“If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he must offer a male without defect. He is to bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, so that it can be accepted by Adonai. He is to lay his hand upon the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him.”-Leviticus 1:3-4
There are many customs and beliefs that modern believers assume originated in the New Testament that actually began in the Torah.
The procedure of “laying one’s hands” on somebody or something is one of them.
This is how the procedure worked.
First, the worshipper brought the animal to the Tabernacle where it was inspected by the priests.
The priests had to make sure the animal was without defect, was of the proper type and the correct age.
A crowd of worshippers with their sacrificial animals would be gathered into the northeast corner of the inside of the courtyard waiting their turn.
So following the inspection, after the priest gave his nod of approval that the animal was suitable for sacrifice, the worshipper would then LAY HIS HANDS on the animal.
What was the significance of this action?
It signified the animal was being turned over to God.
The Hebrew word for “laying on of hands” is SEMIKHAH.
This practice also takes place quite frequently in Scripture when a transfer of authority is about to take place.
When Moses handed over the authority of leading Israel to Joshua, this was signified by him laying his hands on Joshua.
The same principle is at work here with the burnt offering.
The worshipper by laying his hands on the animal is acknowledging that a transfer of ownership from him to God is now taking place.
But that isn’t all.
The laying on of hands also represented the guilt of the worshipper being placed onto the animal.
The guilt from the sin was now being transferred to the animal.
The killing of the animal would be a substitute for the death of the worshipper.
However, understand that this guilt transference did NOT apply to all sacrifices.
There are some sacrifices like grain and gratitude offerings that had nothing to do with sin.
Probably the sacrifice that best exemplifies the transference of guilt from the worshipper to the animal is the Scapegoat ritual which we’ll be looking at in great detail in due time.
It was this sacrifice that signified the transference of all the sins of the entire nation of Israel onto a designated sacrificial goat.
Interestingly, we have records from other cultures of this era where a similar laying on of hands act was performed for similar reasons.
For example, it was the custom of Hittite females to touch the horn of a fertile cow in the hopes that the fertility of the cow would be to transferred to herself.
Finally, there are quite a few Biblical Psalms that mention the burnt offerings.
“I will come into your house
with burnt offerings,
I will fulfill my vows to you,
those my lips pronounced and my mouth spoke
when I was in distress.
I will offer you burnt offerings
of fattened animals,
along with the sweet smoke of rams;
I will offer bulls and goats.”
It is likely that as the sacrificial procedures evolved over the centuries, some of these psalms were recited as prayers during the offering .
Of course, the Psalms wouldn’t have been recited during this period as they won’t be written until 300 years after the construction of the Wilderness Tabernacle.