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the origin, evolution, & end of religion (part 2 of ?)

Sacrifice of Noah

PART 2: What’s the Big Idea?

[NOTE: This series of posts expresses and expands on one sermon at The Meeting House – part 4 of our Origins series, called East of Eden. To hear that sermon, please go here.]

Now I’ve done it. I’ve become so excited about researching and writing on this topic that I have to repent of my previous commitment to keep this series to only four parts. For now, here’s the plan: I’m just going to keep posting on this topic until I stop posting on this topic. (Genius.) So, better get to it…

So what’s the big idea?

Here is the thesis of this series, the “big idea” that makes a world of difference if it is true: Religious sacrifice was never needed nor invented by God. Rather, ritual sacrifice is our human invention that God accommodates and uses for a season, and then eventually enters and ends through Jesus.

As we saw in the last post, in Matthew 19 Jesus sends us back into the Hebrew Scriptures to examine what God meant when he said:

For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.
(Hosea 6:6)

We also looked at other passages where King David says God never wanted sacrifices (e.g., Psalm 40:6; 51:15-17). And yet, in the Bible God himself commands lots of sacrifices, especially in the book of Leviticus. So which is it? Or is it possible that God could actively command something that he doesn’t really want?

The answer is, yes. And we have plenty of examples of this, so much so that the phenomenon has its own name: the principle of accommodation. I’m going to use this post to help us nail this idea down. Unless we clearly see and savour in Scripture how God uses the principle of accommodation, the rest of what we have to say in this series won’t make much sense. So, let’s dig in…

The principle of accommodation

To begin with, the principle of accommodation is often applied to language itself. All verbal and written revelation from God is an example of God accommodating human language and ideas and concepts in order to communicate clearly with us. God meets us where we’re at, using language and metaphors and imagery that is drawn from our own experience in order to communicate truth to us in a way that makes sense in our time and space.

We have no reason to believe that the original biblical languages of Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic are the languages of Heaven. The Bible is an example of God’s accommodation to human ways of communicating.

When Jesus says the kingdom of God is like “a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth” (Mark 4:31), Jesus was not speaking from the standpoint of divine omniscience (since this statement on the surface is patently false) but he was accommodating the knowledge of his day.

What I find most fascinating is that the Bible goes on to record instances of God adopting and using human desires and ideas that he himself finds repulsive, in order to meet us where we are at in communicating important truth.

Examples of God’s accommodation to human desires

1. Kings

The Bible tells us that God originally designed Israel to function as a nation with God alone as their king, speaking through prophets. But at some point, the people of Israel decided they wanted a human king to rule over them, so they could be like the other nations around them. The prophet at that time, Samuel, took this as a kind of personal rejection of his role representing God to the people. But God responded to Samuel:

Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.
~ God to Samuel (1 Samuel 8:7)

God says that this is not a matter of people rejecting Samuel as their prophet as much as it is a matter of people rejecting God as their king! God takes this demand of the people as personal rejection of his rulership. This is serious corporate sin. And yet, God says that Samuel should listen to the people, and later makes it explicit – Samuel should represent God by appointing Israel’s first king.

Now here’s the thing: if you were to parachute into a later part of the biblical narrative without context, you would think that God is really into Israel having kings. God appoints and anoints generations of kings through the prophets. That’s because – and this is key – once God accommodates a human desire or practice, God doesn’t pout about it. God makes full use of this new direction in his relationship with his people. He adopts the new practice as though it were his own, even though it has sinful origins.

In fact, mind-blowing as it is, God always knew this would happen! And God already had plans in place to partner with Israel through their (sinful) desire to have earthly kings! Way back in Deuteronomy, hundreds of years before Israel would (against God’s better judgement) demand their first king, God says through Moses:

When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,” be sure to appoint over you a king the Lord your God chooses.
(Deuteronomy 7:14-15)

Wow. This is important because sometimes Christians will argue that animal sacrifices cannot be an example of divine accommodation because God had, before the foundations of the world, always planned for the sacrifice of Christ (see Acts 2:23; 1 Peter 1:20; Revelation 13:8), and animal sacrifices prefigured the sacrifice of Christ. This means that God always knew and planned for the death of Jesus, and therefore always knew and planned for animal sacrifice to point to Jesus. This is true, but as Deuteronomy 7 shows us, just because God knows something is going to happen in the future and has an advance plan for it doesn’t mean it was his initial and ideal will. Yes, God planned for the sacrifice of Jesus because God knew we would sin, but we do not say that God’s will is or ever was that humans should sin. Likewise, God always knew Israel would reject his kingship in favour of an earthly king, and God had a plan for that, but this doesn’t mean that it was always God’s will for Israel to reject him. God always had a plan to use sacrifice for our salvation, just as he had a plan to use kings for Israel’s blessing – but neither was God’s ideal.

Just because God plans for something doesn’t mean it isn’t an example of divine accommodation, because God can plan for accommodation! Whether it is Israel clamoring for a king, or the Romans crucifying Jesus, God is in the business of redeeming rather than rejecting some of the worst ideas people come up with.

