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Isaiah mirrors the Bible’s case against sacrifices

hafIsaiah inaugurates his prophetic career — as we read in the Haftarah (or prophetic reading) on this Shabbat Hazon that precedes immediately the 9th of Av, the day on which both Temples were consumed by fire (586 BCE and 70 CE respectively) — by lambasting the numerous animal sacrifices brought by his fellow Israelites to the Temple; gifts of which God was ”satiated” with and did not desire to begin with. Indeed, ”Who has asked this of your hand [for all you do is merely] trample My courts?” Isaiah speaks up for God.

Noah, (not Abel!) was the first person in the Bible to initiate the sacrificial institution upon disembarking from the ark at the end of the flood, and it would henceforth become a fixed Biblical fixture. Still, God did not ask Noah for his voluntary animal offering, nor did God commend Noah for slaughtering animals to do homage to Him.

Significantly, none of the two versions of the Decalogue – the very backbone of Biblical laws – even alludes to sacrifices. Hence, the prophet Jeremiah (like Amos before him) reminds his reluctant hearers that when their ancestors left Egypt on the Exodus, God did not command them to offer animal sacrifices; rather, only to imitate Him in ‘’doing lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness; for in these things I delight.”   The notion that ‘’The Lord apparently has always liked the smell of barbeque’’ (W. Sibley Towner) must be rejected on account of the Rabbis’ assertion that God receives more willingly the affordable grain gift that the poor present than an animal offered by the rich; the offering of the former’s ‘’soul’’, then, is superior to the offering of the latter’s wallet (Tanhumah, Vaikra, siman hey).

Jeremiah invokes also the ghost of the Shiloh Temple – a predecessor of the Jerusalem Temple some 25 miles apart – yet where God first caused His name to dwell, only to be chucked after a catastrophic war with the Philistines.  “And see what I did to it for the wickedness of My people Israel… therefore will I do unto th[is] house [the Jerusalem Temple]… [what] I have done to Shiloh’’, irrespective of the animal sacrifices that were offered there. Or in short, the whole sacrificial cult did not lead to a more faithful people to God’s way despite an unaccountable numbers of animals slain at either altar with nothing auspicious to show for.

Why did so many of the prophets (e.g., Samuel, Hosea, Micah, Malachi) choose to demote specifically the religious value of the sacrificial system in comparison to one’s heeding the ethical precepts of the Torah, rather than diminish the import of other ritual demands such as the dietary restrictions? After all, the Torah does not state which religious precept takes priority over the other.

Some observers pointed out to God’s opposition in principle to animal offerings because these very sacrifices were the most likely among all other ritual requirements to mislead man into thinking that he had done his part in the service of God by partaking in the cult, and it mattered not whether his ethics were skewed.

Simply put, the Biblical sacrificial system originates with man whilst God makes no request for it, let alone demanding meat offerings or even seeing such favorably.  No sacrifice presenter had ever received a good word from God for a job well done, not even if his name was Job, the Bible’s foremost person of integrity.

Job maintains throughout his poignant and profound disputation with his friends that how folks treated others —   e.g., sharing ‘’bread with the hungry’’ or clothing the naked — scored much higher with God than their adherence to the sacrificial cult in which he had actively participated.

Isaiah too, like Job and those other prophets, attempted to send home the message that the gold standard in obeying God was one’s code of ethics and not the gifting of animal sacrifices to God. Or as Ecclesiastes posits that obedience to the former will bring one nearer to God than a sacrifice (i.e., near-offering) would.  Similarly, Proverbs maintains that one needs neither Temple nor a sacrificial animal to do ‘’what is right and just’’ which ranks ‘’as the Lord’s elected choice over sacrifice’’ (21:3). God prefers that peace and tranquility dwell among people over peace between people and God if they seek to restore it by making animal sacrifices, which is a possible understanding of Proverbs 17:1.

In a nutshell, the gratuitous animal sacrifices score low in the service of God and are dispensable; Hence, Isaiah’s fulmination towards it in this weekly Haftarah.

About the Author
Ordained a Rabbi by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1994; in 2019 this institution accorded me the degree of Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa. Following ordination I served congregations on the island of Curacao, in Columbia, MO. Currently serving a congregation in Bend, Or. I received academic degrees from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (B.A. in International Relations and History), New York University (M.A. in History), and Emory University (Ph.D. in U.S. History). I am the author of U.S. Policy on Jerusalem (Greenwood Press), and numerous articles on biblical themes in various print and digital publications. I have taught in several academic institutions, including Ben-Gurion University (Beersheba, Israel), and the University of Missouri (Columbia, MO). A native of Afula, Israel. A veteran of the IDF.
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