How Often Did People Offer Sacrifices in the Old Testament?

Learn the truth about a common misconception


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Most Bible readers are familiar with the fact that God's people in the Old Testament were commanded to make sacrifices in order to experience forgiveness for their sin. This process is known as atonement, and it was a vital part of the Israelites' relationship with God.

However, there are a number of misconceptions still taught and believed today regarding those sacrifices. For example, most modern Christians aren't aware that the Old Testament contained instructions for several different types of sacrifices — all with unique rituals and purposes.

Another misconception involves the number of sacrifices the Israelites were required to perform in order to make atonement for their sin. Many people mistakenly believe that a person living during the Old-Testament era was required to sacrifice an animal every time he or she sinned against God.

The Day of Atonement

In reality, this was not the case. Instead, the entire Israelite community observed a special ritual once per year that effectively made atonement for all the people. This was called the Day of Atonement:

34 “This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites.”
-- Leviticus 16:34

The Day of Atonement was one of the more important festivals the Israelites observed on a yearly cycle. There were several steps and symbolic rituals that needed to be performed on that day — all of which you can read about in Leviticus 16.

However, the most important (and most poignant) ritual involved the presentation of two goats as the key vehicles for Israel's atonement:

From the Israelite community he is to take two male goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.
“Aaron is to offer the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household. Then he is to take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the entrance to the tent of meeting. He is to cast lots for the two goats—one lot for the Lord and the other for the scapegoat. Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the Lord and sacrifice it for a sin offering. 10 But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord to be used for making atonement by sending it into the wilderness as a scapegoat ....
“When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. 21 He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task. 22 The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness.
-- Leviticus 16:5-10, 20-22

Once per year, the high priest was commanded to make an offering of two goats. One goat was sacrificed in order to make atonement for the sins of all the people in the Israelite community. The second goat was a symbol of those sins being removed from God's people.

Of course, the symbolism connected with the Day of Atonement provided a powerful foreshadowing of Jesus' death on the cross — a death through which He both removed our sins from us and allowed His blood to be shed to make atonement for those sins.

The Reason for Additional Sacrifices

Maybe you're wondering: If the Day of Atonement only happened once per year, why did the Israelites have so many other sacrifices? That's a good question.

The answer is that other sacrifices were necessary in order for God's people to approach Him for different reasons. While the Day of Atonement covered the penalty for the Israelites' sins each year, they were still affected by the sins they committed each day.

It was dangerous for people to approach God while in a sinful state because of God's holiness. Sin cannot stand in the presence of God just like shadows cannot stand in the presence of sunlight. In order for the people to approach God, then, they needed to perform different sacrifices in order to be cleansed of any sins they had accumulated since the last Day of Atonement.

Why would the people need to approach God in the first place? There were many reasons. Sometimes people wanted to approach Him with offerings of worship and commitment. Other times people wanted to make a vow in God's presence -- which required a specific type of offering. Still other times people needed to become ceremonially clean after recovering from a skin disease or giving birth to a child.

In all of these situations, offerings specific sacrifices allowed the people to be washed of their sins and approach their holy God in a way that honored Him.

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Your Citation
O'Neal, Sam. "How Often Did People Offer Sacrifices in the Old Testament?" Learn Religions, Mar. 4, 2021, O'Neal, Sam. (2021, March 4). How Often Did People Offer Sacrifices in the Old Testament? Retrieved from O'Neal, Sam. "How Often Did People Offer Sacrifices in the Old Testament?" Learn Religions. (accessed May 29, 2023).