This is a continuation of Part 1 of The Beautiful Tabernacle and the God who Designed it
We have learned the design and décors of God's residence. But God's residence is not just a collection of dead items. A residence will have a lot of activities going on. God truly lives with His people, and has a communal life with them.
The Tabernacle as communal life
How do you have communal life with others? What do you do with the people you have relationships with? You eat together! The heart of a home is its kitchen. Indeed we are told that God has a table - His altar - in His courtyard (Ex. 27).
Now, at this time of Israel's history, the Word has not yet become flesh. God has not incarnated in human Jesus Christ yet. So God would not hop around and down the street to different homes to eat with people.
What God did, however, was that He invited people to go to His tent and bring food. In the Old Testament, this is called a sacrifice. Again, as with God's detailed descriptions of His tent that we looked at in Part 1, we tend to skim over this part of the Bible, thinking sacrifices are just ancient, bloody rituals that hardly have anything to do with us civilised moderns (we're peaceful people who don't kill animals in temples, right?)
Or, we think Jesus has already made the ultimate sacrifice, and so we need not worry about the ancient ones that no longer have effect. However, Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament. He died "in accordance with the Scriptures" (1 Cor. 15:3). We wouldn't fully appreciate what Jesus did for us if we don't know what's going on in the Old Testament. So what does a sacrifice mean in the Old Testament?
To start with, remember that we're looking at God's dwelling on earth with His people. He dwelled among His people to have real communion with them. So He invited His people to bring food to His tent to share it with Him, and He told them how (Lev. 1-7).
If we find it hard to understand the Old Testament sacrifices, try this: think food and recipes, think kitchens and tables (even think barbecues!).
What to bring to the table?
First, you'll notice that all accepted sacrifices listed in Leviticus were food that people normally eat every day: either livestock or produce. Most typically sacrifices offered would be a bull, a lamb or goat, or grain (only if you can't afford any, then wild pigeons could be substitutes). And the instructions of sacrifices were in fact instructions for preparing food, i.e. recipes.
You'll notice that the one action common to all types of sacrifices (we'll talk about the several types later) was the action of burning the offering on God's altar. Therefore, the point of a sacrifice is not the slaughtering of animals. Grain offerings were just as acceptable. The instructions actually explain what the burning is for - in order to produce a soothing or pleasing aroma for God (Lev. 1:9, 13, 17; 2:2, 9, 12; 3:5, 16; 4:31, 6:15, 21, etc., that's why I said think barbecues!).
A communal meal with God and His people
God might not physically eat the food, but the text implies that He "enjoys" it with His people, so to speak. This is why in the Bible, the altar is synonymous with the table (e.g. Mal 1:7; 1 Cor. 10:21). So food is prepared for God and put on His table, and also for the people, too.
You'll notice, therefore, the instructions detailed the apportionment of an offering - which portion belongs to God, and which belongs to priests (the representatives of the people) and the offerer (Lev. 3:14-17; 7:11-36). Food is prepared and shared with God, very literally. God is never abstract. God has communal life with His people in the most literal sense.
In this sense, then, sacrifices were not violent practices. The ancient Israelites would have killed and eaten their livestock even without sacrificing to God. That's why people raise livestock in the first place - to eat them!
Only that, by sacrificing to God, they shared their food with God. If you think about it, their bulls, lambs and goats, and grains were probably their tribes' whole livelihood. In sacrificing, therefore, communities were sharing their whole life and future with God.
Preparing yourself to come near the table: the 'Sin Offering'
However, don't forget that God's is holy. Sinners cannot just go to His tent without being consumed by His presence. Even their representatives - priests - could not just go near His tent without risking death (E.g. Ex. 28:43; 30:20).
Nevertheless, God taught them what to do to be safely near Him. God taught them how to atone for their sins first, before bringing food to Him. This is why you'll read that there are several types of sacrifices - there are ones that are expiatory/atoning in nature, and must be offered first before any other sacrifice. These are the "sin offering" and the "guilt offering" (instructions in Lev. 4-5; the latter to be accompanied by actual reparations for sins).
In a nutshell, in these offerings, sins are confessed over an animal, and the slaughtered animal is brought to priests (grain is not permissible this time, because blood is essential). The priest then applies the animal's blood on God's altar (for the sins of a commoner), and possibly also on the incense altar and in front of the veil that separates the holy of holies (for the sins of a priest or the whole community). God said that He gave His people animal blood to atone for their sins (Lev. 17:11).
The Bible does not explain how blood actually atones sin. Atonement is purely God's work. So we need not speculate on this part. But the good news is this: God graciously provided a means to atone His people so that they might be clean and safely approach His holy presence.
The 'Burnt Offering'
After expiatory offerings, what typically comes next is called a "burnt offering" (instructions in Lev. 1). This is the default offering, so to speak, because it is what's offered first after sins are atoned - i.e. what humans should in theory offer to God when things are right. In this sacrifice, the whole offering (whether animal or grain) must be burned on the altar for God, no portion is left for priests or the offerer, signifying a wholehearted and even costly commitment of the offerer to God.
