Sacrifices That Pleased God
“Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices.”—HEBREWS 8:3.
1. Why do people feel the need to turn to God?
“TO SACRIFICE seems as ‘natural’ to man as to pray; the one indicates what he feels about himself, the other what he feels about God,” writes Biblical historian Alfred Edersheim. From the time that sin entered into the world, it has brought the pain of guilt, alienation from God, and helplessness. Relief from these is needed. It is easy to understand that when people find themselves in such a desperate state, they feel the need to turn to God for help.—Romans 5:12.
2. What record of early offerings to God do we find in the Bible?
2 The first Bible record of offerings being made to God is in connection with Cain and Abel. We read: “It came about at the expiration of some time that Cain proceeded to bring some fruits of the ground as an offering to Jehovah. But as for Abel, he too brought some firstlings of his flock, even their fatty pieces.” (Genesis 4:3, 4) Next, we find that Noah, preserved by God through the great Flood that destroyed the wicked generation of his day, was moved “to offer burnt offerings upon the altar” to Jehovah. (Genesis 8:20) On several occasions, God’s faithful servant and friend Abraham, moved by God’s promises and blessings, ‘built an altar and called on the name of Jehovah.’ (Genesis 12:8; 13:3, 4, 18) Later, Abraham met the greatest test of his faith when he was told by Jehovah to offer his son Isaac as a burnt offering. (Genesis 22:1-14) These accounts, though brief, shed much light on the subject of sacrifice, as we shall see.
3. What role do sacrifices play in worship?
3 From these and other Bible accounts, it is clear that offering some form of sacrifice was a fundamental part of worship long before Jehovah gave specific laws regarding such. In line with that, one reference work defines “sacrifice” as “a religious rite in which an object is offered to a divinity in order to establish, maintain, or restore a right relationship of man to the sacred order.” But this brings up some important questions worthy of our careful consideration, such as: Why is sacrifice needed in worship? What kind of sacrifices are acceptable to God? And what meaning do ancient sacrifices have for us today?
Why Is Sacrifice Needed?
4. What was the outcome for Adam and Eve when they sinned?
4 When Adam sinned, he did so deliberately. His taking and eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and bad was an intentional act of disobedience. The penalty for that disobedient act was death, as God had clearly stated: “In the day you eat from it you will positively die.” (Genesis 2:17) Adam and Eve eventually reaped the wages of sin—they perished.—Genesis 3:19; 5:3-5.
5. Why did Jehovah take the initiative in behalf of Adam’s offspring, and what did He do for them?
5 What, though, about Adam’s offspring? Having inherited sin and imperfection from Adam, they are subjected to the same alienation from God, hopelessness, and death that the first human pair experienced. (Romans 5:14) However, Jehovah is a God not only of justice and power but also—in fact, primarily—of love. (1 John 4:8, 16) So he takes the initiative to heal the breach. After stating that “the wages sin pays is death,” the Bible goes on to say, “but the gift God gives is everlasting life by Christ Jesus our Lord.”—Romans 6:23.
6. What is Jehovah’s will regarding the damage done by Adam’s sin?
6 What Jehovah God eventually did to make good that gift was to provide something that would cover the loss resulting from Adam’s transgression. In Hebrew, the word ka·pharʹ at first probably meant “cover” or perhaps “wipe off,” and it is also translated “atonement.”a In other words, Jehovah provided a suitable means to cover over sin inherited from Adam and wipe out the damage that resulted so that those who qualify for that gift could be liberated from the condemnation of sin and death.—Romans 8:21.
7. (a) What hope was provided through God’s sentence on Satan? (b) What price must be paid for mankind’s liberation from sin and death?
7 The hope of being set free from enslavement to sin and death was alluded to right after the first human pair sinned. Pronouncing his sentence on Satan, who was represented by the serpent, Jehovah stated: “I shall put enmity between you and the woman and between your seed and her seed. He will bruise you in the head and you will bruise him in the heel.” (Genesis 3:15) By that prophetic statement, a ray of hope burst forth for all who would put faith in that promise. There is, however, a price to be paid for that liberation. The promised Seed would not just come and destroy Satan; the Seed must be bruised in the heel, that is to say, must suffer death, though not permanently.
8. (a) How did Cain turn out to be a disappointment? (b) Why did Abel’s sacrifice prove to be acceptable in God’s eyes?
8 No doubt Adam and Eve gave much thought to the identity of the promised Seed. When Eve gave birth to her firstborn son, Cain, she proclaimed: “I have produced a man with the aid of Jehovah.” (Genesis 4:1) Was she thinking that perhaps her son would turn out to be the Seed? Whether she did so or not, Cain, as well as his offering, proved to be a disappointment. On the other hand, his brother Abel showed faith in God’s promise and was moved to offer some firstlings of his flock as a sacrifice to Jehovah. We read: “By faith Abel offered God a sacrifice of greater worth than Cain, through which faith he had witness borne to him that he was righteous.”—Hebrews 11:4.
