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Old Testament
System of Sacrifice




A basic desire to make some kind of outward display of showing honour, respect or love lies deep within the heart of human nature.  To show love and concern for our fellow man/woman poses no real problem.  We have only to be sensitive to each other’s needs and be ready to help, or give, as we see necessary.  But honouring God in the same way has its problems.  God does not physically need anything we can give him.  He created us and provided all that we possess.  But still, human beings have a deep-seated, subconscious need to show respect to someone (or something) greater than themselves.  And from the very earliest times, humankind has sought to fulfil this desire by the sacrificial burning of costly or valuable possessions to God (Gen 4:3-4; 8:20) or to false gods (Ex 32:1-10; Deut 32:17).


At Mt Sinai, God gave his people, not just guide lines about how they were to perform sacrificial rituals, but very strict parameters.  From now on, although the differences in these new sacrifices seemed subtle, the real differences were, in fact, huge.  The differences lay in the meaning, the mode and the reason for sacrifice.  No longer were people to burn their children.  No longer were people to try to ‘bargain’ with God, or audaciously feel that God owed them a favour because of the size of their offering.  No longer were people to try and ‘appease the gods’ hoping for favours, or to attempt to curry favours by false flattery of over-indulgent offerings.  No longer were people to vaguely hope that by bringing something to God (or false gods) they would have a good harvest, or many children, or be free from sickness, or safe from enemies.


God had already made a promise to take care of his people.  But, the promise had a condition attached – that his people must follow him, obey him, and be his people alone.  God made this covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and with all who would follow him. 


But God’s people were human, and prone to downfall due to self-centred greed and pride.  Which brings us to another basic need that lies deep within human nature – to be forgiven, and to know that we are forgiven.  God’s method of sacrifice also dealt with this need.  When people did wrong, God had made a way for his people to put things right, both with himself and with each other.  Life could then go on without the psychological burden of protracted feelings of guilt.  It does our natures no good either to get away with wrong-doing, or to face what we have done and still feel guilty and unforgiven.  God’s method of sacrifice dealt cleanly with both these issues.  And because the system also dealt fairly with putting things right with each other, it negated the tendency towards tribal ‘pay-back’ situations (that in some cultures went on for generations, and some still do today).


In Old Testament times, at Mount Sinai, God laid down the requirements of what and how to sacrifice.  When necessary, the required sacrifice (one of their livestock, or some of their home-grown produce) was brought to the Tabernacle, and then, in God’s words: ‘The priest shall offer the sacrifice for the man’s sin, and he will be forgiven.’  (Lev 6:7)


Thus, there were two main purposes for sacrifice:


1.           It provided a means for voluntary acts of worship by which people could pay homage or respect to God, or acknowledge the might and awesome power of God, or to acknowledge his goodness, provision and mercy.  And by observing God’s stipulations and boundaries for this kind of sacrifice, people had absolute assurance that what they were doing was pleasing to God.


2.           It laid down mandatory requirements for punishable offences, and this provided the means of atonement, or putting things right with God.  And because God had already said so, the people had absolute assurance that they would be forgiven.


PS:  The reason we are no longer required to perform this kind of sacrifice becomes clear in the New Testament, and to clarify further there is an additional page entitled ‘What is a Testament?’ which you will find further on.




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