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Old Testament Sacrifice:
Magic or Sacrament?
Most of us live in a world far removed from temples, incense, burnt
offerings and blood sacrifices made to God. So it is difficult for us to
understand the significance of the sacrificial system of the Old Testament,
even though we have adopted sacrificial language from the New Testament.
Understanding the significance of Old Testament atonement rituals takes some
effort on our part. We must adjust our thinking to the world view of the
"BC" times of the Old Testament.
Fundamental to the Hebraic world view was the understanding that God is
the source of everything. This does not seem radical to us. But in the
context of ancient Near Eastern culture, the Israelite view of God as the
sole Creator was a bold affirmation! The Israelites lived in a culture
dominated by Canaanite Baal worship (see Baal Worship in
the Old Testament
and Speaking the Language of Canaan).
Most Ancient Near Eastern religions, and especially Canaanite religion,
revolved around the cycles of the natural world and personified those
processes into gods. Their religious myths portrayed the world as existing
almost as an accident, the "fallout" of the battles and orgies of the gods
(Ba'al, Marduk, Molech, etc.; see The Enuma Elish).
There were gods for everything: a god of rain, a god of crops, a god of
death, etc. These gods represented the instability of the forces of nature
and the precariousness of human existence. The world existed at the whim of
the gods. They had to be constantly appeased and made happy to bring any
order into the uncertainty of human life. If the gods were angry, Canaanites
believed the world would collapse into a chaotic state that would destroy
humanity and everything else. So, if the right sacrifice were not performed,
it might not rain. Or, if a fertility ritual were not done at the proper
time, the sun might not come up, or springtime might not arrive.
As a result, human relationship to the Canaanite gods was magical with
little moral or ethical accountability. Sacrifices, and worship, were
magical acts to get the gods to do what the people wanted or needed.
The greater the need, the more drastic the magical action required, even to
the point of human sacrifice (2 Kings 3:26-27; note Micah 6:7).
Against this background, God revealed himself to the Israelites as the One
and only Holy God. He simply speaks and the world exists. It is he alone who
deliberately and with purpose creates the world and humanity. It is He alone
who brings order and stability into His creation, not just as a onetime act,
but as Sustainer of creation (see Genesis
Bible Study: Creation).
Contrary to the Canaanite view of the gods, the Israelites understood
that stability in life does not come because humans offer sacrifices to make
the gods happy happy. The one and only God acts simply because he chooses to
do so. They also understood that God wants a relationship between Him and
His creation, so He expects response and responsibility from the humans He
creates (Gen. 1:26). It is this interactive relationship between God
who chooses to create and reveal himself in the world, and human beings whom
he calls to respond to that action in accountable ways that forms the basis
of the Old Testament covenant. In biblical terms, this mutual
relationship is reflected in the covenant formula: "I will be your God and
you shall be my people" (for example, Lev 26:12, Jer 7:23, etc.).
In Israelite thought, God's creation is the arena for mutual relationship
between God and His creation. As such, the world is orderly and
harmonious because God has created it to be so. In contrast to the
Baal myths in which chaos and disorder are the norm, the creation narratives
of Genesis portray the orderliness of the world in terms of God setting
boundaries in creation: between day and night (Gen. 1:3), earth and sky (v.
7), sea and land (v. 9), species of plants and animals (vv. 11-12, 20-25),
seasons and years (vv. 14-19), humans and animals (v. 26), male and female
(v. 27) (see Bible Study, Creation 1, God
Another set of boundaries described in the creation narrative relates
specifically to the accountability of humans to God. These are the
boundaries that define the sovereignty and authority of God the Creator, and
require the faithful response of the human creatures. These boundaries are
the limits that God himself has set for us in His world, and within which we
must live. They are not arbitrary rules or laws. They are boundaries that
allow us to live responsible lives in God’s world, as well as boundaries
that help keep us safe and help us live well as part of God's creation. The
prohibition of eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is one
way of describing those boundaries. The Ten Commandments are another. The
outcome of crossing those boundaries, of violating God’s will in the world,
is death (Gen. 2:15-17; see The "Fall": A Second Look).
Genesis chapter three describes human beings who know what God’s
boundaries are in the world, who know the consequences of crossing them, and
yet deliberately choose to do so anyway. We call this sin. When the
humans sin they destroy their relationship with God, each other, and even
the world in which they live. In effect, they reject God as the only source
of life. They have aspired to be like God but have brought disorder,
discord, and the threat of death into their world. The responsibility and
guilt of the humans who have violated God’s order is represented in Genesis
three by nakedness and shame. They try to cover their shame/guilt but
can find nothing adequate (3:7). So they stand before God, across the
boundary, naked, ashamed, sinful, under a sentence of death.
