In a recent post, “Why Did God Ask for Animal Sacrifice?” Michael Barber wrote: “Ever wonder why God asked the Israelites to sacrifice animals like cattle, sheep and goats? It’s not because God loves the smell of burning meat.”
“Moses explains to Pharaoh why the Israelites must be allowed to go out to the desert to offer their sacrifices to the Lord; their sacrifices would be “abominable” to the Egyptians (Ex. 8:25-27). In other words, Israel was to sacrifice to the Lord the very animals the Egyptians worshipped as gods.”
I am not sure whether I understand Michael correctly. His post seems to say that animal sacrifice was given by God to Israel in order for Israel to learn that these animals were not gods. As Michael wrote: “God wanted Israel to renounce the gods of Egypt and worship Him as the one true God.”
The post leaves the reader with the impression that Israel or the ancestors of Israel did not practice animal sacrifice. This is how Jonathan Erdman, of The Theos Project understood it. He wrote a comment to Michael’s post: “But animal sacrifice is a demand that goes back to early Genesis….so, there are broader issues here, right??? The reason for the requirement of animal sacrifice is certainly greater than the one context of Israel and Egypt, wouldn’t you agree?”
The origins of animal sacrifice are lost in antiquity. As early as the 4th millennium B.C.,
animal sacrifices were offered in Egypt at the temples at Abydos, Thebes, and On. Among the animals sacrificed were oxen, wild goats, geese, and even pigs.
Babylon had centers of worship at Eridu, Nippur, Erech, Ur, and other places that can be dated from the 4th and the 3rd millenniums B.C. Babylonian records give evidence of an elaborate system of worship and sacrifices at these temples. One document says that the animals offered in sacrifice by King Gudea included oxen, sheep, goats, lambs, and birds.
As for animal sacrifice in the Bible, the biblical record is very clear that animal sacrifice goes back to the earliest days of biblical history.
For instance, the garments of skins for Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:21) were made from animals slain in sacrifice, since animals were not killed for food until after the flood. Abel made an animal sacrifice when he brought the fat portions from the firstborn of his flock (Genesis 4:4).
The burnt offering that Noah offered the Lord included animals and birds (Genesis 8:20). It is possible that Noah’s sacrifice was connected with the establishment of the covenant that God made with Noah (Genesis 9:8-17).
The earliest animal sacrifice that God commanded was the sacrifice God requested of Abraham at the time God established a covenant with him (Genesis 15:9-17). The five animals Abraham offered to God were a heifer, a goat, a ram, a dove, and a pigeon. These are the same five animals listed in the laws of sacrifice in the Book of Leviticus.
In response to his own question, “Why Did God Ask for Animal Sacrifice?” Michael wrote: “It’s not because God loves the smell of burning meat.” However, this statement does not reflect the biblical teaching. When Noah offered his sacrifice to the Lord, “The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma” of the burning meat and made a promise that he would never again curse the ground because of the actions of human beings (Genesis 8:21).
According to the book of Leviticus, the people of Israel would know their sacrifice was acceptable to God when the burnt offering became an aroma pleasing to God: “It is a burnt offering, an offering made by fire, an aroma pleasing to the Lord (Leviticus 1:9).
In fact, over and over again the people were commanded to present an offering made by fire as an aroma pleasing to the Lord (Numbers 29:36). This expression appears in Leviticus 1:9, 13, 17; 2:2, 9; 3:5; 4:31; 6:15, 21; 17:6; 23:18 and Numbers 15:3, 7, 10, 13f, 24; 18:17; 28:8, 24, 27; 29:2, 8, 13, 36.
The plagues of Egypt represented a struggle between the God of Israel and the gods of Egypt. These gods were associated with the Nile, with animals and reptiles, and with Pharaoh, who was considered an earthly representative of the gods.
This struggle between the God of Israel and the gods of Egypt is the focus of Michael’s statement. He wrote: “Israel was to sacrifice to the Lord the very animals the Egyptians worshipped as gods.” However, the plagues in Egypt also included frogs, gnats, flies, and locust. None of these animals were used as sacrifices in Israel.
The reason God asked Israel to make animal sacrifices is unknown. There are some similarities between the sacrificial system of Israel and those of Babylon and other nations.
Animal sacrifice was found among many Semitic peoples long before Israel became a nation. Thus, it is possible that the Israelites developed their sacrificial system by using some of the same practices found among other Semitic peoples.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary