When you think of the Old Testament is this the image that comes into your mind?
One of the great things about being a Christian is that you can never stop learning and discovering new aspects of your faith. I think this makes sense because deep down we have a longing for God, and that longing should fuel us to want to know more about God and what he has revealed to us and how. Of course no one person can ever know the mind of God, but that does not mean that we cannot attempt to learn more. My personal opinion is that the best way to learn about God is by talking to him, it can be simple conversation, reading the Bible, praying, or by worship. There are many different approaches to worship within our Christian faith, some practices are heavy on externals while other methods focus on a deeper interior style of worship. But how did our Christian ancestors worship God? Was worship as diverse as it is today?
There are numerous instances in the Bible that reference sacrifice.I have chosen the following verse because the verse comes from God himself as a direct instruction.
God declares to Moses “For the life of a creature is in the blood and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourself on the altar it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.” (Leviticus 17:11)
Upon investigation the significance of this verse appears to be “a general statement concerning the role of blood in sacrificial rites”, all sacrifices that include blood.
The Israelite religion although unique in some aspects also shared similarities with religions of the ancient Near East where “gods were thought to be present both in heaven and on earth. God or god(s) would be present in the cosmos but if they were to dwell on earth it would most often be in a temple setting. It was also understood that the gods of the ancient near East could be present in the cosmos even if the god was present in his sanctuary on earth. For one to truly understand and have an appreciation for worship in ancient Israel one must accept that the Israelites “life of worship rites and gestures can be trace to ancient Eastern sources.”
Although not widely practiced today, sacrifice in ancient Israel and ancient near Eastern cultures was a common part of religious worship.The people of the ancient near East viewed their Gods as Deities that needed to be pleased in order to attain their wants and needs such as good weather and health. This made the ancients “very interested in how to attain favour of the gods.” Israel did not invent the idea of sacrifice as one author John Bright notes “Israel did not borrow indiscriminately but rather tended to take over only what was compatible with Yahwism, and to supply that with a new rationale.”
Animal sacrifice is an important theme found throughout the Old Testament.God commanded the nation of Israel to offer sacrifices according to certain procedures.Just like in the ancient near East there are reasons for sacrifice, “the idea suggests something is wrong in man’s relation to God and therefore life must be given up in order to right the wrong.” The emphasis on the blood sacrifice in the Old Testament reveals the sanctity of the blood that is used in these sacrifices.From the book of Genesis Cain and Abel brought sacrifices to the Lord, Cain’s fruit offering was unacceptable while Abel’s was because it was the firstborn of his flock (Genesis 4:4-5). After the great flood, Noah sacrificed animals to God (Genesis 8:20-21) One example of sacrifice is the Day of Atonement , which is about the forgiveness and removal of sins. The practice at the time was for the high priest to take two male goats for an offering. The first goat was sacrificed as a sin offering for the people of Israel (Leviticus 16:15), the second goat would be released into the wilderness (Leviticus 16:20-22). The first goat offering provided forgiveness of sin while the second goat provided removal of sin.These types of animal sacrifices were commanded by God so that the individual could experience the forgiveness of sin.In fact if you were too hand your non Christian friend a copy of Leviticus your friend would be shocked at the sacrificial nature of the Israelite religion and how the sacrifice focused on the blood sacrifice. One author refers to the tabernacle as “a house of blood”.
In hindsight, Christians today can make some sense of the sacrifices in the Old Testament due to the sacrifice Christ made for us on Calvary. But if we are to examine the Old Testament by itself, it really is a perplexing concept for the biblically illiterate. The writer Hans-Joachim Kraus notes “it would be rash and one-sided to allow ourselves to be guided in our consideration and evaluation of sacrifice in Israel by the ancient Levitical traditions.”
There are three main reasons of sacrifices offered by Israel to God, the first being presenting a gift to God to show gratitude for all that he has provided. The second: sacrifice of an animal is an act of communion wherein the members partake in the eating of the sacrificed animal. Thirdly it becomes the liturgical practice for expiation for Israel’s disobedience of holiness. The whole burnt offering indicates that the offering (the smoke) “went up to God”.
Sacrifice can be related to the Garden of Eden, paradise means a hedged in garden The Garden of Eden had 4 great rivers flowing out of it ( Genesis 2:10 ) The privileged of living in the garden was based on man’s obedience, if man disobeyed he would be driven away from living in God’s presence. The holy place where man once walked with God was now veiled. God placed cherubim and a flaming sword every way (Genesis 3:24 )to keep anyone from entering the garden and approaching the tree of life.
The Lesson of Eden is a prototype of the conditions and environment which man may have encounters with God. The Garden of Eden can show us that the idea of separation is an important part of holiness, as well as degrees of holiness for example the sabbath is more holy than other days of the week because it has been set aside for God. The sanctuary of the Garden of Eden is holier than the outside.The tower of Babel teaches us that not only can sin separate us from God but also from each other. (Genesis 11:7) Holiness, obedience & closeness to God seem to go together.The opposite side is sin, rebellion and distance from God & each other.
