Thoughts on the mind-boggling, culturally nuanced, and theologically complex topic of "sacrifice."
- What is sacrifice?
- Is it necessary today?
- Was it necessary ever?
- Why was it necessary?
Let’s start just be looking at the etymology of that word “Sacrifice.” Where did that word come from, and what exactly does it mean?
The word "Sacrifice" comes from the Latin sacrificare, which means "to make holy."
Sacer = sacred, holy + facere = to make.
In Hebrew, there are words for sacrifice which mean “slaughter” or “gift” or “offering,” or “offerings made by fire,” or “sacrifice which is wholly burned.” But there is an umbrella term that encompasses them all, and that’s korban.
qorban. (קָרְבָּן qorbān).
Korban means "drawing near."
In both cases, the context of the word is presenting an offering in hopes of approaching divinity. Or you could think of it as humans pleading to be allowed back into Eden, or to be allowed to “go up” into heaven along with the rising smoke of a “going up” offering. It’s the goal of covering one’s self in holiness, creating a space in which humans can be reunited with God and embraced by him.
In neither case, when talking about the concept of sacrifice as a whole, is death nor blood explicitly implied.
So, how have we arrived at the following definitions in English?
Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, 1996:
- To make an offering of; to consecrate or present to a divinity by way of expiation or propitiation, or as a token acknowledgment or thanksgiving; to immolate on the altar of God, in order to atone for sin, to procure favor, or to express thankfulness;
- Hence, to destroy, surrender, or suffer to be lost, for the sake of obtaining something; to give up in favor of a higher or more imperative object or duty; to devote, with loss or suffering.
- To destroy; to kill.
- To sell at a price less than the cost or actual value.
OK, so there is at least one definition of “sacrifice” that doesn’t involve killing, but why are sacrifice so often associated with killing?
Part of the reason is that the first sacrifice was made by God, sacrificing animal life in order to cover Adam & Eve's shame, and allow them to be in each other’s presence, let alone Yahweh’s.
Genesis 3:21–24 LEB
21 And Yahweh God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skin, and he clothed them.
22 And Yahweh God said, “Look—the man has become as one of us, to know good and evil. What if he stretches out his hand and takes also from the tree of life and eats, and lives forever?” 23 And Yahweh God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. 24 So he drove the man out, and placed cherubim east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming, turning sword to guard the way to the tree of life.
The Hebrew word for "garments" or coats of skins signifies a complete covering from head to foot. The same word is used for the high priestly robe, which covered the whole body. Adam's leaf covering was sufficient only to cover his loins. God's provision was sufficient to cover his whole body. Throughout the Scriptures, garments are symbols of righteousness; either God's all sufficient righteousness or man's self-made righteousness:
Isaiah 61:10 LEB
10 I will rejoice greatly in Yahweh;
my being shall shout in exultation in my God.
For he has clothed me with garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom adorns himself with a head wrap like a priest,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewelry.
Isaiah 64:6 LEB
6 And we all have become like the unclean,
and all our deeds of justice like a menstrual cloth,
And we all wither like a leaf,
and our iniquities take us away like the wind.
Job 29:14 CSB
14 I clothed myself in righteousness,
and it enveloped me;
my just decisions were like a robe and a turban.
After the skin coverings, the next reference we have to any kind of sacrifice is with their sons, Cain and Abel.
Cain and Abel present a "gift" or "offering" (different word than sacrifice):
Genesis 4:3–5 LEB
3 And in the course of time Cain brought an offering from the fruit of the ground to Yahweh, 4 and Abel also brought an offering from the choicest firstlings of his flock. And Yahweh looked with favor to Abel and to his offering, 5 but to Cain and to his offering he did not look with favor. And Cain became very angry, and his face fell.
This is the first description of a ritual service devoted to worshiping Yah, who accepts one sacrificial offering, but not another. And the story culminates in the first description of a human murdering another human. Cain takes out his rage of being rejected by Yahweh, not on Yahweh (how could he?) but on his own brother, Abel.
