Ancient Israel lived within a sacrificial system. At various times Israel was called upon to make different types of sacrifices: burnt, grain, peace, sin, or guilt. Sometimes these sacrifices were freely given in response to God’s love, but often they were the direct result of sin. An individual sinned and therefore needed to make a sacrifice in order to seek atonement. Israel was also required to make certain sacrifices daily, weekly, or during special feasts to atone for the sins of the entire community. With all of these sacrifices taking place at the tabernacle, and later the Temple, there was a constant procession of slaughtering animals, sprinkling blood, and seeking atonement.
In our modern world, this practice seems barbaric. We cringe at the slaughtering of animals in an attempt to somehow atone for our own sins. Why does a sheep or goat have to die because I failed? The killing of innocent animals seems extreme not just to animal rights activists, but to almost everyone. It is a grotesque practice that needed to end.
Ancient Israel, of course, was not alone in participating in animal sacrifices. Many ancient civilizations lived within a sacrificial system, offering daily sacrifices to the gods. If anything, Israel put some restraints on the practice, since multiple ancient civilizations even practiced human sacrifices; offering children on the altar to appease the gods. Israel forbade human sacrifice, and placed some restrictions on animal sacrifices. Yet, while the restraints may show that Israel was slightly more humane, if a practice is inhumane it doesn’t really matter to what degree it is inhumane; inhumane is inhumane. While we understand historically these practices took place, we also understand them as reserved for a primitive, barbaric time and are glad that for the most part, they don’t take place today.
While not legitimizing the practice, or advocating that it return, animal sacrifices in ancient Israel did help to impart at least one important truth, sin is serious and has serious consequences. The notion that sin could only be atoned for by the shedding of blood, the taking of another life, helped to reinforce the seriousness of sin. Sin was not to be taken lightly. Sin was not to be ignored. Sin was not just boys being boys, or a simple mistake that I promise not to do again. Sin was, and is, a breach of covenant. Sin was separation from God. Sin brought death. It was sin that caused humanity to no longer be able to eat from the tree of life in the Garden, and it is unrepentant sin that will separate humanity from God for eternity. Sin is serious, and the killing of one’s animals, one’s best animals, one’s unblemished animals, helped to reinforce this reality.
Today, we sometimes take a flippant attitude toward sin. Forgiveness comes so easily (all I have to do is pray and ask for forgiveness and it’s granted) that at times we barely give it a second thought. How often do we actually mourn our own sinfulness? How often do we wrestle with the truth that left on our own we will die, not just physically, but spiritually? How often do we take the time to lament our failings, begging God to cleanse us from our sins and make us pure? Sin is serious, and requires a serious sacrifice. We should do everything we can to avoid sin because it brings death; its ramifications are death. Sin has a tremendous cost.
I’m not advocating returning to a sacrificial system, and I don’t think it’s healthy to wallow in our sins to the point that we can no longer live life. I do believe, however, that we should spend more time recognizing our own sinfulness and the seriousness of our mistakes. Sin is serious and must be avoided at all cost. Just because we can never be perfect is not a reason to avoid perfection. We are called to holiness in all things, and sin is the opposite of holiness. Perhaps recognizing the horribleness of sin may help us to avoid sin in the future. At the very least, we may come to appreciate God’s love and grace more when we come to recognize how desperately we are in need of forgiveness.