When reading the Tanakh about being unclean or being cleansed, God seems to be speaking to us on two different but united plains. Firstly, He speaks to us in the literal sense of being unclean by being exposed to the defiled (Leviticus 15:31). In a physical way, He is talking about being contaminated by carcasses (Leviticus 11:35), corpses (Numbers 19:11) and the diseases (Leviticus 13). On the spiritual side, He talks about being contaminated, but not by the influences of germ, more like the impact of wrong things like idols (Joshua 7:13), evil influences (Ezra 6:21, 9:1) and the spirit of impurity (Zechariah 13:2).
This approach of intertwining the spiritual with the literal as a method of embracing change is very effective. We can look towards “Tashlick” for a better understanding. This is when people at the beginning of Rosh Hashanah (Nehemiah 8:1) go to a body of water and throw breadcrumbs to the ducks. Symbolically, this is casting out our sins. Usually, Micah 7:18-19 is pronounced as we perform this deed. Tashlick by itself, is not enough for teshuva (repentance), it only ceremonially commemorates our actions. As we metaphorically carry out this work, we also need to perform it in our heart.
In Genesis 35, we see this metaphoric approach with Jacob before he entered Beit-El (Bethel). God told him to get ready before he received his blessing, the promised land. If we study verse 2, Jacob has his family do two things that deal with cleansing; one physical, one spiritual. He has them get rid of their idols and dawn clean clothes. This a very common theme later in the Torah. Every time God tells Israel to consecrate themselves, He also wants them to bath and dawn clean clothes (Exodus 19:10, 14, Numbers 19:7).
Another example of this would have been the sacrifice system. In the mid-14th century BCE, the Levitical priest was directed by God to remove the sins of Israel. This introduced a system of animal sacrifice that was a part of the Tabernacle, and later the Temple (Exodus 30:10, Leviticus 1:4,4:20, 26, 31, 35, 5:6, 10, 13, 16, 18, 6:7, 7:7, 8:15, 9:7, 10:17, 12:8, 14:17-31, Numbers 6:11, 8:12, 19, 21, 15:25, 28, 28:22, 30, 29:5). We also see Job performing this same function 700 years earlier1. So, it appears that for a time, people could be purified through another person in conjunction with the sacrifice practices. Nonetheless, this system was not successful by itself; the people also had to renounce these sins in their hearts.
So, how do we know that the sacrifice system was meaningless unless it was performed sincerity? Well, about 300 years after the Tabernacle was established, God called out a Levitical Priest named Eli about performing his duties as a hypocrite. As a result, Eli and his family were cursed and then killed (1 Samuel 2:22-25). Also about 700 years after the directive for sacrifices were established (Leviticus 1 – 7), Isaiah (Isaiah 1:11-15) and Amos (Amos 5:21-22), talked about how God no longer honored this system. These prophets spoke about how Israel, regardless of sacrifices, was still guilty of sinful behavior. Thus, performing the physical is irrelevant if one does not perform what is deep in their soul. In both Amos and Isaiah, God says that He would rather us do good, as opposed to performing ceremonial duties (Isaiah 1:16-19, Amos 5:24).
Around the sixth century BCE, God had the Babylonians destroy the Temple as a result of Israel’s disobedience (Lamentations 1:5; Ezekiel 39:21-24; Nehemiah 9:29-31)2. Likewise, the corruption of the Levitical priesthood made the sacrifice system defunct (Ezekiel 22:26, Jeremiah 2:8, Nehemiah 13:29, Malachi 2:8).
So, God separated us from the ritual. King David probably said it best when he penned;
“O Lord, You shall open my lips, and my mouth will recite Your praise. For You do not wish a sacrifice, or I should give it; You do not desire a burnt offering. My sacrifice to God is a broken spirit; O God, You will not despise a broken and crushed heart.” Psalm 51:16-19
This is also repeated in Isaiah 1:18, 66:2, Psalm 34:18. God seems to make a priority of substance over the superficial. Nonetheless, we will eventual earn the right to belong to His original plan.
In our future, there will be a Prince providing our sin offering. This is stated in Ezekiel 45:17. Some might think this is the Messiah, but it is not, the Messiah is mentioned earlier in Ezekiel 43:7 as being seated on the throne. Others say that this may be the head priest. This is a possibility, but since we have people like Melchizedek God’s most high priest (Genesis 14:18–20; Psalm 110:4) and a Commander of God’s Army (Joshua 5:13-15), out there, there may be some end times personalities still unknown to us.
So, from the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians in 605 BCE, until an unknown future date, we are without the Temple sacrifice system to forgive our sins. Some say this is why we have the Christian messiah, but Malachi 2:1-9 makes it clear that the Levitical priesthood was suspended. Thus, the sacrifice system would be held in suspense. We need to remember; Malachi was written in 445 BCE four centuries before Christianity and the Christine concept of human sacrifice through Jesus. Also, almost 200 years before Malachi the Temple was destroyed. Thus, Israel didn’t not practice a sacrifice system up to 600 years before the arrival of Jesus, so Jesus could not have been the sin sacrifice. But, don’t be discouraged, the prophets already gave us the solution for salvation. As for our day and age, we are to turn to God with a repentant heart and He will make our crimson sins as white as snow (Isaiah 1:18).