Thread of Lamb's Blood
The theme of the lamb begins with Cain and Abel and is developed throughout the Scriptures until the grand climax in Revelation. The great crimson thread is woven throughout passages such as Genesis 22:8; Exodus 12; Leviticus 16; Isaiah 53; John 1:29, 36; Acts 8:26ff; I Peter 1:18-20; Revelation 5:9, 12; 6:15-17; 7:9-17; 17:14; 19:11-21; 21:7-9, 22, to name just a few. The ultimate fulfillment is found in the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Abel's offering involved the sacrifice of a lamb and with it the shedding of its blood. Jesus Christ was the just dying for the unjust. He was the innocent Lamb dying for the guilty sinner. This thread and its culmination are easy enough to follow and grasp, however the question remains: WHY was blood sacrifice needed at all? Couldn't have God have just as easily made them clothes from cotton, hemp, or bamboo?
When Yahweh eventually mandates ritual sacrifice, it does include animal sacrifice, however there are many other forms of sacrifice and offerings he established too. So, why would Yah accept sacrifices from one person and not another? And why would the spilling of blood be necessary for some sacrifices but not all?
According to Bernhard Anderson,
"in the priestly tradition sacrifice was not understood as a means of appeasing divine wrath or of cajoling God to show favors. Rather, the sacrifices described in Leviticus 1-7 are means of atonement, of healing the breach in the covenant relationship and reuniting the people in communion with God. Sacrifice was believed to be efficacious in restoring a broken relationship, not because blood had magical power in itself, but because God had provided the symbolic means . . . by which guilt was pardoned. . . The Priestly tradition emphasized that no sacrificial rite was effective in the case of deliberate sin ('with a high hand')." (Anderson, 413)
So, in other words, God didn’t need people to perform sacrifices in order to be appeased. It was a provisional, symbolic institution to give the people a tether to God. A key component of "drawing near" to the divine, or "creating holiness," was the shedding of blood, which is life.
Leviticus 17:10–16 CSB
10 “Anyone from the house of Israel or from the aliens who reside among them who eats any blood, I will turn against that person who eats blood and cut him off from his people. 11 For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have appointed it to you to make atonement on the altar for your lives, since it is the lifeblood that makes atonement. 12 Therefore I say to the Israelites: None of you and no alien who resides among you may eat blood.
13 “Any Israelite or alien residing among them, who hunts down a wild animal or bird that may be eaten must drain its blood and cover it with dirt. 14 Since the life of every creature is its blood, I have told the Israelites: You are not to eat the blood of any creature, because the life of every creature is its blood; whoever eats it must be cut off.
15 “Every person, whether the native or the resident alien, who eats an animal that died a natural death or was mauled by wild beasts is to wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he will remain unclean until evening; then he will be clean. 16 But if he does not wash his clothes and bathe himself, he will bear his iniquity.”
Yahweh wanted people to take blood seriously, because it is a powerful symbol of life, and he wanted people to take life seriously. To care for it, to be respectful of it, and not disregard life. Sacrificing the life of an animal forced the people to appreciate the lives of their animals.
It’s important to realize that never is the concept of Yahweh requiring animal sacrifices for his own sake, whether to appease him or for food taught in the Hebrew bible, though some people may have mistakenly interpreted the law in such a way.
Instead of being used to appease God’s wrath, as pagans have always believed, these sacrifices were used to remind people that covenant breaking with the God of life inevitably leads to death. This is why animals were sacrificed by being cut in two whenever covenants were made. (In fact, the Hebrew phrase for “making a covenant” is literally “to cut a covenant”—referring to the animal that was cut in two to make the covenant). The parties entering into a covenant would walk between the animal parts after exchanging vows as a way of saying, “If I break my covenant vows, let it be to me as it is this animal.” A clear example of this is found in God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15 (though, interestingly enough, only Yahweh walks between the animal parts, anticipating the crucifixion when God would be faithful on behalf of humans when we are unfaithful).
