The Sacrificial System
By Luke Lancaster
Why in the world did God command the Jewish people to offer animal sacrifices? They sound bloody and gross - completely foreign to 21st century Americans. This article will attempt to explain the purpose of them. But before delving into the purpose of the Jewish sacrifices, as outlined in Leviticus 1-7, one needs to understand the context in which they were given.
Prior to Leviticus, the Jewish worship site called the Tabernacle had just been completed. Read about the symbolism of that structure here. Directly after its completion, though, something amazing happened: “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Exodus 40:34). God’s presence took residence in the Tabernacle, just as if the Garden of Eden had been planted again. Yet the Tabernacle could not function as a “tent of meeting” between Israel and God yet. Moses was not able to enter the Tabernacle and commune with God (Ex. 40:35). There needed to be a special process through which Israel could enter God’s presence.
God solved this crisis by offering two things: priesthood and sacrifices (Leviticus 1-9). These both operated as divinely appointed means to enter God’s presence. Once those two things were followed, Moses and Aaron were able to enter the Tabernacle (Lev. 9:22-24). This prompted God to send out fire from the Tabernacle to light the altar for sacrifices (Lev. 9:24). God appeared as fire on Mount Sinai, so His fiery presence was shared with the altar of sacrifice. For sinful humanity to commune with all-holy God, the altar would need to be used for sacrifices.
The general flow for Israel’s sacrifices was purification, ascension, and peace (Lev. 9:22). Or to put it another way: expiation, consecration, and fellowship. Sins had to be removed and one’s dedication to God stated before one could have fellowship with God. This general flow summarizes their five types of sacrifices: purification/sin, reparation/guilt, ascension/whole burnt, tribute/cereal/grain, and peace offerings. The sacrificial process looked as follows.
A man would present his animal (ex. a sheep) to the priest outside of the Tabernacle to begin the sacrificial process. This animal needed to be without blemish, meaning it had to be without disease, broken bones, skin issues, etc. The priest analyzed the animal to ensure this. If the animal had any blemishes, then it would not be used for sacrifice. This was for a few reasons. First, if it was blemished, then the owner of the animal would be just attempting to get rid of a non-desirable animal from his flock. That would imply that the owner did not really care about God. However, God deserved the best, not the scraps, so the priest forbade such a sacrifice. Another reason for the need of an animal without blemish was because the animal would symbolize moral purity and sinlessness. God could only be approached if one was blameless (Ps. 15:2), but since the owner of the animal was sinful, he needed a substitute. The animal approached God on behalf of the owner.
The next phase was for the owner to lean his hand heavily upon the head of his animal. This was for identification purposes. The person owned the animal. Yet it went deeper than that. The sinful owner of the animal would become the blameless animal. Since he could not enter God’s holy presence due to his sins, the animal took his place. He could commune with God, then, through his animal.
The third step was for the owner to slaughter his animal. This might be a bit repulsive, however, remember that this was going to happen inevitably. He was planning to eat his animal one day. 21st century Americans are frequently sensitive to this, being far removed from the killing of the cow that gave them their steak, but not ancient Jews. This process was not terribly painful for the animal either, for if it was slit at the throat, the animal would lose consciousness quickly due to the blood loss. Yet this still does not answer the main question: why kill the animal? The reason was because sins deserved death (Ezekiel 18:20). If the man had become the animal, then he was symbolically dying for his sins. It was a substitutionary act.
From the pool of animal blood, the priest would take some of it and sprinkle/flick it upon the various sacred objects within the Tabernacle: the altars, the veil, and the mercy seat. This characterized the purification/sin offerings and reparation/guilt offerings. Such a procedure may have been the oddest aspect of the sacrificial liturgy, yet there was deep meaning behind it. The Tabernacle functioned like a magnet, collecting all the defiling sins of Israel. God dwelled within the Tabernacle, and since sins were committed against God, then sins were attached to the Tabernacle. Since the life or soul of the sinless animal was within the blood (Lev. 17:11), then sprinkling it within the Tabernacle would obliterate the sin. The more significant the sin, the deeper the priest had to go with the blood into the Tabernacle.
Not only that but flicking the blood brought communion between the owner of the animal and God. For God dwelled within the Tabernacle, and since the person had become the animal, and the soul was within the blood, then the soul of the worshipper could commune with God in His presence. All of this may have been further signified by the blood naturally changing from a liquid to a solid.
The fifth stage of the process was to lay the dead animal upon the fiery altar for burning. The ascension/whole burnt offering characterized this. As odd as it may be, burning the animal had a multiplicity of purposes. The first to consider is communion with God. God had appeared to Moses as a smoky cloud upon Mount Sinai, so the animal was being transformed into God’s smoky nature. The animal smoke then ascended to God’s heavenly throne, creating a communion between God and man. In addition to the smoke, the fire indicated God’s presence, so by laying the animal into the fire, the animal/owner of the animal had communion with God. When the animal was completely burned up, it indicated a complete consecration to God. The man, who became the animal, was completely dedicated to God. Nothing else was left.
This whole burnt offering would also frequently propitiate God’s anger towards the sins of mankind in Scripture. For example, Noah offered sacrifices after the flood to make it up to God (Gen. 8:20-22). God did not need to punish humanity anymore, for He was happy again (to use anthropomorphic language). The same thing happened with king David, who ended a deadly plague by offering whole burnt offerings (2 Samuel 24:25).
The final phase of the sacrificial system involved the benediction. Aaron the priest would bless the people of Israel (Lev. 9:23). The prayer for blessing was listed in Numbers 6:22-27 as follows, “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them, The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.’ ‘So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.’” Just as God blessed the seventh day and made it holy (Gen. 2:4), so God blessed Israel through the priest. This blessing involved creational well-being, such as crops, health, etc. The benediction concluded the sacrifices.
As seen, the sacrificial system was not some empty ritual devoid of meaning. There was rich meaning to everything they did. Communion with God was through animal sacrifices, mediated by the priests. That was the only way for God to be close to his sinful people. Without sacrifices, Israel could not go near the Tabernacle (Ex. 40:35). This sacrificial system removed sins, but it did not completely satisfy God’s justice. People did not actually die like they deserved. Instead, these sacrifices worked more like a credit card, building up debt, which ultimately was paid for by Jesus. He is the new Aaron/high priest who willingly offered up His life in exchange for ours. Jesus, the infinite and eternal God-man, lovingly suffered our deserved infinite punishment.
Source: L. Michael Morales, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? A Biblical Theology of the Book of Leviticus.