Animal Sacrifices in Ezekiel 40-48

animalsacrificeThe first entry in this series on Ezekiel’s temple outlined the three major interpretations of Ezekiel 40-48. The second one explained why I believe the chapters are describing a real, historical temple that will be built in a future, millennial kingdom where Christ reigns over all the earth out of Jerusalem.

With this post, I want to turn our attention toward addressing what Old Testament scholar, O.T. Allis says is the “Achilles heel” of a literal interpretation of Ezekiel’s temple and that is the descriptions of animal sacrifices taking place in that temple.

In fact, according to the critics of a literal interpretation of Ezekiel’s temple, if the mention of animal sacrifices are interpreted literally, then it will be a diminishing of Christ’s work on the cross and a complete return to the Mosaic system of worship.  Citing Allis again he writes that a “literal” interpretation (tied to Dispensationalism in his critique), inevitably “…represents a turning back from the glory of the Gospel to those typical rites and ceremonies which prepared the way for it, and have served that necessary purpose have lost forever their validity and propriety” [Allis, 248].

Jerry Hullinger summarizes the charges against the literal interpretation as,

  1. The whole Mosaic sacrificial system is to be reinstituted.
  2. The work of Christ on the cross is dishonored, especially in light of the epistle to the Hebrews.
  3. Those two positions are inevitable when one approaches Ezekiel 40-48 with a literal hermeneutic [Hullinger, 4,5].

Now, the typical response by those who believe Ezekiel’s temple is to be interpreted literally is to say those temple sacrifices are memorial in nature only, and in no way are meant to replace what Jesus did on the cross or reinstate the Mosaic sacrificial system. That is the position of a number of commentators on Ezekiel including Ralph Alexander, Charles Feinberg, Leon Wood, and Alva McClain to name a few.

There are basically two lines of argument made in defense of the memorial view:

First, it is argued the temple sacrifices are parallel to the Lord’s Supper.  In the same way Christians see the Lord’s Table looking back on the cross work of Jesus, so too the animal sacrifices will function in the same symbolic fashion during the millennium. Charles Feinberg, a proponent of the memorial view, writes,

Just as the Old Testament sacrifices could have value in pointing forward to the death of Christ, why may the not have equal value in pointing back to the death of Christ as an accomplished fact? The celebration of the Lord’s Supper through the Christian centuries has added not one infinitesimal particle to the efficacy of the work of Christ on the cross [Feinberg, 234].

Secondly, it is claimed that OT sacrifices were typological to begin with, pointing forward to Christ and were never intended to be efficacious. So in the same way those OT sacrifices looked forward to the ultimate fulfillment in Christ, the temple sacrifices look backward to the accomplishment of Christ.

Though the memorial view appears to be a valid solution for the idea of animal sacrifices in the millennial temple, I believe it has a couple of problems.

First, the text of Ezekiel says these offerings “make atonement.” Critics of a literal interpretation are right when they point out the language of Ezekiel makes it clear that those offerings atone. The words “memorial” and “in remembrance” are never used, unlike Christ’s words regarding the Last Supper when the New Covenant was inaugurated, (Luke 22:19, 1 Cor. 11:24, 25).

Second, there was much more to the Mosaic sacrifices than them merely pointing to Christ. They did have a religious function, primarily to keep God’s people, Israel, holy so that He could dwell among them. The significance of the OT sacrifices can be seen, for instances, in 1 Samuel 2 where Eli’s two wicked sons, Hophni and Pinehas, caused the people to sin with their abuse of the sacrificial offerings, (1 Samuel 2:12-17; 23-25) Eventually, God judged them for their abuse of the sacrifices (1 Samuel 2:34-36; 4:11).

So, if animal sacrifices are not memorial in nature and have some ritualistic value, how then are they to be explained in a millennial temple?

To begin, I’ll point out a couple textual and theological observation with this post, and expand upon them more with the next.

First, critics of a literal interpretation will exaggerate the nature and purpose of the animal sacrifices. They will claim any animal sacrifices would be a complete, whole-sale return to the Levitical/Mosaic sacrificial system if those sacrifices in Ezekiel’s temple are real, literal sacrificial offerings. But that is an erroneous conclusion.

