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In Leviticus 1:4 (NASB)

And he shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, so that it may be accepted for him to make atonement on his behalf.

What's the symbolism behind laying one's hand on the head of the burnt offering? Does it have more to do than just ownership (in reference to Leviticus 1:2 about domestic animals)?

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When a person has a pet animal, one of the oldest and most common forms of animal affection is the "pet" the animal by stroking from the head down toward the back. This is universally understood to signify love for the animal which involved protection and provision for the animal's needs. We still do this today with dogs and cats, etc.

Placing one's hand on the head of the animal before its execution helped to reinforce the idea that one loved the animal and that the animal (eg, a lamb) was thus highly regarded.

With the benefit of hind-sight we also understand that these animal sacrifices were symbolic of Jesus sacrifice for us and our love for Him and His love for us.

  • 2 Cor 5:14 - For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that One died for all, therefore all died.
  • 1 Cor 5:7 - Get rid of the old leaven, that you may be a new unleavened batch, as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.
  • 1 John 4:10 - And love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
  • 1 John 2:2 - He Himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
  • Rom 3:25 - God presented Him as the atoning sacrifice through faith in His blood, in order to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance He had passed over the sins committed beforehand.
  • Heb 2:17 - For this reason He had to be made like His brothers in every way, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, in order to make atonement for the sins of the people.

Personal note - I am glad I did not need to do this - to slit the throat of an innocent lamb because I had sinned - but that is the effect of my sins on Christ - my sinful actions was what sent Jesus to the cross for me.

1 John 4:9-12 - This is how God’s love was revealed among us: God sent His one and only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him. And love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as the atoning sacrificed for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God remains in us, and His love is perfected in us.

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  1. The presenter/sinner symbolically identified himself with the animal to be killed.
  2. The act foreshadowed the perfect atonement of Christ.

Pulpit Commentary

This putting, or forcibly leaning, the hand on the victim's head, which is the most essential part of the oblation of the victim, was a symbolical act implying "This animal is now for present purposes myself, and its life is my life." It was this act of identification with the offerer which made it be accepted for him to make atonement (literally, covering) for him. The sin offering is the sacrifice which especially symbolizes and ceremonially effects atonement, but the idea of atonement is not absent from the burnt sacrifice. The aspect under which atonement is presented here and elsewhere in the Old Testament is that of covering. But it is not the sin that is covered, but the sinner. Owing to his sin, the latter is exposed to the wrath of a just God, but something intervenes whereby he is covered, and he ceases, therefore, to attract the Divine anger and punishment. No longer being an object of wrath, he becomes at once an object of benevolence and mercy. The covering provided by a sacrifice is the blood or life of an animal, symbolically representing the offerer's own life freely surrendered by him for his acceptance, and typically foreshadowing the blood of Christ.

The true meaning of this act can be found in

1 John 2:2

He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

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