The 'Peace Offering'
It is after this, that the "peace offering" (Lev. 3) can be offered, i.e. what we have outlined above, the sharing of food between God and the offerer.
In sum, sacrifices in the Old Testament always come in series and in a specific order - first the sin/guilt offering, then the burnt offering, and finally concluding with the peace offering (see e.g. Ex. 18:12, 20:24, 24:5, 32:6; Lev. 9:22, 23:19; Num. 6:14, 10:10, 29:39; Deut. 27:6–7, and many other passages).
Knowing the order of sacrifices is important. It tells us the means and the end of sacrifices - by being atoned first, humans recommit to God again, and enjoy real communion with Him. Sacrifices are therefore God's grace - He gave sinful people a means to live with Him.
The Annual Big 'Clean Out'
Once a year, the High Priest, the head of all the priests, would have a big "clean out" of God's tent, so that God would not be disdained by His people's sins and leave them (details in Lev. 16). The High Priest would offer sin offerings for himself and for the whole nation. And, only on this day, he would bring sacrificial blood and enter the holy of holies, to apply the blood onto the Ark of the covenant (remember it's the priced furniture of God's tent, with God's mercy seat).
The people would gather and wait outside the tent. If the High Priest came out from the holy of holies alive, it meant that God accepted His intercession, and the people would rejoice. Then, the sins of the nation would be confessed over a goat. Someone would then bring the goat to the wilderness, to no man's land, for it to never return. So God does not only accept His people's communion, but has provided a means for sins to be removed permanently from them!
A new look on 'Sacrifice'
Sacrifices therefore speak of how much God loves His people, despite their sins! Scripture actually gives us a hint as to what sacrifices mean in the noun itself - korban - from the Hebrew root "to draw near." The noun itself pronounces the good news - God's people could draw near to Him, even when they don't deserve it at all. They were even welcome to draw near to Him! God Himself provided a means - blood - to cleanse and prepare them for this beautiful communion.
In the Bible, the notion of burning sacrifice on an altar therefore speaks of God's acceptance of the offerer. If you recall the prophet Elijah's big moment of his career: on Mount Carmel, he dared the false prophets to plead to Baal to send fire and consume their sacrifices. No response from Baal, of course, no matter how hard they tried. But when it was Elijah's turn, God sent fire and burned up the whole of Elijah's sacrifice (1 Kings 18:16-45). The fire indicated that God accepted his sacrifice.
Now, the good news is this: God specifically gave orders that that His altar must be kept burning continually! A fire was always on it (Lev. 6:12-13). And because His altar was in the courtyard and not inside the tent, the fire was visible to everyone. His people did not have to worry about when to go to God, nor have to plead for acceptance. God already decided that He accepted His people continuously, and He physically showed it.
It was in light of all these that I started to understand a seemingly rather minor detail in the Old Testament. In ancient Israel, leprosy was a contagious disease that made the sufferer unclean. It did not just mean hygienically unclean, but ritually unclean, and the sufferer would not be allowed to approach God. Lepers were the most excluded people in their society because they would make others unclean as well.
But God decreed that, when they recovered, lepers could go to priests - not doctors - to certify that they were clean (Lev. 13). I used to think that this was only because ancients didn't know medicine any better. But no. Consider this: what would be the biggest proof to the whole society that someone is clean? Not just that a doctor thinks so, but that the person could have communion with God! This proves that this person is truly clean, and must be allowed to reenter society again.
The horizontal dimension
In what I've said so far, I have not mentioned a very important dimension of sacrifices. Apart from a vertical dimension - our communion with God, there is also always a horizontal dimension as well - our communion with each other.
You see, when people brought food sacrifices to God, they didn't eat it themselves or only with God and priests. They were to eat with the whole community. Very specifically, God commanded that they must, before His tent, share food with their servants, the poor, foreigners, Levites who had no land, and orphans and widows (Deut. 14:27-29; 16:11, 14-15). These people must "come and eat and be satisfied" (14:29).
In other words, in sacrifices, not only is a sinner's relationship with God put right, the sinner's relationships with others must also be put right at the same time. If you come to God's altar, you don't hold grudges, and you don't exploit other people. Food brings people together. God ordered: Everybody, especially the poor and dispossessed, must eat and rejoice before God's dwelling! (Deut. 16:11)
The Tabernacle tells us that God chose to have real communion with His people. Ultimately, Scripture tells us, when the Son of God came, He came eating and drinking (Mt. 11:19; Lk. 7:34). He very literally hopped around eating and drinking with His people, even the most dubious sinners. People called Him “a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners." His name is Emmanuel - God with us. He instituted a new meal so that all may come to His table. He was the ultimate sacrifice - His blood shed on the cross cleansed us to allow us to draw near to God once and for all (Heb. 9:12). The veil was torn forever! He is now our High Priest interceding for us; as we await His return again, His Holy Spirit now continues to dwell among us. And we look forward to His ultimate banquet one day. God, from the beginning to the end, has overcome our sin and never fails to be with us.