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How Were People 'Saved' in the Old Testament? Obedience to God? Blood sacrifices? The law?
By Paul Tatham
Adam to Abraham
Many—probably millions, possibly a billion—Gentiles lived before Abraham and God's chosen people, the Jews, even existed. Abraham, the founder of the Jewish people, lived around 2000 BC. We are unsure when Adam and Eve were created; possibly around 5000 BC. That leaves 3,000 years, and a world full of people, whose only hope for an eternity in Heaven is their exposure to, and acceptance of, God's plan of salvation—what we today call the "gospel."
So how were people saved during that 3,000-year period? We have little information on God's plan of salvation during this period—only the first eleven chapters of Genesis. And those chapters give few details of the actual "plan." It would seem that during this period, man was saved simply by obeying the gospel light—sketchy though it may have been—to which he had been exposed. Those individuals who accepted God at face value, as Creator and Superintendent, were saved. This was evidenced by their unquestioning obedience. There must have been little grasp of a coming Messiah.
We know of a few godly individuals prior to Abraham and that animals died, emblematic of Christ's ultimate death on the cross. God must have given man some kind of hint as to what those sacrifices represented. Mankind must have been given enough light, during those 3,000 years, so that they were without excuse. Otherwise, God wouldn't be fair.
Here are some of the gospel glimpses we have during this period.
When Adam and Eve sinned, God killed an animal to provide clothing for them.
"Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed them." (Genesis 3:21)
Abel was honored for bringing a blood sacrifice to God.
"And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering: But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect." (Genesis 4:4‑5)
Enoch, the father of Methuselah, "walked with God" for 300 years before God beamed him up. According to Jude, Enoch was a powerful evangelist who thundered forth the warnings of God prior to the flood.
Noah evangelized for 120 years, while building the ark, and offered a sacrifice soon after the stepping off it.
"And Noah builded an altar unto the Lord; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar." (Genesis 8:20)
Although we are given few details, the need for a blood sacrifice must have been "common knowledge" prior to Abraham. There must have been a lingering memory of a creation story, an Eden story, an Abel story, an Enoch story, a flood story.
Mankind must have had some grasp of the fundamentals of God's plan of salvation during this pre-Abrahamic period. Although we have only isolated instances of that plan—when God spelled out His requirement of a blood sacrifice—He must have made it clear at the time. Otherwise, to hold the pre-Abrahamic millions accountable wouldn't be, well, fair. Sadly, however, between Adam and Abraham, the story grew dim. Mankind, as a whole, rejected the Creator. Hence, the flood.
Abraham to Moses
Sadly, many descendents of Noah, after the flood, were no better than those who lived prior to the flood. They drifted further from God, culminating in another judgment of God—the Tower of Babel.
After Babel, the next godly person to come on the scene was Abraham. About 2000 BC, God chose a nation (Israel) to be His own—a nation that would be a light to the rest of the world—the Gentiles. The founder of that nation was Abraham, the first Jew.
The nation of Israel was now a reality, but the law did not come along for another 500 years—not until Moses. So what was God's plan of salvation during this 500-year period?
Let's start with its founder, Abraham. Out of the blue, one day, God told Abraham to move to the "promised land," adding that he would become "a great nation" (Genesis 12:1‑2). Abraham believed God and obeyed. Abraham built altars to God.
God promised Abraham that his descendents would be as the stars of Heaven. Abraham believed God, "and He counted it to him for righteousness" (Genesis 15:6).
Abraham continued to put his trust in God. When God told him to sacrifice his miracle child, Isaac, Abraham readily obeyed. Instead, God provided a ram, a substitutionary sacrifice and picture of Christ's final sacrifice.
Sacrifices continued—all pointing to Christ—though there was no sacrificial "system" until Moses.
We read of those who were obedient to the light to which they had been exposed—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jacob's twelve sons. Though certainly not sinless, they took God at His word. The exact point of their salvation is unclear.
One of Jacob's twelve sons, Joseph, winds up in Egypt. He, too, is a God-follower. His life segues into the life of Moses, who lived circa 1500 BC.
It was during Moses' lifetime that God gave the law to His people. The law gave Israel God's plan of salvation, in that it drove them to realize their need for a coming Savior.
What about Gentiles who lived during that 500-year period before Moses? How were they saved? In fact, what chance did they even have of hearing the "gospel," let alone accepting it?
