Substitutionary Atonement Part 4: The Sacrifice of Bulls and Goats

The Sacrifice of Bulls and Goats

Leviticus 1-7, 16

When I read Leviticus, I often find myself making faces. All the gory details about the animal sacrifices are, well, icky. (I can use that word since I have small children, right?) We are so far removed culturally from the Levitical sacrificial system that it almost seems barbaric. However, it was of critical importance under the Law of Moses, and it is of critical importance still so let’s explore why.

The Setting

“I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them. I am the LORD their God.” (Exodus 29:45-46)


We were created to have perfect fellowship with God. Sin broke this fellowship and mankind is unable to gain it back for himself because sin demands his life. Nevertheless, God is full of love and mercy and desires reconciliation. His plan all along was to provide the means for this reconciliation through the sacrifice of His own son. He made this incredible promise to Adam and Eve before sending them out of the garden. But they would have to wait until the time God appointed for this savior’s sacrifice. So God instituted a very tangible picture to foreshadow this ultimate act of redemption: animal sacrifice. Substitutionary atonement.

We have already looked at how God gave Adam and Eve a picture of atonement by clothing them with animal skins. Their son, Abel, offered an animal sacrifice. After the flood, Noah burned a sacrifice on an altar. God told Abraham to sacrifice his own son, but provided a substitute at the last moment. More people offered more sacrifices. Later, God had all the Israelites sacrifice lambs at the first Passover and apply the blood to their doorframes as a picture of substitutionary atonement. So, clearly this concept was not new to the nation of Israel by the time God gave them the Law.

Having redeemed the people of Israel from their bondage in Egypt, God had set them apart to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” His “treasured possession among all peoples” (Exodus 19:5-6). He wanted them to be separated from the rest of the world as representatives of Him and His holiness. He gave Moses the Law so they would know how to accomplish this. And He gave them instructions for building a tabernacle so that He, their absolutely holy God might dwell among them, His chosen yet sinful people.


The structure of the Tabernacle was an illustration of the means by which man could draw near to God. Let me explain. God’s holiness is so pure that it would literally consume a sinner who came near. When God met with Moses on Mount Sinai to give him the Law, the whole nation had to wash their clothing and consecrate themselves. And they weren’t even allowed to touch the mountain, lest they die! They had to set limits around it to prevent anyone from getting too close.1 When God came down in a thick cloud with trumpet blasts and thunder, the people were terrified and stood far off. “The appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel” (Ex. 24:17).

The Tabernacle was built from specific blueprints given by God.2 Basically, it was a large rectangular court within which was the Holy Place within which was the Most Holy Place. In the outer court was an altar for offering sacrifices and a basin for washing. In the Holy Place was a lampstand and table with bread and an incense altar. There was a thick curtain separating the Most Holy Place with depictions of cherubim (a clear reminder of the angel who guarded access to the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden). Inside the Most Holy Place was the Ark of the Covenant, inside which were the tablets of the Law and on top of which was the “mercy seat” or “atonement place.” This “atonement place” was where God’s presence would reside, the place God would meet with man.

So, the Tabernacle was set up in such a way that the people would be protected from the consuming holiness of God. They could bring a sacrifice into the outer courts. Only the priests, as the people’s representatives to God, could enter the Holy Place to minister. And only the high priest could enter through the curtain into the Most Holy Place and even then only once a year under strict guidelines. Exodus ends with the Tabernacle being erected and the glory of God settling on it like a cloud and filling it such that Moses could not even enter. The point is that human access to God was extremely limited and only available at all through blood sacrifice, to which we will now turn. 

The Sacrificial System

“For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.” (Leviticus 17:11)

The first seven chapters in Leviticus lay out what the different offerings are and the details of who makes them, for what reason, how, and so on. We will not explore all the complexities here (phew!) but will look at the big picture and some key elements.

The big picture: The people of Israel, either as individuals or as a nation, could offer sacrifices to God in the Tabernacle, through the service of the priests in order to “be accepted before the LORD” (Lev. 1:3).

Key elements: What were the types of offerings? Three were voluntary–burnt offering, grain offering and peace offering. Two were mandatory–sin offerings and guilt offerings.

What did they accomplish? They were either an expression of gratitude and worship to God or they restored a repentant sinner to fellowship with God.

