Was ritual sacrifice ever God’s will for his people?
“Of course it was, Thomas. Have you even read the Old Testament?”
Ok, sure, but hang with me for a second. Let me start with another question. Was divorce ever God’s will for his people?
That’s a bit of a tougher question, isn’t it?
Jesus was actually faced with a similar question, and his answer is quite enlightening.
According to Matthew, Jesus was hanging out in the region of Judea when some Pharisees, the professional religious leaders in the area, came to test him. This was their test question: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” (Matthew 19:3)
This, of course, was a trick question. If Jesus were to simply say no, he would appear to be directly contradicting the Torah, as well as one of the most influential rabbis of his day. If he were to say yes, however, he would be caught contradicting his own earlier teaching regarding divorce, as well as legitimizing a practice that ultimately harmed the women in that society.
Jesus’s response, as usual, was brilliant. Instead of simply saying, “yes” or “no,” he appealed to scripture. Using Genesis 2:24 for support, Jesus declared, “what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matthew 19:4-6).
The Pharisees, not-satisfied with Jesus’s answer, decided to press him further. “Why then did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” (Matthew 19:7). It’s pretty clear that the Pharisees are referencing to Deuteronomy 24:1 which states, “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, [he shall write her] a certificate of divorce, give it to her and send her from his house.”
A bit of cultural context is in order here. In Jesus’s day, there were several competing schools of thought in regard to the interpretation and application of the Hebrew Scriptures. One of these schools of thought, made popular by a Pharisee named Hillel, taught that Deuteronomy 24:1 gave a man license to divorce his wife if she did literally anything displeasing, such as burning his dinner. This attitude was obviously damaging and dangerous for women living in a culture in which women in general were viewed as second-class citizens and divorced women were viewed as even lower than that.
Jesus, it seems, has been cornered. He himself had just declared that men should not seek separation from the bonds of marriage and yet these Pharisees appeared to have scripture on their side. Basically, this what the Pharisees were saying, “Jesus, YOU say that men shouldn’t seek divorce, but MOSESsaid (or, in our modern-day vernacular, the BIBLE says) that a man can divorce his wife if he finds something wrong with her. You’re not claiming to have more authority than MOSES (or the BIBLE), are you, Jesus?”
What is Jesus to do? Does he contradict his own earlier teaching and perpetuate a system that damages and degrades women, or does he contradict scripture and set himself up as a higher authority than Moses and, therefore, lose all credibility with his Jewish audience?
Before we look at Jesus’s response, I want to take just a moment to remind you that Jesus himself clearly had a very high regard for scripture. When tempted by the Devil himself, Jesus responded with “It is written,” and then quoted scripture. Jesus regularly responded to his accusers by asking them, “Have you not read?” and then quoting scripture to them. John the Apostle even records Jesus saying, “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). So, how does Jesus, with his high view of scripture, respond when his critics press him into a corner with a “But the BIBLE says!” argument?
Great question. I’m glad you asked.
Here’s what Jesus said next: “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard.”
That’s, like, a really big deal, man.
Why is that a big deal? Another great question.
Let’s get back to the Pharisee’s attempt to corner Jesus. In response to his declaration that humans should not seek to separate what God has joined together they asked, “Why then did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” (emphasis added). The Greek word translated “command” in here is entello (ἐντέλλω), and that’s just what it means, “to command” or “to give orders.” It is the verb form of the Greek word entole (ἐντολή), which is most often translated “command” or “commandment.” Of course, as you know, a commandment is different than a suggestion. According to Matthew, the Pharisees regarded the instructions about divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1 as a “command.”
Jesus, however, uses completely different word. “Moses,” he says, “permittedyou to divorce your wives…” This is significant. Permitting something is certainly different than commanding something. When I was a child, I was commanded to go to school on a regular basis, but I was occasionally permitted to stay home from school for one reason or another.
(It is worth noting, however, that in Mark’s version of this story, the semantic tables are turned. In Mark 10:2, the Pharisees ask Jesus if it is “lawful for a man to divorce his wife.” In 10:3, Jesus asks, “What did Moses command (ἐντέλλω) you?” In 10:4 the Pharisees responded, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.” Fortunately, however, the crux of the argument is not whether or not Deuteronomy 24:1 commands divorce. The crux of the argument is the question of why divorce was included in the Old Testament law at all.)
So why, according to Jesus, did Moses permit divorce?
“Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard.”
This is a big deal. In a single sentence Jesus explains that at least one part of the Mosaic law, one part of the Bible, was not so much a divine commandment as it was a divine concession. In other words, divorce was never a part of God’s primary plan or primary will for his people, but because of the hardness of their hearts, he conceded to their will.
I can relate to this on a human level. I am parent of two toddlers who are constantly learning and developing new skills. It’s a messy process. Take, for example, the process of learning to use utensils for eating. Every once in a while they seem to want to revert back to using their hands, even on foods that just aren’t meant to be eaten by hand. I usually try to instruct (command?) them to use their utensils, but sometimes they adamantly refuse and insist on using their hands. As messy as it is, I sometimes permit them to use their hands even when I would prefer that they didn’t, all the while knowing that I will continue to instruct them in a more excellent way as they mature. This, it seems, is what Jesus says that God was doing for the Israelites in regard to divorce.
