The Sacrifices Between Revelation and Ascension

So do you ever read the Bible and think to yourself, how much blood did Moses throw anyway? No? Maybe it’s just me. Book research can take you along a lot of really weird paths. So, hey, let’s answer that question.

The day after the Revelation of Sinai (the day God gave the Torah to the children of Israel), Moses leaves to go to the top of Mount Sinai for 40 days. His goal: to bring back the tablets with the ten sayings, what many call the Ten Commandments.

Before he does, he presides over a great sacrifice of animals and delivers the Covenant.

Moses then wrote down all the commands of the LORD.
Early in the morning, he set up an altar at the foot of the mountain, with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel.

He designated some young men among the Israelites, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed bulls as offerings of well-being to the LORD.

Moses took one part of the blood and put it in basins, and the other part of the blood he dashed against the altar.

Then he took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will faithfully do!”

Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD now makes with you concerning all these commands.”

Exodus 24:4-8

Who are these young men?

Ibn Ezra says the were “the sons of the chosen elders who were to go up on the mountain with Moses.” Chizkuni says they were “young lads on the threshold of becoming of age when they would be eligible to observe the commandments. According to a different view, these were all firstborns of their respective families.”

Rabbeinu Bahya and others further elaborate that these are young men who had never had sex with a woman. Ramban and others reiterate that the men are first borns.

Which animals for the offerings?

There are two types of offerings here (there are other types described in other places): burnt offerings and offerings of well-being.

Burnt offerings are a tribute to God burnt entirely on the altar. The skins, however, are saved and given to the priests. They are usually sheep (or lambs) or goats (or kids).

These were wholly animal, and the victims were wholly consumed. They might be from the herd or the flock, or in cases of poverty birds might be substituted. The offerings acceptable were: (a) young bullocks; (b) rams or goats of the first year; (c) turtle-doves or young pigeons. These animals were to be free from all disease or blemish. They were to be brought to the door of the tabernacle, and the offerer was to kill them on the north side of the altar (if a burnt offering), except in the public sacrifices, when the priest put the victims to death, being assisted on occasion by the Levites…The blood was then sprinkled around the altar. The victim, if a large animal, was flayed and divided; the pieces being placed above the wood on the altar, the skin only being left to the priest. If the offering was a bird a similar operation was performed, except that the victim was not entirely divided. The fire which consumed the offerings was never allowed to go out, since they were slowly consumed; and the several kinds of sacrifice furnished constant material for the flames. Every morning the ashes were conveyed by the priest to a clean place outside the camp.

Burnt Offering.  Morris Jastrow, Jr., J. Frederic McCurdy, Kaufmann Kohler, Louis Ginzberg.  1906 Jewish Encyclopedia.

Offerings of well-being, also called peace-offerings, were often bulls and were eaten by all (as opposed to sin offerings which were usually for the Priests alone).

“…as feast peace-offerings for Hashem, bulls.” As long as the Israelites were in the desert they always experienced some fear of the attribute of Justice seeing they found themselves in a part of the earth which was desolate, reflected destruction of nature, etc. This is why they slaughtered bulls as their offerings [the standard sin-offering of High Priests, or the communal sin-offering for the whole people when the occasion demanded it. Ed.].

Rabbeinu Bahya, Shemot 24:5:4

How many animals?

We know the offerings of well-being were bulls, because it says so in Torah. We don’t know which animal they used for the burnt offerings, but I’m assuming it was sheep. Now the question is, how many?

Because of the emphasis in the preceding verse on setting up the “twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel” and the fact that Moses chose young men to do the work that would later be the job of the priests—thus involving all the tribes instead of only the Levites—my assumption is that the animals for the offerings came from the tribes and therefore would be in multiples of 12.

Burnt offerings are in many places spoken of in the singular. So let’s assume one sheep per tribe, or 12 total. The peace offerings are meant to be a feast, so it’s reasonable to use more animals, especially if everyone in the Exodus is eating. In later days, there was a public Shavuot peace offering using two lambs and two loaves of bread.