There still must have been the lingering light of the accounts of God's early dealings with mankind and His promise of a Savior. But those Gentiles who were blessed enough to come into contact with God's chosen people had a better chance of embracing the God of the Jews. These were often Israel's captors or nearby neighbors. Those Gentiles who were more physically distant had less of a chance.
Apparently, however, God's chosen nation did have quite an impact on its neighbors, at least. In fact, there are a number of verses that indicate their reputation, as God's special people, seemed to be far-reaching. They were both feared and respected. The heathen knew the God of Israel but chose to reject Him.
This raises another question: Why did God choose just one nation to have an inside track to Heaven? It doesn't seem fair to the rest of the world. Why didn't God give all mankind an equal opportunity to accept or reject Him? This is a difficult question, for which there is no simple answer.
And since God did decide to choose just one group of people to reveal himself, why the Jews? Why not some other race or nationality? Perhaps it's because the Jews were centrally located in the civilized world, thus positioned to nudge surrounding Gentiles toward their God. Some have suggested that God chose the Jews because of their neutral skin color—swarthy—that would be better received by the rest of mankind. Some have even facetiously offered the idea that because Jews, collectively, are sometimes perceived as more cantankerous than other groups; it follows that if God could love them He can love the rest of us! Again, there is no simple answer to this question.
Moses to Christ
About 1500 BC, God gave His people, Israel, the Mosaic Law. The period of law extended from Moses through the rest of the Old Testament. When Christ came, in the New Testament, the law was fulfilled in Christ and, thus, done away with. Animal sacrifices stopped with Christ's ultimate sacrifice. John the Baptist recognized this when he saw Jesus for the first time.
"Behold, the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world." (John 1:29)
The Jews, as a nation, were to be a light unto the Gentiles—pointing mankind to the one true God. But individually, Jews were not often commanded to evangelize, per se.
Jonah was an exception. He was a prophet who lived in the northern kingdom of Israel (the northern 10 tribes) during the 700s BC. He carried out his ministry prior to the northern kingdom's captivity by Assyria (722 BC). God told Jonah to evangelize Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians were Gentiles who were blessed to have this contact with God's people, even though it was adversarial.
Other Gentile nations, who brushed up against Israel's God during this period, were the Babylonians and the Egyptians. And, occasionally, there were Gentile individuals.
Ruth, from Moab, who lived during the time of Israel's judges, declared,
"Thy God [shall be] my God." (Ruth 1:16‑17)
Rahab, another Gentile, believed in the God of the Jews:
"And she said unto the men, I know that the Lord hath given you the land, and that your terror is fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land faint because of you." (Joshua 2:9)
In order to be "saved" under the law, the Jews had to follow a system of sacrifices.
Old Testament Offerings
Burnt Offering
Meal Offering (or Grain Offering)
Peace Offering (or Fellowship Offering)
Sin Offering
Trespass Offering (or Guilt Offering)
Old Testament offerings all pointed to a coming Messiah; most involved animal blood; some daily, some not.
God also gave His people a system of feasts and festivals, also known as "sabbaths".
Old Testament Offerings
Feast of Passover. Commemorated the exodus. Pointed to Christ's death—"Christ our Passover" (1 Corinthians 5:7)—Jesus' blood was shed so that our sins could be passed over.
Feast of Unleavened Bread. Commemorated the haste of the exodus. Pointed to a holy walk and communion with Christ: "Let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness" (1 Corinthians 5:8).
Feast of Firstfruits (or Feast of Harvest). Firstfruits of the harvest were offered to the Lord. Pointed to Christ's resurrection—His precedes ours—"Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ's at His coming" (1 Corinthians 15:23).
Feast of Pentecost (or Feast of Weeks). 50 days after Feast of Passover. Pointed to outpouring of Holy Spirit (Acts 2).
Feast of Trumpets (or Rosh Hashana, a non-biblical term). Trumpets blew all day; Jewish New Year (Sept). Pointed to Israel's future regathering and repentance, at end of Tribulation (Matthew 24:31).
Feast of Atonement (or Day of Atonement; or Yom Kippur, a non-biblical term). Holiest day of year. High Priest enters Holy of Holies. Atonement of sins of nation: Two goats—one sacrificed, signifying Christ; the other a scapegoat, signifying us.
Feast of Tabernacles (or Feast of Booths; Feast of Ingathering). Commemorated the wilderness wanderings. Pointed to final rest with Christ (Zechariah 14:16).
Sabbatical Year. Every 7th year. Land rested; no planting.
Year of Jubilee. Every 50th year. Land rested; no planting. Jewish servants given freedom. All land reverts to original owner.
