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Old Testament Sacrifice:
Magic or Sacrament?

Dennis Bratcher

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 and Boundaries).

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 grace.

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. 6:23b).

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 are 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.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2018, Dennis Bratcher - All Rights Reserved
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