The offering of some commodity to God, generally making use of the services of a cultic official, a priest. In the Bible, the various kinds of sacrifices are presented most systematically in Leviticus 1–7 (cf. Num. 15). The different sacrifices cited there can be classified in several ways. Most prominent are those utilizing clean animals (cattle, sheep, goats, doves, pigeons). All such animal sacrifices have a number of features in common: killing/dismemberment of the victim, burning of at least some part of it (the fat in particular) on the altar, application of the blood to the altar by the priest in some manner (sprinkling or smearing).
The burnt offering or holocaust is particularly distinctive (Lev. 1.3–17; 6.8–13). As the latter name implies, a complete consumption of the victim's remains (except for the skin, which was given to the priest: Lev. 7.8) by fire was involved here. The rite opened with the offerer's laying his hand on the victim's head (Lev. 1.4a); this gesture of self‐identification signifies that, through the beast, he is offering himself to God. The intended purpose of the holocaust was to effect atonement with Yahweh for the offerer (Lev. 1.4b).
Another major animal sacrifice is the peace offering (NRSV: “offering of well‐being”; the differently translated Hebrew word is šĕlāmîm), described in Leviticus 3.1–17; 7.11–36. In this instance, the designation employed points to the ritual's aim, that is, to (re‐)establish “peace,” fellowship between the divine and human parties. In line with this end, the victim's remains are divided between God (for whom the fat is burned on the altar), the assisting priest, and the offerer's household. The peace offering can further be specified, in accordance with the motive prompting it, as a thanksgiving, votive, or free‐will offering. In the first instance, the victim's flesh must be consumed on the day of the sacrifice itself (Lev. 7.15); in the latter two, the time allotted for this extends through the following day (Lev. 7.16).
Two further animal sacrifices are the sin offering and the guilt offering (Lev. 4.1–6.7; 6.25–7.10). The Bible does not clearly distinguish these in terms of either their ritual or the situations that necessitate them (see Lev. 7.17). Both are designed to effect atonement in cases of a nondeliberate offense (e.g., bodily discharges, contact with the unclean), and in both it is only the victim's fat that is burned on the altar. The sin offering is, however, the more public of the two, being offered on the major feasts of the year (Num. 28–29), while the guilt offering functions as part of a process of reparation undertaken by an individual (Lev. 5.16; 6.4).
The Bible also prescribes various nonbloody sacrifices; these utilize cereals (Lev. 2.1–15), frankincense, and wine. Of these, the last must accompany other sacrifices, whereas the first two may be offered separately. Finally, biblical narratives evidence familiarity with the practice of human sacrifice (see, e.g., Gen. 22; Judg. 10.30–40; 1 Kings 16.34; 2 Kings 3.27); this, however, is strongly condemned in the laws of the Pentateuch (e.g., Lev. 18.14).
Taken as a whole, the Hebrew Bible manifests a certain ambivalence regarding sacrifice. In the Pentateuch, it is solemnly enjoined as a positive divine requirement, while other passages seem to articulate God's rejection of the practice as a whole (e.g., Amos 5.21–27; Isa. 1.10–20; Ps. 51.16–17). The latter formulations are best seen as hyperbolic reminders of the truth that cultic sacrifice is pleasing to God only when offered by one whose whole life is lived in accordance with God's will.
In the New Testament, particularly in Hebrews, the death of Jesus is described as a sacrifice that definitively secures for the whole of humanity the effects (atonement, fellowship with God) that older sacrifices brought about only temporarily (Heb. 9.23–28). Likewise in the New Testament, the notion of a spiritual sacrifice comes to the fore (Rom. 12.1; 15.16; Phil. 2.17; 4.18; 1 Pet. 2.5). In this conception, every action of a Christian's life has the capacity, when performed in faith, to be an offering acceptable to God.
Christopher T. Begg