The previous study examined how the tabernacle and its priesthood mediated God’s holiness to a sinful people. Today’s study focuses on one important part of that mediation—sacrifice. Offering sacrifices was perhaps the most important religious observance at the tabernacle/temple.
Study Series Note: This study is one in a series of studies on the Bible’s sacred places (tabernacle, temple, etc.). Previous studies focused on the tabernacle as well as creation and the Garden of Eden as a Temple.
While sacrificing animals may seem strange to modern westerners, the reality is that sacrificing animals to our own appetites is accepted and common. We don’t think about eating meat as a “sacrifice” to our stomachs because we are so detached from our food sources. Nevertheless, the process of an animal giving its life by becoming food for us is basically the same as an animal giving its life to God for us. Those who hunt or raise their own animals generally have respect and a realistic idea of what meat eating entails—for themselves and for the animals.
What is Sacrifice?
In the most general sense, sacrifice is giving up something for another. For instance, a mother sacrifices (gives up) sleep to feed her newborn in the middle of the night. Worshipers in many religions give up/dedicate/sacrifice something from their possessions in service to their god. Sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible also included this idea of giving up something to honor or worship the Lord, but many types of sacrifices emphasized what the Lord was doing for the worshiper through the offering. When accepting a prescribed sacrifice, God was transferring the sin, and the justice due for that sin, from the sinner and onto a designated substitute. This transference was symbolized by placing the hands on the head of the animal to be killed. The blood of that animal represented its life, a life sacrificed on behalf of the giver. These sacrifices showed that sin brings death, but they also showed grace in that God allowed a substitute.
Scripture study and Discussion:
Leviticus 1:1-5: Then the LORD called to Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying, 2 “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘When any man of you brings an offering to the LORD, you shall bring your offering of animals from the herd or the flock. 3 If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he shall offer it, a male without defect; he shall offer it at the doorway of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the LORD. 4 He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, that it may be accepted for him to make atonement on his behalf. 5 He shall slay the young bull before the LORD; and Aaron’s sons the priests shall offer up the blood and sprinkle the blood around on the altar that is at the doorway of the tent of meeting.”
This passage in Leviticus specifically describes the “Burnt offering,” and Leviticus goes on to describe many other sacrifices and how they are to be performed. Some sacrifices atoned for sin, some were thanksgiving or celebratory, and others were community/fellowship oriented.[i]
In Leviticus 1:1-5, note some important aspects of the burnt offering: the phrase in verse 3, “without defect . . . that he may be accepted,” suggests there is a proper and acceptable way to approach God. Verse 4, “He lays his hands on its head so it will make atonement on his behalf” communicates the idea of sacrifice as a substitution. Verse 5 gives instructions for the blood to be sprinkled on the altar—blood represents life and the altar is the means of giving something to God. The life of the animal is given to God on behalf of the giver.
The important connection between blood and life informed how many of the sacrifices were actually performed. The pouring out of blood, or the sprinkling of the blood, on the altar represented the offering up of life. The blood–life connection is spoken about in the next passage.
Leviticus 17:10-14: 10 And any man from the house of Israel, or from the aliens who sojourn among them, who eats any blood, I will set My face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from among his people. 11 For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement. 12 Therefore I said to the sons of Israel, “No person among you may eat blood, nor may any alien who sojourns among you eat blood.” 13 So when any man from the sons of Israel, or from the aliens who sojourn among them, in hunting catches a beast or a bird which may be eaten, he shall pour out its blood and cover it with earth. 14 For as for the life of all flesh, its blood is identified with its life. Therefore I said to the sons of Israel, “You are not to eat the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off.”
The Israelites were to treat blood with a special reverence—why? Blood represented life. Blood, therefore, is set apart as the atoning agent in the sacrificial system since that life blood is given on behalf of the one offering it. Because of blood’s special significance in life and atonement, it can’t be treated like other parts of the animal (consumed).
If sinning requires a goat to be killed and its blood splashed on the alter, then sin is graphically and concretely pictured as more serious, more costly. People of modern western cultures may feel bad for the animals involved in sacrifice, but that animal would have been eaten anyway; it’s simply being given to God instead of a human stomach.
Sacrifice for Covenant Relationship.
The sacrificial system was part of the covenant that God gave to Moses. Israel was set apart as God’s special people and maintaining that relationship meant that sin against a holy God had to be dealt with. By offering a sacrifice for sins, the Israelites acknowledged their sin and desire to remain in God’s covenant grace. They would go to the place of God’s presence, the tabernacle or temple, to re-enact and uphold the covenant. The placement of the Ten Commandments in the Ark of the Covenant spoke to the close connection between the law covenant and the temple.[ii] While we may think of the Ten Commandments as the primary moral code of the covenant, Israelites considered the whole Torah, including the stipulations for sacrifice in Leviticus, as a part of the covenant code. Sacrifice was a way for the holy God to maintain covenant relationship despite human frailty and sin.
How does the sacrificial system shed light on sin? On God’s character? What does it communicate about how humans relate to God? (Suggested answers: Sin causes death. As an affront to the holy infinite creator, sin requires an infinite penalty. The largest penalty one can pay is their life. But God is loving in addition to being just, so in his grace he allows a substitution. Nevertheless, humans should relate to God with a humility and awe because our lives belong to God—both because he gave life and because in his justice life is the required payment for sin.)
The sacrificial system of the tabernacle/temple provides important background for understanding the sacrifice of Jesus Christ the “Lamb of God.” The next study will look into how the book of Hebrews describes Jesus as the fulfillment and pinnacle of the sacrificial system.
[i] D. G. Reid, “Sacrifice and Temple Service,” pages 1037-1050 in Dictionary of New Testament Background, edited by Craig Evans and Stanley Porter (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2000).
[ii] As Lunquist notes, the close connection between the law, sacrifice, and the temple was assumed throughout the ancient Near East. , John M. Lunquist, “What is a Temple? A Preliminary Typology” pages 205-219 in The Quest for the Kingdom of God: Studies in Honor of George E. Mendenhall. Edited by H. B. Huffmon, F. A. Spina, and A. R. W. Green. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 1983.