Wednesday, March 05, 2014

The Purpose of the Sacrifices [Part 1]

Animal sacrifice is not something Christians practice, for good reason. The sacrifices of the Old Testament point forward to Jesus Christ and were fulfilled in his death, and are thus no longer necessary for either Jews or Gentiles.

For Christians, the sacrifices can be an interesting study, the details of which frequently serve to reinforce the unity and consistency of Scripture and the plan of God for man through the ages. They can be very reaffirming to a Christian’s faith, and give a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the holiness of God, the nature of sin, the condition of man and most significantly, the value of the sacrifice of Christ himself.

For modern Christians and unbelievers, though, Israelite sacrifices are often a stumbling block. “Those poor animals”, we think, “what did they do to deserve that?” and “Why all the blood? What’s the deal with that?” Animal sacrifices conjure the image of bloodthirsty imaginary pagan deities and do not sit comfortably alongside the 21st century Western mindset. (Of course, for those moderns who have no issue with abortion, I’m not sure why you would have any objection to animal sacrifice. Any concerns about the morality of inflicting suffering, fear and death apply at least equally in both situations.)

But if it helps, I’m with you on the “poor animals” thing.

Let’s drop our preconceptions and have a look first at what the Old Testament sacrifices WERE NOT, and then at what they WERE.

Maybe then we’ll have a better idea why they were necessary.

What the sacrifices WERE NOT:

1. The sacrifices were not God’s ideal

People often mistake a command of God for a preference; for God’s ideal. But if you read Scripture carefully you will note that very often God commands something not because it is the best possible outcome, but in order to prevent something much worse from taking place.

When God commanded Israel as a nation to serve him through the sacrifices, we may observe that an Accommodation Principle, for lack of a better term, is evident.

Stated succinctly: “Since you’re going to do it anyway, do it THIS way.”

(Some may reasonably suggest that a better and more biblical term for this might be “grace”, but there is often a kind of bitterness — an aftertaste, if you like — that accompanies this sort of accommodation; a reaping of that which man has sown, that seems to me a little bit foreign to grace. Moving yet another step away from God’s ‘best’ is never without consequences.)

The principle works something like this:

God is simply too holy for us to successfully meet his standards. It is impossible for us. As Joshua told the people of Israel when they promised to follow Jehovah, “You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God”.

As a result, because his people are unable, God is forever making accommodations in order to be able to maintain any relationship with them at all.

An example: “I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel”. That is God’s position on divorce. He’d prefer that it never take place.

And yet, through Moses, in the law, God gave instructions about the legal way in which a thing that he had declared he ‘hates’ could be done. Why? “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this command”. 

God understood that, most of the time, his people would neither keep his law nor see things the way he does. Recognizing that there was no chance the Israelites would consistently follow the desire of his heart with respect to divorce, rather than have men kicking their wives to the curb hither and thither whenever they saw a prettier, younger face, and leaving them to starve (there was a very limited social safety net in those days), God provided a way in which a man could do what he had already determined he was going to do in a more orderly and decent fashion than he might otherwise have done it, without society crumbling as a result.

It was far from ideal. It was an accommodation to the hardness of men’s hearts. But it prevented something worse.

This accommodation principle comes up again and again in the Old Testament. Because the ‘best’, God’s will and perfect desire, simply would not be done, he graciously lowers the legal bar to avoid the worst case scenario and, while still letting man reap the consequences of his hardness, continues to accomplish his purposes while history awaits the coming of his Son, who would change the nature of man forever.

The principle is evident in the desert with Israel on the way to Canaan. The people are receiving manna from God every day, yet cry out for meat. In the desert, that’s a bad thing. If the people consume all their livestock, where will they get milk for their children, fleece for clothing or leather for their sandals once the livestock are gone? God accommodates, sending quail, preventing something worse.

It’s evident during the period of the judges. God’s preference is that men should lead his people, but when they all fail to do so, he reveals his will to a woman. He accommodates. It seems better to the Lord to have a woman in charge than to have no leadership at all.

Accommodation is evident in the kingship of Israel. God never wanted Israel to have a human king, but Israel cries out to be like the nations. God accommodates. A king chosen by God is still better than a king chosen by the people.

It’s evident during the division of the kingdom of Israel into the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. God’s preference is for one nation. But the majority of the nation continually fails to worship at the temple in Jerusalem and regularly provokes God by providing themselves with religious alternatives closer to home. God accommodates, dividing the nation. It is better to have a smaller, generally obedient nation than a larger, more corrupt one.

The Old Testament abounds with examples of this accommodation principle in God’s dealings with man.

Parenthetically, I’ve started to wonder if maybe the Law itself is an accommodation. Man doesn’t start by looking for ways to please God; we look for ways to do the least we absolutely have to. We never ask what’s right about something; we always ask “What’s wrong with it?” So perhaps God said, “Well, if you HAVE to have rules, here are a few …” But that’s only my unsanctified imagination speaking.

People frequently mistake that which God merely tolerates for that which God prefers. Because the Bible tells Christian slaves how to behave toward their masters, and Christian masters how to behave toward their slaves, people make the mistake of assuming God condones slavery. That is absolutely not the case. What God does not do, by and large, is interfere in the current order of the world, while calling for himself a people from out of that world. “My kingdom is not of this world”, the Lord Jesus said clearly.

One might as well claim that the Lord Jesus endorsed the excesses of Emperor Nero because he told a questioner to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s”.

So back to the animal sacrifices: God has concern for all his creation. Not one sparrow is forgotten by God. A good shepherd leaves the 99 safe sheep to find the one stray. You should not muzzle oxen while they tread out the grain. Of course these examples are provided primarily to illustrate spiritual truth for men, but they would not be appealed to if it were not universally understood that there is something wrong with causing unnecessary suffering. In what will (probably) be Part 4 of this study, I’m going to try to show why such suffering and bloodshed was necessary, and not the least bit frivolous.

So the fact that the way in which the sacrifices were to be performed is specified by the Lord in great detail does not suggest for a moment that God sees no value in the animals he created. This is not God’s ideal. It was “not so in the beginning”. The sacrifices, I believe, are an accommodation to man’s hardness of heart.

Two things make me think this. You may feel free to differ:

1.    The eating of meat itself is, at its root, an accommodation. It was not so in the beginning. In the garden, Adam and Eve were vegetarians. When God tells Noah in Genesis 9 that meat eating is now allowed, it seems very clear to me that he is limiting the damage, not expressing a preference. God has seen how man performed in the first 1,000 years of his rule over the earth, and his conclusion is that “every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually”. So he lowers the legal bar, so to speak, saying “… only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is its blood”.

2.    Animal sacrifice did not originate in Israel. Most, if not all, of the nations of the day practiced it. Many of them had ‘graduated’ to sacrificing their own children, an absolute abomination to God. History tells us that the religious sacrifices of pagans like the Canaanites were accompanied by bestiality, orgies and every kind of degenerate behavior.

I suspect, in view of the fact that the Israelites were going to eat meat, no matter what, and were likely going to emulate the nations in offering blood sacrifices to their God, regardless of his preferences, no matter what, that God designed a system by which his people could offer sacrifices to him that would serve a practical purpose and that he could use to point forward to the coming of his son.

I think God was saying, “Since you’re going to do it anyway, do it THIS way”.

In any case, whatever God’s motivation and all speculation aside, it should be clear that animal sacrifice is very far from God’s ideal for man.

Next: More things the sacrifices were NOT

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