Talmud discusses this at length. Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, two 1st Century schools that were contemporaries and competitors, disagree on the numbers of animals used in sacrifices. Beit Shammai says the the burnt offerings should be twice as valuable as the peace offerings. But Beit Hillel, which is the school modern Jews generally follow, says the opposite:

And Beit Hillel say: The burnt-offering of appearance must be worth one silver ma’a and the Festival peace-offering must be worth two silver coins. The reason for this difference is that the Festival peace-offering existed before the speech of God, i.e., before the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, which is not so with regard to the mitzva of appearance. And furthermore, another reason is that we find with regard to the offerings of the princes during the dedication of the Tabernacle that the verse includes more peace-offerings than burnt-offerings. Each prince brought one cow, a ram, and a sheep as burnt-offerings, but two cows, two rams, five goats, and five sheep as peace-offerings.

  • Chagigah 6a:10, The William Davidson Talmud.
  • A prince refers to the chief of each tribe. So 12 total. The numbers and kinds of animals refer to the offerings for after the Mishkan was built. The offerings we’re looking at now are after the giving of the Torah (after the very first Shavuot) but only by one day. Not only do we not yet have the Mishkan, but Moses hasn’t even gone up Mt. Sinai to get the instructions for building it. We can only guess at the offerings on this occasion.

    Down the rabbit hole (no bunnies were harmed)

    If you’d really like to go down the rabbit hole of Talmud, consider this section:

    Rav Hisda raises a dilemma: This verse, how is it written, i.e., how should it be understood? Should the following verse be read as two separate halves, with the first part consisting of: “And he sent the young men of the children of Israel, and they sacrificed burnt-offerings”, which were sheep; and the second part consisting of the rest of the verse: “And they sacrificed peace-offerings of bulls to the Lord,” i.e., these peace-offerings alone were bulls? Or perhaps both of these were bulls, as the term: “Bulls,” refers both to the burnt-offerings and the peace-offerings.

    The Gemara asks: What is the practical difference between the two readings? Mar Zutra said: The practical difference is with regard to the punctuation of the cantillation notes, whether there should be a break in the verse after: “And they sacrificed burnt-offerings,” indicating that these offerings consisted of sheep; or whether it should read: “And they sacrificed burnt-offerings and sacrificed peace-offerings of bulls,” as one clause.

    Rav Aḥa, son of Rava, said that the difference between these two readings of the verse is for one who says in the form of a vow: It is incumbent upon me to bring a burnt-offering like the burnt-offering that the Jewish people sacrificed in the desert at Mount Sinai. What is he required to bring? Were they bulls or were they sheep? The Gemara does not provide an answer and states that the question shall stand unresolved.

    Chagigah 6b:12-14. The William Davidson Talmud.

    The translation I use (Sefaria) is clear that the peace offerings (offerings of well-being) were bulls and doesn’t specify the animal for the burnt offerings. “they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed bulls as offerings of well-being…” But translation can never be as precise as the original, and the original requires context too (context that has been lost over the millennia).

    So wait, how many?

    So we interpret. I say the burnt offerings consisted of 12 sheep (one for each tribe) and 24 bulls (two for each tribe). Am I right? Shrug. It’s as good a guess as I can do.

    Animal breeds

    We don’t know the varieties of livestock the Hebrews might have had, but we can speculate. We can also assume they won’t weigh quite as much as modern livestock because they had to travel long distances and weren’t fattened up in the same ways (not to mention that Exodus livestock didn’t get grain, just sparse grass and manna). Nor were they bred to be bigger and fatter.

    The Awassi sheep is a good bet, as they are widely used and indigenous to Southwest Asia and the Levant. The weights depend not only on age (ours are a year or less) and sex (ours are male) but also on if they are improved (no), in rich feeding grounds (no), etc. I’m going to go ahead and assume they’re about 40 kg (88 lbs) each.