9. (a) In what did Abel put faith, and how did he express it? (b) What did Abel’s offering accomplish?
9 Abel’s faith was not just faith in God in general, which Cain must also have had. Abel had faith in God’s promise of a Seed to bring about the salvation of faithful humans. It was not revealed to him how that would be worked out, but God’s promise made Abel aware that someone would have to be bruised in the heel. Yes, he apparently concluded that blood would have to be shed—the very idea of sacrifice. Abel offered a gift involving life and blood to the Source of life, likely as a token of his intense longing for and in anticipation of the realization of Jehovah’s promise. This expression of faith was what made Abel’s sacrifice pleasing to Jehovah, and in a limited way, it expressed the essence of sacrifice—a means by which sinful humans can approach God to gain his favor.—Genesis 4:4; Hebrews 11:1, 6.
10. How was the significance of sacrifice made clear by Jehovah’s asking Abraham to offer up Isaac?
10 The profound significance of sacrifice was made dramatically clear when Jehovah commanded Abraham to offer up his son Isaac as a burnt offering. Although that sacrifice was not literally carried out, it served as a picture of what Jehovah himself would eventually do—offer up his only-begotten Son as the greatest sacrifice ever in order to accomplish His will toward mankind. (John 3:16) With the sacrifices and offerings of the Mosaic Law, Jehovah set down prophetic patterns to teach his chosen people what they must do to receive forgiveness for their sins and to solidify their hope for salvation. What can we learn from these?
Sacrifices Acceptable to Jehovah
11. What two categories of offerings were presented by Israel’s high priest, and for what purposes?
11 “Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices,” says the apostle Paul. (Hebrews 8:3) Note that Paul divides the offerings made by the high priest of ancient Israel into two categories, namely, “gifts” and “sacrifices,” or “sacrifices for sins.” (Hebrews 5:1) People generally give gifts to express affection and appreciation, as well as to cultivate friendship, favor, or acceptance. (Genesis 32:20; Proverbs 18:16) Similarly, many of the offerings prescribed by the Law can be viewed as “gifts” to God to seek his acceptance and favor.b Transgressions of the Law required restitution, and to make amends, “sacrifices for sins” were offered. The Pentateuch, especially the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, provides a broad array of material regarding different kinds of sacrifices and offerings. While it can be a real challenge for us to absorb and remember all the details, some key points regarding the various types of sacrifices merit our attention.
12. Where in the Bible can we find an overview of the sacrifices, or offerings, in the Law?
12 We may note that in Leviticus chapters 1 to 7, five principal types of offerings—burnt offering, grain offering, communion sacrifice, sin offering, and guilt offering—are described individually, even though some of them were actually offered together. We note also that these offerings are described twice in these chapters, with different objectives: once, in Leviticus 1:2 to 6:7, detailing what was to be offered on the altar, and the second time, in Leviticus 6:8 to 7:36, showing the portions that were set aside for the priests and those that were reserved for the offerer. Then, in Numbers chapters 28 and 29, we find what might be viewed as a detailed timetable, outlining what was to be offered daily, weekly, monthly, and at the yearly festivals.
13. Describe the offerings made voluntarily as gifts to God.
13 Among the offerings made voluntarily as gifts or as an approach to God to gain his favor were the burnt offerings, grain offerings, and communion offerings. Some scholars hold that the Hebrew term for “burnt offering” means “an offering of ascent” or “an ascending offering.” This is fitting because in a burnt offering, the slaughtered animal was burned on the altar and a sweet-smelling, or restful, odor ascended heavenward to God. The distinctive feature of the burnt offering was that after its blood was sprinkled around the altar, the animal was offered in its entirety to God. The priests made “all of it smoke on the altar as a burnt offering, an offering made by fire of a restful odor to Jehovah.”—Leviticus 1:3, 4, 9; Genesis 8:21.
14. How was the grain offering presented?
14 The grain offering is described in Leviticus chapter 2. It was a voluntary offering consisting of fine flour, usually moistened with oil, with frankincense added. “The priest must grasp from it his handful of its fine flour and its oil along with all its frankincense; and he must make it smoke as a remembrancer of it upon the altar, as an offering made by fire of a restful odor to Jehovah.” (Leviticus 2:2) Frankincense was one of the ingredients of the holy incense burned on the incense altar in the tabernacle and temple. (Exodus 30:34-36) King David evidently had this in mind when he said: “May my prayer be prepared as incense before you, the raising up of my palms as the evening grain offering.”—Psalm 141:2.