But the humans do not die! They are alienated from God’s
well-ordered world and experience the world as less than harmonious
(3:14-19). Yet, God Himself addresses their shame (guilt) by providing a
covering of animal skins for them (v. 21). God sacrifices part of His
creation for the couple who stand under a death sentence. Rather than the
death they deserve, God again gives them life simply because He chooses to
do so! The death of the animals witnesses to the seriousness of what the man
and woman have done. Still, God acts to restore the harmony of His disrupted
world, not by imposing penalty, but by giving the humans a second chance!
Here we begin to gain an understanding of the Old Testament sacrificial
rituals offered for sin. Israelites understood sin as going in the wrong
direction, the crossing of God’s boundaries that brings confusion into God's
order of creation. Sin brings disorder and alienation into God’s world
and into the community. In terms of modern categories would call this a
disruption of relationship. From the perspective of Old Testament priests, this disruption
is frequently represented as pollution, a defilement of God’s pristine
world. It is so serious that the only way to restore order is for the
offender to die, to remove the pollution and chaos from the world.
Here, the Israelites came to one of their most profound insights into the
nature of God. They understood that God has the power as Creator
immediately to carry out the penalty promised to the humans for
violation of the boundaries (note Gen. 1:17: "...in the day...").
He could restore the order and harmony of His creation by immediately
removing the cause of the disruption. But the Israelites also understood
that God has chosen not to act as that kind of judge. He has chosen to seek
the reconciliation of humanity to Himself rather than to carry out a penalty
or to preserve a pristine world by force. They understood God in terms of
mercy and grace as much as in terms of justice!
Yet from our modern perspective so influenced by purely legal ways of
thinking introduced from the first centuries of the church, we tend to see
Old Testament sacrifice in negative terms as the working out of a penalty. In fact, a careful examination of the Old Testament reveals that sacrifice
was intended as a symbol of God's grace, a joyous celebration of a God who
could not be manipulated by magic, yet who freely chose to reconcile sinful
humanity to himself. The Israelites did not view God only as one who
was eager to punish transgression, although divine judgment and justice were
certainly part of how they understood God. They saw God primarily in
terms of how He responded to human failure, beginning in Genesis 3. Over and
over again in the Old Testament, that response is one of forgiveness and
So in the worship rituals of the Old Testament, especially in blood
sacrifice, there is the recognition of the magnitude of sin and the enormity
of the disruption human beings have deliberately brought into their world.
Sin was very real to the people of the Old Testament. Death was the only
remedy (cf. Rom. 6:23a). Yet there is also a recognition that God would go
to great lengths to effect the reconciliation of people who have
deliberately stepped across the boundary and deserve to die (cf. Rom.
Here is the real significance of Old Testament sacrifice.
Israelites realized that in a liturgical act of worship, the offering of the
sacrifice acknowledges that were it not for the grace of God, it would be the
worshipper who would die. Yet, it is also a symbol of the grace and mercy of
God, the recognition that God has chosen to accept less than the life of the
worshipper, less than absolute retributive justice. There is no magic here.
There is a sacrament that testifies to the nature of Israel’s God.
The clearest illustration of this understanding of sacrifice is found in
the rituals associated with the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16. This day
was observed after the New Year celebration in the Fall to confess the
people’s sins of the past year. After the proper preparations, a bull was
sacrificed and its blood sprinkled before the mercy seat, the symbolic
throne of God in the Temple. This symbolized the cleansing or covering of
the pollution caused by the sins of the people.
Then two goats were chosen to represent the people’s sins. One of the
goats was sacrificed and its blood also symbolically sprinkled. This
graphically illustrated the seriousness of sin. Since the Israelites
believed that "the life is in the blood" (Lev 17:11), the shedding of blood
represented the loss of life itself, the removal of the disruption caused by
sin. The second goat became the "scapegoat." The priest would first place
his hands on the goat’s head while confessing the sins of the people. Then
the goat was driven into the desert as a symbol of the removal of sin, the
removal of the disorder and alienation caused by sin and the restoration of
God’s order, God’s peace (Heb: shalom) in the world. The rest of the
sacrifices would then be burned on the altar as an offering to God.
