People casually familiar with the Hebrew Bible and its narrative of the history of Israel generally accept that the cultural symbols and practices that developed in that history were prescribed – even commanded – by their God Yahweh (YHWH). A little study, however, reveals a much more ambiguous situation.
 … So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.  You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
 “‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
 in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” (Matthew 15:6-9)
‘And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men, . . .”‘ (Isaiah 29:13)
Apparently, Jesus was painfully aware that at least some portions of what was observed as the “Mosaic Law” in His day (and Isaiah’s) were only the “commandments of men.”
God did give His law to Moses. But, according to Jesus, things got added to it that were not from God but rather man’s inventions. Can we find out which is which?
Who Wrote the Torah, and When?
The context for our investigation is mainly the Torah – the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. Most scholars today agree that the books of the Torah were not finished until the sixth or fifth centuries BC, perhaps during the exile, a time when Israel had been offering sacrifices to Canaanite gods, offering sacrifices at Solomon’s Temple, and living under a monarchy for centuries.
Traditionalists tend to see these books as written more contemporaneously with the events they relate – Abram’s calling to Canaan, the 400-year Hebrew bondage in Egypt, the Exodus, the wilderness wanderings, and Israel’s eventual conquest of Canaan. In fact, some traditionalists think (because that’s what they’ve been taught) that Moses himself wrote the whole thing.
It’s beyond our scope here to cover all the evidence for why those things are false. Suffice it to say for our purposes that the evidence is substantial and compelling for late and multiple authorship[i].
So if Moses didn’t write all of the books of the Pentateuch, who did? Within Deuteronomy, there is at least the presence of a first-person voice to support the notion that Moses did, indeed, write some or perhaps most of that book. (It is quite improbable that Moses wrote the account of his death (Dt. 34), and the subsequent 30 days of mourning, in the third person.) There are no first-person statements of Moses in any of the other books of the Pentateuch.
We’ll assume that someone other than Moses wrote Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. Whoever these authors were (and there may be many), they were intelligent and highly skilled writers who not only understood the details of what they were writing about Israel’s mythic history, practices of the Temple cult, etc. but understood literary structures and techniques that are almost unparalleled in writings from antiquity, particularly those of Genesis. (See Biblical Narrative as a Mosaic for more background on this)
We’re not going to be able to conclusively answer the “who” question. But we’re on firm ground speculating that Israelites that fit the foregoing description in the mid-millennium BC were those in the employ of the Temple; priests, or possibly those in the employ of the King or government elites as scribes. It seems, however, that they would have had to have had close relationships with the Priestly leaders for their texts to ultimately be included in the scrolls of the Hebrew Bible.
God didn’t want a Temple. He had prescribed in great detail the construction and practices of His wilderness tabernacle (Ex 36:8-39:43), in which a manifestation of His presence would dwell adjacent to wherever Israel was camped.
It was a curtain-like structure enclosing a kind of tent consisting of polls, curtains, and goat’s hair/hides for a roof (Ex 26:7). Within this structure was housed the Ark of the Covenant containing the tablets of the law given to Moses by God on Mt. Horeb/Sinai.
This tabernacle was constructed by Israel while in the wilderness, moving with them from camp to camp until ultimately they succeeded in entering Canaan.
Its first location in Canaan was Gilgal, near Jericho. Once they were more firmly established in the land it was moved to and set up in Beth-El (Jdg 20:25-28), and then to Shiloh serving as Israel’s place of worship for 350 years (Jos 18:1). Ultimately, the Ark ends up in Jerusalem at the time of Saul/David, and David constructs a new edition of the tabernacle on the threshing floor of Ornan (in principle, a high place somewhere near today’s Temple Mount), and places the Ark in it.
There are many things about this scenario that ring true. God’s style of worship given to Moses was simple and humble. In Exodus 20:24 we read:
 An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you.
