The young man’s white linen robe shone in the morning sun; his sharp knife glistened as he bent down to the restrained animal. He paused for a moment; one wrong thought would render this sacrifice useless.
Glancing toward the Court of Israel, he spotted the man who had sent the animal, standing just below the Levitical platform. A burnt offering for the LORD, he thought in his heart, and in a smooth, swift motion the knife opened the goat’s neck.
In the ancient Temple the priests were required to perform many duties in connection with the sacrifices and offerings. Animals were slaughtered, flayed, skinned, and butchered; sacred portions went up in smoke on the altar, but the remaining meat was cooked and eaten. In modern, Western culture we generally have no qualms about processing meat, but it seems bizarre and foreign to do so as an act of worshiping a deity.
Christians are most familiar with sacrifices as they relate to sin, atonement, and forgiveness. But they were much more than that. The Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban, has the basic meaning of “drawing near.” Sometimes this “drawing near” was needed as a remedy for the distance caused by sin or negligence. Other times, it was a simple act of love, devotion, or thanks.
There were many other duties for the priests as well. Removing ashes, hauling firewood, preparing and offering the aromatic incense, and preparing and lighting the lampstand (called the menorah) are some examples. The sacrifices and other tasks are collectively described in the Bible using the Hebrew word avodah, which literally means “service” or “work.”
Scripture uses this term in other ways as well. Deuteronomy 10:12 reads,
Now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.
What does it mean to serve God with one’s heart? If “service” in the Temple means offering sacrifices, then what type of “service” would one do in his own heart? The ancient rabbis pondered this question and concluded that the phrase “service of the heart” must refer to prayer.
But wait—does this term suggest that while prayer is done with heartfelt intention, the sacrificial rituals in the Temple were merely mindless motions? This cannot be, since even the sacrifices had to be performed as an expression of sincere love for God and with full concentration. Also, prayer is expressed with the mouth; it is not merely pondered or felt in the heart. So how is it that prayer is considered “service of the heart,” but sacrifice is not?
The heart is not the organ used to perform prayer. Rather, it is the place where the service of God happens. Likewise, the Levitical duties are not the service of the hands; they are the service of the altar.
In the Temple at the time of Jesus, the altar was a massive stone platform. Priests would carry golden vessels of blood and splash some of it against the sides, then pour the remainder into drains at the altar’s base. From there it flowed out through underground channels into the Kidron Valley, one of Jerusalem’s stream beds. The priests would ascend the altar by a huge ramp and place sacred portions of meat onto one of the large fires that burned on its top. Ancient Jewish sources reported that the smoke from those sacrifices rose as a pillar into the sky, untouched by the wind.
In some way beyond human understanding, this process caused the Presence of God to connect with a physical place on earth. The Tabernacle in the wilderness, and later, the Temple in Jerusalem, became a space where one could encounter the Creator of the universe.
Prayer has the same effect, except instead of drawing the Spirit of God into a courtyard or building, he takes residence inside our hearts.
The correspondence is remarkable. The daily rhythm of sacrifices mimics the lub-dub coursing of blood through our hearts, but on a monumental scale. The Temple, as it were, is like the beating heart of the whole earth. In the absence of the Temple, this heartbeat nonetheless continues among those who draw near to their Creator in prayer.