2. Temple

At the time of Jesus, the Jerusalem temple was at the centre of the religion of Israel. When it was built by Solomon, God blessed it with his holy presence (2 Chronicles 5:13-14). Later God called the temple “my house of prayer” (Isaiah 56:7) and when Jesus was a child he called it “my father’s house” (Luke 2:49). When he grew up, Jesus was passionate for the purity of the temple, and said it should be “a house of prayer for all nations” (Mark 11:17).

So, you would think that the temple was God’s idea right? Not a chance. In fact, when King David first proposed the idea to God, God reminded David that this was something he had never asked for (see 2 Samuel 7). God had already given instructions to Moses to build a tabernacle, or a special holy tent. It seems that God preferred the symbolism of a tent over a temple – God was mobile, on the move, ready to meet with us wherever we went, and not locked down to a single location, like a fixed temple might suggest. But God acquiesced and incorporated David’s desire to built him a temple into God’s own plans. Once again we see that God redeems rather than rejects our faulty human ideas.

3. Divorce

In the Torah (Deuteronomy 24), God gives instructions about divorce. When religious leaders ask Jesus about this in Matthew 19, Jesus responds saying that God allowed for divorce because of human hard-heartedness. In other words, divorce law in Deuteronomy is an example of God accommodating human stubbornness. As an aside, if Jesus is calling his followers away from the hard-hearted approach to life revealed in the Law, he must be offering us a heart-softening, morally empowering alternative. And that’s the Holy Spirit, made available to everyone in the New Covenant.

Besides these examples, we could add things like polygamy, patriarchy, war, and even eating meat. Maybe you can think of more. In all of these cases, God accommodates and uses things for our good and his glory that were never part of his ideal will.

The principle of accommodation is rooted in the fact that God made humankind in his image and likeness. We were designed to be people not pets, genuine partners not manipulated props. And God always honours his own image in us, taking our desires into account in how the future unfolds. This is real synergistic friendship.

Now one last example…

4. Slavery

We may wish it were otherwise, but in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, God accommodates slavery. God makes room for the cultural practice and even offers governing rules to minimize the damage and degradation of slavery.

Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.
(Leviticus 25:44-46)

Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.
(Colossians 4:1)

And yet, even with slavery-affirming passages like the above, we know enough from Scripture to conclude that slavery is not part of God’s ideal for human flourishing.

The Bible begins by telling us that every human being is made in the image and likeness of God. There are no levels of value within humankind, not according to gender, to race, or social status. Jesus affirms this in how he relates to “sinners” and social outcasts, treating them with high honour. And the New Covenant community lived out their faith in churches, relational family-styled communities, where slaves and slave owners would worship side by side as brothers and sisters. Over time, this alternative-culture of the Church would plant the seeds for the end of slavery (even if, we must admit, it took the Church far too long to get the memo).

So here we have a practice that is woven into the Torah itself, the very commands of God (e.g., Leviticus 25), and yet all Christians today would agree that slavery was never and is not now God’s ideal will for humankind. Instead, God’s way of relating to slavery in the Bible is what we could call a “harm reduction model”.

A Harm Reduction Model

If you were to walk into a safe-injection site funded by the Canadian government, without context you might think that the government of Canada desires that more and more people become drug addicted. But you would be wrong. The safe-injection sites are designed to help manage the damage and reduce the harm of drug use. This, I believe, is why we have the Law of Moses filled with its many instructions about everything from slavery to sacrifice.

If this is true, then we should see a paper trail in Scripture, and that’s exactly what we find. We have already seen that the later prophets, King David himself, and the author of Hebrews declare that God never wanted sacrifice. And we should also expect to find in the Bible the idea of sacrifice initiated first by humans rather than God – something we’ll examine in future posts in this series.

Sacrifice as Accommodation

Before we wrap up this post, let’s review what we know so far.

We have established that God has a pattern of embracing and using human inventions with complete investment, as though they were his own. That is, some direct commands of God in the Bible are not God’s ideal but God’s temporary accommodation of human ideals. And there is good reason to believe that this is the explanation behind the idea of sacrifice in the Bible. Like with Israel’s kings, God redeemed rather than rejected this very human idea.

To paraphrase Jesus in Matthew 19, God permitted us to make sacrifices because our hearts were hard. But it was not intended to be that way from the beginning.

In our last post we looked at how the author of the book of Hebrews quotes Psalm 40:6 from the Septuagint and comments:

“Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them”—though they were offered in accordance with the law.
(Hebrews 10:8)

This is significant. God was not pleased with the very sacrifices God himself was commanding in the Law of Moses. I don’t think it could be stated any more clearly.

This principle of accommodation answers so many questions, and raises so many more! And we will get to some of those questions in future posts. For now, let me thank you for tracking along with this blog series. I’m looking forward to your questions and feedback. Comment away!