Don’t miss this. According to Jesus, there are some things in the Bible that were never God’s primary will for his people, but God, as a loving parent, made certain concessions, or accommodations, in order to slowly bring them along to further maturity.
The Jesus Hermeneutic
How did Jesus arrive at this conclusion? There are no textual or contextual clues in Deuteronomy that would indicate that the instruction regarding divorce was a concession based on the hardness of the people’s heart. There’s nothing in the text or the context that says, “I’d prefer you not divorce your wives, but since you’re so hard-hearted about it, here are the rules you have to follow.” Instead, it’s just, “Here are the commandments governing divorce.” So what led Jesus to conclude that these ancient instructions were actually divine concessions instead of commandments?
The answer, it seems, is Jesus’ understanding of God’s original plan as it was revealed “from the beginning.” Here’s what he says: “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning” (emphasis added). This is consistent with his earlier appeal to Genesis 2:24 as the basis for his assertion that “what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matt. 19:4-6).
The significance of this cannot be overstated. Jesus himself is stating that not all scripture is created equal. At least one aspect of the Old Testament law, according to Jesus, is reflective not of God’s primary will, but of his willingness to accommodate himself to a hard-hearted people. So that leads us to another potentially troubling question: is anything else in the Bible the result of divine accommodation?
The answer is yes.
Even a casual reading of the Hebrew scriptures reveals that it was never a part of God’s original plan for his people to be ruled by a human king. God’s original plan was that God himself would be their king and this would set them apart and make them different than all of the surrounding nations. Eventually, however, the people hardened their hearts and demanded to have a human king like everyone else. This dramatic story can be found in the Old Testament book of 1 Samuel.
Up until this point in history, the Israelites had been a nation without a human king. From Moses to Samuel, the Israelites had been led by an intermittent succession of judges, but as Old Testament scholar John Drane explains, “the judges and their successors were not important in themselves, but only insofar as God had inspired and equipped them to lead their people in times of special need. God was the nation’s only true sovereign, and human leaders could never change that.”
As time went on, however, the Israelites began to desire a human king. A number of factors likely influenced this, and perhaps chief among them was the increasing threat posed by the neighboring Philistines. A king, the Israelites believed, would “go out before [them] and fight [their] battles” (1 Samuel 8:20).
This all took place while the prophet Samuel was serving as judge over Israel. Samuel had served God and Israel faithfully, but by this point in the story he had become an old man and had appointed his sons Joel and Abijah to serve as deputy judges. Joel and Abijah, however, turned out to be dishonest and corrupt; they “accepted bribes and perverted justice” (1 Samuel 8:3). This was the catalyst that caused “all the elders of Israel” to approach Samuel and make the following demand: “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have” (vv. 4-5, emphasis added).
Translation: “Everyone else is doing it and we want to be like everyone else. We’re tired of being different. All the other nations look at us funny.”
That, of course, was the entire point. God’s plan had always been for his people to be different and to shine as a light among the nations. The uniqueness of Israel was supposed to reflect the uniqueness of Israel’s God. Samuel understood this, which is why the elders’ demand for a king “displeased” him (v. 6). When Samuel went to the Lord in prayer about the matter, this was the Lord’s response: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king” (v. 7, emphasis added).
The Lord continued,
As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights (vv.8-9, emphasis added).
Translation: “Give them what they want, but let them know that they aren’t going to like it as much as they think they will.”
Another translation: “I will permit this because of the hardness of their hearts, but it was not this way from the beginning.”
After conferring with the Lord, Samuel went back to the people and tried to persuade them one last time to give up their demands for a human king. He warned them that kings have the habit of taking the best of the land, crops, and people for themselves. Despite this warning, “The people refused to listen to Samuel…They said, ‘We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles’” (vv.19-20).
Samuel, just to be absolutely sure, runs this whole thing past the Lord one more time and the Lord responds by saying “Listen to them and give them a king” (v. 22).
So, to recap, God never intended for God’s people to be ruled by a human king. But these people, hard-hearted humans that they were, decided that they wanted to be like all the other nations, and so they demanded a king. Even though God wasn’t thrilled about the idea, he accommodated them, just as Jesus teaches us that he had done with divorce.
Now, I know what some of you are thinking. You’re thinking, “But Thomas, that’s a little different. That was just a part of the narrative, not really part of the commandments.
That’s true. You’re right. But what about Deuteronomy 17:14-20? Deuteronomy is part of the commandments, isn’t it?
When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,” be sure to appoint over you a king the Lord your God chooses. He must be from among your fellow Israelites. Do not place a foreigner over you, one who is not an Israelite. The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you, “You are not to go back that way again.” He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold. When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the Levitical priests. It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel.
Trippy, right? God never intended for his people to have a human king, and yet we find commandments regarding the selection and conduct of kings codified in the Mosaic Law.
There are a couple schools of thought regarding this passage. The traditional view is that God inspired Moses to write this down centuries before Israel ever asked for a king. According to this view, we have an example of what might call preemptive accommodation. Other scholars suggest that this particular passage was added to the Law sometime after the establishment of the monarchy. Either way, it is abundantly clear that at least some of the biblical commandments are not reflective of God’s primary will, but instead are reflective of his willingness to concede to and accommodate human hard-heartedness. Having established that, it seems fair to at least wonder what other aspects of the Old Testament may also be reflective of divine accommodation.
Back to Sacrifice
Let us now turn back to our original question: was ritual sacrifice ever God’s will for his people? To frame the question a little differently, was ritual sacrifice God’s original plan “from the beginning,” or was it another example of God accommodating God’s people? To sharpen the point a bit, did God require ritual sacrifice for God’s own benefit, or did God allow it for the benefit of God’s people?
I realize this question may cause some slight discomfort for many of my readers. Whereas divorce and human kingship are peripheral, secondary issues, ritual sacrifice occupies a much more prominent space in the Bible, and especially in the Old Testament. The casual reader of Leviticus comes away somewhat bewildered at the amount of blood, meat, and fire necessary to for proper worship. The entire framework for worship, from the priesthood to the tabernacle, appears to have been centered on and designed to facilitate the non-stop slaughter of animals. Could such a foundational aspect of Old Testament worship really be the result of divine accommodation? I believe it could. Please allow me to present my case before you write me off as a complete Bible-denyin’ liberal heretic.
From the Beginning
As we saw earlier, one of the criteria Jesus used to evaluate a scriptural command was its relationship to how things were “from the beginning.” So, the next logical question is “did God command sacrifice from the beginning?” The answer that is obviously, “No.” There is no mention of sacrifice at all prior to “the fall.”
“But Thomas, sacrifice is related to sin, so of course there wouldn’t be any mention of it before the fall.”
You’re absolutely right. So let’s look at the very first possibility of an animal sacrifice recorded in scripture, which is found in the third chapter of Genesis. But first, a little background.
The first two chapters of Genesis are an origin story. They describe the Creator at work, bringing matter and life into existence and order. The origin story culminates in the creation of two humans, a man and a woman, Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve are placed in the garden of Eden and given the responsibility of faithfully stewarding this new creation. According to the story, the man and his wife were free enjoy the fruit of the garden with only one exception: they were not to eat from “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” whatever that was.
Trouble in Paradise
Adam and Eve were living in paradise, literally, and for a while, things were going really well. The writer of Genesis tells us that “Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame” (Genesis 2:24). After an undisclosed period of time, however, things went wrong. Here’s how the story goes:
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it (Genesis 3:1-6).
This story is commonly referred to in Christianity as “the fall,” the first humans’ initial act of disobedience which fractured the human-divine relationship left all of humanity in a perpetual state of sin. What happened next is enlightening: “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves” (v. 7, emphasis added).
Following this event, nakedness is often associated with shame in the Hebrew scriptures (see Isaiah 47:3). As this first couple became aware of their act of disobedience, they were ashamed, and they tried to “cover up” their shame. Most of us can probably relate. We’ve all done things that make us feel bad or dirty or exposed and our initial reaction is to hide or cover up. That’s what’s happening here. The story continues,
Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”
He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid” (vv. 8-10, emphasis added).
Adam’s shame caused him not only to cover up his nakedness but also to react in fear and hide from God. In what follows, God explains to the couple that there will be consequences for their decision to disobey and that they will have to live with those consequences. Interestingly, however, God did not require these first humans to do anything at all, let alone sacrifice any animals, to atone for their sin and restore their relationship with him.
Having said that, however, the text does indeed seem to indicate that at least one animal did die as a direct result of this episode. According to the story, once the Lord finished explaining the consequences of disobedience to the man and the woman, he did something else: “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them” (v. 21).
As many commentators and preachers have noted, and rightly so, a “garment of skin” cannot be procured from a living animal. In other words, some animal had to die in order for Adam and Eve to be clothed in these garments. The text does not say explicitly that animals were killed especially for this purpose, but that does seem to be a fair assumption. The most interesting aspects of this story to me, however, are who made the garments and for for whose benefit they were made.
According to the text, God himself made the garments skin. It does not appear that the humans themselves had any role in the process. Even more importantly, however, is the realization that these garments were made for the benefit of the people, not for the benefit of God. All along, it was the people themselves who became shamefully aware of their own nakedness and who desired to be covered up. In no place does the text indicate that God was any more offended by their nakedness after their disobedience than he was before. In an act of grace and to ease their shame, God provided a covering for them. This initial sacrifice, if it was indeed a sacrifice, was not to appease God, but to appease people. To state it differently, the first potential reference to sacrifice in the Bible is an act of divine accommodation.
Just Like Everyone Else
In an earlier section we saw how the Israelites’ request for a king sprang from their desire to be like all the other nations. Is there any evidence that might lead us to conclude that the same is true for the sacrificial system? Although scripture itself doesn’t state this explicitly, it does seem to be a reasonable inference.
