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Obedience is better than Sacrifice

In this week’s Torah portion [Leviticus 1:1-6:7 (English); Leviticus 1:1-5:26 (Hebrew)] we see all sorts of laws concerning the sacrifices God requires when his people sin. All of these sacrifices are particular to the role of the person and the severity of the sin. For each transgression, blood is required to atone for the person who committed them. The sacrificed creatures ranged from pigeons to grown bulls, each of which had its blood taken and spilled on the altar before the LORD.

This is important for many reasons. The first of which would be to make known to the people the holiness of God and how sin cannot coexist in his presence. The book of Leviticus picks up right after the conclusion of Exodus where God’s glory leaves the top of Mount Sinai and moves into the Tabernacle to dwell with his people as they wander through the wilderness. Immediately following Moses’s inability to enter the holy place (where God’s spirit now dwells), he is given the statues and details on all of these sacrifices.

The second reason this is important is because God specifically mentions that these sacrifices still apply when his people sin unintentionally (Levi 4:2; 4:13; 4:22; 4:27; 5:14; 5:18). Personally, growing up in a Christian home, I assumed that any sin that I had committed unintentionally was never counted against me; on the contrary, these sins still displeased God and sacrifice was required to cover my transgressions, where I was aware of them or not. Throughout these passages, God mentions that when someone sins unintentionally and then it is brought to his/her attention, he/she is to make a sacrifice as atonement. This is why it is important for us to hold our Christian brothers and sisters accountable, not as an act of puffing our own selves up, but as to help them realize that they have transgressed the great and mighty God. With this realization on the behalf of the sinner, he/she is to sacrifice to God in payment for the transgression.

The examples given in the text are particular to animals from the flock because most all of the people of this time depended on their flocks to stay alive; essentially all of their wealth was found in their flock, and to have to willingly give the best of one’s flock to God in response to sin is to help the person see and understand the severity of transgressing the Almighty. Imagine if every time you sinned today, you had to give God this week’s paycheck. Though Christ has given his life as a ransom for our sins and we no longer are required to bring our “flocks” to God as restitution, we are to remember that the blood shed for our sins cost much more than our livelihood; rather, it cost the life of God’s own son, which is a far greater price to pay.

Going further in the text, we can see an inappropriate use of sacrifice to God. During the time of Israel’s first king – King Saul – Israel was constantly at war. One time in particular, Saul sieged King Agag and all of the kingdom of the Amalekites. God informed Saul that he was to strike down King Agag along with all that they have – man, woman, child, infant, ox, sheep, camel, and donkey (1 Samuel 15:1-3). Saul, rather, decided that instead of listening to what God commanded him, he would take Agag alive and keep for himself the best sheep, oxen, calves, and lambs to sacrifice to God, thinking that God would be pleased in the sacrifice. Samuel, God’s prophet, rebuked King Saul on behalf of God, saying to him,

“Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
as in obeying the voice of the Lord?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
and to listen than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is as the sin of divination,
and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
he has also rejected you from being king.”
(1 Samuel 15:22-23 ESV)

Saul assumed that the sacrifices were what God has wanted all along, but has never been the case. In the most ironic way, Saul did the very thing he was trying to undo: sin. Saul directly disobeyed the commandments of his God by looking to the sacrifice as what God ultimately wants rather than what God has always wanted from his people – obedience. To God, obedience has always been his desire, not sacrifice. Sacrifice requires death; obedience gives life. The entire point of the opening chapters of Leviticus is to help us see what sin costs when we transgress God, intentionally or unintentionally, not that God delights in the death of his people or their flock. This is why Christ himself came to die; not because God delights in death, but because God desires for his people to be clean before him and to live among his glory as they did in the days of the Tabernacle. Thank God for his mercies and his desire for his people.

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