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the origin, evolution, & end of religion (part 1 of 4)


PART 1: Mercy, Not Sacrifice (An Introduction)

Prolegomena: Before we dive into our main topic, here are two caveats…

  1. This new miniseries of posts expresses and expands on one sermon at The Meeting House – part 4 of our Origins series, called East of Eden. To hear that sermon, please go here.
  2. Some people use the word “religion” in a positive sense, the way Jesus uses the word “faith”. If you struggle with the pejorative use of the word “religion”, please see this post here.

Now let’s dive in!

When religious leaders asked why Jesus was befriending sinners and religious outsiders, Jesus responded:

It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
~ Jesus (Matthew 9:12-13)

Jesus came, not for those who think they’ve got it all together, but for the rest of us who know we don’t. Wow, that’s good news. And if we really want to understand how that gets worked out in the real world, Jesus tells us where to look. To the religious leaders who repeatedly misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misapplied their own Scriptures, Jesus said: Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’

Jesus gives them, and us, some clear marching orders if we want to understand him and his good news better. Go back into the Bible, says Jesus, and focus your attention on figuring out the meaning of this one verse: Hosea 6:6. That’s what Jesus is quoting here. The full version reads:

For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.
~ The Prophet Hosea (Hosea 6:6)

Religious sacrifice – that is, offering vegetation, animals, and even humans to God or the gods in order to get their attention, procure their blessing, and/or remove their wrath – was ubiquitous in ancient religions. It amounted to a kind of religious magic, where practitioners arrange the right elements (often blood) in the right ways (shed on a sacred altar and/or applied to sacred objects) to manipulate cosmic powers for their benefit.

This is one of many ways the God of the Bible stands out. He says: I don’t need or even want you to sacrifice stuff to me. I simply want your heart, your love, your partnership.

The word for “mercy” in Hosea 6:6 is the Hebrew word hesed, which means loyal love, faithful friendship, caring kindness. It is similar to the Greek word agape, meaning unconditional love. God wants a real, intimate, ongoing relationship with us more than the petitioning and pleading rituals of religion. In fact, where there is already love and trust, ritual sacrifice merely gets in the way. Sacrifice suggests that God is far away and assumes he is either mad and must be appeased or fickle and must be persuaded to bless us. That’s not a step towards but a step away from the intimacy God desires with us.

Notice God doesn’t say, “I desire mercy along with sacrifice, an acknowledgement of God along with burnt offerings.” He wants one and not the other, relationship rather than religion.

But if this is all true, then why in the Bible does God command so many sacrifices? I mean, have you read the book of Leviticus? The answer to this question lies in what scholars call “THE PRINCIPLE OF ACCOMMODATION” and in the history of sacrifice in the Bible, which we’ll get to in future posts in this series.

For now, we can at least lay down this firm foundation: ritualistic religion, including the sad practice of animal sacrifice, was never part of God’s ideal for the human-divine relationship.

King David was called “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22). David had a particularly intimate relationship with God, one that pointed forward to Jesus who was called “the son of David” (Matthew 12:23; 21:9, 15; 22:42; etc.).  And when praying to God, David says:

Sacrifice and offering you did not desire—
    but my ears you have opened—
    burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require.
~ King David (Psalm 40:6)

God did not require, nor even desire, the religious ritual of animal sacrifice. The idea and impulse for the system of sacrifice came from somewhere else.

The author of the book of Hebrews paraphrases Psalm 40:6 and comments:

“Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them”—though they were offered in accordance with the law. 
(Hebrews 10:8)

Just to make sure we’re getting the point, the author of Hebrews reminds us that God was not pleased with the very sacrifices God himself was commanding. Let that sink in.

Again, David says in a recorded prayer:

You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
    you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart
    you, God, will not despise.
~ King David (Psalm 51:16-17)

The real “sacrifice” that God desires is our hearts, not the blood of bulls and goats. (Along these same lines, also see Isaiah 1:1-20; 43:25; Jeremiah 7; Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:6-8; Amos 5:21-25.)

David knew this truth down to his bones. He had committed the sins of adultery and, indirectly, murder. And catch this: there is no sacrifice for these sins in the Torah. The Law of Moses prescribed sacrifices primarily for unintentional sins (see Leviticus 4-5) and some lesser intentional sins (Leviticus 6). But for the most serious sins like murder and adultery, the prescribed response was not sacrifice but the death penalty. If there was any hope for David to receive God’s forgiveness, religious sacrifice was not the way. For someone who committed the most serious of sins, their only hope was to cast themselves directly upon God’s mercy and to invite his forgiveness, apart from the religious system.

All of this raises loads of questions. Doesn’t God need blood in order to forgive sins? If not, why did God directly command blood sacrifice in the Old Testament? And what is the nature of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross?

My hope in this post has been to simply set the table for this series. We’ve begun to “go and learn” as Jesus instructed.  In future posts, we’ll look at the principle of accommodation, the nature of the human religious impulse, the origin of sacrifice, and the way God enters and ends the entire system through Jesus.

I’m looking forward to your feedback, questions, and comments!


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