Ritual sacrifice as a religious practice was extremely common in the ancient world. Not only was it practiced by nearly every religion and culture in history, but it had become commonplace long before it was codified in Israel’s law. Consider the following excerpt from Scott Starbuck, a scholar with expertise in the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies:
Israelite sacrificial practices were not categorically or experientially different from Canaanite rites…Sacrificial strategies emerged out of the particular ancient Near Eastern matrix of which Israel was a part. There is significant continuity between many of the sacrificial impulses recorded in the Old Testament so that, at a minimum, a non-Israelite would likely have understood at least the intent of a particular sacrifice, if not its specific internal logic.
In other words, the sacrificial system of the ancient Israelites was remarkably similar in many ways to the sacrificial systems of the various Canaanite religions, many of which were in place long before God gave Moses the instructions governing their own sacrificial system. As a matter of fact, the sacrificial system was not the only similarity between the Israelites and the Canaanites.
An Outline of Canaanite Religion
Using information obtained from both archaeological research and ancient documents (including the Old Testament), historians and scholars have been able to paint a fairly clear picture of the religious practices prevalent in the Ancient Near East. Beth Steiner, a scholar specializing in Canaanite Mythology and the Hebrew Bible, describes it this way:
The archaeology and historical geography of Canaan confirms several religious features known from the Bible. Canaanites often worshiped deities in places which were considered holy—frequently at “high places,” which were associated with gods and divine assemblies. Canaanites often worshiped outside, at altars of unfinished stones and soil. They also considered temples, which often stood on the sacred ground, to be the dwelling of the god(s) (emphasis added).
That description should sound quite familiar to anyone who has read the Hebrew scriptures. Sacred places were an integral aspect of nearly every religious system in the Ancient Near East.
Steiner goes on to say, “Priests and temple functionaries cared for and controlled the sacred area and buildings, oversaw the sacrifices and religious rituals, and probably practiced divination (emphasis added).” Once again, this should sound familiar to readers of the Bible. In addition to sacred places, sacred people were an important feature in ancient religion.
Additionally, Steiner notes, “Biblical and Ugaritic texts and recovered animal remains close to excavated altars demonstrate that Canaanite religion centered on slaying sacrificial animals(emphasis added).” When we put all this together, a clear picture of Ancient Near Eastern religious practice emerges: the worshippers of any particular deity would travel to sacred places where sacred people would oversee sacrifices made to that deity. For ease of reference, I’ll refer to this as the “sacral system.”
Many of you are probably thinking, “Wait a second, the sacral system sounds a lot like the religious practice of the ancient Israelites, too.”
You’re exactly right. The guidelines for religious practice outlined in the Torah include those very same elements. The sacred place was initially a moveable tabernacle that was eventually replaced by a permanent temple. The sacred people were the priests and Levites, who oversaw every aspect of religious practice. The sacrifices were an array of different animals, as well as grains, oils, and wines, offered for an array of different reasons. The point I don’t want you to miss, however, is how very similar sacral system outlined in Torah was to the sacral system of the other religions in the land of Canaan where the Israelites eventually made their home. There were some distinct differences of course, and we’ll look at those shortly, but the basic outline was incredibly similar. Even more important than that, however, is the fact that the Canaanites were doing it first.
“But Thomas, how do you know that the Canaanites were doing it first? How do you know that they didn’t just copy the Israelites?”
That’s a great question. To adapt a popular children’s song, “The Canaanite’s sacral system came first, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
Biblical Evidence that Canaanite Sacral System Came First
The biblical books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy all describe various aspects and stages of the Israelites’ preparation to settle in the land of Canaan. Exodus begins with the story of Moses and the spectacular ways in which God used him to lead God’s people out from Egyptian captivity. Following their narrow yet miraculous escape from the Egyptians, God instructs Moses to call a family meeting of sorts in order to establish a new covenant with them and prepare them for a new way of life in a new land in which they will no longer be slaves. In order to set them up for success, God gives Moses a collection of laws to govern every aspect of their new life in this new land called Canaan. These laws are found in the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy.
Even a casual reader of these texts will notice that there are frequent references to the various people groups already living in the land of Canaan. These references are almost always negative in nature. Over and over again God tells the Israelites that they are to avoid making alliances with these other nations and to avoid adopting or copying their ways of life and worship. Consider, for example, the following excerpts from these Old Testament writings:
My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out. Do not bow down before their gods or worship them or follow their practices. You must demolish them and break their sacred stones to pieces. Worship the Lord your God, and his blessing will be on your food and water… Do not make a covenant with them or with their gods. Do not let them live in your land or they will cause you to sin against me, because the worship of their gods will certainly be a snare to you (Exodus 23:23-25, 32-33, emphasis added).
Obey what I command you today. I will drive out before you the Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land where you are going, or they will be a snare among you. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherah poles. Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.
“Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land; for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to them, they will invite you and you will eat their sacrifices. And when you choose some of their daughters as wives for your sons and those daughters prostitute themselves to their gods, they will lead your sons to do the same (Exodus 34:11-16, emphasis added).