So you see that animals were sacrificed not because God needed them to forgive people but because his people needed them to remember the death consequences of sin and to therefore repent when they’d broken covenant with God. Later in Israel’s history, when people began sacrificing animals without repenting in their hearts, the Lord told them (through prophets like Isaiah, Hosea and Amos) that he despised their sacrifices, for they are meaningless without a change in heart.
On this note, while many pagan religions have demanded human sacrifices, Yahweh explicitly showed this to be unnecessary, beginning with Genesis 22, with the near sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, and later vehemently condemning this practice through the prophets.
He did lay out the rules for animal sacrifices, though, and yet even that seems to have been a temporary provision for a culturally conditioned people. Most Jews today don’t practice that kind of thing anymore. Why not?
According to researchers at Kenyon College,
With the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. animal sacrifices ceased to be performed. The emerging rabbinic community declared that Torah study, prayer, and acts of loving-kindness would replace sacrifices. In modern Judaism, the only rite that requires the shedding of blood is the circumcision of newborn males.
Because the Jews no longer had a temple in which to make animal sacrifices, they had to rely on other types of sacrifices and methods of drawing near to God. Because of the destruction of the temple, they were actually forced into a better understanding of what God desires, according to scripture.
You can see this in Proverbs:
Proverbs 21:3 LEB
3 Doing righteousness and justice is more acceptable
to Yahweh than sacrifice.
And in the prophet Hosea:
Hosea 6:6 CSB
6 For I desire faithful love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
Micah 6:6–8 LEB
6 With what shall I approach Yahweh,
and bow down to God on high?
Shall I approach him with burnt offerings,
with bull calves a year old?
7 Will Yahweh be pleased with thousands of rams,
with myriads of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good,
and what does Yahweh ask from you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
David grasped this after going through the darkest, most sinful and destructive season of his life, when he wrote this:
Psalm 51:16–17 CSB
16 You do not want a sacrifice, or I would give it;
you are not pleased with a burnt offering.
17 The sacrifice pleasing to God is a broken spirit.
You will not despise a broken and humbled heart, God.
At least twice already in Matthew, we’ve heard Jesus say things like:
Matthew 9:13 CSB
13 Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice. For I didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Matthew 12:6–7 CSB
6 I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. 7 If you had known what this means, I desire mercy and not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the innocent.
The traditions of studying scripture, prayer, and selfless acts remain even to this day as primary means of "drawing near" to God, to Jews, Catholics, and Christians alike. In fact, According the Gemara, a commentary on the Torah,
"Whoever is busy with [learning] Torah need not bring an Olah, Chatas, Mincha, or Oshom (types of sacrifices)."
As one interpreter explains,
"Therefore, we understand that since everything begins and emanates from Torah, studying the Torah brings atonement and is considered even better than the Korban. . ." -Parshas Tzav
So, yes, for thousands of years the idea of "sacrifice" has been understood as giving up something important for the process of drawing near to God and may take a wide variety of forms. But this brings us to the question: if ritual sacrifices were not strictly necessary, even before Christ, why were they ever commanded at all?
To dig into this, lets turn to the new testament book of Hebrews. This is one of my favorite books of the whole Bible; the whole thing is just incredibly brilliant. And it has quite a bit to say about sacrifice. Turn first to chapter Hebrews chapter 9.
Remember, Leviticus says this:
Leviticus 17:11 CSB
11 For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have appointed it to you to make atonement on the altar for your lives, since it is the lifeblood that makes atonement.
The writer of Hebrews interprets this the following way:
Hebrews 9:22 CSB
22 According to the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.
This is simply an acknowledgment of the significance of blood. This is important in the context, where Hebrews has introduced Jesus as the ultimate human and high priest, and the bringer of a new covenant.
But what I love about Hebrews is that the WHY of blood sacrifice is actually answered in the next chapter!
Hebrews 10:1–3 CSB
1 Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come, and not the reality itself of those things, it can never perfect the worshipers by the same sacrifices they continually offer year after year. 2 Otherwise, wouldn’t they have stopped being offered, since the worshipers, purified once and for all, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? 3 But in the sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year after year.
