Does God need the blood and fat of animals?
God created the heavens and the earth without burning an animal or sprinkling an altar with its blood. He rescued Noah without requiring a sacrifice. He spoke to Abraham and Moses without first demanding a sacrifice.
God doesn’t need sacrifices:
Jeremiah 7:21-23 When I led your ancestors out of Egypt, it was not burnt offerings and sacrifices I wanted from them. This is what I told them: ‘Obey me, and I will be your God, and you will be my people. Do everything as I say, and all will be well!’
Indeed, God didn’t need dead animals and their blood for His own appetite:
Psalm 50:9-13 I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the insects in the fields are mine. If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?
So why did God tell Moses to splash and burn so much blood and guts?
In answering that question, we have to be careful not to project 21st-century western values back to the ancient middle east.
Life was messier
If you wanted lamb, beef, goat or bird for dinner, someone in your family went out to your livestock, chose an animal then killed it, cleaned it, cooked it. The idea of killing something and having blood everywhere wasn’t as foreign then as it is now. Death was also more of a reality, too.
The blood symbolised life
The ancient view of blood was very different to the way we see it. It wasn’t just red, sticky stuff with a well-known biological function. Blood was seen as a life force, carrying life itself.
The Israelites were familiar with the idea
The idea of animal sacrifices was already well established before God gave his instructions in Leviticus. Abel and Cain both gave offerings, and Abel’s (the animal) was accepted; Noah had given a burnt offering after the Flood, which God accepted as a ‘sweet aroma’; Abraham sacrificed a ram in place of his son Isaac. The Israelites had seen it in Egypt, and they gave burnt offerings to the golden calf (an idol) while Moses was away on Mount Sinai.
A sacrifice-free approach probably wouldn’t have worked
God’s first solution to guiding His people through the wilderness was to be there with them: a pillar of smoke by day and fire by night. It didn’t work. Even after months of miracles—escaping the Egyptian plagues, crossing the Red Sea, getting fresh water, eating manna and quail daily—the people sought out another idol almost as soon as the visual reminder of Moses and God were away for a few weeks:
Exodus 32:1 When the people saw how long it was taking Moses to come back down the mountain, they gathered around Aaron. ‘Come on,’ they said, ‘make us some gods who can lead us.’ … 32:6 The people got up early the next morning to sacrifice burnt offerings and peace offerings. After this, they celebrated with feasting and drinking, and they indulged in pagan revelry.
They had to be told to stop offering sacrifices to goat idols (Leviticus 17:7).
There’s a saying that God meets us where we’re at. And His people, the Israelites, were certainly at the stage of needing to do something active and sacrifice-based in their worship.
The value to Israel of animal sacrifice
Sacrificing an animal wasn’t a straightforward transaction.
It had to be the best: an animal with no defects or ‘choice flour’:
Leviticus 1:3If the animal you present as a burnt offering is from the herd, it must be a male with no defects.
This would have hurt. Ask any farmer who breeds livestock, or a gardener, or an old-style seed-saving graingrower: they all save their best produce for breeding the next generation. Choosing your best then handing it over to God could really hurt, but it said that the offerer loved his God more than his status, his income, and even his future.
Just before the animal was slaughtered, the person offering it had to:
Leviticus 1:4 Lay your hand on the animal’s head, and the Lord will accept its death in your place to purify you, making you right with him.
There was no sense of appeasing God’s wrath or stopping disaster.
When a man took an animal in, placed his hand on its head, then slaughtered it, he would had known that the animal was taking his place. He would have remembered how those who worshipped the golden calf had died for their idolatory, how the Egyptians had suffered under the plagues, and how the Israelites had escaped death just by the death of a lamb on the first passover (in Egypt).
He also would have known about God’s covenant with Abraham, when an animal was cut in half and only God walked between the two halves—an action that was a standard way of sealing a deal. The message was If I renege, I get cut in two like this animal. Significantly, God didn’t ask Abraham didn’t walk through, probably because He knew Abraham’s descendants could never keep their half of a bargain.
Sacrificing an animal was an everyday reminder of the covenant God had made with Abraham and then the Israelites that they would be His people, and He their God.
Ceremony has a purpose
Walk into any old, European Catholic church and look around at the stained glass windows and the murals on the walls and the ceilings. Stay around for a church service and experience the ceremony of it all. In an age where everyone can read, it’s too easy to look at this and wonder why they’d bothered.
But the churches, the art and the ceremonies were created well before everyone could read and write. They were a way of teaching an illiterate people about God in a way they could understand.
The sacrifice and offering system served much the same function: it was a daily reminder of the power and holiness of God and of humanity’s sinfulness.
It wasn’t God who needed the sacrifice, but Israel
So we’ve seen that God designed a system that His people could implement.
- It had an obvious meaning.
- It was costly enough to show the value of God, but it wasn’t financially crippling (like a progressive tax system, richer people gave more than the poor).
- It was part of everyday life.
It was about relationship, not fear
While Israel’s sacrificial system used some aspects of standard ancient middle eastern customs, it also had some important modifications.
Human sacrifice was banned—the animals died in the place of people.
There was no sense of buying off God with a dead animal. The sacrifices didn’t in themselves change His plans. All they did was keep people in a relationship with God. The penalty for failure wasn’t instant death or destruction. Instead, the offender would lose relationship with God and with the community.