These are the decrees and laws you must be careful to follow in the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has given you to possess—as long as you live in the land. Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains, on the hills and under every spreading tree, where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places. You must not worship the Lord your God in their way. But you are to seek the place the Lord your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his Name there for his dwelling. To that place you must go; there bring your burnt offerings and sacrifices, your tithes and special gifts, what you have vowed to give and your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks… The Lord your God will cut off before you the nations you are about to invade and dispossess. But when you have driven them out and settled in their land, and after they have been destroyed before you, be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, “How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.” You must not worship the Lord your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods (Deuteronomy 12:1-6, 29-31, emphasis added).
After reading these passages, a couple of things become apparent. First, it’s apparent that the various nations inhabiting the land of Canaan already had systems of worship in place, and these systems of worship included things like altars, priest-like figures, and animal sacrifices. They also included things like physical idols of their gods, Asherah poles, and child sacrifice.
Second, it’s apparent that God did not want the Israelites to follow the in the footsteps of those other nations. But that raises an interesting question: if God didn’t want them to adopt the worship practices of the other nations, then why did he give them instructions to implement a sacral system that included sacred places, sacred people, and sacrifices that were so similar in nature to the ones already in practice?
The best answer seems to be accommodation. In other words, based on both the biblical and archaeological evidence, the cultic system in Israel seems to have been God permitting Israel to practice the least bad version of the Canaanite system. Or, to state it another way, the sacrificial code in Israel was a restriction on the wider sacrificial systems. It’s almost as if God was saying, “Sacrifice is permissible, but only animals and not your kids. A temple/tabernacle is permissible, but don’t make a physical idol.”
If it’s true that ritual sacrifice in ancient Israel was more of a divine concession than a divine commandment, and I believe there is good reason to assume that it is, it still leaves us with an important question: why would people want to sacrifice at all?
The Appeal of Sacrifice
Those of us who live in the twenty-first century West may have a hard time grasping why anyone would choose to sacrifice animals or anything else as a religious ritual. Ritual sacrifice, however, has been a central feature in almost every religious tradition throughout history. There must be a reason for its widespread and long-standing religious appeal. And there is.
According to the scholars who have studied the phenomenon, “Sacrifice is always understood as a means of relating the visible, tangible world in which people exist to the invisible, intangible (and often incontrollable) world in which God or the gods exist.” Stated a little differently, “Rituals such as sacrifice evolved to help concretize the manner in which the deity was truly present in the human community.” In other words, ritual animal sacrifice provided a way to help people feel connected to the god or gods to whom they offered the sacrifice. The people, of course, genuinely believed that the gods were moved by their offerings. They believed that by offering sacrifices the gods would be more inclined to hear their prayers or bless their crops or help them defeat their enemies in battle.
Of course, most of us “enlightened westerners” today understand that most sacrifices in most religions actually did no such thing. That’s because we believe that most of the “gods” to whom sacrifices were offered were not actually gods at all. We understand that in most cases, all forms of religious belief practice were, at best, social constructs designed to form and strengthen communal bonds, explain natural phenomena, and bring psychological assurance and comfort to the adherents.
But what about sacrifices offered to the Lord? Most of us Christians today believe that, unlike the so-called “gods” of the Canaanites, the Lord was (and is) very real and active in the lives of those who follow him. Was God moved by sacrifices? Did the Lord require the death of an animal in order to forgive the sins of the people? Everything we seen up to this point makes me suspect that God did not actually require a sacrifice, but rather that God permitted the people to offer sacrifices for their own benefit, to give them some tangible way of feeling like their sins had been adequately dealt with.
This should make sense to most of us. When we do something to offend, or break the trust of, or, to use theological language, to sin against someone we love, we often feel the psychological need to make up for our transgression. We ask questions like “What can I do to make it up to you?” or “How can I make things right?” If we’re honest, this is usually as much about assuaging our own guilty conscience as it is about making adequate satisfaction in the eyes of the offended party. Acts of penance make us feel better about our own bad behavior.
When this principle is applied to human-divine relations, we end up with concepts like ritual sacrifice as a tangible way for humans to make up for their transgressions against their gods. The Lord, therefore, as a gracious God, accommodated to the psychological needs of his people and allowed them to participate in ritual sacrifice in order to help them feel more connected to him even though God did not need the blood or flesh of an animal to maintain relationship with them. I believe this is a reasonable conclusion based only on the evidence we’ve looked at thus far.
When what we are about to see is taken into consideration, I believe this becomes the most reasonable conclusion.
The Old Testament prophets, in my humble opinion, may be some of the most under-appreciated and misunderstood books of the Bible. Far too many Christians believe the primary purpose of the prophets was to predict future events. While that was certainly one aspect of their work, it was a relatively minor one. The primary purpose of the prophets and their writings was to call Israel back to covenant faithfulness to their God. Speaking and writing many generations after the law had been given and Israel had forsaken the covenant, the prophets were God’s messengers to remind a wayward people what really mattered most to their creator.
