Do we humans in part choose what forms of worship God will require of us?
Maimonides, a medieval Jewish philosopher and rabbi, compares various aspects of the Law of Moses with the worship practices of other peoples in the region where the Hebrews lived. This is one of many strategies he deploys in his book, The Guide of the Perplexed, attempting to understand the Law of Moses better. For example, he points out how prohibitions that otherwise seem entirely random to an observer centuries later, like the prohibition against sowing certain seeds together (Leviticus 19:19), make sense when one realizes that similar practices formed part of the ritual practices of Gentile religions. Though these actions might be innocent in themselves, God may have prohibited them to avoid any infiltration of false religion.
The Hebrews had come from Egypt and were familiar with Egyptian religious practices. The rituals and laws recorded in Leviticus seem amazingly elaborate to me; it is hard to imagine why God would require them. Yet perhaps they were necessary to displace a similarly elaborate accumulation of practices picked up in Egypt, with ties to false religions. For our part, Christians today might do well to shed, or at least reconsider, some ideas of non-Christian origin that we have acquired over the centuries, like the Easter Bunny, or the over-commercialization of Christmas gift-giving. If Mormons had a more elaborate procedure for celebrating Easter, something like the Passover Seder for example, it might be easier for us to celebrate Easter in a way that remains centered on Christ.
We know that God has revealed his gospel in more than one way. It took somewhat different forms for Adam, Abraham, and Moses, and aspects of each of these were brought to a close at the time of Christ’s death and resurrection. Thereafter worship has taken quite different forms, though with some relation to the older forms. We also know that the descendants of Jared knew of Christ, and presumably their practices were yet different again, though they are not described in great detail.
When Saul became king, it was because Israel wanted to be like the nations around them, who had kings. God argued with them vehemently, through Samuel, but finally gave in, and had Samuel, as prophet, anoint Saul, sanctifying the institution the people had chosen against his advice. It is conceivable that even the elaboration of different kinds of sacrifice in the Law of Moses, as contrasted with the apparently simpler patriarchal practice of sacrifice, was partly designed to fill an impulse to sacrificial ritual which might otherwised find other, inappropriate expressions. Certainly they taught Israel about its relationship to God and the need for a Christ. Yet they might have served a dual purpose: the stories of false sacrificial practices in our scriptures are blood-curdling, and it would be worth taking some trouble to crowd these out!
Is it possible that even the form of Christ’s own sacrifice was determined partly by our expectations and predispositions? Is it possible that it is partly a response to God’s justice, but partly a response to ours? Could it be that Christ had to die in the particular way he did, not only because without his sacrifice God could not forgive us of our sins, but because without it we could not forgive each other, or could not forgive ourselves?
If so, this would only be another manifestation of the patient love that brought Christ to come down from his heavenly mansions to live among us, to speak our language, eat our humble food, and bite his tongue at countless displays of our pettiness, ignorance and malice, so that he could teach us according to our ability to receive–to allow some of us even to do his work, acting in his name, and to forgive those who brutally killed him. “For verily he took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham” (Hebrews 2:16).