by Robert C. Brow
Models of Sacrifice
When people are bothered by some doctrine or practice in the Bible it is best to avoid a head on confrontation. A useful approach is to clarify the underlying problem by constructing a model. And the function of a good model is to help us picture exactly what the doctrine or practice was originally designed to express. So in this chapter we construct a model to answer the objection "I cannot believe that a loving God was ever pleased by the bloody sacrifices of the Old Testament." Or the objection might be "To me the comunion service with its ideas of eating Jesus' flesh and drinking his blood sounds more like cannibalism."
The first step is to remind ourselves that ninety-nine point nine nine nine percent of all animals die a more or less violent death. They usually die by being killed and eaten by stronger animals or when they get sick and feeble and are pecked to death. But among the billions of animals that die a violent death some die for humans to eat.
Secondly we note that zebakh, which was the Hebrew word for sacrifice, is the ordinary Hebrew word for slaughtering an animal for food. In a modern slaughter house animals are killed out of sight, and their death is given no religious meaning. But in the ancient world every killing of an animal for food was viewed as a religious act. And it was done publicly with the children watching as prayer was offered. They all knew that "This animal is dying so we can eat." The original religious meaning of sacrifice is still retained by Jews for the kosher killing of an animal.
Where animals are killed or sacrificed for human food with prayer and thanksgiving they are valued and given a certain repect or dignity. This does not occur where animals are killed merely for sport. "This animal is dying so we can eat" is a very different religious mentality or model from "let's go out and blast off any bird or animal we can find," or "let's have some fun and torture this animal to death." At its best the practice of animal sacrifice in all ancient civilizations was a way for a family or tribe to recognize the death of an animal with the dignity of prayer and worship.
In the history of all ancient religions it is easy to see how various models of sacrifice gave quite different meanings and flavour to what the worshippers believed. In the first chapter of Robert Brow, Religion: Origins and Ideas, (London: Tyndale Press, 1966, 1972), it was argued that the original religion of man was monotheism approached by animal sacrifice. And just as monotheism easily degenerates into polytheism and animism, so animal sacrifice easily degerenates into priestcraft, magic, and witchdoctor religion. There is just as much evidence for that model of degeneration from an original practice than the usual assumption of a gradual emergence of religion from apish chatter, through Animism, Animatism, Polytheism, and Primitive Monotheism.
In any case all the ancient civilizations that we know, including the Sumerians, Egyptians, Minoans, Babylonians, Chinese, and the Indo-European Aryans of India, Persia, and Greece, practiced animal sacrifice. The first reference to killing animals in the Bible could be in Genesis 3:21, but by 8:20 we find Noah offering sacrifice, as did Abraham in Genesis 12:8, 13:4, 18. The Hindu Vedas were the hymns that were offered by the early Arian tribes say about 1500 BC on such occasions. And it is interesting that the rules for priests in the Hindu Brahmanas are very similar to the rules for the Jewish priests in Leviticus. For the offering of sacrifice at first a simple altar or earth or uncut stone was used. Later on when tribes settled down in cities altars became more elaborate as the centre piece of a temple.
Having begun with the basic act of worship and thanksgiving "O God we thank you that this animal is dying so that we can eat," it is easy to see how other meanings were given to the practice of animal sacrifice. As far back as we can tell in ancient times the only way for a tribal war to end was by both sides to sit down and eat together. This kind of eating together to make peace was called the peace sacrifice or peace offering.
Among people like Abraham who talked to God as their friend, it was natural to imagine God coming to share in their family meal or even God being the host and the family eating at his table. When a person or family or tribe felt that they had sinned and God was angry they imagined God would refuse to eat with them. After they had confessed their sin, there would be special service of prayer and worship as God was again invited to share in the sacrifice.
In the Old Testament, after the animal was killed with a prayer of thanksgiving, the fat and entrails were burnt on the altar. As the smoke from the altar ascended people pictured their prayers ascending to God, and if they had sinned they were able to believe that God had again accepted them back into fellowship. Where a temple was established in a city every morning and evening the smoke from the sacrifices became symbolic of the whole people being dedicated to God.
Now having set out a model of what sacrifice was, and how various meanings were given to the basic idea of an animal dying so the family could eat, we can use the model first to picture the practice of animal sacrifice in the Old Testament. Some of the rules given for the priests of the temple may seem obscure to us but the model helps us to fill in a possible meaning.
Next we turn to the New Testament, and we can use the model to picture the killing of the fatted calf when the prodigal son came home in the parable of Luke 15:11-32. In that family barbecue we can pick up the notes of thanksgiving, forgiveness, acceptance, and joyful worship. And when the elder brother refused to come to the meal he was refusing to make peace with his brother.
In Hebrews 4:14-10:25 there is a long explanation of how the animal sacrifices of the temple in Jerusalem would soon terminate. In their place Jesus commanded his disciples to keep gathering for a communion service or breaking of bread. It seems that the early Christians did this on Sunday (Acts 20:7). That was the day of the Easter resurrection and the resurrection appearance again the Sunday following, and also the Sunday of the first Pentecost when the Holy Spirit began animating the new Church among all nations.
What then could be the meaning of "This is my body" and "This is my blood?" Paul explains that the Christian communion service is a new covenant in Jesus' blood to replace the ancient sacrifices (1 Corinthians 10:16-21, 11:25). There is still a gathering of a family to eat with all the meanings suggested in the Old Testament. And one of the important meanings is connected with the sacrifice of the Exodus Passover (1 Corinthians 5:7). There can still be the eating of meat by Christians, and no doubt it was done with thanksgiving and prayer as among Jewish people to this day. But in Jesus' Church the spiritual meanings of the temple sacrifices were now to be pictured by Christians gathering to eat bread and drink in Jesus' name. Could there be a connection with the bread and wine eaten by Abraham with Melchizedek in Genesis 14:18?
As theologians discuss the various meanings of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and the implications of the communion service, there is room for differences of interpretation. And probably there are meanings we haven't yet explored. But in any case it is very hard to understand even the basic meaning of our communion service without a model to picture the very ancient practice of animal sacrifice.