Re-examining the O.T. Sacrificial System

Sacrifice

What’s the deal with the Bible and blood? What was the point of all that animal sacrifice? Why does the N.T., in referencing Christ’s death, often focus on the blood of Jesus? If Christ’s death was needed for our freedom from sin’s enslavement, why couldn’t Jesus just die at childbirth or die from pneumonia as an adult? Why is their an emphasis on his blood being spilled for our sins?

I hope to deal with some of these questions in the following post.

I was reading in Leviticus 17:10-11 today where God thoroughly condemned the eating of blood, the consequence being the possibility of death (i.e. “cut off”). The only reason given is that life is in the blood and God ordained blood for atonement, saying, “the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls.”

However I found myself still scratching my head and desiring a greater reason why the consequence for eating blood could be so severe as to possibly warrant the death penalty.

The following is what I have come up with. To begin it is noteworthy that in repeated places throughout the Scriptures God declares that he does not desire the blood of bulls and goats but rather a contrite, obedient, steadfast, thankful heart (1 Sam. 15:22, Isaiah 1:10-11, Hosea 6:6-8, 8:11, Mt. 9:13, 12:7, Ps. 51:16-17, Ps. 50:7-15). In fact when Israel lapsed into sacrificing animals out of tradition, without accompanying repentance, God condemned their animal sacrifice as being empty and meaningless. That is critical to note. Clearly God has always been most concerned with the conversion of the heart towards righteousness.

As such I believe sacrifice and specifically blood-letting was meant to remind through demonstration the severe consequences of sin (enslavement leading to death) and be a motivating factor not to continue in sin. But what happens when people stop considering the consequences of sin in their own lives? What happens when people stop reflecting on the high cost for sin’s atonement? What happens when sacrifices are done out of empty tradition and habitual ritual? What happens when people start viewing the blood of sacrifices as a common, ordinary thing? (More on this specific point at the end).

Apparently God realized the propensity for his people to lose sight of the costly consequences of their sin, so God was very intentional about establishing strict boundaries around one’s treatment of blood. Given that even science affirms that “the life of the flesh is in the blood” (Lev. 17:11) and that to date no laboratory has been able to create or reproduce what the body makes naturally, then it is no exaggeration to assert that blood is the most valuable resource or commodity on the earth. God apparently thought the same and in Lev 17 God institutes a strict policy that blood is not to be eaten on the basis that it was given to men to atone for their sins.

Therein is the key. If blood is perceived as “life itself” and the most valuable commodity on the planet, and if God intended the shedding of blood to signify to all the high cost of one’s sin, then obviously its value would be greatly diminished in the eyes of everyone if it could be served up on a dinner plate like fried chicken!

When an animal was sacrificed on behalf of a sinner, the sinner was meant to see that blood and realize that because of their selfish actions, the debt owed had to be paid with the most valuable commodity on the planet: life. Something needed to die. It is somewhat a mystery to me, but sin exposes us in a manner that must be covered. To atone actually means “to cover.” But not just anything can be used to cover or atone for sin. Adam realized this early on. When Adam and Eve sinned everything changed about their self-awareness and world-awareness. We often hear a lot about the forbidden fruit taken but not about the name of the tree it came from: the “tree of knowledge of good an evil.”

Think of it as the tree of lost innocence. Immediately they began to feel self-conscious of their exposed nakedness. As a result they attempted to cover themselves with leaves. But it was not sufficient. God steps into the picture and atones or covers their nakedness with the hide of animal, implying two things: 1) an animal had to die in order that their exposure to a new, changed world could be covered, 2) sin always exposes us to a greater loss of innocence if left uncovered or unaddressed and 3) God’s motivation behind covering is our protection from being further violated by an evil world.

By way of example: think of two children growing up all alone on a remote island. They possess no clothes and thus wear no clothes. The entirety of their lives has been spent blissfully unaware of the greater world around them– that is until one day everything changes. They are picked up by a fishing vessel and dropped off at the harbor of New York city–still naked. Now keep in mind they have never been exposed to a racy magazine, a T.V. show or even a lewd joke. The distinction between nakedness and being clothed is somewhat lost on them. They begin to walk down the dark alley ways of New York City uncovered and nakedly exposed to the eyes, thoughts and imaginations of all those around them. What do you think will happen to them in time? They will no doubt be preyed upon and violated in ways that never would have occurred had their naked innocence been covered up and hence protected. Moreover being used and victimized will become their “new normal” since they have no point of reference telling them such violations of their innocence are wrong and destructive.

All that to say sin uncovers us and God seeks to recover us. Sin removes pieces of our “original clothing” (i.e. the image of God) and causes us to be further exposed to the “image of the world” in a defenseless manner. It could be God’s institution of animal sacrifice was a way for the remaining purity of his people, the “image of God,” to be protected by covering their exposure due to sin.

