(Isa. 1:11) Do we need Temple sacrifices or not?

CLAIM: Isaiah writes, “What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?” says the Lord. “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed cattle; and I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs or goats” (Is. 1:11). However, the Pentateuch prescribes these rituals. Are the prophets speaking against the priests? Do the prophets abrogate the need for Temple sacrifices? Some Jewish interpreters argue that the sacrificial system has been abrogated by prayer and good deeds. Is this the case?

RESPONSE: God doesn’t want to get rid of Temple sacrifices. Instead, he wants to affirm justice. In other words, God is not prohibiting sacrifices; he is promoting justice. Later in the passage, God tells them that their hands are “covered with blood” (v.15) and God wants them to “cease to do evil” (v.16). These people were offering an abundance of sacrifices (“What are your multiplied sacrifices to me” verse 11), but they were also neglecting basic aspects of justice (“Learn to do good; seek justice, reprove the ruthless” verse 17). In effect, God was saying, “You are doing all of the religious sacrifices, but you’re also murdering people! Why are you coming with your sacrifice, if you’re not being sincere in the rest of your life?” God abhors phony and superficial religious worship (Isa. 29:13; c.f. Mk. 7:6-7).

God cannot be saying that he is abrogating Temple sacrifices and replacing it with justice. In the same exact passage, God says that he cannot stand prayer (Is. 1:15). Obviously, prayer has not been replaced by justice! Instead, later in the passage, Isaiah explains, “They [the sacrifices] have become a burden to me” (Is. 1:14). This implies that something changed in their understanding of the sacrificial system. The problem isn’t with the sacrificial system; the problem was with the worshippers in the sacrificial system.

Moreover, at this point in the book, Isaiah is already setting up for God’s solution to sin that comes at the end of the book. These inane sacrifices were supposed to point to the ultimate sacrifice on the Cross. The Hebrew word for “pleasure” in this passage is chaphets. It occurs later in Isaiah 53:10 to refer to the ultimate sacrifice of the Suffering Servant (“The Lord was pleased to crush him”).