In order to understand the idea of sacrifices and offerings, we must go back to the very beginning of the Bible. By Genesis 4, the first sons, Cain and Abel, were practicing an early form of sacrifice: “Later Cain brought some crops from the land as an offering to the LORD. Abel also brought some choice parts of the firstborn animals from his flock. The LORD approved of Abel and his offering, but he didn’t approved of Cain and his offering. So Cain became very angry and was disappointed” (Gen 4:3-5). From the beginning, offerings and sacrifices generally expressed two attitudes: gratitude and repentance. In the case of Cain and Abel, later history of sacrifice might lead us to think that God’s rejection of Cain’s offering was because it wasn’t a blood sacrifice, but the text doesn’t indicate such a conclusion. Cain’s offering was casual and perhaps careless; Abel’s was costly. Cain brought “some crops”; Abel presented “some choice parts.” Cain’s response to God’s correction revealed his heart.
This emphasis on attitude over performance appears again and again throughout the Bible. God repeatedly confronted his people over their persistent tendency to get worship wrong even when they got the offerings and sacrifices technically right. The prophets had this problem as a central theme in their preaching. Hosea reported God’s words: “I want your loyalty, not your sacrifices. I want you to know me, not to give me burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6). Samuel had to rebuke King Saul’s efforts to cover his disobedience with sacrifice: “Is the LORD as delighted with burnt offerings and sacrifices as he would be with your obedience? To follow instructions is better than to sacrifice. To obey is better than sacrificing the fat of rams” (1 Sam 15:22). We find the healthy expression of this attitude in David’s psalm of repentance: “The sacrifice pleasing to God is a broken spirit. O God, you do not despise a broken and sorrowful heart” (Ps 51:17).
Sacrifices and offerings were an important part of worship. When Israel was feed from slavery in Egypt, God spent significant time teaching the new nation not only their individual responsibilities but also how they could function before him as an obedient corporate people. The numerous sacrifices and offerings prescribed by God might at first appear to benefit God, who needs nothing; in reality, all these worship actions ultimately benefited those who worshiped. The framework for sacrifices as detailed in Leviticus 23 had as its foundation the sacrifice of a day each week-the Sabbath. God gave his people seven days from which he expected them to return one day of honor to him- the day of rest. As Jesus later explained, the Sabbath was modeled by God in creation even though he needed no rest, in order that humans might eventually understand the healthy benefits of working up to six days but resting on the seventh. In Jesus’ brief words, “The day of worship [Sabbath] was made for people, not people for the day of worship” (Mark 2:27).
The idea behind sacrifice, particularly blood sacrifice, required the substitution of one life (the animal) for another (the worshiper or the people). A sacrifice was necessary because of sin. Failure to obey God or deliberate efforts to disobey God created an offense or debt that could not be settled by mere apology. The damage was as real as a broken window; forgiveness for throwing the rock doesn’t fix the shattered window. The sacrifice became the payment for the window-a symbolic settling of accounts-and an assurance of the forgiveness God was willing to give. This elaborate system prepared God’s people and the rest of the world for the grand sacrifice of God’s own Son, once on the cross, as payment and settlement of sin. His death demonstrates and guarantees God’s forgiveness, paying the debt for our offense. “God had Christ, who was sinless, take our sin so that we might receive God’s approval through him” (2 Cor 5:21).
The various sacrifices and offerings sometimes involved burning of the fat from animals as an incense to God, but the meat and other edibles that were brought were used to feed the priests and Levites as well as to serve in the communal meals during the festivals. So, for example, the opening chapter of 1 Samuel shows a Jewish man named Elkanah coming to Shiloh with a yearly sacrifice: “Whenever Elkanah offered a sacrifice, he would give portions of it to his wife Peninnah and all her sons and daughters. He would also give one portion to Hannah because he loved her, even though the LORD had kept her from having children” (1 Sam 1:4-5). The animal was offered, but the meat was shared after the sacrifice.
This was also symbolic of Christ’s sacrifice. We have the dual, priceless blessing of a Savior who willingly sacrificed himself on our behalf and yet whose fellowship we can enjoy now and forever since he, though dead, rose from the grave. The sacrifice of Jesus, painful though it was, made our eternity infinitely delightful because we get to spend it with him.