It is alleged that Jeremiah 7:221 contradicts Exodus 3:18, 5:3, and 10:25, where there are mentions of sacrifice just before the time of the Exodus. These passages are then alleged to be a foreshadowing of the coming post-Sinai and Levitical sacrifices. But whenever there is an apparent Bible contradiction, it is helpful to look at the surrounding context of the passages, as well as to pay close attention to what the passages are actually saying.
While there are some commonalities between the passages in the early chapters of Exodus and later Levitical chapters dealing with sacrifices to God, there are also differences, especially in ceremonial structure. But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that Exodus 3:18, 5:3, and 10:25 are foreshadowing the future Levitical sacrifices. Would this contradict Jeremiah 7:22? Let’s take a look at the pivotal verses in this section of Jeremiah 7.
“For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices. But this is what I commanded them, saying, ‘Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be My people. And walk in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well with you’” (Jeremiah 7:22–23).
There are three schools of thought on this passage among conservative Christians, and none accepts that there is a contradiction between what Jeremiah says in Chapter 7 and the prior pre-Exodus and/or pre-Sinai history of Israel.
The first hypothesis is that God deliberately narrowed the timing of what he was declaring through the prophet Jeremiah. Specifically, God was referring to the period when he had just recently led Israel out of Egypt, and when he told them that if they obeyed, he would be their God. In other words, God is saying that from the time of the Exodus until Israel arrived at Sinai, he did not instruct the nation in how to sacrifice to him. This pretty much constrains the timing to Exodus chapters 13–19.
It is not until Jethro, a Midianite priest, comes to see his son-in-law Moses that we see the first burnt sacrifice, and it is offered by Jethro.
Keep in mind that the Passover had already been eaten before the Israelites left Egypt (Exodus 12), so does not apply to the Jeremiah 7:22 passage. When you look at those chapters in Exodus, you see barely any mention of sacrifice: only a statement by God about redeeming the firstborn in Exodus 13:11–15, and this redemption was through either money or breaking the neck of an unclean animal. There was no sacrifice after the drowning of the Egyptian army (Exodus 15) and none recorded in the early wanderings before Sinai (Exodus 16–17). Even after the victory over Amalek (Exodus 17) when Moses builds a memorial altar to the Lord (Exodus 17:15), there is no mention of sacrifice. It is not until Jethro, a Midianite priest, comes to see his son-in-law Moses that we see the first burnt sacrifice (Exodus 18:12), and it is offered by Jethro to God. Then in Exodus 19:5–6, God makes his declaration to Moses and commands him to give it to the Israelites— that if they obey his voice, he will be their God. Right after that, God had Moses gather the people at the foot of Mt. Sinai, and in Exodus 20, God gave the Ten Commandments and a list of other civil laws.
So in this view, what God is saying in Jeremiah 7 is that he didn’t give them commandments about burnt offerings at first when he brought them out of Egypt. The Scripture record bears this out. There is no mention of a sacrificial requirement until Exodus 20:24 and 23:18 (and both are very vague references), and no official instructions for sacrifices and burnt offerings are given to Israel until Exodus 29. When one examines the timetable, it can be shown that this is approximately 90 days after the Exodus (Exodus 19:1, 11, 16) for the Exodus 20:24 reference, and at least 100–140 days for the instructions given in Exodus 29. God first told the Israelites to obey him, and he would be their God before he instituted the Levitical sacrificial system.
Dr. Henry Morris summed up this view in his footnote to Jeremiah 7:22:
When God first delivered his people out of Egypt, he gave them the moral law only, as represented by the Ten Commandments. After they covenanted to obey this law under penalty of death, God graciously provided the system of sacrificial offerings by which they could receive forgiveness after breaking the moral law.2
The passages in Exodus 3:18, 4:30, and 5:3 record God telling Moses, and Aaron telling the people, and then Moses and Aaron telling Pharaoh, that God required Israel to offer a sacrifice to him in the wilderness. In Exodus 10:25, Moses even tells Pharaoh that flocks and herds must be taken to sacrifice to God. So clearly Israel had been told that they must sacrifice to God burnt offerings. So is this not a direct contradiction with Jeremiah 7:22?
But when looked at more closely, we notice some contextual passages which solve this apparent contradiction in this view. In Exodus 8:27, Moses tells Pharaoh that they would “sacrifice to the LORD our God as He will command us.” This implies that God had not instructed them on the specifics of the sacrifices they were to offer. Then after we read that Moses and Aaron were requesting animals to take to offer, the very next verse has them telling Pharaoh that “even we do not know with what we must serve the LORD until we arrive there” (Exodus 10:26). So even though the Israelites knew that they would be required to offer sacrifices to God, they did not know the specifics. So, in this second view, the passage in Jeremiah 7:22 is not a contradiction with these passages. When viewed as Israel not being instructed in the specifics of sacrificing to God, as would be revealed later in Exodus and Leviticus, the passage in Jeremiah basically restates that God did not command Israel concerning how to offer burnt offerings or sacrifices until Sinai.
