The burnt offering is one of history's oldest and most common offerings. Although Abel's offering in Genesis 4:4 could have been a burnt offering, the first recorded instance is in Genesis 8:20, when Noah offers burnt offerings after the flood. In Genesis 22, God instructed Abraham to offer his son, Isaac, as a burnt offering, and then provided a ram as a replacement. After suffering through nine of the ten plagues, Pharaoh decided to release the Israelites from Egyptian servitude, but his refusal to allow the Israelites to bring their livestock with them in order to offer burnt offerings resulted in the final plague, which resulted in the Israelites' deliverance (Exodus 10:24-29).
The Hebrew word for "burnt offering" literally means "ascend," or "go up in smoke." The smoke from the sacrifice rose to God, becoming "a soothing aroma to the LORD" (Leviticus 1:9). A burnt offering was technically any offering burned over an altar, but in more specific terms, it was the complete destruction of the animal (except for the hide) in an effort to renew the relationship between Holy God and sinful man. God gave the Israelites specific instructions regarding the types of burnt offerings and what they symbolised as the law evolved.
The traditional burnt offering is described in Leviticus 1 and 6:8-13. The Israelites brought a male bull, sheep, or goat with no defects and slaughtered it at the tabernacle's entrance. The priest drained the animal's blood and sprinkled it around the altar. The animal was skinned and cut into pieces, the intestines and legs were washed, and the pieces were burned over the altar all night by the priest. The skin was given to the priest as payment for his assistance. A turtledove or pigeon could also be sacrificed, but not skinned.
A burnt offering could be made at any time. It was a general atonement sacrifice—an acknowledgment of the sin nature and a request for a renewed relationship with God. Jesus' sacrifice on the cross is the ultimate fulfilment of the burnt offering. His physical life was consumed completely, He ascended to God, and His covering (i.e., His garment) was distributed to those who officiated over His sacrifice (Matthew 27:35). Most importantly, His sacrifice atoned for our sins and restored our relationship with God once and for all.