|Series Theme: Difficult Questions|
Title: 15. Why did God order Israel to sacrifice innocent animals?
A series that helps consider difficult questions of the Christian faith
In the Old Testament God seems to delight in instructing the Israelites to kill animals and offer them as sacrifices to him. Is this the act of a loving, humane and kind God????
As with most of these answers to difficult questions we want to try and avoid a quick, glib answer. If you are an animal lover, and many of us are, this question seems hard at first sight
What we'd like to do is try and give you the big picture of God and animals, and so that means going back to the first book of the Bible, Genesis, and then following references to animals through to the time of the Law given through Moses, and later to the time of Jesus.
1. Animals at the Beginning
In the Creation description in Genesis, chapter 1, we find that when God made all the living creatures on the earth he made them vegetarians (see Gen 1:29-31 ) and His creation was very good.
In other words, no creature lived off other creatures. There was not what we call today, "the food chain", and nature was not "red in tooth and claw".
2. Animals at the End
When the prophet Isaiah was prophesying about the end of time when Jesus will have restored peace and harmony to all creation, he gives a beautiful picture of man and the animals living in total harmony (see Isa 11:6-9 ).
In other words, part of the work of God is ultimately to restore His creation to what it was at the beginning - unless you see these verses simply as a figurative passage explaining the peace to come. The former interpretation is more likely as it matches God's original design.
3. Animals In-Between
So what went wrong? Why do we have animals killing animals, and people killing animals? The answer is Sin, that tendency now within every human towards self-centredness and the exclusion of God.
In Genesis we find the story of what we call the Fall, the fall of God's first two perfect human beings, who gave way to the temptation to disobey God.
The result of that Fall was momentous and is spelled out in that chapter: a breakdown in relationship between them and God ( Gen 3:8-10 ), a breakdown between them and each other ( Gen 3:12 ), a breakdown between them and animal life ( Gen 3:13-15 ) and a subsequent change in physical life and experience ( Gen 3:16-19 ).
However, also at that time there was a significant event that took place. Because part of the fall of this couple involved their growing guilty self-awareness ( Gen 3:10,11 ), God in both his compassion and His desire to convey a truth to us, provided them with clothing, which came from the skins of animals.
In other words an animal or animals had to die to "cover" these fallen humans.
A few chapters later we are told that the sin of the growing world population was now so great that it grieved God that he had made them at all.
While bringing judgement to limit or restrict this growth of evil, in the form of the Flood (Genesis chapter 6), God was careful to continue the life of the earth by both man and beasts.
However, after the Flood when God reiterates His desire for mankind to increase ( Gen 9:1 , reflecting Gen 1:28 ), He tells them that the fear of them will fall on all other living creatures, and they will also become food for the humans ( Gen 9:2,3 ).
Now we are not told why this should be but it is probable that the fear that had come into the world at the Fall now extended to fear between man and the rest of creation and fear between the creatures themselves.
Why? Perhaps it was that the other living creatures had an inherent sense of the thing called Sin that still prevailed in mankind, and the fear of man in them grew. Fear breeds fear and so it is probable that the fear spread from fear of man to fear of one another.
Perhaps it was from that point on that the stronger preyed on the weaker. It was obviously from this point that nature became "red in tooth and claw", and once there was death created by animals, there could also be death of animals brought about by man.
Before we move on to consider the question of sacrifices, it is perhaps worth noting that because of man's now inherent sinfulness, death of animals was quite usual - both animals being killed by animals and animals being killed for human food.
We will continue in this study to look at sacrifices because of the amazing truths that are revealed there.
4. Sacrifice of Animals
i) Abel's Offering
Although we have not touched on it so far, the practice of sacrificing an animal is actually recorded after the Fall and before the Flood, in that Abel brought an animal offering as an act of worship to God ( Gen 4:4 ).
