One can rightly question why a loving God would have anything to do with animal sacrifice. Some speculation is required for the Bible doesn’t directly answer all the questions one may ask. My suggestions will certainly not be satisfying to all. My goal in thinking and writing about this subject was to get a better understanding from possibly God’s perspective, though I admit it is easier to defend a God who rejects animal killings.
Cultures in Old Testament times were a significant consideration. Near eastern cultures such as the Canaanite religion had a very complicated sacrificial system. Israel surely borrowed and was influence by other religions. People worshipped human-made idols, thus the reason for the first two Commandments, and developed sacrificial ways to please their gods. The God of the Bible doesn’t always force the ideal on others. God knew the Israelites would continue to participate in sacrifices, so God set out to show a better sacrificial system from the other gods. God simply desires a contrite heart and amends when appropriate for the best interests of all.
It is not always wrong to participate in less than ideal situations when unable to convince others of our ideals. Most are not as offended as I am of the excepted practice of coaches yelling at their players, whether children or adults, for motivational reasons. I believe love and calmness rather than fear and loudness is the ideal way to inspire others. Players will excel and act in the interest of the team when convinced to do so is in their best interest. Anger is short-lived and relationally destructive. If I had the power to do so, I wouldn’t necessarily ban sports or coaches who yell. One reason that I coached young people was in hopes to demonstrate a better way.
I am convinced there were difference between God and the other gods who required sacrifice for their own gratification. God did not ask for sacrifice to get on God’s good side but to reveal the deadliness of wrongdoing relationally. God ask for worship not for self-gratification but loving God is loving others to the fullest. A parent should ask for respect if they truly have a child’s best interest in mind. In other religions sacrifices were often thought to feed the gods somehow through the aroma of the smoke. This maybe is why the Psalmist wrote that God doesn’t have to be fed (50:9-12). God never required child sacrifice like the Canaanite religions that sacrificed their children to appease their gods.
I would be remiss to not mention that Jesus was portrayed as the ultimate sacrifice, but did God require human sacrifice in the lives of Jesus and Isaac? Jesus’ death was not necessary to appease God and earn God’s forgiveness. But, Jesus was willing to die for His beliefs in hopes to convince others of His message. See here. Jesus came to clearly reveal what God was really like. Many translators advise “Now, take your son” (Gen. 22:2) in the Hebrew language suggests God is making more of a plea than demand of Abraham. Other gods commanded obedience. Abraham may not have known this was a test but the writers of Genesis, who oversaw the writing of the first five books of the OT, knew God condemned child sacrifice (Lev. 20:2). In the story Isaac, who was possible in his twenties, was not killed. It is plausible to think God had no intentions of letting Abraham kill Isaac, for it was the other gods who demanded child sacrifices.
Most offerings after an animal is sacrificed and cooked on the altar was eaten as a shared meal or offered to the priests. This may not have always been the case with burnt offerings but often animals were eaten (Deut:12:7). Animals were never tortured but carefully prepared for sacrifice. One could argue that that slaughtering livestock for sacrificial purposes is similar to slaughtering animals for food today. No doubt there were many crazy laws surrounding sacrifices. God was only using sacrifice and extreme animal cleanliness to point toward the important of heart cleanliness. Confession, contriteness, and amends are what lead to healing in relationships.
God did not require sacrifice from the beginning but accepted the hand dealt to point toward the importance of unselfish living. Sacrifice was a means to an end as David wrote that God delights more in a broken and contrite heart and not sacrifices (Ps. 51:16-17). Hosea states that God desires mercy not sacrifice as the Israelites perhaps begin to pervert the purposes for sacrifices (Hosea 6:7). Laws and rituals are not the end all but means to reveal the condition of one’s heart. God only desires to destroy self-centeredness which ruins lives and the world we live in. The sacrificial system of the OT was meant to lead us toward the path of true love.