From the moment man left the garden of Eden, after the fear of God had entered man’s soul, he began to offer sacrifices to God. The practice exploded so that ritualistic offering of sacrifices eventually dominated pagan culture. Egypt had a highly sophisticated, well-established sacrificial system with elaborate temples and extensive public rituals. The Ancient Near East cultures worshiped Molech, sacrificing their children in the process. It was common in ancient pagan culture to believe that by sacrificing their firstborn they would ensure further fertility.
When God called Moses to lead Israel out of Egypt, Israel, like their neighbours, assumed that sacrifices were necessary to appease the gods and to ensure blessing and fertility. As such, Israel had an established sacrificial system in place:
– they had priests (Ex 19:24)
– they offered sacrifice in the open fields (Lev 17:5)
– they prostituted themselves to goat idols (Lev 17:7).
In the subsequent law Moses spells out cultural prohibitions which are so specific that the Israelites had probably also been (or were at high risk of):
– eating and drinking blood (Lev 17:10)
– sacrificing their children to Molech (Lev 18:21) and
– indulging in immoral/perverted sexual acts (Lev 18:6-20, 22-23).
So at the time when God brought Israel out of Egypt, Israel was an idolatrous pagan nation indistinguishable from its neighbours. It was from this state of rampant pagan idolatry that God, amazingly and unexpectedly, called them forth to be his treasured possession, a holy nation, and a Kingdom of Priests (Ex 19:5-6).
Originally they enthusiastically accepted the offer (Ex 19:8). This is not surprising, as they had already witnessed God’s powerful deliverance out of Egypt and put their trust in him (Ex 14:31). They recognised his steadfast love for them as the people he had redeemed (Ex 15:13). They had learnt that God was for them.
After 3 days of consecration all the people were to go up the mountain in order to meet with God – but only when the long blast of the horn sounded, not before (Ex 19:13). Limits were put around the mountain to prevent them going up too early, lest they die.
On the morning of the third day, there was thunder, lightening, and thick cloud. The horns blasted loudly, and the people trembled (Ex 19:16). Moses led them to the foot of the mountain, and left them there as God called him up the mountain alone, and then again with Aaron. Curiously, God had Moses warn them not to force their way through, as if they might be too impatient! (Ex 19:24)
But when the time came and the long horn sounded, the people were too afraid even to approach the mountain, and so stayed away, nominating Moses to speak to God on their behalf (Ex 20:18-19).
Despite having sung of God’s unfailing love towards them, they had reverted to fear! Moses tried to encourage them to not be afraid (Ex 20:20), but they remained at a distance (Ex 20:21).
So it was that the trembling people rejected God’s offer for them to become a Kingdom of Priests. They wanted a Mediator. They were too afraid to meet with God themselves.
The implications were clear. If they were terrified of God and unable to trust his goodness towards them, then neither would they be ready to suspend trust in their animal sacrifices. Their sacrifices gave them comfort. And so God made an accommodation. If they were going to offer sacrifices anyway, they must learn to put God first and so offer their sacrifices to him, not to any other god.
We see this reflected in the narrative:
And the Lord said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the people of Israel: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have talked with you from heaven. You shall not make gods of silver to be alongside me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen. (Ex 20:22-24)
Although Moses goes on to instruct them on exactly how to administer their sacrifices to God, it was not part of God’s ideal for his people. Later on we witness God’s frustration with their weddedness to sacrifice through the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 7:21). God then declares that when he brought his people out of Egypt he did not give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices* (Jer 7:22). The command was to obey him and become his people – but they stubbornly refused (Jer 7:24).
This ties in directly with the narrative of Exodus when we read it carefully. When God brought his people out of Egypt he invited them to be a holy nation, a kingdom of priests who would thus all know Him. It was only after they stubbornly refused this, reverting to the fear of God, that he gave the sacrificial laws. The witness is clear and it repeats throughout scripture. King David saw that God neither required nor was pleased by sacrifice (Psalm 40:6, Psalm 51:16); he wanted the obedience of faith (1 Sam 15:22, Hosea 6:6).
Indeed, as Scripture attests, God eventually had his fill of sacrifice to the point that it sickened him (Isaiah 1:11, Prov 15:8, Amos 5:21-22, Isaiah 66:3). Micah, the prophet, poses the question of whether man should approach God with a sacrifice (Micah 6:6) then rejects that with his own informed answer (Micah 6:8). When we look for it, we find that what God has always wanted from his people was not their sacrifices, but for his people to practice mercy and compassion (Proverbs 21:3, Zech 7:9).
The New Testament brings this home. Jesus reinforced this as God’s unequivocal position quoting from Hosea 6:6 twice (Matt 9:13, Matt 12:7). And the writer of Hebrews re-affirms that God did not desire sacrifice nor did it please him even though the law required sacrifices to be made (Heb 10:8).
Sacrifice was man’s obsession, borne of fear. Mercy and compassion are God’s obsession, borne of love. (see Ex 33:19).
God did not desire sacrifice, we did.
* Some Translators insert a word and alter this to “he did not only give them commands about burnt offerings”, terrified that Jeremiah is contradicting that the law came from God.