A friend of mine asked me the other day, “In God’s grand scheme of things, what was the purpose of the Old Testament sacrificial system?” It’s a good question. So, just as I do with any spiritual topic these days, I decided to examine it in the context of God’s ultimate desire for humanity, that we should experience, with him and with each other, the Holy Trinity’s life of perfect union, as we are taught in John 17:20-23, or Ephesians 1:1-10, just to give a couple examples. All of God’s dealings with us are for the accomplishing of this purpose. One can safely assume, then, that the offering of sacrificial animal blood must have served this divine design.
Certainly the life of the Israelite people presents us with an icon of oneness. Twelve tribes, at least until the division of the kingdom, lived as one nation in a dynamic, intimate union with their God. His fire protected and guided them. His cloud sheltered them. They were fed by manna from his hand, and guided by laws he himself declared to them. A singular form of worship knit them to each other and to their vividly present God.
That worship, of course, included all those animal sacrifices which were ritually offered for the sins of the people. But what exactly were these sacrifices meant to accomplish with regard to sin? Were they meant to appease God’s wrath against sin? That cannot be the case, for the Scriptures teach that “it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). What’s more, there is God’s paradoxical attitude toward the very sacrifices he instituted. “Sacrifice and offering, burnt-offerings and offerings for sin, you (meaning God) did not desire, nor had pleasure in them” (Hebrews 10:8). How could God be appeased by something in which he took no pleasure?
So why would God institute such a dramatic and bloody a mechanism as animal sacrifices, when he took no pleasure in them and when they did nothing to eradicate the sins for which they were offered? Again, I propose that we should seek the answer to this question against the background of God’s supreme desire for us: that we become one with him.
That we should look at the sacrificial system through these eyes is suggested when we hear the Lord say things like, “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt-offerings” (Hosea 6:6). What God desires is that we truly know him, that our lives be so joined to our Creator that we not only honor him with sacrifice, but manifest his loving attributes.
The best Old Testament expression of this divine longing for oneness is found in the prophecy of Jeremiah.
Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts, and I will be their God and they shall be my people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor and every man his brother, saying: Know the Lord. For they all shall know me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the Lord. (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
Of course, it is in Christ that this new covenant is fulfilled. Through the various chapters of the incarnation, the nativity, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and second coming, we human creatures become partakers of the divine nature, as we read in 2 Peter 1:4.
The Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us. So when God puts his law in our minds, he doesn’t do it with rational precepts; rather, the Spirit speaks his living words to us in the living moment. God’s law in our hearts is more than just a sense of conviction or of commitment to principle. It is rather our heart’s becoming the Spirit’s heart. This is oneness with God in the wake of the Incarnation. It is an ongoing transformation by which we become more and more indistinguishable from the God with whom we are united.
But what about those who lived before the Incarnation, in particular the chosen nation of Israel? Were they able to experience this sort of oneness with God? The answer is no. When Christ came into the world, humanity was re-created. When he took on our flesh, our human nature, which had fallen into death and sin because of its separation from God, was rejoined to the divine. When Christ died in the flesh, our humanity died with him; and when he was raised in the flesh, our flesh was raised to immortality and incorruption with him. With the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, the foundation for perfect oneness with God was firmly established, for through the Spirit God dwells in us; we live him.
The clearest indication that things were much different for those who lived before the Incarnation is that when they died, they all descended into the dark unconsciousness of Sheol, or Hades. For those of us living in oneness with Christ, to depart this life or, as St. Paul puts it, to be absent from the body, is to be present with the Lord, as he says in 1 Corinthians 5:8. It is to be alive and worshiping Christ with the spirits of those who have been made perfect (Hebrews 12:23).
But before the Incarnation, death was a place of dread silence, as these Old Testament passages lament: “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing. Nevermore will they have a share in anything done under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:5-6). “The dead do not praise the Lord, nor any who go down into silence” (Psalm 115:17). No matter how reverently and obediently the Israelites of old served him and made their sacrifices to him, without the re-creation of human nature, which brings immortality, and without the Spirit’s indwelling, they could never be wholly one with God.
Now, the Holy Spirit could strongly influence them. They could be awed and moved by the manifestations of his presence and his power. They could feel deep conviction for their faith. Through diligent and heartfelt obedience, they could become just and virtuous people. But they could not be direct participants in the life of the Holy Trinity. And yet, what made the life of Israel so special was that its whole economy—its laws, its dietary customs, its religious festivals—contained the promise of oneness. These were, as St. Paul calls them, a shadow of things to come (Colossians 2:17).
In many ways, the world of the Hebrews looked like the eternal kingdom of oneness. They shared a common life within the fellowship and under the direct rulership of God. But as the Apostle says, what they lived was a shadow of the kingdom of Christ. It was only a two-dimensional picture of that realm. What was missing? These are a shadow of things to come, St. Paul says, but he continues: The substance is of Christ. (Again, that’s Colossians 2:17, the whole verse that time.) That’s what is Israel lacked: the substance behind the shadow, the living subject captured in the picture. The Hebrew life was a photo of Christ. It looked like Christ, but the living Christ was not yet present in it.
To complete their destiny, the Israelites needed to become more than images of the kingdom. They needed to become living vessels of the living Christ. They needed more than to emulate God, or represent God. They needed God within them. And eventually, the Incarnation and the coming of the Spirit gave the faithful of Israel the opportunity to be transformed like portraits mystically brought to life.
In the epistle to the Hebrews, St. Paul—I should mention Orthodox traditionally recognize St. Paul as the author of Hebrews—St. Paul speaks of Israel’s sacrificial system in a similar fashion. I mean, he teaches that while animal sacrifices accomplished something for the Israelites on one level, they failed to meet a deeper, more important need in the lives of the Hebrew people.
Specifically, he notes that the blood of bulls and goats did provide the Israelites with a certain, as he calls it, “purifying of the flesh” (Hebrews 9:13). But what the sacrifices couldn’t do was, he says, make those who approach perfect (Hebrews 10:1). In the particular context of this passage, “perfect” means having a cleansed conscience, as we read in Hebrews 9:14. What is the Apostle getting at here? We’ll start unraveling that next time.