    A Awassi ram in Kuwait. 2007, Third Eye from Kuwait, Kuwait

    Torah mentions “reem” which may be the same as “Babylonian and Assyrian rimu, a name of wild cattle of the type of Bos taurus primigenius.” There was also an African Bos primigenius found in Ancient Egypt with long horns. Or it could refer to Bos brachyceros, which has short horns (which is more consistent with Biblical references). These, also called Syrian cattle, have humps at the withers and are fawn and reddish-brown. The hump stores energy and is similar not only to the camel’s hump but to that of fat-tailed sheep, such as the Awassi and similar breeds.

    Arabian cattle, a common and older brachyceros type, are short, about 3.5 feet to the withers (shoulder blades). They weigh on average 225 kg (496 lbs) (range 200-260 kg or 441-573 lbs). Most calves are born in February (which means any used for this sacrifice would be about 3 months old). Milk production is highest in the first month then drops off, so this is part of why the Hebrews had little to no dairy during the Exodus.

    Golan cattle, another brachyceros, are a bit larger than Arabian. Their average weight is 263 kg (580 lbs). These are larger due to breeding and good care.

    Domesticated cattle, Bos taurus. Bos brachyceros. Handcoloured engraving by Fournier after an illustration by Edouard Travies from Charles d’Orbigny’s Dictionnaire Universel d’Histoire Naturelle (Dictionary of Natural History), Paris, 1849

    That’s a lot of blood

    It is a lot of blood. As this is for a children’s book, I’m not going into tons of detail with this scene, but I need to work out the specifics for myself so I can realistically portray them.

    Moses took the blood collected from draining the slaughtered animals and divided it into two parts (two equal halves). Half of the blood he threw onto the altar (which is odd because if the blood hadn’t been collected, that’s where it would have ended up, but I digress).

    The rest of the blood he saved until he had finished reading the Covenant, the collection of laws, including the Ten Commandments, he had spoken aloud the day before and now has written down. Then he took that blood and threw it over the people.

    I could get into the meaning of sealing the Covenant with blood, or the commentaries that say the blood stains were “jewels” and the people lost their clothes when they broke the Covenant with the Golden Calf. But I’m going to stick to practical matters here. How much blood was there? How many basins did Moses fill and toss the contents of?

    First, the basins. There is much talk among the sages about if some or all or none of the basins used were a different shape. I’m just going to assume they’re strong, lightweight, and easy to fill and empty. I can lift a plastic 5 gallon (about 19 liters) pail that’s filled with liquid. I’m strong enough to pour it out but not strong enough to hoist it and throw the contents. Moses has 30 years on me but he’s male and in much better shape. So let’s say he has no trouble tossing around 40 lbs (about 18 kg) of liquid from a container that’s heavier than a plastic pail. I think more than that is too unwieldy. Not only is it very heavy but it’s too large to be able to hold properly. Smaller basins would also work just fine for the throwing purposes.

    Draining an animal immediately after slaughter removes “between 40 and 60 percent of the total blood volume.” The bleeding out takes 10-40 seconds if done right. Sheep have 60 ml blood per kilo of total weight, and cows have 55 ml.

    Twelve sheep times 88 pounds equals 1056 lbs or 480 kg. Blood volume is 480 times 60 equals 28.8 liters. If the Hebrews caught half of that, it’s 14.4 liters. This is around 3.8 gallons. This is pretty low volume so far, especially when divided into two throws.

    Twenty-four bulls times 580 lbs equals 13,920 lbs (6314 kg). Blood volume is 6314 times 55 equals 347.3 liters. Half of that is 173.7 liters. This is around 45.9 gallons. And now we’re getting somewhere.

    We’re just shy of 50 gallons of blood total. That’s 10 basins the size of 5 gallon pails. Though 12 is safer if you want to reduce the chance of spilling. This means Moses spills half a dozen basins on to the altar of earth where the animals were slaughtered. Then he hurls the blood from another half dozen over everyone he can reach. And then he’s off to climb the mountain.



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