It’s easy to read this as God conceding to Israel’s desire to make sacrifices to Him, rather than God commanding such things. We see that God isn’t particularly interested in some ostentatious environment for His worship. In Ge 28:16-17 we have Jacob, having experienced his famous ladder dream while sleeping on the ground in Canaan, exclaiming:
 Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.”  And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
To Jacob, inspired by the God of his dream, even the ground he stood on was “the house of God”. The key image being conveyed is one of simple, natural, communion, not ostentatious ceremony and structure.
After a couple of years of the tabernacle in Jerusalem, David, encouraged by his friend Nathan, decides living in a tent isn’t good enough for the God of Israel. But God has a conversation with Nathan about it as related in 2 Sam 7:4-7:
 But that same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan,  “Go and tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD: Would you build me a house to dwell in?  I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling.  In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”’
God appears incredulous with the idea of having a permanent temple to be housed in. However, even after receiving Nathan’s message, David is undeterred. It seems that the Temple is what he wants, irrespective of what God wants. We can only speculate why. Did he seek added national prestige from having a magnificent temple in his capital? Was he just following the pattern of all of his neighbors with their gods and their temples? Did he simply want to give the God he loved a present? We don’t know.
Ultimately, God relents and allows for the building of a Temple, just not by David, as we see in 2 Sam 7:13, referring to Solomon:
 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom.  He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.
He says “when you’re dead, then your son can build a house for my name.” But that wasn’t what David wanted. Eventually, David took it upon himself to plan in detail the Temple Solomon would build, acquire all the materials he would need to build and outfit it, do everything except construct it. The text says “David made abundant preparations” (1 Chron. 22:5); “I have taken much trouble to prepare” (1 Chron. 22:14); “I have prepared with all my might” (1 Chron. 29:2). He appointed masons and prepared iron, bronze, and cedar in abundance (1 Chron. 22:2-3).
As it turns out, David even gave the first order to construct – “arise and build the sanctuary of the Lord God” – completely disobeying God’s instruction to him (1 Chron 22:19).
The eventual Temple once constructed is described as “exalted” (1 Ki 8:13) and “exceedingly magnificent, famous and glorious” (1 Chron. 22:5). Sounds like somebody’s bragging. It doesn’t sound like the simple, intimate, communal worship YHWH sought from Moses, nor what He communicated through Isaiah:
[66:1] Thus says the LORD: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest?
No, God didn’t need nor want a Temple. Remember, God’s initial approach in Eden was for people to live with Him where He was. At Horeb, He met with and talked to Israel directly. However, Israel rejected that approach as the sound of God’s voice threw them into a panic. Instead, they implore Moses to be their go-between – “You talk to Him and tell us what He’s said”.
So instead of the cosmological Biblical model of people living with God naturally, we end up with man’s model of God being “kept” in a tiny room at the back of a tent, and later a temple. Seems hugely inconsistent. But, of course, we have the author of Exodus assuring us that YHWH told Moses to build Him that exact design of a tent.
Sacrifices and Offerings
The Israelites were unexceptional in respect of the adoption of their ancient practices of making sacrifices to their god(s). Everybody did it. If you were a people in the Levant that didn’t sacrifice to your gods, you would have been thought to be alien, unnatural, and quite pathological. All the nations in the Levant had been doing so for thousands of years. So it is understandable that the Israelites, as neighbors of these peoples, would have been motivated to do the same.
What does the Bible tell us was God’s take on these practices?
The Ancient Offerings
The first occurrence of a sacrificial offering in the Bible is Cain and Abel making offerings to God in Gen 4:3-5. God didn’t command this offering; the brothers just spontaneously decided to offer him one. We read that God “had regard for” Abel’s, a “firstling” of his flock, but “had no regard” for Cain’s fruit offering. The gist of this event seems to be that God had regard for the offering of Abel’s firstling essentially because it was the fattest of his flock, the best, while Cain’s was simply a portion of what he had grown but not his “first fruits”[ii]. (It’s interesting to note that God didn’t educate His people on His desire for “first fruits”, etc. until Lev 23:9 and following, after their stay at Mt Sinai, 2,500 years hence. It’s a bit anachronistic that it should show up in the Cain-Able story, quite obviously at the hands of later Priests.)