Besides this annual atonement, sacrifices could be made periodically for
various sins committed by individuals or the community as a whole. While the
specific rituals varied, sacrifice was the central feature, usually the
sacrifice of an animal. Again, the primary function of the sacrifice
was to acknowledge in an act of worship the seriousness of the offense and
the disruption it would inevitably introduce into the community. The liturgy
provided the structure and the occasion in which public confession could be
made to the community and to God. The sacrifice provided a graphic symbol of
the removal of the disruption or pollution that unfaithfulness to God had
introduced. That removal served to affirm the continued relationship between
the worshipper and his/her community and God.
However, if a person could not afford an animal, there were provisions
made for substitution of a grain offering (Lev. 5:11-13). This
suggests that it was not just the killing of an animal and the shedding of
blood that was important, but the act of worship itself. This casts
doubt on a commonly accepted idea that God rejected Cain’s offering because
it was not a blood sacrifice (Gen 4:5). Either a grain or blood sacrifice
symbolized the forfeiture of life itself as an atonement (cleansing,
covering) for the violation (Lev. 1:4-13; Num. 15:22-26).
The violations of God’s boundaries, with the resulting disruption and
defilement of the community and the world, were taken so seriously in the
Old Testament that the sacrificial rituals were observed for accidental or
unintentional sins (Lev. 4-5; note Job 1:5). The idea was that sin, even if
accidental, brought a disruption of God's order and harmony that needed
correction. In fact, in the Old Testament covenant, it was only these
unwitting sins that could be addressed in worship by sacrifice. Sins
deliberately committed, with a "high hand" (Num 15:29-30) were considered to
be a total rejection of God and his covenant. This placed the person
outside of relationship with God, a situation that could not be addressed in
worship of God.
Given the seriousness with which the Israelites viewed sin, the rituals
for sacrifice whether a blood sacrifice or the substitution of a grain
offering) formed an integral part of Old Testament worship. At times some
Israelites slipped into the magical ways of thinking of their Canaanite
neighbors and saw the sacrifices as a manipulation of God (Mal. 1-3; cf. 1
Sam. 15:22). Yet, the Old Testament itself acknowledges in many places that
there remained a clear understanding of the symbolic nature of the
sacrifices (cf. Isa. 1:10-17; Amos 5:21-25; Micah 6:6-8; Ps. 40:6-8). They
were not a magical appeasement of deity. They did not by themselves achieve
reconciliation with God (note Psa. 51:15-17). But they did symbolize the
forfeiture of life that can result from crossing God's boundaries. They
symbolized the recognition by the worshiper that his or her own life was
forfeit. And they symbolized the repentance and contrition that God is
willing to accept as a proper response to His offer of new life.
This dimension of repentance and contrition associated with sacrifice is
emphasized in Psalm 51 (see Psalm 51 and the Language
of Transformation). In this Psalm sacrifice itself is rejected as
the means of restoring
relationship with God (vv. 15-17). It is rather the brokenness of realizing
the disorder sin causes that allows the relationship to be restored.
But then the psalm suggests (vv. 18-19) that the sacrifices
a proper symbol of the penitent
worshipper who offers them with a true respect of their meaning, with
recognition of the cost of sin and its forgiveness.
Israelites shared many cultural views with the surrounding Canaanites,
including the reverence with which blood was viewed as the source of life
and its subsequent use in rituals of worship. But they clearly rejected the
Canaanite view that sacrifice was a magical appeasement of angry gods. Over
and over again in biblical writings, alongside the use of blood in liturgy,
the Israelites presented the view that the blood itself was not the cause of
God's action nor did it in itself effect anything. They clearly
understood that the use of blood was a symbol both of the disorder and death
that sin brings into the world, and of the love of God that allows new life
in the midst of death.
It is against this background of blood sacrifice as a symbol both of the
disorder and death that sin brings into the world, and of the love of God
that allows new life in the midst of death, that Jesus Christ can be
confessed in the New Testament as the Lamb who takes away the sins of the
world (John 1:29; cf. 1 Peter 1:18-20). It is with this sense that
Christians share Eucharist as the body and blood of Jesus the Christ.
It is a celebration, a thanksgiving (which is the meaning of "Eucharist"),
of the grace of God, that God has chosen to be merciful rather than exercise
absolute retributive justice. It is that grace that brings newness of
life, which we celebrate with the bread and wine.
The full text of the
Enuma Elish, the Babylonian version of
the Canaanite Baal myth.