You see, in those early years after God had led Israel into the land he had promised them, things seemed to be going pretty well. God’s providence and deliverance was still in the living memory of the people, and this reminded them that they had a responsibility to remain faithful to their covenant with him. Over time, as the previous generations passed away and the people of Israel became comfortable and settled in their new land, they slowly drifted away from God’s plan and intent for them as a people and as a nation. This manifested itself in a number of different ways. Sometimes the result was full-on idolatry as some of the Israelites adopted the worship practices and local deities of the neighboring people. Other times, however, the drift was a bit more subtle, though just as bad. Instead of outright worship of other gods, some of the Israelites maintained the outward forms of religious worship (sacrifice, festivals, prayers, etc.), but they abandoned the principles of love, mercy, and justice that were supposed to set them apart from all of the other nations. According to the prophets, this was as much a violation of their covenant with God as was outright idolatry. The bulk of the prophetic speeches and writings in the Old Testament are centered on calling Israel back to covenant faithfulness in all its forms. In many cases, as I stated in the preceding paragraph, the words of the prophets served to highlight and clarify which parts of the law were most important. Astute reader that you are, I’m sure you can anticipate the obvious question that leads us to ask next:
Just what did the prophets have to say about sacrifice?
The book of Isaiah begins in the following way: “The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah” (Isaiah 1:1). The significance of this is that it tells us that focus of the vision and prophecy was “Judah and Jerusalem,” God’s people, during a very specific period in history, the seventh and eighth centuries, BCE, several hundred years after Moses presented the Israelites with the law. By this time, according to Isaiah, God’s people had “rebelled against” him, “forsaken” him, and “turned their backs on him (vv. 2-4). Isaiah doesn’t tell us right away exactly how God’s people had turned away, but we do know what their rebellion was not. How do we know that? Here’s what God, speaking through his messenger, says to the people of Judah and Jerusalem beginning in verse eleven of chapter one.
“The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?” says the Lord. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings” (vv.11-13, emphasis added).
According to Isaiah, the people’s rebellion was not a refusal to engage in ritual sacrifice and other traditional religious activity. Whatever else they were doing to tick God off, it appears that they had continued to offer the sacrifices prescribed in the law of Moses. God’s admonition to them a few verses later helps us to understand where they had fallen short of his expectations.
Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow (vv. 16-17).
In other words, God’s people had allowed injustice of all kinds to run rampant in their community, all the while they had continued assembling at the temple and sacrificing their bulls, lambs, and goats. At the risk of oversimplifying things, it’s almost as if God, speaking through Isaiah, was telling the people they had everything backwards. What they had treated as optional – justice and mercy – was actually required while what they had treated as necessary – sacrifice and ritual – was not what God actually cared about most.
We do, of course, want to be careful not to overemphasize what is clearly hyperbolic language intended to make a point in a specific context, but at the same time we ought to take seriously the fact that God says, “I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.” The evidence really does seem to point to the idea that ritual sacrifice was less for God’s own benefit than it was for the benefit of the people.
Some of you serious Bible students right now are probably thinking, “But Thomas, there’s a passage later in Isaiah that seems to contradict your premise here. In chapter 43, God seems to rebuking his people for not offering sacrifices.”
I’m really glad you brought that up; let’s take a look at that passage.
Yet you have not called on me, Jacob, you have not wearied yourselves for me, Israel. You have not brought me sheep for burnt offerings, nor honored me with your sacrifices. I have not burdened you with grain offerings nor wearied you with demands for incense. You have not bought any fragrant calamus for me, or lavished on me the fat of your sacrifices. But you have burdened me with your sins and wearied me with your offenses (Isaiah 43:22-24).
You’re absolutely right. At first glance it definitely seems as if God is upset with the people for not offering the kinds of sacrifices prescribed by Moses. This also seems to contradict what we saw earlier in the first chapter of Isaiah. So, what’s going on here?
For centuries, Bible scholars and exegetes have noticed a distinct change in tone and setting between chapters 1-39 and chapters 40-66 of Isaiah. The first thirty-nine chapters seem to be focused on the people of Judah and Jerusalem prior to their exile in Babylon. Beginning in chapter forty, it seems as if the audience being addressed is an audience that is already in exile and promising them that their restoration is soon at hand. If that’s true, and there’s good reason to believe it is, then perhaps this provides an intelligible explanation for the apparently contradictory passages about sacrifice in chapter one and chapter forty-three.
Here’s how this would play out according to that theory. In chapter one, God’s people are still in Judah and Jerusalem and the sacral system is still in place. The people are still bringing sacrifices to the temple, all the while they are forsaking the more important issues of mercy, justice, and righteousness in their communities, leading to the prophet’s rebuke we saw above in Isaiah 1:11-17. Some time later, after the people’s continued refusal to repent and forsake their evil ways, God brings his judgment upon them by removing his protection and allowing the Babylonians to come in and raze the city and the temple and carry the people away to exile in Babylon. While in Babylon, there would have been no way for God’s people to participate in the sacral system. The temple in Jerusalem was the only allowable place to offer sacrifices, and not only was it hundreds of miles away, but it had been destroyed. In light of that, it makes sense that during their time in exile God could say, “You have not brought me sheep for burnt offerings, nor honored me with your sacrifices. I have not burdened you with grain offerings nor wearied you with demands for incense” (Isaiah 43:23). And yet, even in exile, the people “burdened [God] with [their] sins and wearied [him] with [their] offenses” (v. 24).
