And then there was Abraham. God had commanded him to leave his home country and go to a place he would show him. When Abram (as he was first called) arrived in that land we read that the first thing he did was build an altar.
“Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. From there he moved to the hill country on the east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. And there he built an altar to the Lord and called upon the name of the Lord” (Genesis 12:6-8).
It has been said that one could trace the travels of Abraham by the altars he built. So great was Abraham’s faith and so aware was he of his nearness to God and his need to worship him that the offering of sacrifices was a major part of his life. Notice that as his forefathers of the righteous lineage of Seth, so Abraham “called on the name of the Lord.” Here it is clear that his calling on the Lord was in connection with his sacrificing on the altars he built (Genesis 13:4).
It would seem that Abraham delighted in these offerings to God, not doing them as a matter of compulsion or obligation. Although it is likely he and others who built altars to the Lord did so with a consciousness of their sin and as a means of approach to God on the basis of the offering of a substitute and symbol for their own lives. There must also be seen, not just the element of fear and dread of coming before God because of one’s sin, but because of his goodness and blessing, coming with an offering of thanksgiving – a giving back to God the first and the best for all his good blessings upon themselves.
Later when the descendants of Abraham had multiplied and had come out of Egypt God imposed a complicated system of sacrifices and offerings administered by the Levitical priesthood. The altar was mandated, first to be done at the tabernacle and then later in Jerusalem when the temple was built there.
These sacrifices were intended to keep before the minds of people their sinfulness and their need for dependence upon God. By the fact that they had to be repeated frequently – as often as one committed an offense or annually – it was a reminder that the lives (blood) of the animals they offered did not take away sins.
Below is a very brief summary of the five different kinds of sacrifices prescribed under the law of Moses.
Burnt Offering Lev 1; 6:8-13; 8:18-21; 16:24 Bull, ram or bird (dove or young pigeon for the poor); wholly consumed; no defect; Voluntary act of worship; atonement for unintentional sin in general; expression of devotion, commitment and complete surrender to God.
Grain Offering Lev 2; 6:14-23 Grain, fine flour, olive oil, incense, baked bread (cakes or wafers), salt; no yeast or honey; accompanied burnt offering and peace offering (along with drink offering); Voluntary act of worship; recognition of God’s goodness and provisions; devotion to God.
Peace Offering Lev 3; 7:11-34; Any animal without defect from herd or flock; variety of breads; Voluntary act of worship; thanksgiving and fellowship (it included a communal meal); included vow offerings, thanksgiving offerings and freewill offerings; Fatty portions (fat covering inner parts; fat tail, kidneys, lobe of the liver); Breast given to High Priest (wave offering), right foreleg given to officiating priest (heave offering); Thanksgiving offering: all the reminder (to be eaten the same day); no left over allowed; Vow or freewill offering: reminder (to be eaten the same day and the next day); any left over to be burnt on the 3rd day
Sin Offering; Lev 4; 5:1-13; 6:24-30; 8:14-17; 16:3-22;
Young bull: for High Priest and whole congregation. The blood was to be sprinkled in front of the veil and put on the horns of the altar of incense.
- Male goat: for leader. The blood was to be put on the horns of the altar of burnt offering.
- Female goat or lamb: for common person. The blood was to be put on the horns of the altar of burnt offering.
- Dove or pigeon: for the poor. The blood was to be put on the horns of the altar of burnt offering.
1/10 ephah of fine flour: for the very poor; Mandatory atonement for specific unintentional sin; confession of sin; forgiveness of sin; cleansing from defilement.
Trespass Offering; Lev 5:14-19; 6:1-7; 7:1-6; Ram; Mandatory atonement for unintentional sin requiring restitution; cleansing from defilement; make restitution; pay 20% fine.
On the day of the dedication of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem, the offerings were tremendous in number. “Solomon offered as peace offerings to the Lord 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep. So the king and all the people of Israel dedicated the house of the Lord” (1 Kings 8:63). This tremendous number required that a special altar be built in the middle of the temple courtyard because the brazen altar upon which offerings were supposed to be offered was too small. How many priests would have been required to offer that many sacrifices. Can you imagine the rivers of blood and the pall of smoke that must have hung over Jerusalem?
Yet, that was but the beginning of the sacrifices offered in the temple. How many were offered during the 40 years the Israelites were in the wilderness? How many in the years before the time of Solomon’s temple stretching back through the days of David and Saul before him through the days of the judges to the time of the conquest of the land of Canaan? And how many multiplied thousands in the hundreds of years from that day of the dedication of the temple until the last blood sacrifice for sin was offered? How many multiples of thousands of animals had been offered from the beginning of this system until the need for sacrifices ended?
It has been said that the priests more resembled butchers than priests. Such sacrifices were for them a daily routine. Certain sacrifices were offered as certain times, it is true, but those free will sacrifices – burnt offerings and peace offerings – would have been an on-going thing.
It would boggle the mind if there were any such accounting for the numbers of sacrifices. But even more astounding was the thought that many if not most of these offerings were on account of sin. And that would have just been for the little nation of Israel. The numbers of the sacrifices we have mentioned only took these people into account. All the while the Jews were offering sacrifices for their sins the Gentile nations were going on sinning without a system of sacrifices. All this should give us some sober thought as to how massive the problem of sin is.
Remember, all these people who were offering all these sacrifices were the descendants of Abraham. They were continuing to do what their forefather had done. But times had changed and so had the sacrifices. But still they were looking forward to the promise God had made to Abraham – the blessing of them and all nations through the “seed” God had foretold.
All these sacrifices were pointing forward to one event – the time when there would be a perfect sacrifice offered for the atonement of the sins of the whole human race. Since no animal is equal to man, their blood could not take away sin. Only a perfect sacrifices could do that. Ordinary human beings could not provide the sacrifice – we have all sinned and need atonement ourselves.
In a future post we will look at the one who made the ultimate sacrifice – the sacrifice that ended all this bloodshed and burning that took place before his sacrifice put an end to them.