Parashat Pinchas – Num 25:11 – 30:1(29:40)

B’Midbar/Numbers 28:19 … two young bulls and one ram and seven male lambs one year old …

Taken from part of the section listing all the extra offerings to be brought on the festival days around the calendar of the Jewish year, this is the set of offerings to be brought on the first day of the festival of Matzah, Unleavened Bread. The Pesach offering was to be slaughtered “between the twilights” (Shemot 12:6) on the previous evening; this offering is then brought each day for all seven days of Matzah. With the animal sacrifices are brought grain and drink offerings: two and a half gallons of flour mixed with olive oil, and a gallon and a half of wine! Over the week, that comes to fourteen bulls, seven rams, forty nine lambs, seventeen gallons of flour and oil, and twelve gallons of wine. And that’s before counting the daily morning and evening offerings and the extra offerings for Shabbat of which there must be one in that week! That is a huge quantity of animals, flour and wine. One commentator suggested that the stone walls and towers of the Second Temple must have been stained dark brown by all the fat and grease in the air from the sacrifices; the smell must have been unbelievable.

What on earth is all this about? Admittedly there is a great distance between the world of the text and today, a little less than two thousand years since the Second Temple was in operation on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, but how can we make sense of all those sacrifices, all that loss of animal life – which the Torah itself is elsewhere quick to value and preserve – and all the killing and blood? Some might suggest this is simply an incredibly graphic commentary about the cost of sin; but none of the offerings in our text are for sin or atonement: the text goes on to say that “there shall be one goat for a sin offering, to make expiation in your behalf” (B’Midbar 28:22, JPS) as well. Everything that is described in the text is by way of a festival offering, “an offering by fire of pleasing odour to the L-RD” (v. 24, JPS).

Rashi [1] quotes a midrash that teaches that the offerings in the text are a representation of the patriarchs: “corresponding to Avraham, as it says, ‘Then Abraham ran to the herd’ (B’resheet 18:7, JPS); corresponding to the ram of Yitz’khak: ‘So Avraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son’ (22:13, JPS); corresponding to Ya’akov, as it says, ‘Ya’akov dealt separately with the lambs’ (30:40, JPS).” Hirsch [2] sees the offerings as a picture: this burnt offering, made by fire to the L-rd is a “symbolic expression of their relationship to G-d and the mission [the Children of Israel] received.” Trying to soften the enormity of the sheer scale of the offerings, the Ralbag [3] explains that, “In all of these offerings, the exact amounts are not mandatory; if the animals were available, they should be offered, but if they were not, then they were to offer whatever animals were available, up to the required number. The essential point was that an offering be made.”

The Prophets and the Writings offer a rather different perspective on the process of sacrifices. Jeremiah offers the contradictory words from HaShem that, “When I freed your fathers from the land of Egypt, I did not speak with them or command them concerning burnt offerings or sacrifice. But this is what I commanded them: Do My bidding, that I may be your G-d and you may be My people; walk only in the way that I enjoin upon you, that it may go well with you” (Jeremiah 7:22-23, JPS). This seems puzzling and – amongst other texts – has led source critics to ask about the order in which the various parts of the Bible were written and by whom. Taken at face value, it sounds as though G-d is saying that He never proposed the sacrificial system at all and that relationship and obedience was what He wanted from His people. In that respect, Jeremiah is supported by Hosea: “For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, and in the knowledge of G-d rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6, Buible(NASB)); relationship is more important that sacrifice. King Saul lost his place as king of Israel because of disobedience and was rebuked by the prophet/judge Samuel for trying to conceal that disobedience behind a veneer of sacrifice – “And Samuel said, ‘Has the L-RD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the L-RD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams'” (1 Samuel 15:22, ESV) – so that the writer of Proverbs summarises: “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the L-RD than sacrifice” (Proverbs 21:3, ESV).