So, in light of the fact that they could not actually offer sacrifices, what was God’s response?
“I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more” (v. 25, emphasis added).
If Israel in exile is the right way to interpret this section of scripture, and I believe it has merit, then what we see here is enormously relevant. In essense, God is saying that he not only can blot out his people’s transgressions without the offering of a sacrifice, but that he does. This certainly appears to lend support to the idea that God does not require the shedding of blood as a pre-requisite for offering forgiveness and restoration. God can and does unilaterally blot out transgressions for his own sake.
Jeremiah was another one of the prophets who prophesied to the people of Judah and Jerusalem preceding their exile in Babylon. As we will see, his critiques of were similar to those of Isaiah, especially as they relate to the sacral system and weightier matters of justice and mercy.
The section I want to focus on here begins in Jeremiah 7. In the first verse of the chapter, God instructs Jeremiah to go to the gate of the temple to proclaim a message to all who are coming to worship there:
“Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the Lord. This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place” (vv. 2-3).
The obvious question at this point is, “what ways and actions need reforming?” The next couple of verses make that pretty clear:
Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless (vv. 4-8).
Once again, it appears that the people were wrongly assumed that by coming to the “temple of the Lord” and engaging in ritual sacrifice and worship that they were doing what was necessary to cover for their sins. God, speaking through Jeremiah, however, reminds them that worshiping the temple of the Lord does not excuse their oppression, injustice, violence, and idolatry.
A few verses later Jeremiah says something that should catch all of our attention:
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Go ahead, add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat yourselves! For when I brought your ancestors out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not
justgive them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices, but I gave them this command: Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in obedience to all I command you, that it may go well with you (vv. 21-23, emphasis added).
You’ll notice in the passage above I put a line through the word “just.” That’s because there is no corresponding Hebrew word. As a matter of fact, the NIV is the only English translation I can find that includes the word “just” in verse twenty-two; every other translation rightly leaves it out. Consider the following translation from the New Revised Standard Version: “For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
It appears that the NIV translation team was so uncomfortable with the idea that ritual sacrifice was not actually an original part of God’s plan for his people that they added the word “just,” completely changing the meaning of the passage. Jeremiah’s statement, minus the incorrectly supplied “just,” certainly seems to corroborate the idea that sacrifice was more of a divine concession than a divine commandment.
Now that we have established some prophetic precedent for the idea that ritual sacrifice, though acceptable, was of secondary importance in God’s eyes, I want to present a few more exhibits from the other prophets, though I’ll do so with less explanatory material.
Hosea was an eighth-century prophet speaking for God to the northern kingdom of Israel. Here’s part of the message God had him deliver: “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6).
Micah was another prophet sent to the southern kingdom of Judah and Jerusalem around the late eighth and early seventh centuries BCE. Using prophetic poetry and rhetorical questions, he makes a similar point about sacrifices:
With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:6-8)?
Amos was a shepherd living in the southern kingdom of Judah before God sent him up to the northern kingdom of Israel deliver a message. In keeping with the theme we’ve seen so far, Amos tells them how God really feels about them keeping up with religious rituals while forsaking justice and righteousness.
I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings forty years in the wilderness, people of Israel (Amos 5:21-25, emphasis added)?
The final question in verse twenty-five should catch our attention: “Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings in the forty years in the wilderness?” The question certainly appears to be a rhetorical one, with an implied answer of “no.” But does that jive the actual wilderness narratives found in Exodus through Deuteronomy?
At first glance it would seem incorrect to suggest that sacrifices and offerings were not a part of Israel’s time in the wilderness. After all, Moses did sacrifice some animals when he consecrated Aaron, Aaron’s sons, and the newly completed tabernacle and then eight days later the newly consecrated priests began their ministry by offering sacrifices at the altar of the tabernacle (See Exodus 8-9).
According to Old Testament scholars, however, there is reason to question the regularity of the sacrifices in the remaining years in the wilderness. Billy Smith and Frank Page make the following observation in the New American Commentary:
There is reason to believe, however, that sacrifices and offerings were severely limited during the wilderness years. Following Israel’s rebellion and God’s judgment at Kadesh in Numbers 13–14, certain regulations for worship are given but are introduced by “after you enter the land I am giving you as a home.”
Douglas Stuart’s observations corroborate this. He writes,
During the desert experience, neither slaughtered sacrifices nor grain offerings were usually given. The sacrificial system was essentially predesigned for a coming era of normal food production in a landed, settled situation. Though it began in an inaugural manner during the first year’s encampment at Sinai, sacrificing and its association with the three yearly festivals became regular only after the conquest. God’s point via the rhetorical question “Did you bring…?” is simply that offerings are not really what make his people right with him. In the absence of a regular sacrificial program, the people were still covenantally his during the forty years in the wilderness. (Emphasis added)
“God’s point…is simply that offerings are not really what make people right with him.” Wow. The implications of that, if we really take the time to think about it, could be massive. More on that later.
