While discussing the worship practices of ancient Israel with a friend last year, a thought came to mind:
If Israel was commanded to only offer sacrifices at the tabernacle or temple, what did the far North tribes do with sacrifices that were required at somewhat frequent intervals (e.g. offerings for unintentional sin)?
Did they go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem every week? Did they “store up” their offerings and bring them along during the required annual visits to the capital of Israel? It was these questions that led me on a journey through God’s word that ultimately led me to an unexpected revelation of our Lord’s great mercy and grace. In my study, I sought to ascertain the rule for offering sacrifices to God, observe the reality of what was practiced by Israel, and then use all that information to come to a reasonable conclusion. I will warn that this may seem boring to start with, but if you hang tough, I think you’ll find it very exciting in the end. Here is what I found…
The Levitical standard
My plan was to work through the scripture looking for references to sacrificial worship. Working from the beginning, the Pentateuch provided God’s intention for how His people were to worship Him. Here we see a strong emphasis on a centralized model of community worship that centers on the tabernacle.
Presenting offerings for sacrifice was a universal requirement of the sons of Israel (Lev 1:2) that required individual responsibility (Lev 7:29-30). Some of the offerings were organized and attended to by the Levites alone (such as the annual atonement), but many bore special personal responsibility (such as the guilt offering). In Leviticus, the instructions for all these offerings are to bring them to the “doorway of the tent of meeting” (Lev 1:3, 3:2, 4:4, 7:2). Furthermore, there was to be a watchful eye for anyone slaughtering livestock outside of the camp and not offering it at the tabernacle; these individuals were to be expelled from the community (Lev 17:3, 4).
Strict adherence to this centralized model is seen in practice in numerous places in the historical records that follow the Law. The crisis between the 2½ trans-Jordan tribes and the rest of their brethren over a supposed second altar sheds much light on the attitude towards worship at the time (Josh 22:10-34). The standoff ends with a statement of understanding that the only place to offer sacrifices is at the tabernacle.
The reality of altar multiplicity
After establishing a supposed standard for making offerings, I delved into the historical books to find out what the people really were doing. While there are many scenes of worship at the temple (mostly of large communal events such as Passover), there are many examples of altars and sacrifices being made to the Lord apart from the tabernacle or temple.
Many of the pillars of Old Testament history are described building altars and offering sacrifices outside of Shiloh or Jerusalem, as the case may be. Gideon, Manoah, Samuel, David, and Elijah are included in this list of worshippers (Judg 6:24, 13:19, 1 Sam 7:17, 2 Sam 24:25, 1 King 18: 32-38). The significant thread that connects these people is that they either lived lives that demonstrated total devotion to God and thus should be given the benefit of the doubt, or were told expressly by God to carry out these acts of worship.
One interesting subject is Elkanah, the father of Samuel. In 1 Sam 1, we learn that Elkanah, a Levite, lives in the hill country of Ephraim during the time when the tabernacle rested in Shiloh. This means that he lived about as close to Shiloh as you can be without being in Shiloh. One would assume that if anyone in Israel were to feel compelled to visit the tabernacle weekly or even daily, it would be a devout (we infer) Levite living just outside Shiloh. We read, however, that he was only visiting there once a year (1 Sam 1:3, 7, 21).
There are also examples of the general population offering sacrifices at remote altars (1 Sam 12:15, 1 Kings 3:2, 2 Chr 33:17). These may give insight as to the practice of the nation of Israel, but the language in some of these areas is vague as to whether what they are doing is pleasing to God or not. Only the 2 Chronicles passage shows some indication that the people’s sacrifices were pleasing to the Lord. It comes right after King Manasseh’s chastisement and indicates that they “still sacrificed in the high places, although only to the Lord their God.”
An apparent contradiction
It is at this point in my study that my head began to swim. If the people were only to sacrifice at the tabernacle or temple, then why was God telling David to build an altar outside Jerusalem and make a burnt offering? After much prayer to ensure my head wasn’t trying to convince my heart there was a contradiction in God’s word, I dug deeper to find the truth. Ultimately, two things pointed towards what was really going on.
First was to realize the context of Leviticus. This book was written while the nation was wandering in the wilderness. When the camp stopped, they oriented themselves in a circle around the tabernacle. No matter where you were, you simply had to turn to the middle of the camp to see where you should bring your offering. Within this context, centralized worship makes perfect sense.
Secondly, I realized that I was thinking too starkly about the time surrounding the possession of the land. At the beginning of my study, I was trying to imagine worship wandering in the wilderness vs. worship in the promised land. It didn’t occur to me to consider the special circumstances of worship while in the land, but before it had been taken over from the Canaanites.
Deuteronomy 12:5-6 was one of the sections of scripture that was puzzling the most with its strong dogmatic tone regarding exclusively sacrificing at the tabernacle. But the language of verse 20 helps to understand the context better:
“When the Lord your God enlarges your teritrory as He has promised you, and you say, ‘I will eat meat,’ because you crave meat, then you may eat meat, whenever you desire.”
What we see here is Moses giving his last instructions before the nation enters Canaan. He knows that as soon as the people enter the land, they will be surrounded by pagan altars and idolatrous worship. The instruction to worship at the tabernacle is a safeguard to preserve their religious purity. But in verse 20 and 21, he is alluding to the time when the Lord “enlarges [their] territory”, in other words, after the conquest of the land where this rule can be relaxed a bit.
Putting it all together and the bottom line
It was here that I realized the flaw in my study method that was the source of my confusion. I had approached this subject simply as a puzzle to be solved, and the reason I couldn’t find the answers to my questions what that I was asking the wrong questions. Throughout my study, I had neglected to ask myself what the intent of these rules were, and how I could use that intent to find application in my own life (thank you Pastor Frank!).
**Attention: Main point of the article right here!**
If it was possible to perform a pleasing sacrifice to God apart from His tabernacle or temple (as evidenced by David, Elijah, et al…), then why did God have Moses emphasize centralized worship as the people were heading into the promised land? Because our God is an awesome God who knows our weaknesses and through his great mercy and grace provides an avenue to avoid sin!
God knew that Israel was heading into the pit of pagan idol worship known as Canaan. He also knew that His chosen people’s biggest problem in their history from now until their future exile would be that same sin of idolatry. By requiring an initial strict adherence to centralized worship, God would keep His children safe as they sweep through the land destroying the false gods and the heathens who worshipped them. After cleansing the land from this unrighteousness, God would allow His people more leeway as to where they could worship Him (alluded to in Ex 20:24). This is why Israel’s sin of not following through with the conquest of Canaan was so detrimental; it left a remnant of pagans that would lead them astray again and again and again.
I wasn’t even looking for it, but God revealed to me in His word an example of His love for His children and His anticipation of our shortcomings. How great is our God! He knows our weaknesses and gives us instructions to overcome them. The scripture that pulled it all together for me was 1 John 2:15-17:
“Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever.”
While we will always live in this world until Christ’s return, we are not to be a part of this world. And while it is possible to keep a right walk with God amidst the filth of this world, it is much more likely that we will succumb to it and begin to love it. There are too many people today who think they can “toe the line” with sin and still remain pure. Let us heed Paul and “Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good.”