For the week of June 17, 2023/ 28 Sivan 5783
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 13:1 – 15:41
Haftarah: Joshua 2:1-24
Revised version of “The Ultimate Sacrifice,” originally posted the week of March 17, 2018 / 1 Nisan 5778
But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him. (B’midbar/Numbers 15:30-31)
For the New Covenant believer, the concept of forgiveness of sin is central. We understand that whatever the Old Covenant sacrificial system meant, it in some way points to the Messiah’s ultimate sacrifice. For that reason, it is understandable that we would search for parallels between the multi-purpose sacrifice of animals in the Torah and Yeshua’s unjust death. The problem is it is difficult to draw exact parallels. First, not all Torah sacrifice was for sin. At times, people would offer something due to gratefulness, for example. But in contrast, the Messiah’s death was altogether tragic. While Yeshua freely accepted his mission, there was nothing celebratory about his having to die. While the results of his death were over-the-top good, and his resurrection certainly should be celebrated, the process of death itself was not good. Therefore, Yeshua’s sacrifice only parallels those sacrifices that were for sin of some kind.
Another dissimilarity is that the animals didn’t unduly suffer when killed. They weren’t beaten beforehand as Yeshua was, and they were killed quickly unlike Yeshua’s slow, excruciating, humiliating death on a Roman cross.
There’s at least one more difference. We see it in the verses I quoted at the beginning. You might be surprised to learn that Old Covenant sacrifice for sin was only for unintentional sin. There were no sacrifices for intentional sin at all. The consequence for intentional sin, the Hebrew phrase for that being sinning with a “high hand” (B’midbar/Numbers 15:30), was either banishment or death. This could be why King David in his well-known penitential psalm writes:
For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise (Psalm 51:18-19; English: 51:16-17).
This is not a New Covenant-esque post-sacrificial system advanced theology of anti-animal sacrifice. It’s that there was no sacrifice that could cover David’s intentional sins of adultery and murder. The only acceptable action on David’s part is what he did – honestly and humbly admit his guilt.
What was the point of sacrifice for sin if it was not to cover serious, intentional wrongdoing? It appears that the loss of animal life was designed to make the people aware of their sinful condition. Most of us are conscious of our big sins, but we tend to go through life blind to how much we fall short. The sacrifices helped the people in ancient times to take even their unintentional shortcomings seriously. Sin is costly to ourselves and to those around us; it is also an affront to God who created us to serve him and his purposes. Instead of glibly saying, “nobody’s perfect,” we need to be made aware of the great chasm caused by our ever-present failings and the world as it was supposed to be.
It should be obvious that if unintentional sin was serious enough to require the killing of innocent animals, how much more serious is intentional sin? No wonder Yeshua’s offering was so different from animal sacrifice. It was the only sacrifice designed to actually take away sin. Old Covenant ritual wasn’t simply symbolically foreshadowing a similar, but greater, sacrifice, Rather it prepared Israel and the world for a much different, far more effective sacrifice that would deal with sin once and for all.
Despite the supreme effectiveness of Yeshua’s death for sin, its effects are not applied to us automatically. In order to experience the benefits of what Yeshua has done, we need to echo David’s words. On our own we have nothing to offer that which could satisfy the great losses we have caused the world or the affront our lives have been to our Creator. Nothing but God’s full giving of himself in the person of the Messiah is sufficient to resolve our alienation from him. Making it ours requires a turning of our lives in faith to Yeshua and personally accepting the precious gift of his sacrifice.
Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version