[This Article Is Part Of The Old Testament God Series]
One of the most damaging criticisms leveled against Christianity is the argument that this “God of love” is, in reality, a violent, bloodthirsty deity with an unhealthy appetite for blood sacrifice. After all — as the argument so often goes — what sort of God connects forgiveness with the slaughter of innocent animals?
Were animal sacrifice in vogue today, practitioners would be guilty of any number of animal rights violations, not to mention that modern psychology identifies the killing of animals as an early marker for sociopathy. When seen from our modern vantage point, the blood sacrifice in the Old Testament is an understandable issue.
Definition of Sacrifice In The Old Testament
In fact, the first seven chapters of Leviticus are replete with the laws concerning various forms of animal sacrifice in the Old Testament. These are:
- Burnt offerings, whereby the animal is sacrificed, drained of blood, and then completely consumed by fire.
- Grain offerings (sometimes referred to as meat offerings in the KJV, as the Old English definition of ‘meat’ often referred simply to food), whereby grain or other foods from the field are presented and consumed by fire.
- Peace offerings, whereby an animal is sacrificed, cleaned, cooked on the altar, and eaten as a shared meal. This is most typically a lamb.
- Sin and guilt offerings, whereby a priest offers a blood sacrifice on behalf of the sin of another, the offering is then cleaned, cooked, and eaten by the priesthood.
The very fact that the opening seven chapters of Leviticus detail specifically how these are to be done belies the significance that blood sacrifice had to ancient Israelite worship. To get to the heart of Israelite animal sacrifice, however, one has to go back to the beginning.
The Origin of Blood Sacrifice
The birth of monotheism was with Abraham1, as God revealed Himself and made covenant. It was this covenant which eventually brought forth Israel, and it was through Israel that we bring forth a Messiah. In the ancient world, covenant was a very serious deal, and that gravity was signified through animal sacrifice. An animal would be killed, its lifeblood drained, and the carcass cut in half. The two individuals making the pact would then walk, together, between the two halves of the slain animal, visually marking the implications of the vow they had made. The idea was that, should either of them violate the covenant, the one in violation calls upo himself the same fate which befell the slain beast before them. Covenant was a big deal.
So it was that, when God made covenant with Abraham, He did it in the only manner which Abraham understood — through sacrifice. In Genesis 15:17-21, God Himself passed between the halves, forever sealing the vow He had made to Abraham. This is important, because it reveals an aspect of God that is central to Christian theology: God meets us where we are, and leads us forward.
Sacrifice in the Old Testament, from this point forward, was centered around the covenant which God made with Abraham. Burnt offerings and grain offerings were offerings of livelihood, offering up to God that which we rely on, reminding us that our hope is found in God alone. Sin and guilt offerings were offerings of covenant restoration, offered on behalf of the priesthood, restoring those who had violated the covenant back into relationship with God. Peace offerings were similar, but directed at the community. The sacrificed animal would be cooked and the meal shared, that relationship with one another may be restored.
Of course, God was very clear to set limits on sacrifice, and would eventually deal with the practice itself. When Abraham was sent to offer up Isaac, his son, this was a matter of establishing proper boundaries for sacrifice. There in Canaan, it was common practice to sacrifice the first-born child to one of the pagan gods in the hope of slaking that deity’s wrath and preserving the lives of future children. In a time where infant mortality was abysmally high, such sacrifices were not uncommon. God, through Abraham’s obedience, changed this practice for His followers.
Sacrifice in the Old Testament was limited to animals that were sources of food, not children. By the Exodus, in fact, blood sacrifice was explicitly linked to food offerings, as the lamb slain at Passover was to be eaten as part of the ritual. In time, however, even the covenant meaning which was the basis for blood sacrifice became lost, and animal sacrifice was reduced to a ritual. Thus, by Hosea, we hear the lament of the Lord, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me.” (Hosea 6:6-7)
Animal Sacrifice At The Divine Table
This concept of food was particularly meaningful in an Ancient Near Eastern context. To the surrounding religions, both Canaanite and Egyptian, it was believed that the gods had need of sustenance. Food of all sorts would be burned, the act of their consumption by fire being a means of transferring their essence into the spirit world. Then, there in land of the gods, the deities that these people worshipped would feast. Animal sacrifice, outside of an Israelite context, was not just a means of appeasing divine wrath. It was a means through which the gods themselves would be fed.
Israelite theology changed this. The offered sacrifice would become communal, emphasizing the relationships between God and men as well and mankind with one another. The very notion that humanity would eat of those sacrifices offered to God communicated a place at the Divine Table. God does not remain aloof, but invites us into fellowship with Him.
This is a vital concept for us to understand as Christians. Despite God’s perfect holiness, He will still make use of the broken means which we understand. He comes to us and in seeking us out uses the language and customs that we understand. He engages us, beckons to us, loves us.
And then, He frees us.
The End of Blood Sacrifice
So it was that Jesus ended blood sacrifice for all time. The covenant with Abraham was that God would make him the father of many nations, and that through him all the nations of the earth would be blessed. The fulfillment of that covenant was met in His son, Jesus.
The quintessential blood sacrifice under the Old Covenant was represented in the Passover lamb. This lamb would be brought forth three days prior to Passover, and observed for those three days to make sure it was without blemish or defect. On the third day, Passover Eve, the lamb would be sacrificed, drained of blood, cooked, and eaten with bitter herbs. Through this, it was remembered how the blood of the lamb protected the children from death in Egypt, and set them free from their slavery.
Jesus entered Jerusalem three days prior to Passover. For three days He was observed as He was tested by Caiaphas, Annas, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the teachers of the law, and finally Pontius Pilate… who declared that he found nothing wrong with Jesus. On Passover Eve, the Lamb of God was sacrificed on a cross, so that by His blood the angel of death may not claim us and we are set free from our slavery to sin. Jesus became the perfect sin offering.
It goes on. The night He was betrayed, He broke bread, announcing it to be His body, broken for us. He took wine, and, giving thanks, offered it to us as His blood of the New Covenant. Through Eucharist, we partake of Jesus as the perfect peace offering.
The only offering remaining was the burnt offering and the grain offering – the offering of livelihood, freely given to remind us that our provision is found in God alone. This we still practice, but it is instead found in the offering of our livelihood delivered into a little wooden plate passed around on Sunday morning. Our livelihood has changed; so the offering has changed to match.
Animal sacrifice in the Old Testament was necessary because it reflects a God who meets us where we are at and leads us from there. Blood sacrifice is now complete, perfectly fulfilled, as the Lamb of God, the perfect sacrifice, offered Himself once for all. God still meets us where we are at. Hopefully, we still follow as He leads us home.
- Some scholars argue that monotheism began with Zoroastrianism in the Persian Empire, not with Judaism. These arguments are dependent on a late-date hypothesis pertaining to the penning of the Torah. There is significant grounding for an early-date authorship, however, which dates the penning of the opening books of Scripture to the Exodus or shortly thereafter. If we accept the early date, then Judaism preceded Zoroastrianism by nearly 600 years, and the birth of Zoroastrianism can be traced to the period of Israel’s captivity in Persia. During their captivity, Israel would certaily have exerted significant influence on the cultural philosophy out of which Zoroastrianism was born. ↩