(Chapter 6:1–8:36)


                                                DOES GOD WANT SACRIFICES?[1]


Much of Leviticus focuses on sacrifices. After the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, when sacrifices could no longer be offered, the rabbis said that the synagogue and prayer services would take the place of sacrifices. Many individuals today agree with these rabbis and say that sacrifices are out of sync with our spiritual sensitivities.


True, the Bible recognizes that people felt a need to offer sacrifices since the beginning of time. In Genesis 4:3–4, Cain and Abel offered “fruit of the ground” and the “firstling of the flock with its fat” to God, respectively. Although the Torah doesn’t mention why,[2] God rejected Cain’s fruit sacrifice and accepted Abel’s animal offering. Presumably, it wasn’t because of the content of the sacrifice, but rather the negative attitude in which it was offered. Cain’s repulsive personality and inner thoughts were clear to God, and they become clear to Bible readers when they learn that Cain killed Abel.


Noah, too, after the deluge, left his ark and “built an altar to the Lord and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird; he offered burnt offerings on the altar” (Genesis 8:20). We know that the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, built altars and, while the Torah doesn’t mention that they made sacrifices on the altars, it is reasonable to assume that they, too, offered animals to God.


Why did the Bible command the sacrificial system? Sacrificial cults abounded in ancient life and people made offerings to many different gods. Human sacrifices were also common. Maimonides (1138-1204) wrote that God does not need or want sacrifices. God only allowed them – see last week’s essay. But despite allowing them, God did not permit the Israelites to make offerings as the pagans did. God transformed and elevated them into a more refined system with moral overtones. In fact, Maimonides explains that the details of the Torah sacrificial system were ways to move the people away from pagan practices and superstitious notions.


Historians call the process of taking an ancient system and changing and elevating it “synchronization.” Another example of this process is circumcision. There are Egyptian papyri that depict Egyptian priests performing circumcision on what appear to be ten- or eleven-year-old boys. These papyri seem to be 500 years older than Abraham’s time, when he circumcised himself at God’s command. We think the ritual existed well before it was introduced into Jewish life, but it was transformed and became a primary act for establishing Jewish identity.


Maimonides was convinced that the Torah recognized that the unsophisticated nature of humans made them feel that they needed to offer sacrifices. Therefore the Torah allowed it as a concession. Maimonides wrote in his Guide of the Perplexed 3:32 that some biblical prophets taught this idea. Isaiah criticized his people: “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? says the Lord” (Isaiah 1:11). Jeremiah 7:22–23 astonishingly reported God declaring: “For I (God) spoke not unto your fathers nor commanded them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt concerning burnt offerings or sacrifice. But this thing I commanded them, saying, ‘Obey My voice.’”


Is Maimonides’ view that the sacrificial system was a concession to the primitive nature of people, a system that should be stopped as soon as people become more sophisticated, a slippery slope? Can we say the same thing about other practices? How are sacrifices different from other rituals in Jewish life, such as following the dietary laws or the Sabbath? Can we see the difference? Is slaughtering a sacrifice for God more inhumane than slaughtering an animal for consumption? Should we become vegetarians? Should we avoid questioning religious practices and adopt the simple rule that we will do whatever the Bible states without question?


[1] A version of this essay is in Stanley M. Wagner and my book “What’s Beyond the Bible Text.”

[2] There are many events in the Bible that are purposely obscure, leaving it to readers to think of an explanation.