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Theme: Atonement in Symbols – I (animal sacrifices)

Leading Question: Why is the shedding of blood important for the forgiveness of sins?

In the light of Jesus” death as the true Passover lamb, Christians have seen the Old Testament sacrificial system as pointing to the cross.  Our challenge today is that anyone who is a vegetarian and/or an animal lover is likely to be less than enthusiastic about the ritual slaying of thousands of animals. Yet the book of Leviticus is in our Bible. It was part of Jesus” Bible. How can we make it meaningful for us today?

Looked at from a modern human perspective, a God who notes the fall of every sparrow must surely have been greatly relieved when the cross brought all animal sacrifices to an end. Why did God sanction a system that we would probably describe as gruesome? Or are we already moving toward blasphemy by asking that question?

  1. Animal sacrifices: Mitigating factors for the modern mind.  The following three points can serve as softening, mitigating, even relativizing factors when we consider the value of animal sacrifices in God”s plan:
    1. Jesus brought all animal sacrifices to an end.  Looked at from the larger perspective, one might even be able to say that God was eager to bring to an end a system that called for endless bloodshed. Today we only speak of the “memory” of animal sacrifices; they are not part of an on-going, absolute system of truth. Jesus was the last bloody sacrifice. Even those systems of worship which re-enact the sacrifice of Christ (e.g. where mass is celebrated), blood is only present in symbolic form. And Christians have substituted the deep red fruit of the vine as a symbol of Christ”s shed blood.
    2. Even when the sacrificial system was in effect, God was able to forgive and save without animal sacrifices. In the record provided by the Old Testament, there were many periods of time, some quite lengthy, when humans being did not bring animal sacrifices to God, at least not in the formal manner prescribed in the Pentateuch.  Here are some of the more notable examples:
      1. Exodus. Moses told Pharaoh that the people of Israel wanted to take a three-day journey into the wilderness so that they could “sacrifice” to their God (Exod 5:3). But there is no record of regular sacrifices while Israel was in Egypt.
      2. Judges. When the judges ruled over the tribes of Israel worship patterns were erratic at best and often non-existent.
      3. Monarchy. Quite aside from the deviations in the northern kingdom (e.g. during the reign of Ahab and Jezebel), the history of the kingdom of Judah reveal significant gaps in worship patterns. During the reigns of Solomon (2 Chron 1:2-6), Hezekiah (2 Chron 29-31), and Josiah (2 Chron 34), Scripture records notable periods of ignorance and/or neglect. Interestingly enough, even when the temple services were deficient, the people still felt the need to sacrifice. Josiah”s reform, for example, included the destruction of the “illegal” high places where the people had sacrificed to other gods (2 Chron 34:3-7). The commentary in Deuteronomy 12 pointedly addressed the temptations of the people to offer sacrifices outside the formal system that God had established.
      4. Exile. When Babylon destroyed the Jerusalem temple, all formal sacrifices ceased.  And the exiles in Babylon were forced to seek God without benefit of temple or sacrifice.
    3. The prophets sometimes railed against Israel”s worship practices. The prophet Amos delivered one of the strongest indictment against Israelite worship habits: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon” (Amos 5:21-22). Amos even bluntly suggests that during the forty years in the wilderness God did not want sacrifices and offerings! (Amos 5:25). Isaiah passes on this strident polemic: “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats” (Isa 1:11). Jeremiah is not so explicit about sacrifices, but he rails against those who simply trust in their “temple” worship (Jer 7:3-10) and Jeremiah is the one who refers to the temple as a “den of robbers” (Jer 7:11). Jeremiah is not concerned specifically with sacrifices but with the whole system. He even declares that in a restored kingdom the ark of the covenant will have no place (Jer 3:16). All this suggests that the sacrificial system can be beneficial, but also deadly. And when it becomes deadly, God is ready to wipe it out.
  2. Learning from Leviticus. But after all those qualifying comments, the book of Leviticus still invites our attention and Christians have understood that animal sacrifices can and do point to the work of Jesus.  These three aspects are worth noting:
    1. Blood.  Leviticus 17:11 declares that it is the blood that makes atonement. In the New Testament, Hebrews 9:22 echoes that theme: “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”  Repeatedly the NT authors emphasize that it is through Jesus” blood that we are saved (Eph 1:7, 2:13; Col 1:20). And the Lord”s Supper itself has forever preserved the memory of Jesus” blood as the means of our salvation. A crucial question: Can the memory of Jesus” shed blood be as powerful or even more powerful than the re-enactment of a bloody sacrifice?

      Note: In at least one instance, Leviticus allows the substitute of a non-bloody offering for an animal sacrifice: “If you cannot afford two turtledoves or two pigeons, you shall bring as your offering for the sin that you have committed one-tenth of an ephah of choice flour for a sin offering” (Lev 5:11).
    2. Cleansing from impurity.  Many of Mosaic laws deal with cleansing from impurity:

      Dead bodies (Num 6:6–7, 11)
      Diseases (Lev 13-14)
      Blood discharge (Lev 15:19)
      Semen (Lev 15:2)
      Leprosy (Num 12:9-12)

      Is it possible that in our modern era we should re-kindle a concern for “cleansing” from impurity?  To be sure, Jesus sometimes went against these laws, actually touching lepers, for example (Matt. 8:3; Mark 1:40-42; Luke 5:13). But have we become too casual about the danger of impurity?
    3. Spirit vs. ritual.  Scripture reveals a certain tension between the spirit in which we worship and the rituals which we practice. Even in the story of Cain and Abel, God”s conversation with Cain focused on the spirit (Cain”s anger) not on the correctness or incorrectness of the sacrifice itself. The tension between ritual and spirit is illustrated in the famous penitential Psalm 51. The psalmist first notes God”s preference for spirit over ritual in these words:

      “For you have no delight in sacrifice;
      if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
      The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
      a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalms 51:16-17)

      But a later inspired writer, living at a time and in a place when no ritual was possible, possibly during the Babylonian exile, added this balancing comment:

      Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
      rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
      then you will delight in right sacrifices,
      in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
      then bulls will be offered on your altar. (Psalms 51:18-19)

Summary: The blood of animals provided a powerful foreshadowing of the blood of One who would die for us. But the sacrifice of Jesus brought both spirit and ritual together: He shed his blood for us because of his great love for us.  John 3:16 is to the point: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

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