Old Testament Sacrifices and Centralized Worship

What follows below is part of a compilation and combination of some notes on OT sacrifice brought to me by a friendly fellow believer of moderate to liberal persuasion (whom we shall here designate "Etcetera"), and my own comments. Our subject of discussion was OT sacrificial law, and the matter of the demand for centralized worship.

The key question: How is it that the OT contains demands for centralized worship, yet it seems that we find OT figures, even prophets and kings, sacrificing all over the place without condemnation?

The results of this study are fascinating, and I think it would be most profitable to simply report Etcetera's notes as they are written (they are presented in italics) and intersperse my own comments. A key passage is this one:

Exodus 20:22-26: Then the Lord said to Moses, "Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, 'You yourselves have seen that I have spoken to you from heaven. You shall not make other gods besides me; gods of silver or gods of gold you shall not make for yourselves. You shall make an altar of earth for me, and you shall sacrifice on it your burnt offerings ['olah] and your peace offerings [shelem], your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I cause my name to be remembered, I will come to you and bless you. And if you make an altar of stone for me, you shall not build it of cut stones; for, if you wield your tool on it, you will profane it. And you shall not go up by steps to my altar, that your nakedness may not be exposed on it.

Notice the bracketed Hebrew words for burnt offerings and peace offerings. Burnt offerings appear both before and after the giving of the law, but peace offerings appear here for the first time in the Hebrew scriptures. That is, the peace offering is an innovation of the law of Moses. Does its appearance have an impact on the historical record? Certainly:

  • Exodus 24:5: ...burnt offerings... and... peace offerings....
  • Judges 20:20: ...burnt offerings and peace offerings....
  • Judges 21:4: ...burnt offerings and peace offerings....
  • 1 Samuel 10:9: ...peace offerings....
  • 1 Samuel 13:9: ...burnt offerings and peace offerings....
  • 2 Samuel 6:17-18: ...burnt offerings and peace offerings....
  • 2 Samuel 24:25: ...burnt offerings and peace offerings....
  • 1 Kings 3:15: ...burnt offerings and peace offerings....
  • 1 Kings 8:63: ...peace offerings....
  • 1 Kings 8:64: ...burnt offerings [and generic offerings] and peace offerings....

The shelem, after Exodus 20:24, begins to be offered left and right. Also, nearly every time a shelem is offered, an 'olah is offered as well, matching the vocabulary of Exodus 20:24 exactly, even in the order of terms, burnt offerings being mentioned first every time. I contend, then, that Exodus 20:22-26 is a genuinely ancient sacrificial law, and set the sacrificial protocol in Israel for centuries to come.

The principal point that I would like to emphasize from Exodus 20:22-26 is how many altars are envisioned. Verse 24 mentions an altar in "every place where I cause my name to be remembered." Furthermore, at least two different kinds of altars are discussed, altars of earth (verse 24) and altars of stone (verse 25), neither of which is a good description of the bronze altar built by Bezalel according to Exodus 27:1-8. Clearly, this passage imagines legitimate sacrifices being made in various places, on various kinds of altars, at various times. Worship is not centralized. And non-centralized sacrificial worship is exactly what we find in the historical record after the giving of this law.

It is at this point where we would make our first and primary observation.

I think that our friend has quoted specifically the part of Ex. 20:22-26 that solves the problem. The key phrase is: "every place where I cause my name to be remembered."

Note what is happening in this passage: God has spoken to the people from heaven. This is a momentous occasion, and in much the same way we might erect a marker or monument, the Israelites would probably want to do the same.

God therefore tells them, in essence, "You may do this, but not by making an idol. Make an altar of a certain type and that is where you will perform a memorial sacrifice."

We'll compare this to the matter of sacrifices related to centralized worship as we progress. For now, let's look at the examples our friend offered of sacrifices that would suggest a lack of centralized worship:

It is not until the time of the temple in Jerusalem that we find any effort made at centralizing worship.

The place of the name in the Deuteronomic law code. Deuteronomy 12:1-26:15 is called the Deuteronomic law code. It begins with the introductory formula, "These are the decrees..." (12:1). It ends with the concluding admonition, "This day the Lord you God commands you to do these decrees and ordinances. You shall therefore be careful to do them with all your heart and with all your soul" (26:16).

It is my contention that centralized worship is among the most important, if not the very most important, of these decrees and ordinances that the Israelites are to be "careful to do with all [their] heart."