By the Way
What about modern Judaism and the sacrifices, feasts, and festivals?
There are three main branches of modern Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed. None practice the sacrifices. All practice at least some of the Old Testament festivals and have added a few—e.g., Feast of Purim, Hanukkah, etc.
Under the period of the law, following the sacrificial system (if not the feasts or festivals), was crucial for one's personal salvation.
At face value, it would appear that Old Testament salvation was based on works, because it involved a lot of "doing" (e.g., animal sacrifices and rituals). And it would seem that the means of salvation in the New Testament then shifted to grace—no sacrifices and rituals involved.
But the Old Testament plan of salvation was not works-based. It was faith-based, just like the New Testament plan of salvation. It wasn't the sacrifices, feasts, and law keeping, in themselves, that saved an individual Jew. It was, instead, the faith and trust behind those deeds.
"Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: For by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified." (Galatians 2:16)
Old Testament Jews offered sacrifices as expressions of their faith, not as a way to earn it. It was faith evidenced by obedience. Those sacrifices did not earn salvation but, instead, served to demonstrate their faith in an ultimate Sacrifice yet to come.
What if an Old Testament Israelite carried out the sacrificial rituals but his heart wasn't in it? In other words, what if he had no faith? Sacrifices divorced from faith couldn't save someone. Their obedience had to be mixed with faith.
Unlike the sacrifices of the pagans, Old Testament sacrifices had to be offered in a spirit of repentance and faith. It wasn't enough that they simply be performed as a magical means of appeasement.
"He that killeth an ox is as if he slew a man; he that sacrificeth a lamb, as if he cut off a dog's neck; he that offereth an oblation, as if he offered swine's blood; he that burneth incense, as if he blessed an idol. Yea, they have chosen their own ways, and their soul delighteth in their abominations. I also will choose their delusions, and will bring their fears upon them; because when I called, none did answer; when I spake, they did not hear: But they did evil before mine eyes, and chose that in which I delighted not." (Isaiah 66:3‑4)
When God's people broke the law given to Moses, they were told to sacrifice as an expression of their remorse. In fact, the whole idea of the law was simply to be a mirror—to prove to Israel that it was impossible to keep and, therefore, drive them to their knees.
Paul quotes Deuteronomy 27, saying the law cannot save because no one can keep it.
"For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: For it is written, cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: For, the just shall live by faith." (Galatians 3:10‑11)
If the law, itself, couldn't save anyone, why have it? The law revealed sin and forced people to admit their own inability to keep it. People, then and now, needed a standard against which to gauge themselves. It proved to them their own inadequacy.
"Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: For by the law is the knowledge of sin." (Romans 3:20)
Sacrifices were a physical reminder that the consequences of sin is death ("the soul that sinneth, it shall die", Ezekiel 18:4) and of the need for a Savior to redeem us from sin.
"Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster." (Galatians 3:24‑25)
"But in those sacrifices there is a remembrance again made of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins." (Hebrews 10:3‑4)
The animal sacrifices, made on their behalf, would cause Jews to detest their sin. This attitude was necessary to satisfy God. As much as some do not like the concept of bloody sacrifices, God even more so:
"For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: Thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: A broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise." (Psalms 51:16‑17)
Behind every sacrifice was a shadow of a future ultimate Sacrifice.
"For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers hereunto perfect." (Hebrews 10:1)
Shadows, however, don't give many details. It is unlikely that the typical Old Testament Jew knew many of the particulars involved in a future Redeemer.
"Of which salvation the prophets have enquired and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that should come unto you: Searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow." (1 Peter 1:10‑11)
The reason the Israelites had to continually sacrifice was because the sacrifices did not do away with sins once and for all. They were only a temporary fix.
Why was God's plan of salvation so bloody? Seems like a terrible slaughter of perfectly innocent and useful animals, just to make a point! Rather than require all those Old Testament sacrifices, culminating in the wrenching sacrifice of His Son, why didn't God go for something simpler, less painful, less traumatic?
Why didn't God's plan for admittance to His Heaven involve something a little less horrific? For example, He could have declared, "In order to get in to My Heaven, you must come to the realization that there is a Creator (capital C) behind nature and that He, therefore, must be all-powerful and all-important."
This is another difficult question. A possible explanation is that God required horrifically offensive sacrifices because sin was horrifically offensive to Him, a holy God. They helped get that point across to those Old Testament Jews involved in that bloody ritual. Sin is grotesque to God, and the sacrifices were perhaps His way of conveying that message to man.