The sacrificial system was a key part of Israel’s worship of God. It involved bringing animal sacrifices to the tabernacle/temple and offering them to atone for sins or as expressions of thanksgiving and devotion to God. Though this system was given specifically to Israel, the Old Testament records instances of non-Israelites participating in it as well.
There are several reasons why non-Israelites were permitted to take part in offering sacrifices:
1. The sacrificial system was open to foreigners who converted to faith in Yahweh
Though the sacrificial system was intended for Israel, provisions were made for foreigners who converted to faith in Yahweh to participate. For example, Exodus 12:48-49 says that if a foreigner wanted to celebrate the Passover, he and his household needed to be circumcised. Then he would be considered as a native Israelite and could offer the Passover sacrifice. Num 15:14-16 also affirms that there is to be one standard of law for both native Israelites and foreigners residing with them – if a foreigner presents an offering by fire as a pleasing aroma to the Lord, he is to do as the native Israelite does. This shows that entrance into the covenant community brought with it the privileges of worshipping Yahweh through the sacrificial system.
One example of a convert who offered sacrifices is the mixed multitude who left Egypt with Israel (Exodus 12:38). Though they were not ethnic Israelites, they aligned themselves with Israel and hence were permitted to participate in Israel’s sacrificial worship.
2. The sacrificial system was centered around the presence of God, which non-Israelites could approach
The tabernacle and temple were regarded as the dwelling place of God on earth. As such, they were open to foreigners who wished to seek and encounter the living God. 1 Kings 8:41-43 records Solomon praying that foreigners would hear about God’s great name and come to pray towards his temple, implicitly affirming that they were welcome to do so. Isaiah 56:6-7 also prophesies a time when foreigners would come to God’s temple to offer sacrifices and pray, suggesting the temple’s sacrifices had an inclusive scope beyond just Israel.
The sacrificial system was about approaching God’s presence. While this was uniquely revealed through Israel’s covenant, the presence of God dwelling on earth made it possible for any person, Israelite or not, to draw near to Him there.
3. Sacrifices could be offered by foreigners on behalf of Israelites
There are cases in the Bible where non-Israelites offered sacrifices on behalf of Israelites. For example, the pagan prophet Balaam built altars and offered bulls and rams on behalf of Israel (Numbers 23). Though Balak the Moabite king had brought Balaam to curse Israel, Balaam ended up blessing them instead. As part of this, he offered Israel’s sacrifices on their behalf.
Another example is Cyrus, the Persian king who allowed the Jewish exiles to return to Jerusalem. Ezra 6:9-10 records that Cyrus gave instructions for the rebuilt temple to be supported by the offering of sacrifices – animals offered by both Jews and non-Jews – in line with God’s will. Though Cyrus was not an Israelite, his decrees regarding sacrifice reflect the inclusive vision that both Jews and foreigners could contribute sacrifices to Israel’s temple worship.
4. Non-Israelites were permitted to eat of the Passover lamb and offerings
Part of some sacrifices involved eating part of the animal that had been offered. This privilege was extended to non-Israelites in some cases. Exodus 12:48-49 mentioned earlier declares that no uncircumcised person may eat the Passover meal, implying that circumcised non-Israelites could. Dt 16:10-11 also commands provisions to be made for the foreigner, orphan and widow to partake in the feast of weeks/Pentecost along with the Israelite.
Another example is when Solomon offered sacrifices at the dedication of the newly built temple. He invited foreigners residing in Israel to partake in the thanksgiving feast held after the sacrifices (1 Kings 8:41-43). Sharing in these communal meals would have integrated non-Israelites into the fabric of Israel’s worship.
5. Inclusive invitation reflects God’s concern for all nations
Though Israel enjoyed a unique covenantal relationship with God, His love and concern extended to all peoples on earth. By allowing foreigners to participate in their sacrificial system of worship, God was painting a picture of His desire for people from every tribe and nation to be able to draw near to Him. The prophets spoke of a time when God’s house would become a house of prayer for all nations (Isaiah 56:7). Extending sacrificial worship to non-Israelites foreshadowed the coming day when people from all nations would worship the God of Israel.
