What good did the sacrifices do? — None

This weekly portion, Phinehas, chronicles tirelessly a long list of animal offerings that were a requisite on special days, Sabbaths and festivals. The “tamid” daily offerings, in the morning and at twilight, bookended all other sacrifices, such as those enumerated in Numbers 28, as well as personal ones, day in and day. This weekly portion narrates the number of offerings and spells out the type of animal for each of the sacred days in the Israelite religious calendar.

To set the record right, only after the Decalogue was pronounced from Mt. Sinai – but not as a part of it — does God instruct the Israelites concerning an altar to be made “for Me, and you shall sacrifice upon it your…sheep and your cattle burnt offerings.” Curiously, the Psalter represents a contradictory view of God pertaining to such sacrifices: “I will not accept a bull from your house, or goats from your folds… [Why,] all that moves in the field is mine… Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?” (Ps. 50: 9-13).

Adding to the puzzlement about God and His “need” for sacrifices is Jeremiah’s categorical denial (whilst speaking for God): “For when I freed your fathers from the land of Egypt, I did not speak with them or command them concerning burnt offerings or sacrifice” (7:22).  And although Moses demanded of the Pharaoh in God’s name: “Send out, My people, that they may serve Me — and bring offerings to the Lord our God, as He will tell us,” the Hebrews did not make such sacrifices, neither after the crossing of the Red Sea, nor even on the altar that Moses built in the aftermath of their military victory over Amalek a few weeks into the Exodus.

Furthermore, many commentators, including Rashi, argue that God’s call for the making of a portable tabernacle-mikdash with an altar and its accessories only came after the crafting of the pagan golden calf. Namely, animal offerings as an imperative came only in response to the disgrace of that flagrant violation of the Decalogue’s second speaking that forbade the Hebrews to practice any idolatrous rites. And that being the case, the sanctuary and its altar would constitute a legitimate substitute to the golden calf, yes, a “kosher calf,” but devoid of any authentic rhyme or reason.

To be sure, when the protocol in this weekly Torah portion spells out the animal sacrifices for each sacred day it simultaneously calls for offering “flour as a grain-gift, mixed with oil.”  Though animal flesh and produce complements each other in these communal offerings, when it comes to personal offerings (that are discussed elsewhere in the Torah) one could offer either one, even as a mere produce offering could be presented in lieu of an animal sacrifice, with each being equally of “sweet savor unto the Lord.” Whilst the animal offering could only be made by folks of means, bringing choice flour enabled the poor to participate in that ceremonious ritual.  As such it democratized the sacrificial system by enabling a sense of nearness to God for the poor as well by sparing him from the high cost of an animal that was beyond his means.

Significantly, the Torah makes elsewhere three references to two major accoutrements in the Tent of Meeting (The Tabernacle) — the table and the seven-branched menorah (lampstand) — that are the only vessels whom God portrayed as “pure.” Even the Ark ensconcing the two tablets of the covenant, let alone the sanctuary as a whole, is not called “pure.” Yeshayahu Leibowitz (quoting Hizkooni) explains that both “pure” accessories never came in contact with any of the blood of animal sacrifices.  “This comes to teach us that even the blood of offerings called ‘holy ones’ (kodashim) is blemished” as purity and blood are essentially incompatible.

And it is for this reason why God would not have King David – “the Messiah of Jacob’s God” — build a Temple – his desire to do so notwithstanding — for he shed “much blood” of people, that is, on the battlefield waging “great wars.” The sword that kills a human, or the knife that slays an animal in God’s Temple, could never be “pure.” Hence David in the role of the Psalter (40:7) takes a very different perspective: “Sacrifice… You do not desire …burnt offering and sin offering you have not required,” and then again (in 69:30-1): “I will praise God’s name in song and exalt Him with thanksgiving. And this will please the Lord more than an ox, more than a bull with horns and hooves.”

Isaiah, Hosea, Micah, and Jeremiah beseeched their people to end idolatry and repair their flawed morality, while emphasizing that God did not accept their sacrifices or even found them “pleasing” (Jeremiah 6:20). It was for these vices that the first Temple would be destroyed (by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.); the people’s animal offerings did not bring them closer to God’s word.

The second Temple too – as the Talmud explains — would ultimately be set ablaze (by the Romans in 70 C.E. with the 17th of Tammuz coming right after this Shabbat as a reminder), for vices like internal causeless hatred among the people, the desecration of the Sabbath, failing to rebuke those who needed to be admonished, and for meting out legal justice sans leniency that stretched beyond the strict letter of the law. Indeed, Jeremiah invokes also the ghost of the Shiloh temple “where I caused My Name to dwell at the first [prior to Jerusalem] and see what I did to it for the wickedness of My people Israel… therefore will I do unto th[is] house… as I have done to Shiloh,” Israel’s animal offerings notwithstanding.

Or in short, the whole sacrificial cult did not affect a more faithful people to God’s way despite an unaccountable number of animals slain at an altar for naught.  Those sacrificed animals were not what mattered to God, whilst offerings like “Kindness” (Hosea), “hearkening to the voice of the Lord” (Samuel), or “justice and loving kindness, and walking humbly with God” (Micah) did!

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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