The next occurrence is a burnt offering[iii] from Noah following the flood. Gen 8:20 says he “took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird, and offered a burnt offering.” This offering was not solicited by God, but we’re led to believe that it was pleasing to God – God smelled “its pleasing aroma”. One wonders where Noah got the idea of a burnt offering – an animal that is completely consumed by fire, withholding none for food, since they would not be defined until after Sinai in Lev 1. One also wonders who told Noah which animals and birds were clean, and which weren’t. This wouldn’t be defined by God for another nearly 1000 years. More anachronisms, apparently by the hand of later Priests.
Following Noah, we find Abraham being instructed by God Himself to offer his one and only son as a sacrifice (Gen 22:2). This is characterized as a “test” (5254. נָסָה nāsāh: A verb meaning to test, to try, to prove.) of Abraham. So, especially given the outcome of the story, this does not represent God commanding an actual sacrifice, but rather an offering of faith by Abraham, which God praises and blesses.
Next, we find Moses pleading with the Egyptian Pharaoh to allow the Hebrews to go three days into the wilderness and “sacrifice to the LORD” (Ex 3:18). Again, this is an impromptu request unsolicited by God. It’s quite strange because Moses’ commission from God is to retrieve and free His chosen people out of Egypt, not have them worship God through sacrifices on a three-day trip to the wilderness.
The first legitimate God-ordained instance of sacrifice we find in the Bible is the Passover lamb sacrifice by the Hebrews in Egypt in response to the tenth plague (Ex 21:5-13). This was not a prescribed “worship” sacrifice. It was a device to prevent the death of the family’s firstborn son by the “destroyer”. What was prescribed as a worship offering was the seven days of unleavened bread leading up to the Passover event. In another bit of anachronism, before the Passover event had even happened, God commanded Israel to memorialize it annually “throughout your generations” as a “permanent memorial” (Ex 12:14-20).
Somewhat later, we find the Israelites at Mt Sinai/Horeb. There they engage in idol worship but without sacrificing (the “molten” calf incident).
So what are we to conclude from these early sacrifices recorded in the Bible? It seems God was edified by offerings that expressed the heart-felt, faithful worship of its offeror (e.g. Abel, Noah). And He seemed not to be moved by perfunctory offerings (e.g. Cain’s).
After Moses and Israel receive God’s instructions at Mt. Sinai/Horeb, we’re led to believe that everything changed. One of the most significant changes we immediately notice is that rather than freely making offerings wherever they were, now God prescribes that sacrifices are to be carried out in a location in front of the tent/tabernacle that He only prescribes.
The second significant change was the assignment of performing all offerings and sacrifices to the Levites, the tribe uniquely chosen to serve God in His tabernacle.
The issue on the floor here is: What did God want from His people regarding sacrifice, vs what did the priests want from the people for, potentially, their own benefit; the benefit of having the people bring them a steady stream of offerings from which they could perpetually live?
This may seem like a heretical question. But is it? How do we know who was in charge of writing/editing the final versions of the Pentateuch? When these people were finishing up these scrolls, what was the state of the Temple-administering Levitical Priesthood? What were the Temple’s practices at that time that they administered, and which of those practices had God actually commanded through Moses?
We don’t know. We do know from the Biblical record that Moses’ scroll was lost (see “Moses’ Torah: Lost…and Rediscovered” here), unavailable to be consulted until the late 7th century BC, long after the period of the Judges and Early Monarchy. And we would have to assume that after 700 or so years of administering Israel’s worship, two centuries of which had been carried out in Solomon’s Temple, those practices and their authorities would have been very well-entrenched.
But if we learn anything from the Bible’s narration of Israel’s history it is that they, as a people, were quite pathological concerning following God’s instructions. So it is perhaps not too much of a stretch to theorize that their ruling Levitical class, at the very least, may have been persuaded to record Israel’s law in such a way as to promote their position.
But why even ask the question?
