Jeffery G. Watkins
BSHM5310 Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics
Dr. Harold R. Mosley & Dr. Charles A Ray, Jr.
October 23, 2006
WORD STUDY: BURNT OFFERING (‘OLA)
When one attempts to do a word study, it is an endeavor at analyzing a word in a particular setting in order to give a specific passage a more thorough meaning, thus helping the reader to understand the Scripture in its clearest possible context. The transliterated Hebrew word ‘ola (burnt offering or whole burnt offering in English) has a couple of different meanings, and the word can be found frequently in many ancient texts. The word itself is used a great deal throughout the Christian Bible. This paper will focus on ‘ola’s frequency in the Bible, but more specifically as it relates to the account of Abraham offering Isaac as a sacrifice to Yahweh in Genesis 22:1-14. Also, this word study will focus on noting the word’s historical origin, significance in theological meaning, and its implication in context to the story of Isaac’s would-be sacrifice by his father Abraham.
In the Bible’s rendering of the history of the unfolding world, there are many occasions where the word ‘ola is used. Burnt offering refers to the type of sacrifice that was offered to God, but the ceremonial activity itself was not limited just to the Hebrews; many other nations practiced the custom. Despite the innumerable reasons humans have offered sacrifices to a divine being, the observance always required people to present something tangible to their deity of choice (Bucke 1962, 148) and that is where the inception of burnt offerings can be found. In the New International Version’s (NIV) translation of the Bible, the word ‘ola is used 269 times, which accounts for 97.8 percent of burnt offering’s usage in the entire Bible (Goodrick and Kohlenberger 1999, 168). It is plain to see how familiar the citizens of the ancient world were with the practice, and just how common God demanded his people to participate in a ritual burnt offering to atone for their sins.
The term ‘ola finds its etymological roots in a number of different places. Although the term can be found in both Old and New Testaments, large portions of its occurrence happen in the Pentateuch alone. Even though there is much frequency of ‘ola in the Bible, the word has derivation in other anthropologic experiences. Other nations, such as the Moabites, had there own terminology for burnt offerings (VanGemeren 1997, 405), thus the word does not belong solely to Hebraic society in reference to what the Israelites must do to appease the wrath of Yahweh. As a matter of fact, some scholars believe that the word did not form on its own, but the term ‘ola derived from another comparable word. The Hebrew word kalil, also meaning “whole offering,” might have been used before ‘ola; because of both words’ similar meaning, it is thought that kalil was a previously used term for whole burnt offering and was afterward changed to ‘ola (Botterweck, Ringgren, and Fabry 2001, 98). Even millenniums later, Flavius Josephus, known for his historical reliance as an extra-biblical source for Christians, records the story of Abraham and Isaac in much greater detail than the biblical account and includes the word ’ola. Josephus gives both Isaac and Abraham more dialogue in his description of the events, thus focusing on the meaning of the story itself. In his retelling of the Gen. 22 account, Josephus himself uses the word ‘burnt offering’ when describing what God had commanded Abraham to do. That is a clue to how commonly the Hebrew word was used (Josephus 1987, 43).
When attempting to find ‘ola’s meaning, many more questions have to be raised. What did the term mean when it first appeared in language? How has the meaning of the word changed throughout the different periods of time? If the meaning has changed, what does the word mean now? Since the term’s first appearance in language has been discussed, it seems fitting to move on to the word’s meaning. ‘Ola literally means “burnt offering, wholly dedicated to God” (Goodrick and Kohlenberger 1999, 168). In all of its cases, besides the different variations of the word, ‘ola typically means ‘whole burnt offering’ most of the time. Shockingly, the word has almost always had the same meaning since its inception into language.