We are not told why he or his brother brought a sacrifice, merely that it happened. However, the indication within the story is that Abel thought about it and did it carefully as a sacrifice that cost him something, something he wanted to give completely to God. The first picture of a sacrifice is that it is something given totally over to God as an act of worship.
ii) Noah's Offering
Similarly Noah presented an animal sacrifice to God ( Gen 8:20 ) after the Flood. Both these sacrifices appear to have received God's approval, more probably for the heart that was behind the giving than the fact of it being an animal being put to death.
iii) Abraham's Sacrifice
Years later, in the story of Abraham's relationship with God, we find the Lord instructing him to sacrifice three animals and two birds, as part of a significant act of covenant making ( Gen 15:6-10 ). Note that Abraham did not do this to win favour with God, because he already had God's approval (v.6), but more to increase the sense of solemnity in this procedure.
iv) The Passover Sacrifice
The next significant sacrifice to be mentioned is that of a Lamb at the original Passover ( Exo 12:1-13 ). This was to be partly as food (v.4,8) and partly so that the blood of the lamb could be used as a marker on the doorposts of each house (v.7,13)
Before leaving the Passover sacrifice, it is worth noting that when John the Baptist referred to Jesus, he referred to him as the "Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" ( John 1:29 ) Similarly in the Revelation, John the writer sees Jesus in his vision, standing in heaven as a lamb that had been slain ( Rev 5:6 ).
The writer to the Hebrews similarly speaks about Jesus' death on the Cross as a sacrifice to take away our sins. ( Heb 9:26-28 , 10:10 ). So what is the significance of a sacrifice? To answer that we have to look at the Law that God gave Israel in respect of sacrifices.
v) The Law of the Sacrifice
While Israel wandered in the desert on their way to the Promised Land, God gave them a whole range of laws to govern their life as the people of God. Some of those Laws were about how to restore their relationship with God after they had sinned.
In the book of Leviticus we find the Laws for the various offerings to be made to God (Lev. 1-7). One specific offering was called the "Sin Offering" and had to be made after a person sinned, e.g. Lev 4:27-29
In those verses we see various things:
1. The sinner was guilty - no excuses! v.27
2. He was to take an animal as his offering - it's going to cost him! v.28
3. He was to put his hand on it's head as it was killed - he was to identify with it, as if saying, this animal is taking my punishment for what I have done. v.29
4. He was to kill it himself - no cop-out - YOU do it! v.29
Put simply like that we don't catch the awfulness of what was happening. Look again!
While the priest held the animal steady, you the sinner put and kept your hand on its head, and then took a knife and YOU cut its throat! YOU stood there and watched while the blood of this animal drained away and it eventually collapsed and died. YOU did this! YOU were the cause of this! YOUR sin caused the life to be taken from this innocent animal. If you hadn't done wrong this wouldn't have been necessary!
Why was it necessary? For you to come to understand the awfulness of Sin!
We're sorry if that is upsetting but that is what happened. How would you have felt at the end of it? Sick probably! Suddenly you see how serious sin is in the all-seeing eyes of God.
He knows its terrible effect on our lives, and how it separates us from His total goodness. He knows its potential to keep you from Him in eternity. That's how awful it is.
Tragically we live in an age where we have been told that "right is only that which is right for you". Wrong! Right is what God says it is, and more importantly wrong is what God says it is!
How do we deal with this sin, this guilt of ours?
1. We go to the lamb that God has provided - Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2. As we declare our belief in him and in what he did, it is like we put our hand on the head of the animal and identify with it.
3. We recognise that as part of the human race we helped put him to death on the Cross (we would have been part of it if we'd been there two thousand years ago - either by remaining quiet or by participating in it in some way!) We affirm that we put the animal to death.
4. We ask for God's forgiveness on the basis that our Sin and guilt has been transferred to the lamb, Jesus.
5. We receive His forgiveness, and go and live a life filled with the love of God, determined that the old life where sin reigned will be no more. We receive His Holy Spirit, His power to live new lives.
This is what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is all about. This is what the sacrificial system was pointing forward towards.
1. God made the world at peace and in total harmony.
2. When we, the human race, decided to exercise our free will it was to disobey God. This is called Sin.
3. That Sin released a whole series of consequences on the earth, which involved the death of animals by each other and for food for humans.
4. At the end of time God will restore that original peace and harmony.
5. In the meantime, the sacrificial system of the Old Testament period pointed forward to the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, who died in our place.
6. Thus no longer do such sacrifices need to be made. We are simply to receive the outworking of this particular sacrifice and live in the goodness of it.