Two weeks ago, in discussing the “rehearsal” of the Passover sacrifice put on by a group calling itself the Temple Mount Institute, I quoted Maimonides as saying that God “could do without” sacrifices. I also noted a teaching attributed to “Rabbi Pinchas in the name of Rabbi Levi” that argued that the sacrificial cult was a stopgap measure meant to wean Israel away from pagan practices. (See Leviticus Rabba 22:7-8.)
“In my opinion,” I wrote, such assertions are possible “because sacrifices and other cultic practices were not part of God’s original plan for Israel, and this is provable by the Torah itself.”
Let us begin with Noah and the Great Flood. Morality had so deteriorated in the world that God despaired of His creation, and decided to end all life (save Noah and his family) and start all over again. Judging by what He says in chapters 8 and 9 of Genesis, what particularly irked God was the bloodlust that had taken hold of both humankind and the animal world.
When the waters abated and the dry land appeared, God said to Noah (Genesis 8:17), “Bring out with you every living thing of all flesh that is with you: birds, animals, and everything that creeps on earth; and let them swarm on the earth and be fertile and increase on earth.”
What does Noah do? He proceeds to sacrifice a slew of animals and birds, even though God said nothing to him about that.
Then the Torah says something peculiar (verse 21): “The Lord smelled the pleasing odor, and the Lord said to Himself: ‘Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth….”
What a strange thing to say. If the odor of the sacrifices was “pleasing” to Him, why does God declare that “the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth”?
The comment only makes sense if the odor was “pleasing” to Noah, not to God.
God, in chapter 9, makes a huge concession to human bloodlust (meat-eating is allowed with some restrictions), but He says nothing about wanting sacrifices.
After He appears on Mount Sinai, God acknowledges that people will want to offer sacrifices, but He insists on it being a low-key affair. Do it simply, on an altar of earth or unhewn stones. (See Exodus 20:21.)
Forty years later, as Israel is about to cross over into the Land, meaning that it is 39 years since they inaugurated and have been using the fancy altars and accoutrements of the Tabernacle (the Mishkan), God again asks for a simple altar of unhewn stones (see Deuteronomy 27), this time for use in a covenant renewal ceremony. While He does ask for sacrifices, that is probably because in the ancient world sacrifices were considered mandatory for such ceremonies. The Israelites would not have seen this one as valid otherwise. (In the original covenant ceremony in Exodus 24, Moses also calls for sacrifices to “seal the deal.”)
Until the Golden Calf episode, God never asks anyone for any sacrifice. Interestingly, when Moses asks God to forgive Israel for that great sin, God does not say, “I will, but only if they kill a bunch of animals first.” What He does say is, “I have pardoned, as you have spoken.” Moses prayed and God heard, and He pardoned.
Here are some facts to ponder:
The only time God asks anyone for a sacrifice is at the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, which actually was meant to be a non-sacrifice. True, Abraham ends up sacrificing a ram, but nothing in Genesis 22 has God telling him to do so.
In Genesis, too, we have the so-called “b’rit bein ha-b’sarim,” “the covenant between the pieces.” There, God does tell Abram, as he was then known, to kill some animals and birds, but the whole incident occurs in a dream, not in reality. “And when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and…it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and it was dark [and he was in a deep sleep!], behold a smoking furnace, and a burning torch that passed between those pieces.” (See Genesis 15.)
Unlike the patriarchs following their indirect encounters with God (He only appeared to them in visions and dreams), Moses builds no altar after meeting God at the burning bush, let alone offers any sacrifice.
When he is saved from God’s wrath on the way back to Egypt, Moses again offers no sacrifice and builds no altar.
Moses calls for no sacrifice as the Exodus gets under way. The Passover “sacrifice” he calls for in Exodus 12:21 is not a sacrifice in the traditional sense; rather, it seems to be a way to guarantee that the lamb the people were to eat that night would be hurriedly roasted, not slowly boiled in water. Indeed, nowhere in chapter 12 does God refer to this as a “korban.” That comes later, after the Golden Calf.
Moses calls for no sacrifice either before or after Israel is rescued from Egypt’s attack at the sea. Indeed, the Song of the Sea indicates that Moses saw prayer, not sacrifice, as the proper way to worship God.
Finally, when his father-in-law sacrifices to Israel’s God in Exodus 18, Moses is conspicuously absent from the guest list, which includes Aaron and the elders. This suggests the possibility that he may have been unwilling to participate in what he saw as an alien, pagan ritual.
So why did God authorize sacrifices and in such great detail?
To again quote Rambam (see Guide to the Perplexed 3:32), it “is not possible to suddenly go from one extreme to another,” and the Golden Calf incident proved that.
The sacrificial cult was inaugurated, but with so many rules and restrictions as to make it obsolete over time.
Obsolete it should remain. All God ever asked for are observance of His mitzvot and an occasional prayer.