Consider the fragility of human existence. We survive within a specific set of environmental parameters – a fixed range of temperature, hydration, radiation, and atmospheric content. From a cosmic perspective the margin of error is very small; the slightest adjustment in even a single factor, such as the amount of oxygen, quickly moves the environment from pleasant to deadly. Yet we have learned how to venture into the realm of the deadly when necessary. Thanks to protective clothing, equipment, and protocols, our species can operate within the vacuum of space, in the ocean’s depths, in the radiation-charged atmosphere of a nuclear reactor, and in the hot zone of an infectious disease laboratory.
We venture into these deadly environments, but we do not live there. We cannot survive there without observing the strictest standards. Those who enter these realms understand this. Astronauts, deep sea explorers, nuclear engineers, and epidemiologists are professionals who have answered the call to highly specialized career fields. Not all who enter the paths of these professions advance to the point that they can operate confidently in the most dangerous places. The selection and training standards must be established at the highest possible levels for the simple reason that the slightest error can produce lethal results. Richard Preston explained this principle in The Hot Zone, an investigative look into the origins of viral hemorrhagic fevers like Ebola. We learn from his book that the protocols for entering, working in, and leaving an infectious disease lab are elaborate and time-consuming, but necessary. No amount of caution is excessive when microscopic killers can infiltrate through the tiniest puncture of a protective suit or escape through an improper seal of an airlock. The viruses create the hot zone, whether it is in the lab or in the human body. Because of the radical transformative nature of these microorganisms, the highly trained professionals who work with viruses like Ebola in a very real sense act as mediators between them and the general population.
In fact, the role of these professionals is not unlike the role of the Levitical priests.
More Than Just Sin
At the heart of our misunderstanding of the sacrificial system is the assumption that it is all about sin. Since the blood of the animals foreshadowed the atonement that would come in Messiah’s sacrifice, and since that atonement came to pass through Messiah’s sinless death on the cross, the assumption is that sacrifices are no longer necessary. Sadly, such reasoning betrays incomprehension of the reason God instituted sacrifices. Messiah Yeshua did indeed die as the “Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29-34; see also Isaiah 53 and Revelation 5). His death most certainly provides the only provision for willful, rebellious sin against our Creator (Genesis 22:6-8; Numbers 15:27-31; Hebrews 10:26-31). However, the sacrificial system included many more offerings than those which had connection to sin.
If we are to understand the full nature of the Temple sacrifices, we should start with the meaning of the words used for the items offered on the Altar. “Sacrifice” and “offering” are the usual English translations, and quite often the meanings are not entirely distinct in the minds of English-speaking readers. The English definition of “sacrifice” refers to something valuable offered, often to a deity, in exchange for something or someone else. A sacrifice also means something that is “written off”, or lost for good. In that sense, the olah would be considered a sacrifice because it is a burnt offering intended to be entirely consumed on the Altar. Yet that is not the intent for everything presented to God, which is why the term “offering” is important. The Hebrew word in this case is korban (קָרְבָּן; Strongs H7133), a term usually translated as “offering”, but occasionally rendered as “sacrifice”. Christians should recognize the term from one of Yeshua’s key confrontations with the Pharisees:
He was also saying to them, “You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition. For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, is to be put to death’; but you say, ‘If a man says to his father or his mother, whatever I have that would help you is Corban (that is to say, given to God),’ you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or his mother; thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that.” (Mark 7:9-13 NASB, emphasis added)
Doing Business With God
Messiah Yeshua said something very peculiar when His disciples asked for the sign of His return at the end of the age. He mentioned one unambiguous event that would signal the beginning of what is generally called the Tribulation:
Therefore when you see the abomination of desolation which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains. (Matthew 24:15-16 NASB)
What makes Yeshua’s statement peculiar is not that this Abomination of Desolation first occurred nearly two centuries before He spoke these words, nor that something like it happened again a generation later. The peculiarity is that this unambiguous sign of Messiah’s return concerns the Temple in Jerusalem and the sacrificial system of worship codified by God through Moses in the Torah. A consistent theme in Christian doctrine is that the death and resurrection of Yeshua made the sacrificial system obsolete. Why, then, does Yeshua ratify Daniel’s description of this interruption of the sacrifices as the “Abomination of Desolation”? Why is it an abomination if the sacrifices no longer matter to God? Why is it a desolation? Who or what is made desolate, and why? These questions direct us to look closer at the sacrificial system of worship so we can understand more clearly how our God does business with humanity.