The 2001 Translation CommentariesWhy did God require animal sacrifices?

This scriptural commentary is not an official view of the 2001 Translation project. We are not a religion and we do not establish doctrine; these commentaries reflect a variety of views and some disagree with each other. Anyone can submit a commentary for inclusion (see requirements).

To modern eyes, the animal sacrifices practiced in ancient Israel seem strange, unnecessary, and even cruel. Many have referenced it to argue that God is cruel. Some religious teachers have even used it as evidence that Jehovah/Yahweh is ‘the vengeful, warring God of the Old Testament,’ while the ‘God of the New Testament,’ is represented by the loving, kind actions and words of Jesus.

However, if we examine the matter closely, we’ll find the truth about the matter to be quite different.

How it began

The first mention in the Bible of animal sacrifice to Jehovah God is the one that was offered by Adam’s second son Abel. Despite both he and his brother Cain offering sacrifices, Abel’s was the one that God found satisfactory. Why?

Some say it was because Abel’s sacrifice was a living thing which foreshadowed the sacrifice of Jesus. This may be true.

However, Hebrews 11:4 says:

It was because of his faith that Abel offered a greater sacrifice to God than did Cain.’

So this seems to be saying that God preferred the faith of Abel when he made the offering, and not the offering itself. In other words, the account does not indicate that a dead animal was required by God or somehow more pleasing to Him.

How they did it

If we look at how God set out His requirements for animal sacrifices, we can see that He did not go about it in a ‘bloodthirsty’ way, as some would paint Him. How so?

In God’s later instructions about how animal sacrifices were to be presented, the Israelites were commanded to build some sort of altar on which to make the offering. Notice how He describes it (at Exodus 20:24):

‘You must make an altar to Me from the dirt.

So, nothing fancy or expensive was required. Then sometime later, He said (at Exodus 20:25):

‘Now, if you build a stone altar to Me, don’t use cut stones.’

And at Exodus 20:26 we read:

Nor should you build any steps to My altar.

So, the altar wasn’t to be too high, and simple rock (or dirt) construction was all that was required. Why is this important? Well, if we think of some pagan Gods, such as those in Central America, their adherents built grand pyramids to act as giant altars to gruesome bloody sacrifices. The God of the Bible commanded no such thing.

Of course, later on, God told Moses to build the Sacred Tent, and this was to have a sacrificial altar in front of it. Yet while the Tent was to be beautiful in all its gold and silver ornamentation, the altar was to be short, quite small, and only made of wood and brass. Therefore, the fires upon it were likewise small, and the Israelites were only to offer animal fat and small organs (plus bread, wine, and tiny amounts of animal blood) upon it.

Even then, they were only to bring ‘clean’ or ‘perfect’ animals, while the edible flesh was to be roasted or boiled nearby. ‘Clean’ meant animals which men had previously considered to be clean enough to serve as food, such as a calf, sheep, pigeon, or dove (see Genesis 7:2).

So what was to happen to the meat? It was to be eaten by those who offered it and by the priests. To modern eyes, it would probably look much like a community barbecue, to be enjoyed along with one’s neighbors and with God.

The only portions to be offered to God on the altar were the less edible fat, liver, kidneys, and so on. These were burned as a form of incense or ‘pleasing odor’ to Him.

This is hardly the picture of an angry, vengeful God, hungry for blood. Indeed, the priests ate the meat, so the people were going to slaughter these animals for food anyway. No animals were bred merely to be killed and discarded. Every animal sacrificed on the altar to Jehovah was going to be part of the national food supply whether they were taken to the altar or not.

Was it God’s idea?

Further, it may be that animal sacrifices were not even God’s idea. Rather, it appears that He codified the practice simply because mankind widely believed that it was the right thing to do. For we read at Psalm 40:6 (a prophecy about Jesus):

Sacrifices and offerings, You didn’t want,
Nor did You seek whole burnt offerings
Or sacrifices for [the covering of] sins;
Yet, You prepared a body for me.’

Further, at Jeremiah 7:21-23, we can read what appears to be God’s negative opinion about animal sacrifices:

‘Jehovah said:
Gather up all your burnt-offerings,
As well as your other sacrifices,
Then go on and just eat all the meats!

For on the day that I led them from Egypt,
I didn’t ask your fathers to offer such things…
I didn’t really tell them to bring Me
Whole burnt offerings or other sacrifices
.

‘The only instructions that I gave them
Was to pay attention to the things that I say!’

Here He seems to indicate that animal sacrifices was something He merely allowed and regulated in the law. Why? Because that’s what the people thought they should be doing. Yes, it was their idea of how they should honor Him, when all He really wanted for them was to pay attention to His words and to do as He said.

No doubt they got the idea from their time in Egypt. In that country, sacrificing animals to the Gods was an enormous and lucrative industry. One article at Discovery.com remarks:

Millions of animals were ‬ritually slaughtered in ancient Egypt to foster a huge mummification industry that even drove some species extinct...‭

...most animals in ancient Egypt had miserable, short lives. Many ‬were simply bred to become votive mummies -- offered to the gods in the same way that people light up candles in churches today...

‬Literally millions of animals like dogs and cats were raised by temple priests and mummified...

The sacred ibis and baboons were mummified in the millions because they were sacred to Thoth,‭ ‬...cats were sacrificed to the protective goddess Bastet...

Kittens were the preferred choice as they could fit into mummy containers easily... Researchers estimate that millions of cat mummies were produced when animal mummification was at its peak in Egypt.

Notice that the Egyptians mummified the animals, so they were not even eaten for meat. Yet when the Israelites left Egypt, this was not to be a practice among them.

So while it is true that Jehovah/Yahweh did set rules for offering animals sacrifices in the Old Law, when all the words are considered, several facts appear:

Therefore, the animal sacrifice performed in ancient Israel is hardly evidence of an angry, bloodthirsty God. On the contrary, one could argue that the practice made little difference to the animal’s welfare since they were already part of the food supply.

So Jehovah/Yahweh was not a bloodthirsty God who demanded animal sacrifices. On the contrary, He saw the an existing practice of the people and cleaned it up. In today’s legal language we could say that he ‘regulated’ it for reasons of ‘animal rights’!

Animal cruelty today

We should also remember that the quality of life of the animals in ancient Israel was likely much better than that of animals raised for meat today. While animals back then led a pastoral existence on small farms (which seems almost idyllic by modern standards), in much of modern ‘factory farming,’ animals lead short, stressful, and painful lives.

Nowadays farmed animals are often kept in unnatural and cramped conditions. They are fed hormones to make them grow at artificially quick rates. Death then comes as a relief, as their breeding conditions leads to physical deformities (such as not being able to stand up), mental distress (such as chicken pecking each other), and physical mutilation (such as farmers cutting off the tails of sheep without pain relief). Indeed, in our modern egg industry, male chicks are thrown alive into meat grinders.

And this is how it is in rich countries; standards are even lower in the developing world.

Interestingly, many of those who paint God as cruel for codifying animal sacrifices seem to have no objection to the animal cruelty that they themselves encourage with money from their own wallets.

Therefore, cruel misuse of animals cannot be found in God’s law to Israel, but it is very likely to be found in your own diet.