Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Sin and Sacrifice: Part 1

I am very excited; I received some of my first feedback and questions for the blog by someone who is not my wife! My responses to these questions will probably be the subject of the next few entries. 

The first topic covers Samuel's words in 1 Samuel 15:22-23, where it seems like Samuel is placing the concepts of sacrifice and obedience in a comparative relationship. There is truth to this, for we have sacrifice because of our lack of obedience. Would it not be better to obey in the first place? So at first glance it appears that both obedience and sacrifice are good things (and they are), but that obedience is a greater good than sacrifice (which it is). But we need not stop there, and that wasn't quite the point Samuel was making to Saul in 1 Samuel 15.

This short series on sin and sacrifice will be an opportunity to add a dimension of depth to one point I made in one long post.

The Origins of Sacrifice

Today's post will look at the reason sacrifice is required. Beginning with Genesis 3, God shows us a picture of his pattern for justice and mercy. After Adam and Eve disobey God's single command, they deserve wrath, condemnation and death from their Maker (Gen 2:16-17). While death does enter the picture of history (Gen 3:19), God mercifully delays their punishment and sacrifices an animal to simultaneously cover their naked bodies and their naked souls (Gen 3:21). One way to know that sacrifice was the pattern that God established is that the practice is carried out by the next generation. Cain and Abel know that they must sacrifice to the Lord, and this sacrifice establishes their relationship before the Lord (Gen 4:3-5). After exiting the ark, Noah sacrificed some of every clean animal he had brought on the ark (Gen 8:20-21). Mankind knows of sacrifice and its meaning from the beginning even though the Mosaic sacrificial system had not been given yet. Most readers of the Bible know at the very least that God instituted some kind of system of sacrifice through Moses and that stayed with Israel through the time of Christ.

The Reasons for Sacrifice

Based on its origin, it appears that sacrifice acts as an atonement for sin. God did not take the life of Adam and Eve because he took the life of an animal instead. A proper sacrifice seems to reconcile a person to God. Even the New Testament points to this purpose of sacrifice (a hint for those who struggle to understand the Old Testament: read the New Testament as it offers an inspired exposition of the Old Testament): "Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins" (Heb 9:22). There is more depth behind the idea of blood and sacrifice, but for now this understanding will be sufficient.

Another theme of sacrifice in the Old Testament is to remember the grace of God. It was God's grace that spared Adam and Eve instant death, and their animal skin clothing should have been a daily reminder of what God had done for them. Similarly, when God brought Israel out of Egypt and gave them the Law at Sinai, he reminds them of his gracious acts first, then mentions sacrifice immediately after he gives them the Ten Commandments:
And the LORD said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the people of Israel: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have talked with you from heaven. You shall not make gods of silver to be with me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. If you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones, for if you wield your tool on it you profane it. And you shall not go up by steps to my altar, that your nakedness be not exposed on it.’ (Exodus 20:22-26 ESV)
God shows his people the real purpose of the sacrifice: to cause his name to be remembered. The sacrifices were supposed to be a constant reminder of the goodness of God, the commitment of his covenant, and a renewal of a relationship with God. Blood was not a magic potion. Sacrifices were supposed to be a reminder of God's faithfulness and a call to faith in him. They were to be performed under the belief that God's Word is true--from his word that sacrifice atones for sin to his commands of holiness in our lives.

The Sacrifice of Belief

Human have a tendency to twist anything religious into legalism and superstition. This could be seen in the perversion of the sacrificial system by the Canaanites as Israel settled into the promised land. It also crept into the practices of the Israelites as they headed toward exile. A deeper look at this fall will be the subject of tomorrow's post.

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