Smith and Page make the following conclusion regarding the rhetorical question in Amos 5:25:
Amos’s point in this case would be that in the absence of a regular sacrificial system, God still maintained a relationship with his people and blessed and cared for them. Therefore the sacrificial system alone is clearly not sufficient to gain God’s favor (emphasis added).
Some Old Testament scholars in the past, looking at the evidence we’ve just examined, have gone so far as to suggest that the prophets were actually trying to bring about an end to the sacrificial system. I’m not sure I’m comfortable going quite that far, but if we put together everything the we’ve seen about what prophets had to say about sacrifice, several things stand out:
- According to Amos, it appears that sacrifice was not a regular practice of the Israelites in wilderness, and yet God still maintained his relationship with them there.
- According to Jeremiah, when God brought the Israelites out of Egypt and spoke to them, when I brought your ancestors out of Egypt and spoke to them, “hedid not give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
- According to Isaiah, it appears that God did not burden his people with sacrificial requirements while in exile in Babylon, and yet he blotted out their sins for his own sake anyway.
- According to the entire prophetic corpus, sacrifice was permissible so long as it accompanied genuine obedience and a commitment to justice, mercy, and righteousness. Apart from those things, sacrifice was utterly worthless, a waste of time and good animals.
This idea that God doesn’t actually require sacrifice is not limited to the prophets. Several of the Psalms make similar claims as well. We should, of course, use caution when appealing to the Psalms for any kind of prescriptive theology, but the following quotations from ancient Israel’s liturgy are interesting nonetheless.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise (Psalm 51:16-17).
Sacrifice and offering you did not desire—
but my ears you have opened—
burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require (Psalm 40:6).
We began this study by looking at the way Jesus read the Old Testament and we saw that, at times, Jesus gave prioritized certain aspects of scripture over other aspects of scripture. For Jesus, God’s original plan as it was revealed “in the beginning” was the standard by which he measured later instructions. According to Jesus, at least some of the perceived commandments in the Old Testament were actually examples of God accommodating to hard-hearted people.
When we applied that same “Jesus hermeneutic” to the topic of ritual sacrifice in the Bible we discovered that, in all likelihood, sacrifice was far more of a divine concession than a divine command. We saw
- There was no sacrificial system in place “in the beginning,” before “the Fall” of humankind. If in fact animals had to be killed to cover the nakedness of the first humans, they were killed for the benefit of the humans who were ashamed of their nakedness, not for the benefit of God.
- Prior to the establishment of the Sinai covenant, sacrifice was sporadic at best.
- Even when the sacral system was codified in the Mosaic Law, it seems to have been instituted less as a positive commandment and more as a concession to and a restriction on the sacral system already in place among the Canaanites.
- Later psalms and prophetic critiques of the religious establishment seem to indicate that, at the very least, the sacrificial system was less important in God’s eyes than was the establishment of communities based on justice, mercy, righteousness, and love.
In sum, the overall narrative indicates, and the prophets themselves seem to state explicitly, that there were periods of time in which God maintained his covenant relationship with his people apart from the sacrificial system. This, at least to me, suggests rather strongly God himself never actually required any kind of sacrifice in order to initiate, maintain, or restore relationship with humanity. In short, the “Jesus hermeneutic,” in combination with the overall witness of the Old Testament, suggests that it was the people, not God, who found satisfaction in sacrifice.
Being the astute reader that you are, you are probably anticipating the implications this thesis might have on other aspects of Christian theology. Most notably, you might be wondering how this thesis might affect our understanding of the death of Jesus. If God never actually required sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins, then how are we to understand the cross of Christ?
 I have slightly adapted the NIV translation here. The Septuagint (which is remarkably similar to the Greek in Matthew 19), uses a third person, singular, “future tense” which may be used to express a “soft command.” The Hebrew is more ambiguous, but the particular construction used here can also be used express a soft command.
 I say “men” in this sentence because women did not have the legal right to initiate divorce.
 BDAG, s.v. ἐντέλλω.
 This is not unreasonable. See note 1 above.
 John Drane, Introducing the Old Testament, 3rd ed., (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 76.
 Scott R. A. Starbuck, “Sacrifice in the Old Testament,” in The Lexham Bible Dictionary, ed. by In J. D. Barry et. al., (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
 Beth Steiner, “Canaanite Religion,” in The Lexham Bible Dictionary.
 Steiner, “Canaanite Religion.”
 Steiner, “Canaanite Religion.”
 Drane, 314.
 G.A. Anderson, “Sacrifices and Offerings” in Eerdmans dictionary of the Bible , edited by D. N. Freedman, A. C. Myers, & A. B. Beck, (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2000), 1148.
Billy K. Smith, and Franklin S. Page, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, vol. 19B, The New American Commentary. (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), 114-15.
 Douglas K. Stuart, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 31, Hosea-jonah (Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1987), 355.