Moses goes up into the clouds at Mount Sinai, the cloud is used as a veil to the Lord.Moses receives the 10 commandments with lighting and earthquakes (Exodus 19, 20 )…while this is going on the people down below the mountain are committing idolatry. Therefore the people need proper instructions on how to worship.
The Garden of Eden, the tower of Babel and Mount Sinai are all examples of where man wants to be, which is close to God.
Worship was handed down on Mount Sinai directly to Moses from God.God dictated the smallest details, there are complete lists of infractions that are offensive to God ( Leviticus 11). God tells Aaron and his sons they must be properly clothed and not drink alcohol before they go and serve, the punishment for either offence is death. This demonstrates the seriousness that one must take when worshipping God.The tent like Church was called the Tabernacle, designed by God,( Exodus 25 ). Inside was the was the ark of the covenant. It was a golden box build by the exact specifications by God.It contained the tablets of the ten commandments which were carved in stone by God Himself as well as a jar of manna which had fallen from heaven.
The ark was so holy it could not even be touched. In 2 Samuel tells about the Uzzah who touched the ark and was struck dead.The sacred vessels that were used to hold the sacrificial blood in the temple were not meant to be used with any thing that is profane.
King Balthazar thought the vessels should be brought out and drank out of, then King Balthazar was killed and his kingdom was over thrown. (Daniel 5) So when man is dealing with the sacred his accountability seems to be increased, every infraction is to be held accountable by God.This teaches us about the reverence those Israelites in the Old Testament had for God. God had commanded that the holiest of holies was to be covered by a massive veil embroidered with the images of cherubim. The holiest of holies was symbolic of the Garden of Eden, Mount Sinai and heaven.It was closed to all men except for the high priest who could go in once a year.The cherubim are placed on the outside to symbolically remind people that there is no access to the intimate access to God.
The Cherubim are two fierce figures gazing at one another. So the Ark becomes a much venerated and much feared object.
When Moses met God on top of Mount Sinai to receive the ten commandments he did so in a thick cloud, which protected Moses and made it possible to enter God’s presence without being killed. When God dictated to Moses the precise rubrics the priest must use when he approaches the holy of holies he commanded the priest use a cloud of incense for protection “That he might not die” (Leviticus 16:13).
The people at the foot of mount Sinai could not see God giving the tablets to Moses because of the cloud. This would be similar as to when the faithful would go to the temple, the worshippers could not see the ark of the covenant because it was in the holy of holies and it was covered with a veil.
This reminds us that there is a balance that needs to be kept between the sacred and profane and why proper worship is important.
Worship forms directly affect our notion of the holiness of God, God revealed to people his holiness and how His holiness should be approached.The tabernacle was the physical expression of the mystical.
The people were able to worship the way God intended them to, but now the animal sacrifice takes on a double purpose, the carcass now also becomes food. Although in todays modern society we tend to think animal sacrifice is barbaric, but the truth is most of the sacrifice of these animals were eaten by the priests and Levites. Whereas today in the 21st century we slaughter and eat animals but we have lost that sense of the sacredness that they did in the Old Testament. (Isiaha 1:11)
Using Biblical examples and scholarly works I have shown that the key to worship in the Old Testament was sacrifice and although there were grain offerings the command from God was to have a blood sacrifice.When the law was given, God made it clear that sacrifices could not be done just anywhere but only where he prescribes ( Deut.12:4 ) Once King Solomon completed the temple in Jerusalem it would be a sin to offer sacrifice in any other place.(1 Kings 6, 8 ) With the destruction of the temple around the year 70AD no more animal sacrifices have been made.
A History of Israel by John Bright, The Westminster Press, 1959, p.149
Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible by John H. Walton, Baker Academic, 2006
Central Sanctuary and Centralization of Worship in Ancient Israel : from the settlement to the Building of Solomon’s Temple by Pekka Pitkanen , Gorgias Press , 2004
God Dwells With His People by Paul M. Zehr, Herald Press, 1981
The Tabernacle by M.R.De Hann, Zondervan Publishing House, 1955
Understanding The Bible by Ignatius Hunt, Sheed & Ward, 1962
Worship In Israel by Hans-Joachim Kraus John Knox Press , 1965
Worship In Ancient Israel An Essential Guide by Walter Brueggemann, Abingdon Press, 2005
Worship In Ancient Israel: Its Forms And Meanings by H.H. Rowley, SPCK Publishing, 1967
Romerowski, Sylvain “Old Testament Sacrifices and Reconciliation”, European Journal of Theology, 2007, VOl.16 Issue 1