It is obvious there are some similarities between the Levitical/Mosaic ordinances and Ezekiel’s temple worship. For example, there is a temple (of course), priests, the sacrifices in question, and feast days.  However, there are some significant differences.  Hobart Freeman points out those differences when he writes,

There is no mention of an ark of the covenant, golden lampstand, table of shewbread, and veil. The Passover and Feast of Tabernacles are observed, but Pentecost is omitted. While the five classes of sacrifices and offerings are cited, the central Levitical sacrifice, the Day of Atonement together with the sprinkling of the blood upon the mercy seat of the ark by the high priest, which was the most vital element in the Levitical system, is evidence that the millennial practices are not the reinstitution of Judaism [Freeman, 315].

Those differences are extremely profound, especially the absence of the ark of the covenant, the high priest, and the Day of Atonement.  That particular day and those particular elements were an important part of Israel’s covenant worship.  The writer of Hebrews referenced all of those items in the contrast made between the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement and Christ’s finished work as related in Hebrews 9 and implies that what it all represented was fulfilled in Christ and no longer applicable in the NC. That indicates that the atonement Jesus  made on behalf of His elect people is of an entirely different nature and purpose than the “atonement” made in Ezekiel’s temple.

Second, in Ezekiel 40-48, “atonement” is mentioned a total of 5 times, Ezekiel 43:20, 26 and 45:15,17, and 20.

Considering those two sections, the mention of atonement in Ezekiel 43 speaks of the atonement being made for the altar. It isn’t made on behalf of people. Moreover, that “atonement” appears to be a one time event, and is perhaps a ritual that is not repeated. In other words, it was made once to consecrate the altar for continued use. Only the mention of “atonement” in chapter 45 is spoken of being made for “them” meaning the people of Israel.

Though the discussion of “atonement” is mentioned merely 5 times in Ezekiel 40-48, “sin offering” is mentioned 14 times. 40:39; 42:13; 43:19,21,22,25; 44:27,29; 45:17,19,22,23,25: and 46:20. The question then is what is meant by “sin offering” and how is it understood in our understanding of “atonement,” animal sacrifices, and Ezekiel’s temple?

To answer that, it is important to define our terminology accurately. As a staunch, five point Calvinist, my definition of “atonement” has traditionally been the view articulated by a number of key, Reformed theologians.  Leon Morris is one of the more popular proponents of the typical Reformed view of atonement. In his masterful work, “The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross,” he defines atonement as the averting of punishment, or the turning away of divine wrath by the payment of a ransom, who in the case of humanity, would be Jesus Christ. This is called a “propitiation.”

Though it is true that “propitiation” as Reformed commentators define it is present in the act of making atonement, it would be a mistake to limit the concept of atonement to such a narrow definition. Propitiation is just one facet of the use of atonement in the whole of Scripture and depending upon syntax and context, “atonement” can also have the meaning of wiping away or purging. Jerry Hullinger explains that definition this way,

One support for the meaning of “wipe away” is that in Leviticus God is never the direct object of the atoning act. In nearly fifty references to atonement (kippur) … the object toward which the atonement is made is either a person (though indirectly) or an inanimate object. Thus it would seem that the act of atonement does something to the person or object rather than to God. [Hullinger, 43,44].

He adds this thought in a footnote,

Obviously sin and uncleanness are inimical to Yahweh, and in this sense He is a causative factor in atonement and thus needs to be propitiated. However, this is only an effect of atonement, while the “atoning” is doing something to the object, namely cleansing it, or taking away the offense. [ibid, 44 (fn.13)]

Next is the “sin offering.” Like the definition of “atonement,” the “sin offering” also has inaccurate misconceptions tied to it, primarily due in part to the English translations, namely, that the offering is made to take away moral sin. But a better understanding of “sin offering” is “purification” or “purgation offering.” That is because in a number of OT contexts where the “sin offering” is made, it is unlikely that “sin” is even present. For instance, in Leviticus 12:6,7 a new mother makes a “sin offering” for herself after the birth of a new child.

Rather than there being an offering for sin committed, the “sin offering” is designed to cleanse the tabernacle, the instruments used in worship, and individuals from any unintentional mistakes or unavoidable uncleanliness from contamination, say for instance a dead body or in the case of the new mother, giving birth.

Now. How exactly does all of that tie to Ezekiel’s temple and the animal sacrifices in the millennium? I’ll develop that in the next post on this subject.