Under the Levitical law, whole-burnt offerings from the herd and flock had to be male. No such specification is made with respect to birds (cf. Lev. 5:7-10). Why did the Lord demand that only males be offered as whole-burnt offerings? The easy answer is that the whole-burnt offering typified Christ, and Christ was a man. Another easy answer is that of Kellogg, who says that the male is offered because it is “the stronger, the type of its kind.”
But these answers are too easy. Females could, after all, be offered for other kinds of sacrifice. Peace offerings typified Christ as much as did whole-burnt offerings, but females could be offered as peace offerings (Lev. 3:1); females, in fact, were required for certain kinds of sin or purification offerings. Andrew Bonar recognizes this difficulty, but tries to work his way around it: the peace offerings “typified rather the effects of Christ’s atonement on the receiver than Himself atoning.” In other words, the peace offering typified Christ’s work, but not His Person. Such an artificial distinction is wholly unsatisfactory.
Harrison suggests that “The choice of a male [for the whole-burnt offering] may reflect the dominance of that sex in other than matriarchal societies, but it may well have embraced a more pragmatic purpose also. Where a choice was involved, male animals were more expendable than females in a society in which livestock was equivalent to both capital and income. Fewer males than females were necessary for the survival of the herds and flocks, since the male was utilized only periodically for purposes of breeding. By contrast, the female functioned as a continual provider of milk and its byproducts in addition to producing new livestock from time to time.” Again, this does not explain why God would permit females to be sacrificed as peace offerings.
Perhaps the answer to this question lies in understanding that these sacrifices and animals symbolized different strata of the Israelite socio-liturgical order. These parallels are clearest in Leviticus 4, which describes the sin offering. The data can be summarized as follows:
Who Sinned? Animal Sacrificed
Priest Bull (i.e., a male), v. 3
Congregation Bull, v. 14
Leader Male goat, v. 23
Commoner Female goat or lamb, vv. 27, 32, 5:6
Note that a female was required from a commoner, not simply, as in the case of the peace offering, permitted.
What are we to make of this? Initially, it seems plausible to suggest that the sex of the sacrificial animal represented the offerer’s symbolic “gender.” Thus, the priest, as a “husband” of Israel, is appropriately represented by a male; so also for a leader of the people. A commoner, as a representative of the “bride,” is appropriately represented by a female animal. The anomaly in this explanation is Leviticus 4:14, which requires that a bull be sacrificed as a sin offering for the congregation. Wenham argues that the “congregation” was “a sort of parliament with representative and judicial functions” that represented the whole nation. One would expect that a sin of the entire “bride,” or of the representatives of the bride, would be atoned by a female animal.
It may be possible to explain this anomaly by noting that the Israelite community as a whole is always represented by males. Blood of a male lamb that was spread on the doorposts at the Passover (Ex. 12:5). Males alone were circumcised. The firstborn sons were selected to minister before the Lord, and were later replaced by the sons of Levi. This explanation of Leviticus 4:14 becomes more plausible when we note that the bull in that verse is called a “son of the herd.” Also, the elders of Israel laid their hands on the bull’s head (Lev. 4:15). In other words, it is fitting that the congregation as a whole was represented by males. (It is also fitting that both the congregation and priest be represented by bulls; this shows a parallel between the priesthood and the priestly character of the congregation.)
Can we use this same scheme to explain the permission of female animals in the case of the peace offering? It would seem not. The law of the peace offering does not connect the gender of the animal with the office of the offerer. Rather, it permits either male or female for any offerer. Another kind of explanation seems necessary to explain the peace offering.
Perhaps we can explain the gender of the whole-burnt and peace offerings by considering who “ate” them. The whole-burnt offering was consumed entirely on the altar, wholly “eaten” by God (cf. Num. 28:2). It was appropriate that the Lord, the True Husband of His people, should “eat” a male animal. By contrast, the distinctive part of the peace offering was the fact that the lay worshiper was permitted to eat from it. In the peace offering, God and the Bride ate together. Thus, either male or female animals were appropriate. (Alternatively, we might say that the flesh of the peace offering was shared by the priest [male] and worshiper [female]).
Can be apply this same logic to the sin offering? Who “ate” the sin offering? That depended on whose sin was being atoned. In each case, the fat was burned to the Lord, as in the peace offering (Lev. 4:10). But the hide, flesh, head, and legs had different uses. The disposal of the flesh is summed up in the chart below:
Who Sinned? Sex of Animal Disposal of Flesh
High Priest Male Burned outside the camp, 4:11-12
Congregation Male Burned outside the camp, 4:20-21
Leader Male Priest ate, 6:25-26
Commoner Female Priest ate, 6:25-26
In the case of the sin offering, there is no correlation between the sex of the animal and the disposal of the flesh. The gender of the animal is not related to the “eater.”
Finally, we can perhaps relate all of this to the tabernacle structure, as follows:
Type of Offering Section of Tabernacle
Whole-Burnt Holy of Holies
Priest Holy Place, 4:7
Congregation Holy Place, 4:18
Leader Bronze Altar, Courtyard, 4:25
Commoner Bronze Altar, Courtyard, 4:30
Peace Bronze Altar, Courtyard, 3:2
Thus, it would appear that we can discover no single rationale for the gender of sacrificial animals. My tentative conclusions are as follows:
1. The sex of the animal is always determined by the socio-liturgical status either of the offerer or of the “eater.”
2. In the case of the sin offering, the gender was determined by the offerer’s socio-liturgical status.
3. In the case of the whole-burnt and peace offerings, the sex of the animal was related to the status of the “eater.”
Peter Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute. This article was originally published on Biblical Horizons.