Sacrifice in the Old Testament – Part III

I had been writing about the Mass as a sacrifice and had begun trying to deepen our understanding through a consideration of the meaning and practice of sacrifice in the Old Testament. As I return to the subject after an interruption of a couple of weeks a brief summary will be in order.

A careful consideration shows that by way of analogy to gifts given in the ancient world to honor kings and other rulers, sacrifice is a gift given in honor of God as the supreme ruler of all creation. Just as it would be wrong to give the sort of honor that would be due to the king to a mere provincial governor, so it would be wrong, it is idolatry, to give the honor due to God, the Creator, to a mere creature.

Since God is invisible, the transferal of the visible gift to the realm of the invisible God was signified by the destruction of the gift (e.g. the slaughter of the animal and then burning it, either whole or in part, upon the altar). Because of sin, however, the death of the sacrificial animal, which represents the person of the worshipper, takes on the additional character of expiation for sin. The life of the sinner is forfeit and the blood of the sacrificial animal is seen as a sort of ‘payment’ lieu of the actual life of the human being.

Yet, all this external mechanism of sacrifice was subject to misunderstanding and abuse. It would be easy to think that somehow the sacrifice was providing God with something he needed or some sort of benefit that obliged him to act on behalf of the worshipper; likewise it would be easy to think that the mere outward performance of the sacrifice was sufficient apart from the inward disposition of the worshippers.

The prophets of the Old Testament sought to correct these misunderstandings.

The prophetic teaching on sacrifice can be found in a few succinct passages.

Those who offer praise as a sacrifice honor me; to the obedient I will show the salvation of God. (Ps 50:23)

Does the Lord so delight in holocausts and sacrifices as in obedience to the command of the Lord? Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission than the fat of rams. (1 Sam 21-22)

It is mercy I desire, not sacrifice, and knowledge of God rather than holocausts. (Hos 6:6)

One might summarize all of this by saying that if the external, visible sacrifice is meant to express the offering of the worshipper’s very life to God, then the life of the worshipper must first be pleasing to God. The very life of the worshipper must be characterized by the practice of mercy in obedience to God’s law and raised up to God with the gladness of praise that delights in who God is and what he does. Otherwise the external sacrifice is a mere empty show.

That brings us back to the problem of sin and the fundamental inadequacy of all the worship and sacrifice of the Old Testament. The Letter to Hebrews puts the matter very succinctly: It is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats take away sin. (Heb 10:4)

This leads to another, even deeper interior motive of sacrifice: a deep interior repentance and sorrow for sin. So David prayed in the Psalm: You do not desire sacrifice; a burnt offering you would not accept; a sacrifice to God is an afflicted spirit; a contrite and humbled heart, O God, you will not despise. (Ps 51:16-17)

St. Augustine comments: “We should be displeased with ourselves when we commit sin, for sin is displeasing to God. Sinful though we are, let us at least be like God in this, that we are displeased at what displeases him. In some measure then you will be in harmony with God’s will, because find displeasing in yourself what is abhorrent to your Creator.” (Sermon 19.4)

There is another beautiful expression of this same sentiment in the prophet Daniel, where the exiles in Babylon, deprived of the possibility even of offering any outward sacrifice, pray, We are reduced, O Lord, beyond any other nation, brought low everywhere in the world this day because of our sins. We have in our day no prince, prophet, or leader, no holocaust, sacrifice, oblation, or incense, no place to offer first fruits, to find favor with you. But with contrite heart and humble spirit let us be received; as though it were holocausts of rams and bullocks, or thousands of fat lambs, so let our sacrifice be in your presence today as we follow you unreservedly; for those who trust in you cannot be put to shame. (Dan 3:37-40)

All that sinful man can offer to God, finally, is the humble and contrite heart. Offering that humble and contrite heart, he pleads, he begs, Create a clean heart in me, O God. (Ps 51:12) For that the man of the Old Testament needs to wait for God himself to provide the Lamb of sacrifice, the Lamb whose blood will cleanse the human heart, allowing it to be recreated by the power of the Holy Spirit. (cf. Gen 22:8)

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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.