The law code begins, after all, with a long passage on centralized worship (Deuteronomy 12), and this theme echoes throughout the rest of the code thereafter. The law code begins:

Deuteronomy 12:1-9: These are the decrees and laws you must be careful to follow in the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, has given you to possess, as long as you live in the land. Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains and on the hills and under every spreading tree where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places. You must not worship the Lord your God in their way. But you are to seek the place the Lord your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his name there for his dwelling. To that place you must go; there bring your burnt offerings and sacrifices, your tithes and special gifts, what you have vowed to give and your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herds and flocks. There, in the presence of the Lord your God, you and your families shall eat and shall rejoice in everything you have put your hand to, because the Lord your God has blessed you. You are not to do as we do here today, everyone as he sees fit in his own eyes, since you have not yet reached the resting place and the inheritance the Lord your God is giving you. Obviously we would have a fundamental disagreement here with Ex. 20:22-26, if indeed we were talking about the same sort of sacrifices. But it seems clear that we are not. The Exodus instructions, as we have seen, apply to memorial sacrifices, in places where God has acted. Here, Deuteronomy gives instructions in the context of pagan high places -- places where man decides to meet God, versus places where God meets men. The high places (as even the Tower of Babel!) signified a desire to reach for the divine; in contrast, the memorial sacrifices (and a central Temple) signified God's reach to man. This is not the same category as the memorial sacrifices.

This passage forbids the use of high places, and enjoins rather the use of one place only to worship God with sacrifices, "the place that the Lord your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his name there for a dwelling." In Exodus 20:24 we could speak of places (plural) of the name. Here in Deuteronomy we can speak only of the place (singular) of the name. It is there, and there only, that the Israelites can bring their burnt offerings and other sacrifices (12:6). And this indeed fits what we have theorized. Exodus would speak in the plural under this rubric of God acting in various places over time.

This place of the name is mentioned in this chapter no fewer than six times: verses 5, 11, 14, 18, 21, and 26. One passage in particular stands out for its clarity:

Deuteronomy 12:13-14: Be careful not to sacrifice your burnt offerings anywhere you please. Offer them only at the place the Lord will choose in one of your tribes, and there observe everything that I command you. This would meld nicely. Memorial sacrifices obviously would not be done (properly!) anywhere one pleased, but only where God acted.

Under this rubric we have no dispute, then, for the observations contained in the next few notes, which we will simply offer as they are for their value:

Another passage stands out for its practicality:

Deuteronomy 12:21: If the place where the Lord your God chooses to put his name is too far away from you, you may slaughter animals from the herds and flocks the Lord has given you, as I have commanded you, and in your own towns you may eat as much of them as you want

The eating of meat is allowed without having to take each and every animal to the central place of the name, but meat so eaten is just a meal, not a sacrifice:

Deuteronomy 12:26-27: But take your consecrated things and whatever you have vowed to give, and go to the place the Lord will choose. Present your burnt offerings on the altar of the Lord your God, both the meat and the blood....

After Deuteronomy 12, as if God's demand for centralized worship were not yet clear enough, the place of the name pops up repeatedly in the rest of the law code. Deuteronomy 14:23; 15:20; 16:5-6; 17:8-10; 18:6; 26:2, to list a few. Centralized worship is not a side issue. It is a strong focus.

Which place?

So which place did God eventually choose to set his name? Let us begin with yet another reference from the first passage of the law code:

Deuteronomy 12:10: When you cross the Jordan and live in the land..., and he gives you rest from all your enemies around you so that you live in security, then it shall come about that the place in which the Lord your God shall choose for his name to dwell, there you shall bring all that I command you....

There are two conditions to be met before the law of centralization begins to be applied: 1. The Israelites must cross the Jordan and begin to live in the land. 2. God must give them rest from their enemies. (Apply that second condition too stringently, and nothing would ever happen, as Israel was at war off and on throughout its history; but we shall find a reference which fulfills that condition nicely).

From the accounts of the conquest: Joshua 4:1: Now... the nation finished crossing the Jordan. Joshua 12:1,7: Now these are the kings... whose land [the sons of Israel] possessed east of the Jordan.... ...and Joshua gave [the land west of the Jordan] to the tribes of Israel as a possession.... Condition number one, check.

Joshua 11:23: Thus the land had rest from war. Joshua 14:15: Then the land had rest from war. Condition number two, check.

So the time was right to set up the tabernacle, where the name of the Lord would dwell: Joshua 18:1: Then the whole congregation of the sons of Israel assembled themselves at Shiloh, and set up the tent of meeting there, and the land was subdued before them. The place of the name of the Lord is Shiloh.

The covenant altar. There is one seeming anomaly in the Deuteronomic record that I ought to clear up at this point. If centralized sacrificial worship is so important to the Deuteronomic tradition, why does Joshua 8:30-35 describe a sacrifice on an altar other than the one in front of the tabernacle? The answer begins in Deuteronomy 27:5-8. There God tells Moses that the Israelites are to build an altar on Mount Ebal after crossing the Jordan. The altar must be made of uncut stones, and on it both burnt offerings and peace offerings are to be sacrificed to the Lord. Uncut stones? Burnt offerings and peace offerings (and in that order)? I think that the Deuteronomist was well aware of the law in Exodus 20:22-26, and he re-interpreted it so as to apply only to this special one-time altar on Mount Ebal, during that brief period between the crossing of the Jordan and the setting of the Lord's name at Shiloh. Technically, then, this altar does not violate the law of centralization. It was erected before the place of the name was chosen. Also, the historian is careful to point out that "all Israel with the elders and officers and judges" (Joshua 8:33) attended the ceremony, so that in fact this altar does not violate centralization even in theme. The whole nation stood on both sides of the altar in the middle. Of course we would add that the Ebal altar is one of those memorial types -- celebrating the crossing into the Promised Land.

