Updated: Apr 25, 2020
Try to talk about Biblical sacrifices to someone, and I'm sure you will soon see the crease between their eyebrows or their eyes glaze over. The concept of sacrificing on an altar as part of worship is so completely foreign to us!
We no longer required to offer gifts to God by fire, so why does it matter if we understand what it's all about?
I put to you that sacrifice is part of who we are today. Jesus' blood is heart and center in our belief that his death bought us freedom from sin. It was his willing death that secured forgiveness from sins not just for the Jews, but for the whole world. How can we have a clear picture of why he died that way or how that came about if we don't understand the sacrificial system?
It's easy for some to fall into the trap of thinking of God as wrathful and angry. Some picture God as a bloodthirsty, removed deity, roaring for blood as justice for our wrongdoings while His innocent Son was thrown in the way to save us. (I have fallen into that pit a time or two, and didn't enjoy my stay.) Was that what was happening on the altar with the lambs in the days leading up to Jesus? Is that what happened on the cross?
If not, what did happen on the cross that resulted in forgiveness for you and me?
These are BIG questions. Hard questions!
If you don't fully comprehend it all, you are in good company! Hundreds of books have been written on this subject. Within the New Testament itself they come at it from many different angles, trying to capture the truth and power of Jesus on the cross.
NT Wright has this encouragement for those of us who believe, yet struggle to understand:
"Before we go any further into this inquiry, let's make one thing clear. You do not need to be able to answer the question "why?" before the cross can have this effect. Think about it. You don't have to understand music theory or acoustics to be moved by a wonderful violin solo. You don't have to understand cooking before you can enjoy a good meal. In the same way, you don't have to have a theory about why the cross is so powerful before you can be moved and changed, before you can know yourself loved and forgiven, because of Jesus' death." - NT Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, page 12.
I am NOT at the end of this journey of understanding the wondrous thing that is forgiveness. I'm not offering the answers but inviting you to journey with me.
The Who, What, When, and Where of Biblical Sacrifices
I figure the best place to start is at the beginning. If I don't understand the how, or the why, I can at least look at the who, what, when, and where. If you're in the same boat as me, how about we try to comprehend Jesus' sacrifice by understanding the sacrificial practices of the Old Testament? These were what Jesus fulfilled. (Hebrews 9 and 10) I will try my best to summarize from some of the most feared (overwhelming and full of strange rules) books of the Bible.
The Books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers give a LOT of details about offerings for the Lord.
They tell who may sacrifice an offering: the priest can sacrifice for himself, for someone else, or for the entire nation. Though priests are not the only ones who sacrificed. Some prophets sacrificed, but they were obeying God's will. (Leviticus 1:5)
Also, where the sacrifices are to be offered: at the doorway of the tent of meeting. (Leviticus 1:3) When the temple was completed, the sacrifices were given on the altar before the doorway of the temple. It seems, however, that at some points in history, there were a few altars throughout the land as well.
It tells what is acceptable for an offering: livestock or bird without defect (usually male, but sometimes female), also grain, bread, wine, incense, and often added was olive oil and salt.
There are even clear instructions as to when the sacrifices were to be offered:
Morning and evening, daily, plus an extra sacrifice on the sabbath (Numbers 28:1-9)
On the yearly festivals of Passover, Unleavened Bread, First Fruits, Pentecost, Day of Atonement, and Feast of Booths, (Leviticus 23)
Offering at the birth of firstborn. (Exodus 13:12-15)
Guilt Offerings, offered when a person defiles themselves by touching something unclean (dead or diseased people or animals), refusing to testify to something that was witnessed at a public adjuration, vowing thoughtlessly, robbery, deception. (Leviticus 5:1-6)
Peace Offerings, free-will offerings, given out of gratitude, or after fulfilling a vow (Leviticus 22:21)
Sin Offerings are offered when a person sins unintentionally. (Leviticus 4:2)
What was done to the offerings?
Some offerings were to be burnt whole, with nothing left except ashes.
Some were butchered, and the blood and selected parts were burned to God, portions were given to the priest (Leviticus 6:16, 7:7-10), and the rest is taken home and eaten by the giver and his/her family (Leviticus 7:15-16). These sacrifices were a sort of communion with God and encouraged a sense of community among the people.
Some were poured out drinks, or simply waved before the altar.
When I looked up words for sacrifices and offerings I found 30 different words or variations of words, and I probably missed some! As you can see, there were many different types of sacrifices, and they were ongoing and continuous, day by day, year by year.
