If “Blood of Bulls & Goats” Can’t Forgive Sins, Why All the OT Bloodshed?

Hebrews 10:4 asserts, “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins,” but Leviticus seems to tell a different story. Even casually reading the book, we notice that Israelites who bring proper sacrifices “shall be forgiven” (e.g., Lev 4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:10, 13, 16, 18). Have we reached an impasse?

Rather than labeling this a contradiction, we might examine our own perceptions of Old Testament sacrifices—specifically, the sin offering. “Sin offering” is a translation of the Hebrew term chattaʾt (חַטָּאת, open Bible Word study in Logos ), which has the basic meaning of “to miss the mark” or “to fall short.” In using a traditional, familiar rendering, many English Bible translations cause us to misunderstand this sacrifice.

The Goal of the Sin Offering

The label “sin offering” (open Factbook report in Logos) assumes that the goal of this sacrifice was forgiveness for moral failures or violations—sins as we think of them. Leviticus reveals this is not the case. The sin offering was used in cases where people suffered from a bodily discharge (Lev 15), at the dedication of a new altar (Lev 8), or when a Nazirite completes a vow of abstinence (Lev 12).

The real goal of the sin offering was ritual purification. It was designed to guard sacred space—territory sanctified by God’s presence—from infection by impurity. By definition, every person or object “falls short” of divine perfection and must therefore be ritually marked as acceptable for holy ground. The sin offering—better rendered as “purification offering”—was therefore applied to people and inanimate objects to mark them as acceptable before God. These people (and objects) were not unacceptable because they had done evil, but because they were imperfect—they “fell short” of the holy perfection that God’s presence required. The ritual reinforced the idea of the complete otherness of God.

Depending on the individual’s status in the community—whether priest or commoner—the blood of the offering was either used outside or inside the sanctuary. When the sin offering was for a priest, the blood was brought inside the sanctuary. This signified the priest’s undeserved, but now acceptable access to the holy ground of the sanctuary area. On the Day of Atonement (Lev 16), the blood of the sin offering was brought before the mercy seat (the golden cover for the ark or the covenant) within the holy of holies—not because the high priest had committed worse sins than anyone else, but because he needed closer access to the divine presence on that day. The sin offering was about purification for access to God.

What About Forgiveness?

But if the sin offering of the Old Testament didn’t purge people of moral guilt, what about the “forgiven” language? And what happened when people did evil?

The verb translated “forgive” (סלח, salach) essentially means “to be positively disposed toward.” In the context of purification, God now approves of the person or object entering his presence. While the verb may be used elsewhere to address moral guilt (e.g., Psa 25:11), when it comes to the Levitical sacrifice itself, the point was not absolution, but acceptability for entering God’s presence.
Intentional violations of the moral law of God fell into two broad categories and were dealt with accordingly: those for which there was no remedy, resulting in capital punishment, and those for which restitution was required. For the latter, Old Testament law called for reparations to victims to restore the offender.

In this context, the words of Hebrews 10:4 are right on target. Old Testament sacrifices could not provide release from spiritual and moral guilt. They merely allowed people to participate in a temporary and ultimately inadequate system while teaching them about God’s nature. Only Jesus’ greater sacrifice could solve the real problem of our moral guilt before a holy God.

why is the bible hard to understandDr. Michael S. Heiser is a scholar-in-residence for Faithlife, the makers of Logos Bible Software. He is the author of The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible and has taught many Mobile Ed courses, including Problems in Biblical Interpretation: Difficult Passages I.


This article is excerpted from Dr. Heiser’s book I Dare You Not to Bore Me with the Bible.

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  1. Thank you for that clarity, sometimes we do not understand the depth of God’s truth’s until someone who seeks to know and understand those truths in constant Bible Study help us. I have read the Word of God often but I don’t remember seeing it that way. I did look at it as the forgiveness of their sin. It opens up my mind to understand more about the New Testaments Gospel message and how only the Blood and sacrifice of Christ forgives sin when a person receives that sacrifice at the feet of Jesus at the Cross.

  2. I appreciated the information in this article. I have done extensive study on this topic myself, particularly using the Hebrew. While the information is good, the conclusion continues to try and force a square peg into a round hole. We continue to negate God’s mercy and forgiveness in the Old Testament through the sacrificial system because of our misunderstanding of Judaism, the Temple cult, and the book of Hebrews. Yes, the blood of Jesus is able to take away moral guilt, whereas the blood of bulls and goats could not. However, the author of Hebrews is not negating the sacrificial system. He’s just stating what any pious Jew in the Temple era knew – it isn’t the blood of bulls and goats that has the ability to take away sins. Sins are only removed through genuine repentance (see Ezekiel 18). The conclusion to this article is the only weak part of the entire thing:

    “Old Testament sacrifices could not provide release from spiritual and moral guilt. They merely allowed people to participate in a temporary and ultimately inadequate system while teaching them about God’s nature. Only Jesus’ greater sacrifice could solve the real problem of our moral guilt before a holy God.”

    This results in several problems. Here are three:

    1) Anyone who lived prior to Christ was not forgiven of their sins?

    2) God’s sacrificial system is labeled “inadequate.” Are God’s ways defective?

    3) This doesn’t take into account the explanation in Ezekiel 18 of righteousness, wickedness, and repentance

  3. David Hereford says

    Father has shown me He nor His Word are never at any time boring!

  4. Bob Metcalf says

    Good word, thank you.

  5. Thanks for the article, but it doesn’t take all the OT uses of “sin offering” into account. For example, in Numbers 28 and 29 a male goat would be the “sin offering” to “make atonement” for the people’s sin. Also, in Leviticus 4, the “sin offering” was offered for unintentional sins. It’s not quite as simple as the article seems to imply.

    Also, the OT sacrifices/offerings were a picture and sign or reminder that 1) Israel was sinful (Heb 10:3) and 2) God does indeed forgive sins (cf. Lev 19:22, Ps. 130:4, etc.). The sacrifices symbolized more than that (e.g. the matter of the heart in worship), but those two are pretty central.

    Of course, as noted, Jesus’ blood is what all the OT sacrifices and offerings pointed to – the only blood that can cleanse us from guilt and sin.

    Anyway, the article was helpful to some extent, but there’s more to be said about the OT sin offering and sacrificial system.