I need to say a short word on covenant. In the ANE culture when covenants were established it was customary for an animal to be sacrificed and split down the middle with both parties walking down the middle, symbolizing, “If I break covenant with you, let it be so done to me.” Now what is interesting to note is that when God first established a covenant with Abraham, the scriptures record only God walking between the split sacrifice. This in turn tells us God knew the day would come when he alone would absorb into himself the consequences of covenant-breaking sin and walk through the middle of death on behalf of a people who broke covenant with him. In the Hebrew language covenant literally meant “to cut a covenant” and therefore could not occur without sacrifice. That is why when Christ lifted up the wine glass and split the bread in two pieces, he declares, “This is a new covenant I give to you.” He knew he was about to walk through the split pieces, right through the middle of death just as he did with his Father years before when the Triune God made covenant with Abraham and walked through the split sacrifice– but this time he will be the sacrifice. 

With covenant now in view, we can better understand that life can be reduced to one of two spiritual realities. We are either offering ourselves to God in faithful covenant and becoming enslaved to righteousness and life, or we are divorcing ourselves from covenant life and becoming enslaved to sin and death. This is why Paul warns, “Don’t you know that if you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of that one you obey—either of sin leading to death or of obedience leading to righteousness?” (Rom. 6:16).

Sin is a progressive violation– like a parasitical infection. It is never dormant and never content. It wants to consume, grow and enslave. James made this point when he essentially said sin conceived will grow up and eventually bring forth death (James 1:15). But perhaps that is a clue. If death is the final consequence of sin, then perhaps death is also the answer to sin.  Perhaps there are two kinds of “death.” There is death due to sin, and then there is death to deal with sin. If the power of sin introduced death to humanity, then perhaps death can also banish the power of sin from the sinner and the one holding the power of death over that sinner–i.e. Satan. This seems to be suggested in Hebrews where the writer declares that the central mission behind Christ’s death on the cross was to “destroy the one who had the power of death –the devil” (Heb. 2:14).

In the N.T. Christ’s death and resurrection dealt with the consequence of sin (i.e. death) and the power sin itself. That is to say Christ’s death and resurrection brought death to death, and essentially neutered its power over our lives. “Where O, death is your sting, where O, death is your victory” is the declaration of triumph we have in Christ according to 1 Cor. 15:55.

But since Christ’s coming and death occurred after the O.T. sacrifices at a time referred to as the “fullness of time,” the question that presents itself is, what to do in the run-up to that time? The writer of Hebrews speaks of the O.T. sacrificial system as foreshadowing what was to come, or a temporary copy of things to come. The O.T. sacrificial system could not conquer the power of sin and death as Christ’s sacrifice later did, but it was instituted as a means to temporarily forestall the death of the sinner who broke covenant with God, by substituting in the death of an animal. These are deep mysteries we cannot fully plumb.

What is clear is the Mosaic law establishing that the cost or the “wages of sin” is death just like the Scriptures will declare years later in Romans. But we need to be careful here. It is not a cost paid to God. We are wrong if we think God established animal sacrifice as a means for us to pay God back for our sin. The sacrificial system was not instituted as a means to buy God off with blood. That was the pagan viewpoint of animal sacrifice. Rather the sacrificial system and the bloody death of an animal was what it cost for one to recognize he or she was a sinner who broke covenant with God! It was always about the heart being driven towards righteousness and faithfulness and away from wickedness and evil. The Mosaic sacrificial system departs from other ANE pagan sacrifices on this point. The ANE pagan notion of animal sacrifice was rife with the notion that one could manipulate one’s god for good fortune. It had no ethical overtones whatsoever and it certainly had nothing at all to do with forgiveness or atoning for one’s sins.

But for the Hebrews the costly lesson that needed to be learned was that sin is a contagion and when left to its own devices it kills life by polluting, profaning and defiling life and ultimately cutting us off from the source of life. We become like a branch cut from a nutrient rich tree and replanted into plastic rubbish and garbage. Or as stated earlier, the “image of God” becomes increasingly lost to us as we pick up the “image of the world.” If being made in the “image of God” is the true mark of our original humanity then sin will always have the effect of de-humanizing us. We will become a shrunken, shriveled up version of our true selves– our souls slowly wasting away unable to feed off a world bloated and obese with sin’s “turkish delight.” The O.T. often spoke of any activity that did not not resemble or reflect God’s orginal design for the  world as “profane and unclean.” As such any move towards the profane and the unclean is consequently a move that will take one futher away from a holy God who defines our very humanity. He is the “password” to our “login” in discovering life itself. 