God didn’t institute burnt offerings and sacrifices as ends in and of themselves but as a means for people to express their sorrow over sin.
The third view is that Jeremiah 7:22 is essentially stating what has been said elsewhere in the Old Testament. God commanded sacrifices, but he didn’t require them as mere external acts without an obedient heart. He didn’t institute burnt offerings and sacrifices as ends in and of themselves but as a means for people to express their sorrow over sin, their reliance on God, and their love of him and his statutes.
JFB’s (Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown) Commentary explained the meaning of Jeremiah 7:22 this way:
Not contradicting the divine obligation of the legal sacrifices. But, “I did not require sacrifices, unless combined with moral obedience.” The superior claim of the moral above the positive precepts of the law was marked by the ten commandments having been delivered first, and by the two tables of stone being deposited alone in the ark. The negative in Hebrew often supplies the want of the comparative: not excluding the thing denied, but only implying the prior claim of the thing set in opposition to it. “I will have mercy, and not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6). Love to God is the supreme end, external observances only means towards that end. “The mere sacrifice was not so much what I commanded, as the sincere submission to My will gives to the sacrifice all its virtue”3
The use of what has been called the “dialectical negative” adds emphasis to the positive command. This is expressed in certain English translations with the addition of a single word—“I did not merely give them commands . . .” (NET) or “I did not just give them commands . . .” (NIV). Thus, God highlighted that his commands to the Israelites were not primarily about the outward sacrificial system. Rather, from the time that God led them out of Egypt, he stressed how important it was for them to obediently follow him.
John Calvin explained the passage this way:
Even because God regards not sacrifices in themselves. He therefore makes a distinction between external signs and spiritual worship; for the Jews, as it has been already said, had by their corruptions so subverted what God had instituted, that he would not acknowledge what they did as having been commanded by him. And if we take the words as they are, they are wholly true, — that God had commanded nothing respecting mere sacrifices, or sacrifices for their own sake. This distinction solves every difficulty; that is, that God never delighted in sacrifices themselves, that it was never his will to be served with mere external rites, that burnt — offerings, victims, incense, and things of this kind, were of themselves regarded by him of no value. Since, then, sacrifices did not please God, except on account of the end designed, it remains a clear truth, that God commanded nothing respecting sacrifices: for his design only was to remind the Jews of their sin, and also to shew to them the way of reconciliation. We hence see that God had not from the beginning required mere sacrifices, for he required them for a certain end.4
There are many Bible passages which relate this same thought of God not desiring sacrifices merely as an external act—especially when the heart and mind are engaged in idolatry and unrepentant sin. Just a small sampling of them are below:
Then Samuel said: “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, As in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams” (1 Samuel 15:22).
Sacrifice and offering you did not desire; my ears you have opened: burnt offering and sin offering you have not required (Psalm 40:6).
“To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to Me?” Says the Lord. “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed cattle. I do not delight in the blood of bulls, Or of lambs or goats. “When you come to appear before Me, Who has required this from your hand, To trample My courts? Bring no more futile sacrifices; Incense is an abomination to Me. The New Moons, the Sabbaths, and the calling of assemblies—I cannot endure iniquity and the sacred meeting. Your New Moons and your appointed feasts My soul hates; They are a trouble to Me, I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you; Even though you make many prayers, I will not hear. Your hands are full of blood (Isaiah 1:11–15).
For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, And the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings (Hosea 6:6).
In the three views mentioned above, it is clear that there is no contradiction between Jeremiah 7:22–23 and the passages in Exodus. In fact, it’s entirely possible that to some extent, all three views are in God’s mind as he speaks through Jeremiah to the people of Judah shortly before the Babylonian captivity. He may have wanted to remind them that he first wanted obedience even before he instituted the sacrificial system, showing Israel and Judah that the heart attitude of repentance needs to precede the physical act of sacrifice—and also and most importantly, that he detested sacrifices that were offered inappropriately. In fact, the last book of the O.T. has an extended passage on this very topic. It is apparent that even to the last of the O.T. prophets, the hypocrisy of man-made outward religiosity (and could we not say the same of many today) was still rampant and repugnant in God’s eyes. I can think of no better way to drive home this thought than to include this thought from the book of Malachi.
A son honors his father, And a servant his master. If then I am the Father, Where is My honor? And if I am a Master, Where is My reverence? Says the Lord of hosts To you priests who despise My name. Yet you say, ‘In what way have we despised Your name?’ “You offer defiled food on My altar, But say, ‘In what way have we defiled You?’ By saying, ‘The table of the Lord is contemptible.’ And when you offer the blind as a sacrifice, Is it not evil? And when you offer the lame and sick, Is it not evil? Offer it then to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you favorably?” Says the Lord of hosts. (Malachi 1:6–8).