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Drawing Near to God—Korban

December 1, 2011

by: Rev. Cheryl Hauer, International Development Director

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But a question that remains unanswered for many today is why. Why would a God of goodness and mercy require the death of an innocent as a prerequisite for His forgiveness? Or was the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, in fact, an angry God demanding appeasement?

Sacrifice from the Beginning of Time

In his book, Guide for the Perplexed, 12th-century Jewish sage Maimonides states that animal sacrifice dates from the earliest of times as an extension of man’s need for religious expression and experience. Rather than creating an institution to satisfy the demands of God, he says, the sacrificial system in Judaism was ordained as an accommodation to man’s primitive desire for interaction with deity.

Sacrifice existed among the Canaanites and Egyptians and other ancient people as well and certainly among the Hebrews long before they were given the Torah at Mount Sinai. Cain and Abel offered sacrifices, as did Noah and his sons. Ancient Middle Eastern society was replete with pagan sacrifice. So, Maimonides says, the Torah carefully limited the practice, permitting it only in certain places, at certain times, in certain ways, by certain people, and for very specific purposes. He suggests that these limitations were designed to wean a primitive people away from the debased rites of their idolatrous neighbors.

There is a scriptural basis for believing that Maimonides may be right. Certainly, the emphasis in Torah is on the sacrificial system, but as time progresses for the Israelites, God puts increasing emphasis on the heart of man, making it clear that He does not desire or need animal sacrifice. His real goal was always to capture the heart of man. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and others clearly express God’s displeasure for sacrifices that were not undergirded by a pure heart. “For I desire mercy [loyalty, devotion] and not sacrifice,” He states through the prophet Hosea, “and the knowledge [understanding that leads to obedience] of God more than burnt offerings” (6:6).

He does, however, require the sacrifice of a repentant heart and delights in the sacrifice of praise. The psalmist declares in Psalm 116:17, “I will offer to You the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and will call upon the name of the Lord.” How can thanksgiving and praise be considered sacrifices?

A Misunderstanding of Terms

A look in Webster’s dictionary begins to shed light on the confusion surrounding this issue. Here we are told that sacrifice involves “an act of offering something precious to deity, destruction of something for the sake of something else, and something given up.” The primary meaning here is that of loss and deprivation.

However, one of the Hebrew words for sacrifice, which the sages say expresses the very essence of the sacrificial system, has a very different meaning. That word is korban, and it comes from a root that means “to come near or to approach, to become closely involved in a relationship with another.”

There is really no word in the English language that can adequately express the idea behind this Hebrew word. Translators have used the word “sacrifice” for lack of a better option. But none of the idea of loss, deprivation, or giving up of something of value is present in the meaning of korban. The word is used exclusively in the Bible in the context of man’s relationship with God, and its true meaning can only be expressed through the concept of coming close.

Contrary to popular belief, the purpose of korban is not simply to obtain forgiveness from sin, but rather to draw closer to God. Much like prayer, korban focuses the worshiper’s mind and heart on God, drawing him in to express his love and gratitude. Korban was brought to celebrate holidays and festivals and to cleanse a person from ritual impurity.

Certainly, there were sin offerings that were brought in the Temple, but they were powerless to atone for sin unless accompanied by resolute, true repentance. Without that, the sacrifice was invalid. In other words, the korban itself was only a means by which man aroused himself to repent.

The concept of an angry god demanding appeasement is pagan in origin and can in no way be used to describe the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Bible is even careful never to refer to Him as Elohim, denoting His justice and power, when connected to the sacrificial system. Never wanting to appear a vengeful, bloodthirsty deity demanding a sacrifice as reparation, the name of God that the Bible associates with korban is YHVH, the name that signals His attributes of divine love and mercy.

His desire is to draw His people close to Himself into an ever deepening relationship of love. Korban was a tool for just such a purpose. Whether an animal sacrifice that allowed man to vividly see what justly could have happened to him without God’s mercy or the sacrifice of praise, which exalted the Lord and drew His people into His presence, korban imbued the life of the Israelite with a sense of connection to the divine. It brought him near.

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