Although the meaning of ‘ola has seemingly always meant ‘burnt offering,’ how was it that the Israelites knew what to use for the ceremony? Besides the simple fact that God told the Israelites what to use (Lev. 1:10; 4:32 for example), it is conceivable that some of the people of the land knew what other cultures were using as devices for sacrifice. For burnt offerings, one had to use a male animal from the herd or pack, or a bird (turtledove or pigeon) (Freedman 1992, 875). Offering an animal was the mode in which the Israelites had to fashion their burnt offering to Yahweh. “As far as the usage of the burnt offering is concerned, historically it is important to recognize the distinction between burnt offerings presented at solitary altars (i.e., not in the tabernacle or temple) as opposed to sanctuary alters (i.e., in the tabernacle or the temple)” (VanGemeren 1997, 408). This is a clue to the fact that the meaning of the word has more implications than just that of its connotation for a ‘burnt offering.’ (i.e., location, not only means and mode, is also important). But, what does the methodology of offering have to do with the theological significance of this word’s meaning as it relates to the culture of the Ancient Near East and the present time?
In Genesis 22:1-14, God is testing Abraham, to see if he is worthy of making a covenant with him. Each time ‘ola occurs in Gen. 22, it is important for the reader, as it was important for Abraham, to make note of why the word is being used. In its theological significance, we see Abraham, because of his faith, being marked as righteous in the eyes of God. By trusting God, he was willing to offer his [at that time] only natural born son to show his faithfulness to Yahweh. The implications of this are astounding. The church today can gain a great deal of insight from studying the example of Abraham in the Gen. 22 story. Even scholars have thought the meaning of the term was befitting the name itself because “the ‘ola sacrifice was one which was entirely burnt on the alter and so its smoke—or better, its scent—was directed toward the heavenly realm, wherein the deity was thought to have ‘inhaled’ it” (Freedman 1992, 875). Because of Abraham’s faithfulness, he was able to do many great things for God. Whether God’s nose was tickled by the aroma of a burnt offering or not, the world will never know. But certainly a faithful servant who trusted in him blessed God’s heart so much more.
It is significant to mention more about ‘ola’s frequency in chapter 22 of Genesis. ‘Ola occurs six times in Gen. 22 alone. Verses 2-3, 6-8, 13, and 25 all use the term ‘ola throughout the chapter. The only other time the word occurs that frequently in a passage is during prescriptive statements when God is instructing the Israelites in how to sacrifice burnt offerings (e.g., Lev. 1), or when he is commanding them to atone for their sins (e.g., Num. 29). In the context of this chapter, the burnt offering is directly related to what Abraham can do to show that he trusts God and relies on his faithfulness to uphold his side of the agreement. Largely, in the Pentateuch, the context is the same. Although, other times in the Old Testament, burnt offerings are offered to other God’s, it is apparent that the only one that matters is the one believers offer to Yahweh.
In conclusion, it is evident by this word study that it is vastly important to know about each of the possible words one may come across when studying a passage of Scripture. The term ‘ola, although very well defined, still has a lot of anonymity surrounding its fullest meaning. Scholars have not been ashamed to say that ‘ola’s exacting denotation and etymology are vague (Botterweck, Ringgren, and Fabry 2001, 98). But, in spite of possible limitations, it is evident that the word ‘ola holds a very significant place in the Genesis 22 account of Abraham and Isaac, as it does wherever else it is used in the rest of the Holy Bible.
Botterweck, G. Johannes, Helmer Ringgren, and Heinz-Josef Fabry, eds. 2001. Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament
. Vol. 11. Translated by David E. Green. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Bucke, Emory Stevens, ed. 1962. The Interpreters Dictionary of The Bible
: Vol. 4. New York: Abingdon Press.
Driver, Samuel Rolles, Alfred Plummer, Charles A. Briggs, eds. 1969. The International Critical Commentary
. Vol. 1, Genesis, by John Skinner. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.
Freedman, David Noel, ed. 1992. The Anchor Bible Dictionary
: Vol. 2. New York: Doubleday.
Goodrick, Edward W., and John R. Kohlenberger III. 1999. The Strongest NIV Exhaustive Concordance
. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Josephus, Flavius. 1987. The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged
. Translated by William Whiston. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers.
Kohlenberger III, John R. 1987. The Interlinear NIV Hebrew-English Old Testament
. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House.
Pick, Aaron. 1977. Dictionary of Old Testament Words For English Readers
. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications.
The Holy Bible. New International Version. 1999.
VanGemeren, Willem A., ed. 1997. New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis
: Vol. 3. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House.