Deuteronomy’s (and the Prophets’) Tension With the Rest of the Pentateuch re: Sacrificing
There is an obvious tension between the treatment of offerings and sacrifices in Deuteronomy (containing Moses’ book/scroll – but specifically which portions we don’t know), and the rest of the Pentateuch. Just counting, Deuteronomy contains a total of 23 references to “offering”, “offerings”, “sacrifice” or “sacrifices” of the 454 in the Pentateuch. Compare that to 14 occurrences in Genesis; 51 in Exodus; 206 in Leviticus and 160 in Numbers[iv]. Clearly, the law of offerings and sacrifice was not a priority of the author of Deuteronomy.
What was his priority? Well, Deuteronomy is a recapitulation of God’s covenant with Israel, written in the form of a late second-millennium Hittite suzerainty treaty. In it he says:
- What God has done for them beforehand (Exodus, sustainment in the wilderness, etc.) Dt 1:6-4:49
- God’s general stipulations on Israel (e.g. the Ten Words, the Shema, God’s character, etc.) Dt. 5-11
- Detailed Stipulations (a recapitulation [insertion?]) of the instructions given to Moses by YHWH at Horeb and Moab: Dt. 12-26
- Blessing and Curses – Dt 27-28
- Witnesses: Dt 4:26; 30:19; 31:19; 32
A couple of the distinctive features of Deuteronomy compared with its Pentateuchal cohort are:
- Its use of its trademark phrase: “with all your heart and with all your strength and with all your ‘everything’”. This exhortation points to the heart that God desires from His people, an exhortation missing from the other scrolls of the Pentateuch.
- Its concern with Israel providing for “widows”, “orphans”, “the fatherless”, “sojourners”, …as well as the Levites (19 references compared to 22 in the entire rest of the Pentateuch).
Reading Moses’ (first-person) words in Deuteronomy, one is left with a distinctly different sense of God’s interests in His covenant with Israel than by reading the Pentateuch’s other mid-millennium scrolls (Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers).
And then, of course, there are the instances of God expressing His view on the subject through His prophets. Here’s a sampling:
1 Samuel 15:22
 And Samuel said,
“Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
as in obeying the voice of the LORD?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
and to listen than the fat of rams.
Psalms 40:6 (David)
 In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted,
but you have given me an open ear.
Burnt offering and sin offering
you have not required.
 “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the LORD;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of well-fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
 “When you come to appear before me,
who has required of you
this trampling of my courts?
 Bring no more vain offerings;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—
I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
 Your new moons and your appointed feasts
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
 When you spread out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
 learn to do good;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause.
 For in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.  But this command I gave them: ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. And walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you.’
 For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
 “With what shall I come before the LORD,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
 He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Of course, there are verses that seem to demonstrate God’s favor on sacrifices and those making them sincerely. As the verses above emphasize, what God sought from the Israelites was a sincere heart. He detested hypocritical, rote sacrifice and Temple service.
But assuming an offering was sincere, why command it at all? Obviously, God didn’t need what was offered. And in this case, the worshipper already had the kind of heart God was seeking in His people. So the sacrifice itself seems superfluous.
In researching God’s attitude on the subject I was drawn into the ancient controversy over the thoughts of Maimonides, the medieval Rabbi/philosopher on the meaning of sacrifice to God, and its appearance in the Pentateuch vs its treatment in the Prophets. Maimonides seemed to claim, in his “A Guide for the Perplexed”, that sacrifices were a concession by God to a people that were already consumed with making sacrifices to false gods, to offer them in a very specific, controlled way through His designated sacrifice managers, the Levites, to continue with their habit at least vicariously, but with the objective of focusing their attention on the One True God[v]. This is believable speculation on the Rabbi’s part simply based on Israel’s history with ubiquitous, personal, idol worship common in antiquity (e.g. “whoring after detestable things”). To Maimonides, since he saw no rationale for sacrifice (and none is cited in the Torah), he assumed that God allowed it to facilitate the conversion of Israel from idol worship to monotheism. That is surely possible.
