Noah Sacrifices to ʏʜᴡʜ (Genesis 8:20-21)

Noah built an altar to ʏʜᴡʜ and took from every clean beast and from every clean thing that flies, and he presented (lit. caused to rise) burnt offerings upon the altar. ʏʜᴡʜ smelled the soothing aroma, and ʏʜᴡʜ said to himself (or, in his heart) I will not anymore curse again the ground because of man, for (or, though) the inclination of man's heart is evil from his youth. I will not again smite every living creature as I have done. — Genesis 8:20-21 (my translation)

After exiting the ark, Noah built an altar and makes sacrifices to ʏʜᴡʜ. The exact timing is not mentioned, but it is natural enough to assume that it happened soon after Noah left the ark, within the first few days, or the same day.[1] In the Hebrew, the altar is the מִזְבֵּחַ (miz-bē-aḥ) the place where the זְבַח (zᵉvaḥ) is carried out.[2] A זְבַח generally refers to a "communal sacrifice", but the literal meaning of the word is "slaughter".[3] A burnt offering, as we can see from Exodus and Leviticus, was a sacrifice in which the entire offering was burnt on the altar, as opposed to just the best parts of it. Noah offered some of every "clean beast" and "every clean thing that flies". The word "clean" here is טָּהֹר, and means "ceremonially clean"[4] and would have included at least those animals which were considered clean in the books of Exodus and Leviticus, namely cattle, goats, sheep, the dove, and the young pidgeon[5]. This passage, coupled with the fact that ʏʜᴡʜ commanded Noah to bring extra of the clean animals onto the ark[6] is evidence that animal sacrifice was a regular part of the worship of ʏʜᴡʜ in the antediluvian age (the time before the global flood but after the fall of man).

Dr. Gill asserts that "[the altar] was built according to [God's] will, and by his direction". This seems like a reasonable inference to make, though the text does not explicitly state that God commanded Noah to build that particular altar.

Possible motivations for the sacrifice

Noah's motivations or purposes in making the sacrifice are not described in the passage, so we can only propose possibilities based on the circumstances, the results, and other passages dealing with similar sacrifices. Noah may have had in mind some combination of the following ideas — maybe all of them. And you will see that there is overlap or similiarity between some of these ideas.

Honoring ʏʜᴡʜ

Throughout scripture, burnt offerings to God always involved significant expense and the sacrifice of something of great value.[7] This implied that ʏʜᴡʜ is God and is worthy of the best that we can give to him. At this seminal point in the history of the new world, and assuming that the "clean" animals included cattle, goats, and sheep, it would have been more advantageous for Noah to keep all the clean animals in his herds and flocks, rather than making sacrifices. But instead he makes honoring ʏʜᴡʜ a priority.

Establishing the worship of ʏʜᴡʜ

As the chief patriarch of the new world, it was critical that Noah honored ʏʜᴡʜ in a public way and established a pattern of worship which his descendants would hopefully follow. Throughout their travels, the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all built altars in various places to recognize and honor God.[8]


From my previous studies in Leviticus, I believe one of the core ideas of the burnt offering, and maybe the main idea, was that the offerer was expressing his complete devotion to ʏʜᴡʜ. As the offering was completely consumed on the altar, so the nation, family, or individual was in a picture expressing the total devotion of his life and being to God. Perhaps Noah had this idea in mind, dedicating himself and his progeny to ʏʜᴡʜ as they began life in the new world.

Giving thanks

Dr. Gill believed that Noah's sacrifice involved several ideas, including thanksgiving.

Noah's view was to renew the worship of God, preserve and propagate it by his example; and this was done by way of thanksgiving to God for his wonderful preservation of him, and was also propitiatory and typical of Christ.

In my previous post, I made much of the difficulties and uncertainties Noah would face has he stepped out into the new world. But there was also much for which to be thankful. God had merciful saved his family and the human race from being total destroyed by the flood. God had preserved them and the animals for over a year on the ark. And now they have stepped off of the ark onto a new world, bright and fresh, full of opportunity, and cleansed from the violence and wickedness that had previously dominated it.