A special note: God also made it possible for ALL to sacrifice. There were substitutions for the very poor, like those who couldn't afford even a small bird (Leviticus 5:11). This, I think, shows something wonderfully merciful about the nature of God. I never get the feeling that the Hebrew people didn't want to sacrifice to God. They desired to give the best they could. This was about honoring the One True God.
Why so many rules?
The Israelites were not the only culture to offer sacrifices. It was important that the purpose of the sacrifices was not corrupted to become the worship of idols. Other nations offered gifts to idols to “buy” good harvests, or to appease the wrath of a fickle god. The act of examining entrails to foresee the future was common in pagan rituals but is not found in Jewish ones. The sacrifices of the Israelites were unique in that they were impacted by the whole concept of the holiness of God.
(Sourced from Encountering the Old Testament, by Bill T. Arnold and Bryan E. Beyer, page 119.)
We can also see from the Bible that other cultures had temple prostitutes and human sacrifice. God did not want that for His people. (Leviticus 18:21, Deuteronomy 23:17)
Why Animal Sacrifices?
This one really bothered me for a long time. I began to get wrapped up in the barbaric, bloody aspect of it all. However, I am not a vegan. I eat meat all the time. My husband likes to hunt, so I've helped butcher and process meat for our family. So why was I so upset at an animal being killed and cooked? If we eat meat and enjoy it, why is it strange to offer it to God along with the wine, oil, salt and grain we also enjoy?
I think, for me, it comes down to feeling guilty. Guilty that the innocent animal died as some sort of forgiveness act on behalf of a person. It comforts me to know that the animals offered were killed skillfully and quickly. It was also a good reminder for me to read that they were not “hated” by God. In fact, it says that God was pleased with them! (Leviticus 1:9, 13, 17)
Not all biblical sacrifices were about sin.
There is a list of festivals in Leviticus 23, and all of these included a sacrifice, or multiple sacrifices of some sort, and at least one special rest day.
Passover sacrifices were a memorial feast. They were celebratory!
The Festival of Unleavened Bread began right after Passover and was a continuation of the remembrance of being brought out from slavery as God's people.
First Fruits and Pentecost were of gratefulness for the harvest, which was also a happy festival.
The Festival of Booths was a memorial of how they used to live in tents when God brought them out of Egypt.
Also, when a sacrifice was offered at the birth of a firstborn, this was not because the baby was sinful, but as a reminder of the great exodus. (Exodus 13:12-13)
Offerings for fulfilling a vow had nothing to do with forgiveness of sin.
The only national holy day that dealt with the sin of the nation was the Day of Atonement. This one was a serious day, where the people needed to humble their souls. This was the day the priest entered the Holy of Holies to make atonement for all their sins every year. A goat was burnt to God. The priest laid his hands on another goat, and it was led far from the people, a symbol of their sins being taken far from them. (Leviticus 16) In the days between the yearly Day of Atonement, you could offer sin and guilt offerings for forgiveness of sins and were told to do so.
Sacrifices were about bringing people closer to God.
While many Hebrew words are used to describe the different sacrifices and offerings, one word pops up quite a bit and caught my attention: “Qarab” which means 'to draw near'. It is used 91 times in Leviticus. When a person brought a sacrifice to God, they were drawing near to Him at the altar. Here is one instance where qarab is used, “but if his offering is from the flock, of the sheep or of the goats, for a burnt offering, he shall offer [bring it near] it a male without defect.” Sacrifice was about going to where God dwells (the temple) and meeting Him there. I don't think it is a stretch to say that sacrifices were about getting close to God in a spiritual sense as well.
Sacrifices alone did not bring forgiveness.
Hosea condemns the people for improperly offering their sacrifices in Hosea 6:6. He tells them God delights in loyalty rather than sacrifice, and the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings. You couldn't just toss an offering on the altar as if it was the action that brings God pleasure. Offering something to God was, and always is, about the heart.
Despite these commands and rituals, the people kept returning to selfishness and turning away from a relationship with God. We see it again and again throughout the history of the people: a series of mountains of faith, followed by a decline into sinful ways. God would meet them in the valleys and discipline them as their Father—not out of hatred, but because He loved them.
This is the world Jesus walked into when he prepared to be the ultimate sacrifice for us all. Your Turn!
Was any of this new information to you? (I learned a lot gathering my research!)
Does this basic overview of the sacrificial system give you insight into the nature of our relationship with God?
Does it help in any way to understand aspects of Jesus' offering of himself on the cross?
If something intrigued you, please share it in the comments!