This might not seem like an interesting topic, but I assure you, it is not a purely academic matter. The reasons people offered burnt offerings to God in the Hebrew Bible are an interesting window into our reasons for repenting, giving, worshipping, fasting, engaging in deeds of service and love, and so on.
And this is not about “psychology of religion.” I haven’t even read a single paragraph of William James.
It is, rather, a reflection, during this week of reading Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26), of the reasons people of old sacrificed to God. And there were both joyful and fearful reasons.
Not All Sacrifices Were Fearful
The basic motivation for sacrifice in Leviticus 1 is expiation (atonement, purification, cleansing, appeasement, and various other words have been suggested). As it says, “He shall lay his hand upon the head of the burnt offering, that it may be acceptable in his behalf, in expiation for him” (Lev 1:4, JPS — RSV says “to make atonement for him”).
Jacob Milgrom (Anchor Bible: Leviticus, Vol. 1) explains that the reason expiation from guilt is stated expressly in Leviticus 1 is not because the burnt/whole offering is limited to this purpose, but to differentiate it from the other main type of offering: the peace or well-being offering of Leviticus 3 (the sin/purification and guilt/reparation offerings come later, after the Tabernacle is built and some scholars see them as very late, after the exile).
The peace/well-being offering is always for joyous occasions. Prior to the Tabernacle, the burnt/whole offering was the only sacrifice for expiation. Thus, Leviticus 1 emphasizes the expiation aspect. The psychology of expiation is fear and guilt. Such an offering is made out of fear of coming events or trials, out of fear of having angered God, or for general purification from the ongoing transgressions of life.
But the burnt/whole offering is specifically tied as well to joyful occasions:
…Leviticus 22:17-19 (from the so-called “Holiness” source) says that burnt/whole offerings can be for fulfillment of vows and freewill offerings.
…Numbers 15:3 (also said to be from the “Holiness” source) lists vow fulfillment, freewill, and festival offerings.
…The rabbis said that a burnt offering was required as the “appearance” offering implied by Exodus 23:15; 34:20 and Deuteronomy 16:16.
Motivations for Sacrifice From Biblical Narratives and Laws
(1) Worship after salvation (Gen 8:20). Noah after the flood.
(2) Corporate worship (Exod 10:25). Israel requesting of Pharaoh release to worship in the desert.
(3) Part of a covenant ceremony (Exod 18:12). Jethro covenanting with Israel.
(4) To seek divine information and help (Numb 23:15). Balaam seeking a prophetic vision.
(5) Reclaiming ground devoted to idols (Judg 6:26). Gideon reclaiming a Baal-Asherah shrine.
(6) Fear of coming events or a trial (1 Sam 7:9). Samuel when Israel heard the Philistines would attack.
(7) To expiate on behalf of the whole family (Job 1:5). Job for his sons and daughters in case they had sinned.
(8) To expiate after a sin (Job 42:8). The “comforters” of Job to expiate for misrepresenting God.
(9) Leviticus 1:4–general expiation for sin with no qualifier about whether there are limitations (so, even for brazen sin as long as there is repentance).
(10) Leviticus 22:17-19; Numbers 15:3–to initiate and/or complete a vow to God.
(11) Leviticus 22:17-19; Numbers 15:3–to offer a gift to God (freewill) as worship/thanksgiving or to bring to a festival to fulfill the requirement to appear before the Lord.
(12) Leviticus 7:15–A covenant meal between a person/family and God (the peace/well-being offering eaten after the blood and fat portions are offered and the priests receive their due–this is, for example, the meaning of the Passover lambs).
Sacrifices in a Sacrifice-Less Era
The rabbis said that prayer, repentance, and good deeds replace the sacrifices. Indeed, there is much scripture to support this idea. This is not, as some Christian writers maintain, a rejection of the necessity of “blood atonement.” It is a biblical theme that sacrifices were effective in the first place due to repentance. It is a biblical theme that the “fruit of our lips” or a “contrite heart” are sacrifices to God. It is a biblical theme that gifts to the poor are “loans to God who will repay.”
We might say, then, that the psychology of sacrifice is applicable in our sacrifice-less era in the following ways:
(1) Worship in response to salvation (in the small and large senses of the word “salvation”).
(2) Corporate worship.
(3) Prayer in conjunction with important agreements, weddings, and so on.
(4) Asking for guidance from God (giving to charity as part of such a request is known to help, see Acts 10:1-4).
(5) In response to a faith-victory of some type (again, worship or a gift to charity is an appropriate response).
(6) Fear of coming events or a trial could call for fasting, prayer, gifts to charity.
(7) Regular prayer on behalf of family and friends is needed.
(8) Prayers of confession and repentance and sometimes confession to others is needed.
(9) Regular worship and prayer including repentance.
(10) Yeshua recommended people avoid vows–perhaps seeing them as an accommodation in Torah to ancient practices but one which disciples should not need (the Nazirite vow was apparently an exception).
(11) Worship and gifts to charity as celebration (especially at holidays in Jewish tradition).
(12) Covenant meals including Passover and Eucharist/Communion as well as other occasions (breaking the fast after Yom Kippur, etc.).