How were they made? In each of the offerings, with the exception of the grain offering, an unblemished animal would be brought to the entrance of the Tabernacle, the worshiper would lay his or her hand on its head and kill it. This was symbolic of the animal bearing that person’s sin as a substitute and dying in his place. (Can you imagine what a vivid illustration this must have been?) The priest would then take its blood and sprinkle or pour it on the sides or base of the altar (depending on the type of offering) and burn some or all of it on the altar. The blood was symbolic of the life that was given up for the sin–the penalty paid. And the burning of it symbolized God’s acceptance of it (“a pleasing aroma to the LORD”). In effect, the animal bore the wrath of God for the sin and the sinner was thus made acceptable before God.3

The Sacrifice and the Scapegoat (The Day of Atonement)

“For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the LORD from all your sins. It is a Sabbath of solemn rest to you, and you shall afflict yourselves.” (Leviticus 16:30-31)

Right in the center of Leviticus, which is in the center of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible, also called “The Law”), are the instructions for the Day of Atonement–Yom Kippur (the point: it’s important!). The chapter begins with a reminder that Aaron’s sons had been killed for their unauthorized worship in the Tabernacle to emphasize the seriousness of obeying exactly the instructions that followed. Because God’s presence was within the veil, Aaron could not enter or he would die. There was only one way he ever could enter and it was on this one day each year. Having bathed in water and put on the holy garments, he needed to offer a bull to atone for his own sin and that of his household. Then he needed to bring incense inside the veil, the smoke of which would cover the place where God’s presence rested to protect him from death. He would then bring the blood of the bull and sprinkle it on the atonement place (mercy seat). All this was just to make him an acceptable high priest to represent the people before God.

Aaron could only then take the goat that was the sin offering for the people (the whole nation), kill it, and sprinkle its blood within the veil. Then he took some of the blood from his bull and some from the people’s goat and applied it to the altar to purify the Tabernacle from the sin of Israel. Next, Aaron would take a second goat, lay his hand on its head, confess all the sins of the people over it (symbolically transferring them to the goat), and send it out into the wilderness.4 R. Laird Harris explains that, “The two goats thus symbolized both propitiation for sins by death and complete removal of the sins for which atonement was made.”5 In other words the sacrificed goat pictured God’s wrath against sin being satisfied (propitiation) and the scapegoat symbolized the removal of the guilt of those sins (expiation).

Then, Aaron had to bathe and dress again and offer a ram for himself and a ram for the people as burnt offerings. The “aroma” of the burnt offerings would be pleasing to God depicting, it seems to me, His complete acceptance of the day’s sacrifices, resulting in restoration of fellowship with Him. Finally, the bull and goat of the sin offerings had to be taken outside the camp and burned.

Their Sufficiency

“For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Hebrews 10:4)

If, as Hebrews 10:4 says, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins,” how were the Levitical sacrifices sufficient to restore the sinful people to their holy God? Walter C. Kaiser says,

Subjectively, they were most effective. The sinner did receive complete relief. His sins were forgiven on the basis of the word of a faithful God and God-approved substitute…And he did get relief from the penalty and memory of sins…Nevertheless, man’s sin was not objectively cared for as yet.”6

The people of Israel received real forgiveness through the sacrifices but it was not the sacrifices themselves that brought it. The natural questions that follow, then, are why did they do them and how did they work? Hebrews 10 says the sacrifices served to remind the people of their sins. It says that “the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities” (Heb. 10:1).  God didn’t just give Israel the Law to show them how to live rightly. He also gave it to show them that they couldn’t live rightly. The Law was a constant reminder that they could never be good enough to be with God. And the sacrifices were a poignant reminder that sin leads to death, that they were sinners who could not draw near to God apart from an atoning sacrifice, and that God Himself had to provide this sacrifice for them.

Remember, God had promised all the way back in Eden that He would send a savior. He didn’t give them this prophecy just to give them hope. He also gave it to give them an object of faith. Here’s the point: it all pointed to Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah, the only substitute sufficient to make atonement for our sins. The animal sacrifices could never sufficiently atone for the sins of mankind. That’s why they had to be offered repeatedly! (Hebrews 10:2) Salvation has always been and will always be by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Their faith was obviously different than ours because they had much less revelation at the time, but it was still through faith that they were saved. They had faith that God provided the sacrifices and would forgive them in His mercy through these substitutes. But they had the promise of the coming Messiah as well–the one who would die in order to save us, who would come from the seed of Eve and from the line of Abraham (Gen. 3:15, 22:18). He was the ultimate object of their faith, however little they knew about him, and he was the substance the sacrifices foreshadowed.7

The Substance

“These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance is Christ.” (Colossians 2:17)

Okay, if you’ve tracked with me this far, here comes the really good stuff. How is Christ the substance that the sacrificial system foreshadowed?

