Paul told the people of Athens that a God who made the world had no need of offerings and sacrifices;
“He is not served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything” (Acts ch17
While Jeremiah told the people of Jerusalem that their God had never demanded them;
“For in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and
“But this command I gave them; Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk in all the way that I command you, that
it may be well with you” (Jeremiah ch7 vv22-23).
If Jeremiah was right, how did these offerings become part of the Pentateuch?
I would reconstruct the history in this way;
The God of Sinai would have given his people commands which focussed on their relationship with himself and their treatment of each other, just as
Jesus later defined them; “You shall love the Lord your God… and your neighbour as yourself”.
When brought into the land of Canaan, this commandment-based covenant would have been grafted onto the existing, sacrifice-based, local culture.
Cultural conservatism would have made it difficult to discard the sacrifices, and there would have been no obvious need to give them up.
If their God was going to supersede the local gods, it would be desirable, in any case, to transfer to him the ceremonies which were associated with
It would make the point that he alone was the true provider of the gifts for which men were giving thanks.
Abraham and Isaac
However, there were some customs which could not be appropriately transferred.
There was to be no room in this religion for human sacrifice, which was a common practice in the ancient world, illustrated in the Old Testament
Part of the purpose of the story of Abraham and Isaac is to demonstrate, in the most dramatic way possible, that the God of Israel does not want human
The command that Isaac should be sacrificed was put forward with the intention that it should be withdrawn, and the lesson of this reversal was much
more memorable than a merely verbal prohibition would have been.
Another lesson was taught at the same time; “One kind of sacrifice can be replaced by another”, a principle which offers a way of re-modelling the
whole sacrificial system.
The wrong incense
The God of Israel may not have asked for these customary offerings in the first instance.
But if they were going to be accepted at all, he could not exclude undesirable features (or begin a process of changing them) without first
establishing some degree of control.
Therefore an incident in the consecration of Aaron shows him insisting on obedience in the way these rituals are conducted.
The shared meal
The most basic form of sacrifice was giving a portion from a food animal back to the God who supplied the animal in the first place.
This was originally supposed to happen every time an animal was slaughtered.
The rest of the sacrifice was normally divided between the worshippers (which later included the priests).
Paul picked up on the point that, in effect, the worshippers and their God were sharing a meal together.
There were other forms of sacrifice which were offered on the same grounds.
That is, expressing a sense of obligation to the provider.
Claiming the firstborn
The basket offering
The tithe offering
The firstborn progeny of all living things.
The first portions of the annual harvest.
One tenth of the annual produce.
The calves of the lips
The praise of God can also be counted as a kind of sacrifice.
Hosea calls it “the calves of the lips”.
This makes it a possible substitute, in the long term, for bloodier forms of sacrifice.
The atonement offerings
The other main reason for offering sacrifice was as a way of persuading God to overlook their sins and transgressions.
The Law declared that the blood of animals was reserved for the purpose of “making atonement”.
This was because their blood represented their life.
I suggested that the lives of the animals, in turn, were representing the lives of the worshippers, being offered in repentance.
Better than the fat of rams
But this God declares, through the prophets, that he values obedience more than he values animal sacrifice, or any other kind of offering.
The best way of putting it, I think, is that what God really wants from his people is a self
The offerings of animals and produce, the offerings of incense and even praise, are only symbols and tokens of that self-offering.
That is what makes them inadequate.
The most effective way of giving yourself
to God would be in offering obedience to what he wants.
He shall be a Nazirite
One class of people dedicated themselves to living in obedience to God.
This, too, was symbolic, because they restricted themselves to a particular set of regulations and a limited period.
But it was a move in the right direction.
Meanwhile, the nation’s religious life was moving in the opposite direction, towards increased dependence upon sacrifice.
One factor would be convenience. Making an offering would seem simpler than giving a generalised obedience to God’s commands.
Another would be greed. Once the priests were getting a portion of the sacrifice, they had a vested interest in encouraging more use of the
The prophets protested against these developments.
They are sometimes regarded as the proponents of a new form of religion.
But if Jeremiah is right, they were really resisting change, and attempting, like all true reformers, the restoration of what was there from the
The destruction of the kingdom, and the restoration of the nation without kings, had the effect of establishing the priesthood as the dominant
During the period of exile, they were custodians of the religious tradition, and they seem to have taken the opportunity of emphasising the importance
of the sacrifices which they administered.
As a result, the religion of the second Temple, down to the time of Jesus, was more sacrifice-based than ever.
All this was overturned, of course, by the Roman destruction of that Temple.
In the absence of the Temple, the Jewish faith has re-centred itself upon praise of God and keeping his commandments, which is probably closer to what
he wanted in the first place.
If the Creator God is already the true owner of all we have, then the most rational response to the title question is to give him everything.
Paul puts it well when he appeals to his brethren to present their bodies as a “living” sacrifice. (Romans ch12 v1).
It sums up what the Biblical God is really looking for, in the offerings described in the Law.
Namely, an acceptance of our dependence upon him, and the full offering of ourselves.