Before God created man on the sixth day he created the animals. The order is significant; it prefigures the Gospel message. It was certain clean and chosen animals that were sacrificed for man’s atonement before the Son of man (the very image and likeness of God) was given for a propitiation for our sins. The Old Testament is the story of animals given for man––animals given in exchange for man’s life––animals serving our needs. First came the animal sacrifice of the Old Testament, and then came the sacrifice of God’s ideal Man.
We see the servant role of animals the moment Adam and Eve fall. Adam and Eve make their own fig leaf coverings. But God responds by making them coverings of animal skin. The implication is that an animal was sacrificed for their sake. Then in the story of Cain and Abel, it is only Abel’s sacrifice––the sacrifice of his flock’s first-borns––that is acceptable to the Lord. Cain’s offering of the ground’s fruit is frowned upon. The text does not explicitly say why Cain’s offering was rejected, but it strongly suggests that offering fruit without blood falls short of God’s glory.
In the story of Noah we see the salvation of man includes the salvation of a remnant of animals, both clean and unclean. Noah initiates the new beginning (after the flood destroyed all flesh) by sacrificing every type of clean animal and bird on an altar before the Lord (Gen. 8:20-21). Again the animals pave the way for human beings to populate the earth with God’s image.
Ultimately, the message of the Old Testament is about the sacrifice of animals for the people, but these animals fall short of cleansing man from his sin. They are only types and shadows pointing to a greater reality. This is eluded to in the second creation account: the animals fall short of being a suitable helper for Adam. Animal after animal is brought to Adam but all fall short of his critical need. Adam (who was made in the image of God) must (in a sense) lay down his life and give his flesh for a suitable helper. This suitable helper must be bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh. And this is why Jesus Christ had to become flesh to deliver humans from their own flesh. This is also why Jesus Christ is likened to the Old Testament sacrificial lambs. John the Baptist proclaimed: “Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29).