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Messianic Pictures in the Temple Sacrificial System

Types of Animals Used

The types of animals the Most High chose to be used as sacrifices were also specific and significant. There were bulls, male goats, female goats, and pigeons or turtledoves. An understanding of the animals and their relationship to the sacrifice will be helpful in understanding not only the Bible better, but also, Jesus’ relationship to the ritual.

“The Jewish sages teach that these 70 bulls were offered every year not for Israel, but for the Gentiles.”

The bull was indicative of two things: either atonement for an entire nation, or atonement for the nation’s intercessor which, in Israel’s case, was the High Priest. In regard to national atonement, it is most interesting to note that during the Feast of Tabernacles (sukkot in Hebrew), a total of 70 bulls were sacrificed over the eight day festival (Numbers 29). The Jewish sages teach that these 70 bulls were offered every year not for Israel, but for the Gentiles, with the understanding that in time, all the “nations” would come to faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Would that Christian history had been so optimistic in its relationship with the Jewish people. For hundreds of years, sacrifices were offered for the salvation and eventual sanctification of the Gentiles, a hope realized in the death and resurrection of the Jewish Messiah. We Christians owe a great debt of gratitude to our Jewish brethren, as Jesus rightly reminds us, “salvation is from the Jews.” (John 4:22)

As for the High Priest, we read that he had to offer up a bull for his own transgressions and then, he could offer up the other sacrifices. The bull was the highest order of sacrifice, reserved for the one who represented the entire nation. As the representative of the citizenship, no “ordinary” sacrifice would do.

After the bull came the male goat. This was reserved for the leadership of the nation of Israel. Inasmuch as the male represented authority, it was fitting for the kings, elders, and judges to bring a sacrifice accorded to their rank.

“[The] God of Israel is a God Who loves, a God Who is known to, and concerned with man. He not only rules the world in the majesty of His might and wisdom, but reacts intimately to the events of history.”

— Jewish Theologian Abraham Heschel

Behind the male goat, came the she-goat. She was used not only for the commoner, but also for any sins committed in ignorance. The female goat was the final, daily sacrifice covering, or atoning, for all the mistakes the people were ignorant of making. Even in the imperfect sacrificial system, God made a way to cover everything with blood, even sins the people were mindless of doing. The sacrifice on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the Scape Goat, was a she-goat, covering all of the sins committed unintentionally. Even here, God is demonstrating not a legalistic observance, but an observance intended to enlist and bring to mind God’s grace.

What a wonderful illustration of the perfect sacrifice offered once and for all, Jesus, whose blood covers a multitude of sins: ones we remember and ones we have no idea we even committed. As much mercy as we see in the Temple sacrifices, unmerited and undeserved, how much more is it made manifest in the sacrifice, Jesus the Christ?

Finally, we have the pigeons or turtledoves. These were also a part of the Almighty’s mercy, since not everyone could afford a goat. These innocent, clean birds were a way that even the poor could have a part in atonement and the Tabernacle/Temple ritual. In this way we see that God desires for all people–both rich and poor–to have access to Him, and to be able to “draw near.” Even in the Levitical system, in His inestimable mercy, God made provision.

The avian sacrifices also give us a glimpse of the economical class of Jesus’ parents, Joseph and Mary. “And when the days for their purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every [first-born] male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord’), and to offer a sacrifice according to what was said in the Law of the Lord, ‘A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” (Luke 2:22-24)

Sin Offerings

In Leviticus 4, we encounter the next sacrificial offering, almost universally translated as the “sin offering.” This ritual, referred to as the hatat was the first in our study that was required by God. The olah, minchah, and shlamin offerings were all voluntary offerings brought to the Lord from a sense of personal conviction. The hatat, however, carried a unique weight, and it was obligatory.

Another unique aspect of the sin offering was, as already discussed above in the she-goat offering, this was an all encompassing ritual, designed to atone for the sins committed in ignorance, also called the sins of omission. In God’s desire for His people to “draw near,” He provided for all aspects of human imperfection—including those sins of which His people were ignorant of having perpetrated. It is a true proverb that “ignorance is no excuse of the law.” God, in His infinite mercy covered even the minutia we so easily overlook. How much more so, then, with The perfect covering of The perfect sacrifice, Jesus.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Pneuma Review, Spring 1999

About the Author: Kevin M. Williams, Litt.D., H.L.D. has served in Messianic ministries since 1987 and has written numerous articles and been a featured speaker at regional and international conferences on Messianic Judaism.

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