Appeasing God's wrath

Since the first sacrifice — at least one animal had to be slain to provide coverings for Adam and Eve[8a] — the examples and teaching of Scripture maintain that the sin of man makes necessary a substitutionary death. Whatever Noah's understanding was exactly, we certainly see that Noah's sacrifice had a propitiatory effect, pleasing ʏʜᴡʜ, and causing him to make promises of mercy and faithfulness to the benefit of all future generations.

The soothing aroma

As the fire on the altar consumed the sacrifices, ʏʜᴡʜ smelled the רֵיחַ הַנִּיחֹחַ (rē-yaḥ han-nị-ḥō-aḥ). The lexicons render it as the "soothing odour"[9], though I felt that "aroma" was more suitable in my translation. In all my cross-references, the same phrase is used to refer to the appeasing smell from a burnt offering, sin offering, freewill offering, or vow offering.[10] The offering is always a slain animal, though sometimes other food was also included.[11]

What was "soothing" about this sacrifice? On the most fundamental level, the sacrifice satisfied the holiness of ʏʜᴡʜ, by recognizing the great seriousness of sin or evil before a God who is untainted by it. That which is most valuable above all possessions, life itself, symbolized in the blood and body of the sacrifice, is shed and consumed as a testament to God's utter hatred of sin. The life of an animal is ultimately not of sufficient value for this task[12] but points forward in a picture to the greatest sacrifice that was possible, in which God crushed his only Son.

We know also that the sacrifice was given in faith, from a man who believed in ʏʜᴡʜ and trusted in the veracity and reliability of his word. For the scriptures teach that "without faith, it is impossible to please God" (Hebrews 11:6, KJV).[12a]

Sacrifice and the shedding of blood was here, as it is elsewhere[13], the basis of God's mercy towards us. In response to the soothing aroma, ʏʜᴡʜ decides in his heart never again to curse the ground or to bring back the great flood, despite all the pervasive wickedness of mankind, and the taint of evil in every heart.


The best cross-reference for this is Ephesians 5.

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. — Ephesians 5:1-4 (ESV).

Jesus the Christ was "a fragrant offering and sacrifice", not only to please God his Father, but out of his love for us. So we also, imitating his example, should love each other. Also, we should be hate sin as much as God does. Our hearts and lips should be filled, not with evil, but thanksgiving for God's love and mercy towards us.

Romans 12:1 speaks of a personal sacrifice we can make, in response to God's mercy:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. — Romans 12:1-2 (ESV)

So we see that the daily devotion of our lives is pleasing to God, as we turn from evil, and seek to do God's will.[14]

Finally, we see in Psalm 141 that prayer is likened to a pleasing sacrifice.

Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice. — Psalm 141:2 (ESV)

If we are truly followers of God, let us sacrifice time from our busy schedules, making room in our hearts, and space in our thoughts, for prayer and communion with God. As we come to God regularly in prayer, we pause, looking upwards to the source of our every blessing and mercy.

End notes

[1] Whatever Noah's exact motivations were for making sacrifice, which we will discuss, he would have been inclined to perform it speedily. And one can hardly imagine that God waited months or even weeks to give the promises and instructions of Genesis 8:21-9:17.

[2] HALOT.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] Dr. Gill identified them with these animals exactly, which seems likely enough, but I leave open the possibility that perhaps some additional animals were also considered clean in antediluvian times.

[6] Genesis 7:2

[7] Of course, under the Mosaic law, there was scaling system of sacrifices so that even the poorest individuals could participate.

[8] To list some instances: Genesis 12:8; 26:25; 35:7. These cases were all responses to a revelation from God.

[8a] Genesis 3:21.

[9] HALOT gives "soothing odour" for this instance. BDB calleds this a technical term, giving "odour of soothing (to God), tranquillizing odour (of ascending sacrifices)".

[10] Exodus 29:18; 29:25; Leviticus 1:9; 4:31; 8:28; Numbers 15:3.

[11] Ezekial 16:19 gives a case of apparently only bread being offered, but this is an offering made to idols, not to God.

[12] Otherwise, animal sacrifices would not have needed to be continually repeated. Hebrews 10:1-2.

[12a] See also Ephesians 2:8.

[13] Leviticus 16:14.

[14] See also the interesting cross-reference Ezekiel 20:41.

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