But if one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Rabbinic thinkers of the middle ages couldn’t see the theological basis for the cultic practice of Temple sacrifice, maybe there wasn’t any.
If, at the final codification of the Torah in the mid-sixth or fifth century BC, the Priestly class was in charge of its editing, is it too hard to believe that they would have seen to the institutionalization of the practices they oversaw and carried out?
God made it perfectly clear that He was to be Israel’s king (“I will be your God, and you will be My people” – Lev 26:12). But Israel demanded a human king, “like all other nations” (1 Sam 8:5)[vi].
When Israel demanded a King be appointed over them, God relented (1 Sam 8:7) acknowledging that Israel had rejected Him.
So this seems to be open and shut. God didn’t want an Israelite monarchy. But a monarchy is what they demanded and so God, in His forbearance, gave it to them.
Some of what I’ve presented here is speculation – what God actually thought about His Temple or its sacrifices. It is at least debatable whether or not God’s desire was for an earthly abode (Temple) for Himself, or the sacrifices that were eventually spelled out for it to administer. It is entirely possible that later redactors of the Pentateuch exerted their personal influence on the way in which it was ultimately portrayed.
Maimonides may have thought that ultimately the practice of sacrifice would eventually fade out in deference to higher forms of worship (i.e. prayer, etc.). Nevertheless, the codification of Leviticus and Numbers in the Pentateuch had the opposite effect, instantiating Temple sacrifice as the emblem of the second-temple Jewish faith (and that narrow window from the 8th to the 6th century BC following the recovery of Moses’ scroll during the first temple). Was this God’s desire? The priestly authors of both books claim prophetic (i.e. God-given words) credibility (e.g. “The LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron saying…”).
Are they right? Or did God have different objectives? You’ll have to be the judge.
[i] Schmid, Konrad. (2012). The Canon and the Cult: The Emergence of Book Religion in Ancient Israel and the Gradual Sublimation of the Temple Cult. Journal of Biblical Literature. 131. 10.5167/uzh-62781.
[ii] Kell & Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament: “To form an accurate conception of the idea which lies at the foundation of all sacrificial worship, we must bear in mind that the first sacrifices were offered after the fall, and therefore presupposed the spiritual separation of man from God, and were designed to satisfy the need of the heart for fellowship with God. This need existed in the case of Cain, as well as in that of Abel; otherwise he would have offered no sacrifice at all, since there was no command to render it compulsory. Yet it was not the wish for forgiveness of sin which led Adam’s sons to offer sacrifice; for there is no mention of expiation, and the notion that Abel, by slaughtering the animal, confessed that he deserved death on account of sin, is transferred to this passage from the expiatory sacrifices of the Mosaic law. The offerings were expressive of gratitude to God, to whom they owed all that they had; and were associated also with the desire to secure the divine favour and blessing, so that they are to be regarded not merely as thank-offerings, but as supplicatory sacrifices, and as propitiatory also, in the wider sense of the word. In this the two offerings are alike. The reason why they were not equally acceptable… is to be found rather in the fact, that Abel’s thanks came from the depth of his heart, whilst Cain merely offered his to keep on good terms with God-a difference that was manifested in the choice of the gifts, which each one brought from the produce of his occupation.”
[iii] This is an all-out offering (the Hebrew is: 5930. עׂלָה `ōlāh: A feminine noun meaning a whole burnt offering, that which goes up) of thanksgiving.
[iv] The Pentateuch contains a total of 454 instances of these words of a total of 828 instances in the entire Tanakh, and within the Pentateuch, Leviticus and Numbers contain the vast majority (366 of 454), most presented following the preamble: “The LORD spoke to Moses (or ‘Moses and Aaron’) saying…”, characteristic to the speech of a Prophet.
[v]Towards a Unitary View of Mamonides and His Views on Sacrifice
[vi] Strangely, in Deuteronomy, supposedly written in Moab before ever entering the promised land, there is a chapter (17:14-20) defining the requirements and responsibilities of an Israelite King, centuries before one was ever discussed and certainly before one was ever appointed.