The inclusion of non-Israelites also reminded Israel of her calling to be a light to the nations (Isaiah 49:6). As the foreigners in their midst experienced God’s love and forgiveness through offerings and sacrifices, Israel could see God’s heart for reaching the world through them. Her calling as a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6) was on display through the sacrificial system’s availability to non-Israelites.
6. Points to universality of human sinfulness and need for atonement
By permitting non-Israelites to offer sacrifices, the Old Testament makes a theological point – sinfulness is a universal human problem, not just an Israelite problem. All people, everywhere, are sinners in need of atonement and cleansing from guilt. As Psalm 14:3 says, “They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.” Everyone needs forgiveness and reconciliation with God.
The extension of sacrificial worship beyond Israel alone powerfully illustrated that sin is an affliction affecting all humankind. All nations and peoples need the cleansing that comes through the shedding of atoning blood. In a small way, it anticipated the atoning work of Christ for people from every tribe and language on earth (Revelation 5:9).
7. Sacrifices could be made on behalf of foreign nations
Not only could non-Israelites offer sacrifices to Israel’s God on behalf of Israel, but sacrifices could be offered on behalf of foreign nations as well. Jeremiah 27 tells how the nations would be given into King Nebuchadnezzar’s hand, and they would serve him and his son and grandson. Then Jeremiah instructs the envoys of these nations, “Bring your necks under the yoke of the king of Babylon, and serve him and his people and live. Why will you and your people die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence, as the Lord has spoken concerning any nation that will not serve the king of Babylon?” (Jer 27:12-13).
Serving Babylon would mean offering sacrifices to their gods on behalf of the king (cf. Daniel 3:28). This shows that sacrifices were not exclusive to the God of Israel. Foreign nations could perform them in God’s temple on behalf of pagan rulers, under His sovereign decree.
8. Examples of inclusive worship in the future Kingdom
Several prophecies look forward to the day when people from all nations will worship Israel’s God in the messianic kingdom. Isaiah 2:2-3 prophesies, “All the nations shall flow to [the Lord’s house in Jerusalem], and many peoples shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” Zechariah 14:16 also foretells that everyone left among the nations will come up year after year to Jerusalem to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and celebrate the Feast of Booths.
Since these prophecies assume the peoples of many nations will offer sacrifices to Israel’s God in His temple, they imply that non-Israelite worship through sacrifice will continue being permitted in the age to come. God’s house will be a welcoming place for sacrifices brought by people from every nation under heaven.
9. A picture of the Global Church united in Christ
In the most fundamental sense, the inclusion of non-Israelites in the old covenant sacrificial system provided a preview of what would later happen under the new covenant. Ephesians 2:11-22 teaches that in Christ, the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile has been broken down. Through Christ’s sacrificial death, people from every nation have been reconciled to God and incorporated into His people. non-Israelites participating in sacrifice pointed forward to the day when a multitude from all tribes, languages and nations would gather to worship the Lamb together (Revelation 7:9).
So allowing non-Israelites to offer sacrifices ultimately pictured the unity of God’s worldwide Church, a united worshipping community comprising people from every background and ethnicity. As this global Church offers the sacrifice of praise today (Hebrews 13:15), it fulfils the vision begun when foreign worshippers brought offerings to God’s altar.
10. Fulfilled through Christ’s sacrifice for all people
At a deeper level still, the participation of non-Israelites in sacrifice pointed to the atoning work of Jesus Christ available to all. Though temporary and repetitive, animal sacrifices foreshadowed Christ’s final, complete sacrifice to permanently take away sin (Hebrews 10:1-4). And just as God welcomed non-Israelites to participate in old covenant sacrifices, Christ shed His blood to atone for the sins of all peoples, not Israel alone. God loved the whole world and gave His Son as an atoning sacrifice for all (John 3:16).
So in the end, non-Israelites being included in Israel’s sacrificial worship emphasized that Jesus would die as a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. His death welcomes people from every nation into God’s forever family and fellowship. The inclusive scope of sacrifice in the Old Testament found its ultimate fulfilment at the cross.