Amos brings the question of attitude very sharply into focus: “I hate, I reject your festivals, nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them; and I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings. Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:21-24, NASB). Here the ritual of sacrifice is firmly rejected in favour of justice – and that doesn’t mean civil justice in the context of crime and punishment, important though it is that this should happen, nor does it mean blind retributive justice where everyone gets exactly what the law dictates for the slightest infraction, for justice must be tempered with mercy – but everyone being just and fair to everyone else. It is closely linked to the next word, righteousness, doing the right thing, even to one’s disadvantage if needs be, because it is the right thing to do.

Another prophet asks what G-d does really require. When a person sins, what sacrifice is needed to compensate – not at a personal level, for the person who has been offended or wronged, but with G-d! “With what shall I come to the L-RD and bow myself before the G-d on high? Shall I come to Him with burnt offerings, with yearling calves? Does the L-RD take delight in thousands of rams, in ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I present my first-born for my rebellious acts, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the L-RD require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d?” (Micah 6:6-8, NASB). David recognises that sacrifice cannot solve his sin with Bathsheba: “For You will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; You will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of G-d are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O G-d, You will not despise” (Psalm 51:16, ESV). Together, these start to reframe the word ‘sacrifice’ in rather different terms: not just doing the right thing, but being humble before G-d, humbling our hearts and showing true repentance.

Humility, of course, does not mean constantly beating ourselves up, denying who G-d created us to be and the gifts that He has given us, saying, “I am a worm; nothing but a miserable reprobate sinner”. It means that we recognise what G-d tells us about ourselves, that He is the source of everything that we have and use it in the way that G-d intended. Jeremiah again: “Thus said the L-RD: let not the wise man glory in his wisdom; let not the strong man glory in his strength; let not the rich man glory in his riches. But only in this should one glory: in his earnest devotion to Me. For I the L-RD act with kindness, justice, and equity in the world; for in these I delight — declares the L-RD” (Jeremiah 9:22-23, NASB). G-d tells us that we are “chosen and precious in His sight” (1 Peter 2:4), that “we are worth many sparrows” (Luke 12:7), that He has “redeemed us from the curse of the law” (Galatians 3:13), and “raised us up and seated us with Messiah Yeshua in the heavens” (Ephesians 2:6).

How then are we to respond to G-d? How do we offer Him worship? The Psalmist helps us: “I will not accept a bull from your house or goats from your folds, for every beast of the forest is Mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is Mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are Mine. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?” (Psalm 50:9-13, ESV). Not with any form of burnt offering or animal sacrifice, nor food or drink, that is plain. But the words go further; given the range of cultures into which the Bible was originally written or spoken, I think we can extend it in essence to say, that any physical form of matter, artifact or device is not appropriate for He already owns and has made everything – He is the Prime Cause and the Prime Mover. Even the offering of money could be seen in this light as inappropriate – yet is acceptable because of what we mean by it; we are not offering G-d little round pieces of metal or sheets of printed paper, a bank transfer works just as well from Heaven’s point of view as cash. We are bringing an offering of ourselves, of our substance, our provision. That too is His, of course, but by denying ourselves and giving to the work of the kingdom – be that time, money, work, food – we offer an acceptable sacrifice. The Psalmist goes on: “Offer to G-d a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High, and call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me” (vv. 14-15, ESV).

Further Study: Mark 12:28-34; Romans 12:1-2 Ephesians 4:1-3

Application: What sort of sacrifice do you bring to the L-rd? How can you be certain that He wants and has accepted your offering? When you bring your heart and walk humbly before Him.

[1] Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105 CE), French rabbi who wrote commentaries on the Torah, the Prophets and the Talmud, lived in Troyes where he founded a yeshiva in 1067; focuses on the plain meaning (p’shat) of the text, although sometimes quite cryptic in his brevity

[2] Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888 CE), German rabbi, author and educator; staunch opponent of the Reform movement in Germany and one of the fathers of Orthodox Judaism.

[3] Rabbi Levi ben Gershom, Gersonides or Ralbag (1288-1344 CE); famous rabbi, philosopher, mathematician and astronomer/astrologer; born at Bagnols in Languedock, France; wrote a commentary on the Torah and a parallel to Maimonides’ Guide For The Perplexed.