Blood sacrifices were a continual, repetitive reminder of sin, and that humans were responsible for introducing death to the world and divorcing heaven from earth. It was a vulgar, disgusting ritual that reminded them of how vulgar and disgusting their sin was. It existed for the sake of the people, not because Yahweh enjoyed it! And it is because they were trapped in a never-ending cycle of sacrifice that he wanted to break the cycle.
God gave himself to humans, not because he needed or wanted to be killed by them, but because he knew they needed to kill him in order to know he was God.
Hebrews 10:4–22 CSB
4 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
5 Therefore, as he was coming into the world, he said:
You did not desire sacrifice and offering,
but you prepared a body for me.
6 You did not delight
in whole burnt offerings and sin offerings.
7 Then I said, “See—
it is written about me
in the scroll—
I have come to do your will, God.”
8 After he says above, You did not desire or delight in sacrifices and offerings, whole burnt offerings and sin offerings (which are offered according to the law), 9 he then says, See, I have come to do your will. He takes away the first to establish the second. 10 By this will, we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all time.
11 Every priest stands day after day ministering and offering the same sacrifices time after time, which can never take away sins. 12 But this man, after offering one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God. 13 He is now waiting until his enemies are made his footstool. 14 For by one offering he has perfected forever those who are sanctified. 15 The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. For after he says:
16 This is the covenant I will make with them
after those days,
the Lord says,
I will put my laws on their hearts
and write them on their minds,
17 and I will never again remember
their sins and their lawless acts.
18 Now where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer an offering for sin.
19 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have boldness to enter the sanctuary through the blood of Jesus—20 he has inaugurated for us a new and living way through the curtain (that is, through his flesh)—21 and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water.
Jesus demonstrated the solution, the alternative to using sacrifice as a reminder of the law.
It’s to conform our very hearts and minds to the spirit of the law.
That is, to know Yahweh so intimately, like Adam and Eve in the garden did, that written law is comically unnecessary and killing animals to draw near to him is once again unheard of.
The ultimate, perfect sacrifice of Jesus provides an eternal waterfall of innocent blood through which we can pass into the divine marriage of heaven and earth and obtain the knowledge and intimacy of Yahweh’s presence.
The Second Coming
Now, Hebrews says that Jesus’s sacrifice was final and sufficient for all people, for all time. However, we are still living in a fallen world aren’t we? That is pretty evident. Which is why we also look forward to his second coming.
Let’s step back and consider the perspective of where we are in the grand scheme of creation.
When Yahweh removed Adam & Eve from Eden, it was for the express purpose that they could no longer access the tree of life. They were trapped in the physical realm, divorced from heaven. Because they chose to reject Yahweh’s words, they became responsible for introducing death to the world, a curse which causes all creation to cry out in pain.
In a physical world divorced from the eternal life-giving presence of God, death is necessary for rebirth. And, ultimately, necessary for us to be re-married to the spiritual realm, for heaven to return to earth. For humans to return to Eden. This is why Mike mentioned last week that God’s removal of Adam & Eve from the garden was an act of mercy! For humans to live forever in sin would be to live forever in misery and despair! In that sense, Death was the best gift Yahweh could offer Adam & Eve, and why he promised them that in the day that they ate that forbidden fruit they would surely die.
In his mercy, he allowed them to live long enough to procreate, and promised that although their descendants, the seed of the woman, would always be enmity with sin, the seed of the serpent, that one day a human would arise who would crush that serpent's head. Thereby, God set in motion a path to redemption, the promise of salvation.
Remember, though, when he confronted them after their sin in the garden, Yahweh told Eve that childbirth, bringing forth life from her body, would become painful because of her sin. That image of painful childbirth is an image for the painful rebirth of all creation:
Romans 8:22 CSB
22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together with labor pains until now.
Creation groans with the pain of childbirth.
This imagery is used again in Revelation, where we get a wild, cosmic representation of the significance of Christ’s birth, as the firstborn of the new creation. Of a new life for all humanity, bought at the painful cost of bloody sacrifice.