15. What was the purpose of the communion sacrifice?
15 Another voluntary offering was the communion sacrifice, described in Leviticus chapter 3. The name can also be translated “a sacrifice of peace offerings.” In Hebrew, the word “peace” denotes much more than simply being free from war or disturbance. “In the Bible, it denotes this, and also the state or relation of peace with God, prosperity, joy, and happiness,” says the book Studies in the Mosaic Institutions. Thus, communion sacrifices were offered, not to secure peace with God, as if to appease him, but to express gratitude for or to celebrate the blessed condition of peace with God enjoyed by those who are approved by him. The priests and the offerer partook of the sacrifice after the blood and fat were offered to Jehovah. (Leviticus 3:17; 7:16-21; 19:5-8) In a beautiful and symbolic way, the offerer, the priests, and Jehovah God were sharing in a meal, signifying the peaceful relationship that existed among them.
16. (a) What was the purpose of the sin offering and the guilt offering? (b) How did those differ from the burnt offering?
16 Sacrifices that were offered to seek forgiveness for sin or to atone for transgressions against the Law included the sin offering and the guilt offering. Although these sacrifices also involved burning on the altar, they differed from the burnt offering in that the entire animal was not offered to God, only the fat and certain portions of it. The rest of the animal was disposed of outside the camp or in some cases partaken of by the priests. This distinction is significant. The burnt offering was presented as a gift to God to allow approach to him, so it was offered to God exclusively and in total. Interestingly, a burnt offering was usually preceded by a sin offering or a guilt offering, suggesting that to make a sinner’s gift acceptable to God, forgiveness of sin was needed.—Leviticus 8:14, 18; 9:2, 3; 16:3, 5.
17, 18. For what was the sin offering provided, and what was the purpose of the guilt offerings?
17 The sin offering was accepted only for unintentional sin against the Law, sin committed because of weakness of the flesh. “In case a soul sins by mistake in any of the things that Jehovah commands should not be done,” then the sinner was to offer a sin offering in proportion to his status, or standing, in the community. (Leviticus 4:2, 3, 22, 27) On the other hand, unrepentant sinners were cut off; no sacrifices were available for them.—Exodus 21:12-15; Leviticus 17:10; 20:2, 6, 10; Numbers 15:30; Hebrews 2:2.
18 The meaning and purpose of the guilt offering are made clear in Leviticus chapters 5 and 6. A person may have sinned unintentionally. Still, his transgression may have incurred guilt against the rights of either his fellowmen or Jehovah God, and that wrong had to be satisfied or righted. Several categories of sins are mentioned. Some were private sins (Le 5:2-6), some were sins against “the holy things of Jehovah” (Le 5:14-16), and some, though not entirely unwitting, were sins that resulted from wrong desires or fleshly weaknesses (Le 6:1-3). In addition to confessing such sins, the offender was required to make compensation where due and then to present a guilt offering to Jehovah.—Leviticus 6:4-7.
Something Better to Come
19. Despite having the Law and its sacrifices, why did Israel fail to gain God’s favor?
19 The Mosaic Law, with its many sacrifices and offerings, was given to the Israelites to enable them to approach God to gain and retain his favor and blessing until the arrival of the promised Seed. The apostle Paul, a natural Jew, put it this way: “The Law has become our tutor leading to Christ, that we might be declared righteous due to faith.” (Galatians 3:24) Sadly, Israel as a nation did not respond to that tutelage but abused that privilege. Consequently, their multitude of sacrifices became loathsome to Jehovah, who said: “I have had enough of whole burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed animals; and in the blood of young bulls and male lambs and he-goats I have taken no delight.”—Isaiah 1:11.
20. What happened in 70 C.E. as far as the Law and its sacrifices are concerned?
20 In 70 C.E., the Jewish system of things, with its temple and priesthood, came to its end. After that, sacrifices in the manner stipulated by the Law were no longer possible. Does this mean that the sacrifices, as an integral part of the Law, have lost all meaning for worshipers of God today? We will examine this in the next article.
a Insight on the Scriptures, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., explains: “As used in the Bible, ‘atonement’ has the basic thought of ‘cover’ or ‘exchange,’ and that which is given in exchange for, or as a ‘cover’ for, another thing must be its duplicate. . . . To make adequate atonement for what was forfeited by Adam, a sin offering having the precise value of a perfect human life would have to be provided.”
b A Hebrew word frequently translated “offering” is qor·banʹ. In recording Jesus’ condemnation of an unscrupulous practice of the scribes and the Pharisees, Mark explained that “corban” means “a gift dedicated to God.”—Mark 7:11.
Can You Explain?
• What prompted faithful men of old to offer sacrifices to Jehovah?
• Why were sacrifices needed?
• What principal types of sacrifices were offered under the Law, and what were their purposes?
• According to Paul, what key purpose did the Law and its sacrifices serve?
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Abel’s sacrifice was pleasing because it demonstrated his faith in Jehovah’s promise
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Do you appreciate the significance of this scene?