He is the Atoning Sacrifice

The shadow: An unblemished animal chosen to symbolize its innocence and purity. The substance: Jesus, an actual man living a life completely unblemished by sin. (Hebrews 7:26)

The shadow: The sinner laying his hands on the head of the animal and killing it to symbolize the transfer of sin and substitutionary death. The substance: Christ bearing our sins in his body on the cross and dying in our place. (1 Peter 2:24)

The shadow: The priest placing the animal’s blood on the altar to symbolize the cleansing effect of the forgiveness of sin. The substance: Jesus offering his own blood to purify us from our sin through forgiveness. (1 John 1:7)

The shadow: Burning the sacrifice on the altar to symbolize the consuming wrath of God being poured out against the sin-bearer and His acceptance of the sacrifice to bring about reconciliation. The substance: Jesus, our sin-bearer, crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt. 27:46) because he was bearing the wrath of God against the sin of the world to reconcile us to Him. (Romans 5:9)

He is the Sacrifice and Scapegoat

The shadow: The goat of the sin offering being killed and its blood taken into the Most Holy Place and sprinkled on the mercy seat to symbolize its substitutionary death for the people atoning for their sins. The substance: Jesus being our sin offering, dying in our place to atone for our sins and offering his blood on the heavenly altar to secure our redemption. (Hebrews 9:12)

The shadow: The people confessing their sins over the scapegoat and sending it into the wilderness to symbolize the removal of the guilt of those sins. The substance: Jesus completely removing the guilt of our sin through his sacrifice such that those trusting in him face no condemnation for their sin. (Romans 8:1)

The shadow: The sin offerings being burned outside the camp, far away from the place God’s presence dwelled to symbolize the shame of sin. The substance: Jesus, God Himself, being crucified outside the city where the Temple was, bearing the shame of our sin. (Hebrews 13:11-13)

He is the High Priest

The shadow: The high priest, though himself a sinner, being the one chosen as the mediator between the holy God and the sinful people. The substance: Jesus, both fully God and fully man and sinless, being the perfect mediator between God and man. (Hebrews 5:8-10)

The shadow: The high priest entering the Most Holy Place by the blood of a sacrifice for his sin, having to do this repeatedly and eventually being succeeded by the next high priest. The substance: Jesus, the eternal God and Great High Priest, entering the courts of heaven by the blood of his own perfect sacrifice, once for all time, eternally perfecting those who draw near to God on the basis of his blood and thereby eternally serving as the high priest in the order of Melchizedek (a subject for another time!). (Hebrews 9:11-14, 24-26)

He is the Tabernacle

The shadow: The Tabernacle (and later the Temple) symbolizing God’s desire to dwell among His sinful people, though access was quite restricted. The substance: God putting on human flesh in order to dwell among sinners without consuming them with His holiness. Then, through his sacrifice, Jesus tearing the veil, giving us full access to God by means of his shed blood, and furthermore, giving us the Holy Spirit to take up residence within us, such that we are His Temple! (John 1:14, Hebrews 10: 19-22, 1 Corinthians 6:19)

A Summary

If you made it to the end of this, congratulations! It’s a lot, I know. But will you just reflect with me on how incredible it is that our holy God so loves us–His rebellious creatures–that He would Himself come dwell among us and offer His own life to redeem us from the death we deserve to unrestricted fellowship and eternal life with Him? Hallelujah! What a savior!



  1. Exodus 19:9-25
  2. It was to be modeled after the true heavenly Tabernacle. (See Hebrews 8:1-5)
  3. A note here on the phrase used repeatedly in the ESV (and most other translations say something similar), “sins unintentionally.” I studied this a good bit because I could not come to grips with the idea that there was no sacrifice for intentional sins within the Law. It doesn’t seem to fit the examples in chapters 5-6 which include lying and stealing (direct violations of the ten commandments). It also doesn’t seem to fit with Christ’s fulfillment of these symbols if Christ died for all sins. R. Laird Harris in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Keil and Delitzsch in their Commentary on the Old Testament, Walter C. Kaiser in Toward an Old Testament Theology, and Michael Rydelnik, professor of Jewish Studies at Moody Bible Institute all agree that “sins unintentionally” is not the right translation but something more like “goes astray” or “sins in error” would be better. Also, there doesn’t seem to be a distinction of types of sin that the Day of Atonement sacrifices cover. And Numbers 15:22-29 does make a distinction between this “unintentional” sin and sin done with a “high hand.” This high-handed sin would be defiant, blasphemous sin and was unpardonable, but was different in nature from other intentional sins.
  4. According to the Jewish writings in the Talmud, it was tradition to tie a scarlet cord around the neck of the scapegoat and every year it would turn white. They understood this to mean the sacrifice had been accepted and the sins of people forgiven. It is recorded that in the year 30 AD, the year Christ was crucified, the cord did not turn white nor ever again. There was no longer any need for the sacrifices because the substance had come! (
  5. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, volume 2, 1990, p. 588
  6.  Toward an Old Testament Theology, p. 118
  7. See Harris, p. 524

4 thoughts on “Substitutionary Atonement Part 4: The Sacrifice of Bulls and Goats

  1. Tiffany says:

    What great lengths God has gone to show us love. I love he had a plan of salvation as far back as Adam and Eve. What a good read.

  2. Shirley Jones says:

    This was an awesome teaching, I thoroughly enjoy it. 2021 I’m looking to make my Father proud. Thank you so much for your sacrifice of study.

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