Sacrifice in the Old Testament – Part II

Last week, in order to deepen our understanding of the meaning of sacrifice I turned to the Old Testament culture of giving gifts to honor the excellence of a ruler (homage) and to honor God, the supreme ruler of all (sacrifice). I also touched on how, in the case of sacrifice, this language of gift giving was specified for the people of Israel in the book of Leviticus.

Once we grasp the language of gift giving we can see how the destruction of the animal is in one way accidental in the language of sacrifice. The animal is destroyed as an expression of its being removed from the realm of human use and being given over to the domain of the invisible God.

From another perspective, however, the destruction of the animal is essential to the sacrifice. Because of sin, man’s life, before God, we might say, is forfeit. In the Old Testament man stands before God, we could say, as a condemned criminal. God had said to Adam, From that tree you shall not eat; the moment you eat from it you are surely doomed to die. (Gen 2:17) The penalty applies not only to Adam, but to all his descendants. In this context, the offering of sacrifice always involves, we could say, a symbolic paying of the debt, the life of man. For this reason, the one who offers lays his hands on the animal to be offered, designating it as his representative.

For this reason also, the blood of all animals, which signified the life of the animal, is always reserved for God. The people of Israel were forbidden to eat the blood of any animal. Since the life of a living body is in its blood, I have made you put it on the altar, so that atonement may thereby be made for your own lives, because it is the blood, as the seat of life, that makes atonement. That is why I have told the Israelites: No one among you, not even a resident alien, may partake of blood. (Lev 17:11-12)

That is the symbolic language of Old Testament sacrifice. Nevertheless, this language could easily be misunderstood and distorted. People could end up offering sacrifice as though they were trying to bribe the judge; or they could offer sacrifice as though it was a sort of machinery for forcing God to act in their favor; or they could offer sacrifice as though God himself needed it, as though he might go hungry unless people put animals on his altar.

These misunderstandings and distortions lie behind the various prophetic denunciations of sacrifice found in the Old Testament. It is important to realize that it was never sacrifice as such that is being denounced, but the distortions and abuses.

Psalm 50 shows approval for sacrifice, corrects the misunderstanding that would suppose some benefit is given to God thereby, rebukes those who would use sacrifice as a sort of bribe, and teaches the right motivation and manner of sacrifice.

Listen, my people, I will speak; Israel, I will testify against you; God, your God am I. Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you, nor for your holocausts set before me daily. (Ps 50:7-8) That is to say, sacrifice itself is not the problem.

God continues: I need no bullock from your house, no goats from your fold. For every animal of the forest is mine, beasts by the thousands on my mountains. I know every bird of the heavens; the creatures of the field belong to me. Were I hungry I would not tell you, for mine is the world and all that fills it. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats? (Ps 50:9-13) Here we learn that God has no need of our sacrifices.

Offer praise as your sacrifice to God; fulfill your vows to the most High. The call on me in time of distress; I will rescue you, and you shall honor me. (Ps 50:14-15) At the root of praise, which here can include gratitude, is being pleased with God, who he is and what he does. That interior pleasure in God is what underlies all rightly motivated sacrifice. The other condition for right sacrifice is ‘fulfillment of vows’, doing all that we have promised to do. In that way we honor God and when we honor God we can count on his saving help in accordance with the saying, “God will not be outdone in generosity.”

The Psalm continues with a rebuke of the sacrifice offered by the wicked and the hypocritical. But to the wicked God says, ‘Why do you recite my commandments and profess my covenant with your lips? You hate discipline; you cast my words behind you! When you see thieves, you befriend them; with adulterers you throw in your lot. You give your mouth free rein for evil; you harness your tongue to deceit. You sit maligning your own kin, slandering the child of your own mother.  When you do these things, should I be silent? Or do you think that I am like you? I accuse you and lay the charge before you. (Ps 50:16-17,21)

The Psalm concludes with another statement about right sacrifice that parallels and reiterates the previous one: Those who offer praise as a sacrifice honor me; to the obedient I will show the salvation of God. (Ps 50:23) Note well that the name ‘Jesus’ means ‘the salvation of God’. (To be continued)




Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.

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