Remember in my last post I said that there is strong continuity between the Old and New Testaments regarding the purpose of sacrifices? (If you didn't read it, feel free to hop on back there and see for yourself.) Now I'm taking a look at this in the other direction -- what the Old Testament says. More specifically, that the Old Testament acknowledges sacrifices can't really deal with sins, just like the New Testament does. If we modern Christian people get the idea that, under Old Testament law, Israelites were taught that sacrifices were how you dealt with sins? We're not getting that from the Bible itself. We're making it up.
If it pleases the court, I would like to submit Exhibit A, from Leviticus 4:
The LORD said to Moses, "Say to the Israelites: 'When anyone sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the LORD's commands...'" (Leviticus 4:1-2 NIV)
This is the verse which introduces the type of sacrifice often called the "sin offering." It took going to seminary and being taught a thing or two about the Mosaic law to finally get this: this one is only specified for unintentional sins. Not for the kind of sins where you set out to do something awful. The kind that you do without realizing it. Go ahead and skim the rest of Leviticus 4. Over and over again it says "unintentional sins." Skim through the rest of Leviticus. You'll see this type of offering is the type generally used for dealing with symbolic things, like ceremonial uncleanness. If you're talking about murder? Embezzlement? Robbery? Nope. The sin offering was not a "get out of jail free" card. No sacrifice was going to get you out of that rap, sunshine.
In Exhibit B, the Prophets say exactly that:
"I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!" (Amos 5:21-24 NIV)
Amos here is quoting God's words directly, and God is saying baldly "I'm tired of your religious nonsense. You can't act with injustice and ignore doing what's right and expect me to be happy and overlook it because you give me stuff. That's not an offering, that's a bribe, and I reject it."
Amos wrote during a time when wealthy Israelites were terribly oppressing the poor (you can read the book for yourself and see -- go ahead, it's only nine chapters long), and one of the most fundamental principles of God's law is "protect the poor and disadvantaged" (the law is longer than nine chapters, but you can read it too if you like). So God here tells the wealthy, Don't think you can buy me off with rich offerings. I don't want your animals, I don't want your grain, I want you to follow my law and do what's right.
Finally, as Exhibit C I present a case study from 2 Samuel, the story of David and Bathsheba -- a relatively familiar story from the Old Testament. The entire story unfolds over the course of 2 Samuel 11 and 12, but in broad strokes, David the King steals another man's wife, gets her pregnant, has the man killed, and then marries the woman fast to cover up the whole business. Honestly, it's possible he even gained some public good-will points by marrying the lady. "Poor Bathsheba is a widow now? How terrible, and her husband Uriah was such a good servant to King David too! What's that? The king himself is marrying Bathsheba, to make sure she will be provided for? What a good king we have! Yay, King David!"
Regardless, God sees this debacle unfold, and he is not pleased. He sends a prophet to call David on his actions, and it works. In 2 Samuel 12:13, David owns his guilt.
Immediately, in the very same verse, the prophet tells him "The LORD has taken away your sin. You are not going to die."
David hasn't made any offerings. No sacrifices. He hasn't even stood up out of his chair, for all this verse shows. But his sin is taken away.
That doesn't mean there are no consequences for David's action. There are terrible consequences, ones that affect his family and his entire nation. But even so, before any of that happens, the scripture says his sins are taken away.
Psalm 51 gives another perspective on this episode, because this psalm was written by David himself in reference to it. Multiple times in this psalm, David asks God to hide his sin; verses 16 and 17 are a clear statement of the case I've been building:
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise. (Psalm 51:16-17 NIV)
Did sacrifices ever atone for sins? No. Not really. Not according to the New Testament, and not according to the Old Testament either. Again we find a deep correspondence between the two.