We often hear the phrase, “sin separates us from God,” but the breach is not primarily caused by God cleaving the ground between us and him, stating you stand there and I’ll stand over here. Rather the separation is a direct result of walking toward the antithesis of good, of whom God is the paradigm. It takes no genius to see that the further you walk towards the left, the further away you are from the right. Similarly the closer you walk towards the profane and unholy, the further you are walking away from the sacred and holy. Sin is always a matter of adultery with the world leading to self-chosen divorce from God.

In the context of covenantal relationship and restored communion, reconstituting a severed relationship due to broken trust requires genuine contrition and repentance. However because covenant and communion with God is primarily a heart matter, it means contrition, repentance and purification is something that must take place on the inside not the outside. That is what the Pharisees and scribes missed and why Jesus called them whitewashed tombs on the outside filled with dead men’s bones in the inside. Moreover this is why the Mosaic sacrificial system as a whole was limited in what it could achieve in terms of man’s greatest need—i.e. presenting an internal, perfect conscience before God.

The O.T. sacrificial system was instituted as a means to drive man away from sources of defilement and back towards the Lord. But it was limited in that it was only an outward act, an outward gesture and therefore could not by itself achieve inward cleansing and purity of conscience. At best it could only hope to motivate someone to reflect upon their life and recognize that sin was inwardly ravaging their souls and only repentance and obedience could restore them to life and communion with God.

So we can sum up the ultimate intentions of the Mosaic sacrificial system as an incomplete means to bring distant hearts near to their creator. Sin had caused a breach between God and man. The O.T. sacrificial system would temporarily cover over sin and allow man to continue to live without fear of impending judgment. Bloody as it may be, it was rooted in mercy towards sinners. But sacrifices for sins could not deal with sin itself. It could not “take sins away” (Heb. 10:4; 9:26). And it could not perfect or cleanse the inner conscience (Heb. 9:9,14).

However what the old the covenant could not do the new covenant came to address. Through Christ’s shed blood our sins have not just been covered and atoned for: they have been buried (Rom. 6:4)! Every accusation of the enemy and every just condemnation of “falling short” of God’s glory has now been “nailed to the cross” and is no more (Col. 2:4). Through Christ’s shed blood we have obtained an eternal redemption that not only sets us right temporarily but declares us to be in the right eternally (Heb. 9:12; 10:14). That is why the writer of Hebrews emphatically says:

[Jesus] has obtained a more excellent ministry, inasmuch as He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second. Because finding fault with them, He says: “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their lawless deeds[b] I will remember no more It [Mosaic covenant] was symbolic for the present time in which both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make him who performed the service perfect in regard to the conscienceFor if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?(Heb. 8:6-8, 10, 12; 9:9, 13-14).

With that said, let’s return to our initial question as to why God was so adamant that blood be off the diet menu for Israelites (Lev. 17:10-11). It has already been noted that if God was trying to set apart the value of blood as being the costliest element on earth, with the intention being that the heart of man would be pierced through and gripped by the enormity of his sin, then the last thing you are going to do is allow your people to treat blood as a common, ordinary substance to be taken in and pooped out.

In the West we don’t particularly eat congealed blood, so it is no big loss in our minds. But in many cultures today eating congealed blood is considered delicious. And in the ANE culture of biblical times the eating of blood was a common practice in the pagan world, often done in concert with their blood sacrifices. But God says to his people, “It is not to be so with you.”

Now if God were to have said, “Thou shalt never drink milk, for the milk of a cow’s utter has been ordained to atone for your sins,” well then I would have real heartache because I love me some milk! Now just imagine if the cost of your sin was to bring your cow to the temple wherein a priest would fill up a pail of milk and then pour it over the alter to represent the high cost of your sin. Then imagine going home and milking your cow again by your own hand and pouring the milk down your gullet along with some manna bread and maize nuggets.

To treat the cost of sin on equal terms with food that is taken in and eliminated by the body is to treat the price of your atonement as a common, ordinary thing. If the entire sacrificial system was meant to demonstrate the enormity of one’s sin and bring conviction, contrition and conversion to the human heart, then it makes sense why God would enact such a stiff penalty on those that ate blood and treated it as a common element.

This in turn can help us make greater sense out of Hebrews 10:28-29 wherein the writers states that if the death penalty was handed down on those who “rejected the law of Moses”, of which the proper handling of blood was paramount, then:

Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace?

What does it mean to treat Christ’s shed blood as a “common, ordinary thing?” Other translations opt for stronger wordage such as “profane, unclean or unholy.” But the overall sense is that the blood of Christ is being judged to be without special merit and as such belongs to general commonality rather specificity.

That is dangerous.