Revelation 12:1–6 CSB
1 A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. 2 She was pregnant and cried out in labor and agony as she was about to give birth. 3 Then another sign appeared in heaven: There was a great fiery red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and on its heads were seven crowns. 4 Its tail swept away a third of the stars in heaven and hurled them to the earth. And the dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she did give birth it might devour her child. 5 She gave birth to a Son, a male who is going to rule all nations with an iron rod. Her child was caught up to God and to his throne. 6 The woman fled into the wilderness, where she had a place prepared by God, to be nourished there for 1,260 days.
We live in a unique era of human history, between the first arrival of Christ and the second. Between the inauguration, the groundbreaking of God’s kingdom and the completion of it, the ribbon cutting ceremony.
The visions of Revelation point forward to the completion of God’s work. We are still in the pain of labor, but Revelation gives us a small glimpse into the new life we can look forward to.
The writer of Hebrews is again so insightful about these connections:
Hebrews 9:24–28 CSB
24 For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with hands (only a model of the true one) but into heaven itself, so that he might now appear in the presence of God for us. 25 He did not do this to offer himself many times, as the high priest enters the sanctuary yearly with the blood of another. 26 Otherwise, he would have had to suffer many times since the foundation of the world. But now he has appeared one time, at the end of the ages, for the removal of sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 And just as it is appointed for people to die once—and after this, judgment—28 so also Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.
By Christ’s sacrifice, we have been saved from the burden of guilt, the burden of being shackled to sin. Yet we are still shackled to the earth, and to a physical reality that is plagued by the disease of sin, trapped in a body of rotting flesh.
Jesus introduced a new reality. He showed what a life untainted by sin looks like. He introduced a cure, a healing touch. He offers living water, the water of life, access to the gate of Eden, the reunion of heaven and earth! He plucks fruit from the tree of life, and offers it freely to any who are willing to eat of it. He was the first to enter that reality for eternity, and promises to lead us there if we follow him.
The cataclysmic event which allows for a return to a pre-fall reality, without a massive reboot like the flood, and while preserving the lives and choices of billions of humans without losing their individual identities, was when Yahweh became a human himself, and lived, died and resurrected as a picture of what he has done for all creation, loving us so deeply that he would give himself up for us so that we may live forever with him and in him.
We are called to continue that work of love and healing, and to share the reason for our hope, and to make the most of the life we have been given, not to squander our days on this earth just because a better one is coming, but as temples of the living God to bring his spirit, his presence to the world, as beacons of light and life and the promise of healing, so others may too find the path to eternal, abundant life.
What can wash away my sin?
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
The powerful and ancient symbolism of blood being necessary for life, as well as the vulgarity of hatred and sin culminating in the destruction of an innocent life, remains a core concept to all Jesus followers and is represented by the Eucharist (thanksgiving) or Communion (exchanging, sharing together). The elements of communion represent the body and blood of Christ. This ritual remembrance serves for us the same purpose as the original animal sacrifices did, in that it reminds us of the vulgarity of sin and its consequences, and our need of salvation. It points us back to Christ as the ultimate sacrifice, and forward to the resurrection of our bodies through him. Just as the slaughter of lambs pointed people back to their sin, and their slavery in Egypt, while pointing forward to christ and to the promise of freedom.
There’s a profound spiritual significance to consuming sacred food; food set aside for a special purpose.
In the days of the centralized temple in Jerusalem, ONLY the priest who officiated the sin offering was worth of partaking in the sustenance of the sacrifice. Now, we are in the days of the decentralized temple—that is, the church, the living bodies we all inhabit.
Partaking in the symbols of communion, as they become a part of our body, is a powerful reminder that we are forever bound to him, joining him, becoming a part of his sacrifice. It calls us to present our own bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God, for this is our true worship. It is only because of Christ, and only when we are in Christ, our high priest, that we all become officiating priests who are worthy of the sustenance of the sacrifice of Christ.
For this reason, as sober and disturbing as it is to consider the vulgarity of our sin and the bloody, torturous, disgusting slaughter of THE innocent lamb of God, it is also a celebration. It's a small, brief ritual, but it represents our greatest source of hope, joy, and gratitude.