Sacrifice in the Old Testament – Part IV

Last Sunday I resumed writing about the meaning and practice of sacrifice in the Old Testament and followed line of thought that starts with the idea of a gift given to honor a ruler and moves by way of analogy to giving a ‘sacrifice’ as a gift to God in order to honor him as the supreme ruler of the universe.

The burning of the animal on the altar signifies the transferal of the gift to the invisible realm of God, while the blood of the sacrifice is offered as an expiation of sin, a payment, so to speak, in lieu of the life of the worshipper himself.

We moved from there to the interior spirit that needs to move the worshipper in offering sacrifice: the outward sacrifice must express the interior spirit of praise and thanksgiving in obedience to the command of God.

Then we discovered, however, that finally all sacrifice coming especially from sinful human beings is insufficient; of ourselves we are incapable of offering to God what he wants most, a life pleasing to him, a life worthy of him.

So finally we discovered that the best sacrifice we can offer of ourselves arises from a humble and contrite heart that prays, Create a clean heart in me, O God. (Ps 51:2) This prayer then awaits for God himself to provide the “Lamb” that will take away the sins of the world and cleanse the human heart of sin.  (cf. Gen 22:8)

We could move directly now to look at Jesus Christ as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world; the one sacrifice that is worthy of God.

Nevertheless, it will be good first to follow another line of understanding practice of sacrifice in the Old Testament, one that starts from the notion of the ‘covenant’.

The starting point is similar to that of a gift to honor a ruler, but rather than the gift of an individual, it is the tribute rendered by a vassal state to its overlord. In the biblical world, when a more powerful kingdom conquered a less powerful kingdom, the less powerful kingdom might remain intact, with the king upon the throne, but the more powerful kingdom would enter into a covenant with the less powerful. The covenant, however, actually involves a sort of mutuality; the lesser kingdom owes to the greater loyalty and submission, expressed by the tribute given, but the greater kingdom takes the lesser under its protection. Further there is a personal aspect to the covenant because each kingdom is embodied by and represented by its king.

Of course, in the political realm, if the vassal kingdom were to offer tribute to another overlord, it would be a betrayal of the covenant, an act of treason.

So when God enters into a covenant with Israel upon Mt. Sinai, the people of Israel profess loyalty and submission; the submission is expressed in obedience to the law given through Moses and the loyalty through the tribute of sacrifice given to the God of Israel and no other. For his part, God takes the people under his special protection and promises them a land to dwell in. If the people were to offer sacrifice to another god besides the God of Israel, it would be a betrayal of the covenant, and act of treason, idolatry.

The personal character of the covenant is expressed in the formula, I will take you as my own people, and you shall have me as your God. (Ex 6:7)

Historically the covenant was ratified by a special sacrifice at the foot of Mt. Sinai in which the people listen to the law of the Lord and proclaim, All that the Lord has said, we will heed and do (Ex 24:7) and the Moses sprinkles them with the blood of the sacrifice saying, This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words of his. (Ex 24:8) The elders of the people then go up on the mountain and eat in the presence of the Lord, partaking of the sacrificial meal.

Precisely because of the goodness and kindness of the Lord towards his people, the covenant came to be viewed not so much as the relation between a conquered kingdom and its overlord, but as the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman. In this context, offering sacrifice to another god besides the God of Israel was comparable to an act of adultery.

This is precisely what took place in the history of the people of Israel. The turned away from Lord, offered sacrifice to other gods, and the prophets compared their infidelity to the conduct of a faithless, adulteress. (To be continued)

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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.

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