Want Food?
James Greenberg adds a suggestion. He says,
The burning of flesh on the altars appears to convey two possible results. If sin or bodily impurity are in view, then flesh burning seems to reflect Yhwh’s removal of the effects of sin or bodily impurity that have separated the offerer from Yhwh. . . . If there is no sin or bodily impurity, then burning flesh seems to reflect a dedication, or relationship confirmation, between the offerer and Yhwh, for example, the burnt offering.
How does burning flesh “reflect a dedication, or relationship confirmation, between the offerer and Yhwh.” In part, burning appears to be a mechanism for presenting gifts to God. Fire creates smoke, which visually lifts the meal or incense upward to God.
Today, people don’t feel comfortable using food imagery when teaching the sacrifices. They fear it’ll lead to confusion and perhaps encourages idolatrous notions of God. The problem with this thinking is apparent. Biblical writers use these metaphors even though they could and did confuse people. If so, shouldn’t we be willing to follow the Bible’s example?
Culture is another reason some readers are less likely to accept or even notice this imagery. In traditional, non-Western cultures, meals are often regarded as near-sacred events. They establish binding connections. Eating with another person is an implicit approval of them. In other cultures, eating with another person redefines a relationship and even resets certain moral expectations. For example, among the Moose of Burkina Faso, West Africa,
“eating is an intimate act that helps to define familial and sexual relations. Moose culture accepts extramarital sex unless it involves sex between a man and the wife of someone with whom the man eats.”
What happens when meals become little more than tolerated interruptions or biological necessities? When interpreters live in cultures where people routinely eat alone, on-the-go, and in quick fashion, they can hardly grasp the significance of this biblical imagery.
This post adapts select paragraphs from The Cross in Context, especially pp. 75-77.
 Christian Eberhart, “A Neglected Feature of Sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible,” HTR 97, no. 4 (2004): 491.
 Eberhart, “Neglected Feature,” 485-93.
 Greenberg, New Look at Leviticus, 74.
 Lisa Miller, Paul Rozin, and Allan Page Fiske, “Food Sharing and Feeding Another Person Suggest Intimacy,” 425.