The war that never was. I must begin this section on a form-critical note. The passage in question is Joshua 22:7-34. This passage, while supporting the centralization of worship, sounds more Levitical to me than Deuteronomic. It emphasizes Phinehas, for one thing, and, instead of mentioning the place of the name (the usual Deuteronomic phrase), it discusses the altar before the tabernacle (a typical Levitical phrase).

The connection between this passage and the one that precedes it (there is no connection with what follows) may also hint at the insertion of this passage into a pre-existing text: Joshua 22:6: So Joshua blessed [the two and a half tribes] and sent them away, and they went to their tents. The two and a half tribes are, as of this statement, already back in their homes across the Jordan. But in the next verse...: Joshua 22:7-8: ...so when Joshua sent them away to their tents, he blessed them, and said to them.... ...the compiler backtracks, and suddenly the two and a half tribes are still with Joshua. This is a minor note, but we would wonder whether Joshua 22:7 begins a new unit of oral tradition -- and whether the parsing of the text by "Deuteronomic" and other traditions is necessary So in a sense we give the form critics some credit, we just don't agree with their interpretation.

Nevertheless, it is not important for this discussion to locate this passage specifically within either the Levitical or the Deuteronomic tradition; both traditions command centralized worship. What is important is to contrast this passage with the actions of, say, Samuel or David. On with our story....

In Joshua 22:10, Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh return to their homes across the Jordan, and promptly build an altar. In 22:11-12, the rest of the tribes prepare for war (the model of religious tolerance...). But in 22:13-29, they at least send emissaries (awfully sporting of them) to find out what exactly is going on. The emissaries accuse the apparently wayward tribes of turning away from the Lord:

Joshua 22:16-17: What is this faithless act that you have committed against the God of Israel..., by building yourselves an altar...? Is the iniquity of Peor too little for us...?

By these two verses alone, it would appear that those two and a half tribes had begun sacrificing to other gods. The advice of the other tribes: Joshua 22:19: Cross back over into the land of the possession of the Lord, where the Lord's tabernacle dwells.... Do not rebel against the Lord by building an altar for yourselves, besides the altar of the Lord.

The response of the two and a half tribes: Joshua 22:26-29: We said to ourselves, "Let us build an altar, not for burnt offering or for sacrifice, but rather as a witness between us and you, and between our generations after us, that we are to perform the service of the Lord before him with our burnt offerings, and with our sacrifices, and with our peace offerings...." There will come a time when we shall say, "See the copy of the altar of the Lord..., not for burnt offerings or for sacrifice, but rather as a witness." Far be it from us to rebel against the Lord and turn away from following the Lord this day, by building an altar for burnt offering, for grain offering, or for sacrifice, besides the altar of the Lord which is before his tabernacle. This story indeed offers a fascinating insight, one that melds well with our thesis. The other tribes thought the 2 and a half were setting up a "central place" altar; the 2 1/2 tribes responded by explaining that it was actually a memorial altar with the special purpose of reminding them where they were supposed to go to do the central sacrifices. Thus the next note agrees with our thesis:

This answer satisfies the emissaries, and they go back across the Jordan (Joshua 22:30-34). Notice that the idea of sacrificing to other gods is now far gone. Notice also that the altar that these tribes built was as a reminder only that they should always go back to "the altar of the Lord which is before his tabernacle" (verse 29). Notice especially that those tribes did not even think about building an actual altar for offering sacrifices, even to the real God of Israel! It was taken for granted that there was only one altar of the Lord, of which this one was a mere copy, both for them and for the generations after them.

If there was no assumption that the tabernacle was the only place for sacrifice, then there would be nothing wrong with building an altar to the Lord wherever the tribes may be. Later, after all, Samuel, David, and Solomon will sacrifice to the Lord on the high places. But this possibility is not even on the horizon in this passage. Centralized worship at the tabernacle is both assumed and enjoined. The altar across the Jordan is only a symbol; otherwise, it would be rebellion. With this we agree.

Centralized worship simply drops out of the historical record after the book of Joshua. The books of Judges and Samuel, also regarded as part of the Deuteronomic history, contain instance after instance of sacrifice at various altars, none of which is condemned in the text. It is almost as if the law of centralization was never handed down in the days of Moses. (Which, of course, is my point exactly). The idea of centralized worship does not resume till the last installment of the Deuteronomic history, the book (or books) of Kings.

As noted, we believe that the solution to this is the differentiation between memorial and cultic/central sacrifices.