Sacrifice in the Old Testament – Part I

Last Sunday I wrote about the meaning of the Mass as the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the participation of the faithful in that sacrifice. I concluded by writing: “At the moment of the consecration at the Mass the people can offer themselves as victim by slaying their own egoism, as it were, and placing it on the altar with the Lamb of God.”

We can deepen our understanding of sacrifice if we turn to the Old Testament and if we learn to express ourselves imaginatively making use of the vocabulary of the Old Testament.

I will begin with a passage from the prophet Malachi. Through the prophet God is rebuking the people on account of their sacrifices. When you offer a blind animal for sacrifice is it not evil? When you offer the lame or the sick, is it not evil? Present it to your governor; see if he will accept it, or welcome you says the Lord of hosts. So now if you implore God for mercy on us, when you have done the like will he welcome any of you? says the Lord of hosts.  (Mal 1:8-9)

We are now living in a society that is so radically egalitarian that we scarcely want to recognize anyone as superior in any way and so worthy of honor or homage of any kind – unless they are stars in the entertainment or sports industry. As a result, we have lost the language of gift giving as a means of rendering honor or homage.

The prophet, however, speaks the word of the Lord in a culture in which the language of gift giving is well understood. In his world it would be normal to present a gift to a ruler, such as a sheep or a goat, as an act of homage. Motivations behind the gift could be various: they could be pure bribes; they could be given out of pure obligation – the ruler demands tribute – they could be given for the general purpose of pleasing the ruler, so that he will be less cruel or even benevolent towards the populace in general; they could be given simply because it is just and right to honor the person who serves as guarantor of a just and peaceful order among the whole people.

In any case, in the Old Testament, this language rendering homage to a ruler by giving a gift is transferred also to the ruler of all, God. That is the basic meaning of a sacrifice: a gift given to God in recognition of his supreme excellence as ruler over all.

Note well that in the human realm the homage paid to the governor of a province and the honor paid to the king would be different. It would be a treasonous act to honor the governor as though he were the king; it would be an insult to honor the king as though he were no more than the governor of a province.

So also, idolatry gives the honor due to God alone to someone else by offering sacrifice to an idol, a false god, or some other creature. At the same time, it would be blasphemous (that is an insult to the divine majesty) if a person were to render homage to God as though he were no more than the highest of creatures.

For this reason, in a culture of homage, the sort of gift given in homage to different persons is not left purely to personal choice but is establish be a complex of custom and law.

So also, in the Old Testament, the Book of Leviticus, in particular specifies the whole order of sacrifice to be given to God.

There are different animals that can be offered in sacrifice, according to an order of dignity; the male animal is superior to the female animal; the cow is superior to the sheep, which is superior to the goat; the young animal, the yearling that has never been used for human purposes, is superior to older animals.

In addition to cows, sheep, and goats, certain birds (turtledoves and pigeons) can be offered in sacrifice and grains can be offered in sacrifice. There are also different kinds of sacrifice. In holocausts or whole burnt offerings, the entire sacrifice is consumed by the fire on the altar. In sin offerings for priest or for the whole people, part is offered on the altar, part of the blood might be sprinkled in the Holy of holies, but the remainder of the animal is burnt outside the camp or city. In other sin offerings, the priest who places the animal on the altar also receives a portion of the animal for his own consumption, it is a sort of communion. So also, with sacrifices in fulfillment of a vow or for thanksgiving, part of the sacrifice goes to the priest and another part goes to the worshipper. Votive sacrifices and thanksgiving sacrifices were festive occasions. (To be continued)

The Quotable Pope Francis: “During Mass, when the Readings begin, let us listen to the Word of God. We need to listen to him! It is in fact, a question of life, as we are reminded by the profound expression that ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’ (Mt 4:4). Life which gives us the Word of God. In this sense, we are speaking of the Liturgy of the Word as a ‘meal’ that the Lord prepares in order to nourish our spiritual life. The meal of the Liturgy is a lavish one which draws largely from the treasures of the Bible, both the Old and the New Testaments, because in them, the Church proclaims the one and the same mystery of Christ.” (General Audience, January 31, 2018)



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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