It is like radiation therapy. It is the only treatment for some forms of cancer, but if it not handled properly, if it is treated without special consideration, or if it treated as a “common thing”— no different or stronger than sun-tanning– then it’s mishandling is often it’s own death sentence. In other words, when we view the blood of Christ as being irrelevant to our lives and judge it as having no special place in our lives and having no special claim over our lives of sin, it is not only the greatest insult to heaven, but it also carries with it its own death penalty. We have removed from our lives the only means for our sins to be taken away.

It is like a prisoner rejecting a presidential pardon on the basis that it is an irrelevant piece of paper on par with toilet paper. Because he judges it as possessing no real or special value to his life, he is consequently choosing to reject the only means for his life to have a clean slate and a clean conscience. Such a person would be locking himself up from the inside and tossing the key away.

Consider another helpful illustration. Imagine being shipwrecked on the high seas and hoping for rescue as you struggle to tread water and keep your head from going under. All of a sudden a rescue boat appears and tosses you a life preserver to pull you in. But instead of receiving it you reject it as being irrelevant, common and ordinary like floating seaweed. You are rejecting your only source of rescue because you judge it wrongly. You judge it as common and ordinary.

To judge the blood of Christ, the most valuable commodity in the universe, as being inconsequential, irrelevant to your soul and belonging to the commonality of other religious claims is to rob yourself of your only hope and lay upon yourself your own debt of sin and a terrifying expectation of future judgment when the universe is audited, heaven and earth merge into one, and all that is still attached to sin becomes undone and vanquished forever.

 

 

P.S. One issue that still gnaws at my mind is the Mosaic law commands the death penalty for so many sins. So it is not sufficient to say the sacrificial system was a means for God to forgive sinners of their sin, because the Mosaic law is filled with examples and commands to enact the death penalty on those who transgress the law in other areas—such as human-child sacrifice and sexual perversion. Why could sacrifices atone for some sins but not others? What exactly is going on there? I’m not entirely sure. It could be that some sins needed to have a no tolerance policy so that the Israelites would not use God’s mercy and grace to renegotiate ethical or moral boundaries. It could be that God knew that the Israelites would rapidly cease to exist and be consequently subsumed into the pagan “Borg collective” if clear demarcations of holy and unholy, clean and unclean were not laid down with strict consequences enforced to serve as serious reminders. Thoughts?

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About StriderMTB

Hi, I'm Matt. "Strider" from Lord of the Rings is my favorite literary character of all time and for various reasons I write under the pseudonym "StriderMTB. As my blog suggests I seek to live out both the excitement and tension of a Christian walk with Christ in the 3rd world context of Asia. I am unmarried yet blessed to oversee an orphanage of amazing children in South-East Asia. I hate lima beans and love to pour milk over my ice-cream. I try to stay active in both reading and writing and this blog is a smattering of my many thoughts. I see the Kingdom of God as Jesus preached it and lived to be the only hope for a broken world and an even more broken and apathetic church.
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2 Responses to Re-examining the O.T. Sacrificial System

  1. Jason says:

    Hi Matt.
    Just a couple of minor details. Firstly the death penalty was not prescribed for ingesting blood. God says that he himself will cut that person off from the community and turn his face against that person. In other words that person will no longer be among the community of the faithful, but not dead.

    The use of the death penalty was, in many cases, rhetorical, highlighting the significance of the sin. Numbers 35:31 gives a specific occasion in which the death penalty could not be commuted to a ransom, in the case of murder, which suggests that in other circumstances the village elders were free to set a fine rather than have the person executed. Ancient legal codes had a penchant for perfectly even and ironical justice (Haman being hanged on his own gallows?) but weren’t applied in a wooden fashion. The Code of Hammurabi for example says that a doctor whose patient dies should be put to death. It’s definitely ironic, but I seriously doubt it could ever be applied.

    God bless.

    • StriderMTB says:

      Thanks for stopping by Jason. You may well be right, but if so, it is not so obvious. The Hebrew term “cut off” stems from the word “kareth.” Scholars debate the actual meaning of “kareth,” and that is largely due to the fact that many suggest several meanings: 1) To be put to death, 2) to die before one is of the age of 60, 3) to be spiritually cut off. It is possible it can mean banishment or some sort of excommunication but I found very few opting for that interpretation. In Lev 18 (the very next chapter) it lists other offenses punishable by “kareth” such as sacrificing one’s child to Molech, bestiality and incest. Many hold capital punishment is in view. That aside, even if the punishment for ingesting blood was excommunication, it would still seem to be a harsh punishment for simply eating what was quite common in the ANE culture. My aim was to tie in the fact that the punishment needed to be harsh because God was trying to establish blood as being the costliest element on earth in order to impregnate their hearts with the costliness of their sin. Viewing blood as a “common” thing to be served up on a plate right after returning from the temple, in which an animal was sacrificed for your sins, would seem to greatly reduce one’s conscious apprehension of the enormity of one’s sins and the cost for restored communion with God. Blessings.

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