Sacrifices, Offerings & the Cross – Brad Jersak

1603-1604. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

Sacrifice in Human History and the Torah

Sacrificial religion is far more ancient than human history itself. Archaeologists have even discovered signs of burial ritual even among Neanderthal graves. And sociologists such as Rene Girard have developed theories of how sacrificial offerings (of flowers or food) developed into sacred violence, whether it was the slaughter of humans or the vicarious sacrifice of animals (cf. Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred). By the time the Jewish Torah was composed in its final form, we have a narrative that walks readers through these stages:

  • ◦ God provides garments of skin for Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:21).
  • ◦ Cain and Abel were offering sacrificial vegetables and animals respectively (Genesis 4:3-4).
  • ◦ Abram receives his covenant with God, who asks for a heifer, goat, ram, dove and pigeon (Genesis 15:10).
  • ◦ Abram welcomes the angels/Angel of the Lord with a hospitality meal (a calf – Genesis 18:1-12).
  • ◦ God provides a ram to replace Isaac in a jarring test of faith (Genesis 22).
  • ◦ God establishes the Paschal lamb as the foundational meal of the Exodus out of Egypt (Exodus 12).
  • ◦ God offers a simple hospitality barbecue in his honor for direct fellowship (Exodus 20:24-26).
  • ◦ After Israel rejects direct fellowship with God (Exodus 20:19), an elaborate and exclusive system of sacrifice is developed (Exodus 20-31). One might see the tabernacle altar and priesthood as both a judgment for Israel’s lack of faith and a temporary concession to their desire to mimic the religious rituals of other nations and their gods.

Jewish sacrificial practices were indeed complex. For example, they included (1) voluntary offerings (burnt offerings, peace offerings, and meat offerings) and (2) obligatory offerings (sin offerings and trespass offerings). These included (1) animal offerings (oxen, bulls, cows, sheep, lambs, rams and goats), (2) bird offerings (pigeons, doves), and (3) grains (flour, wheat, unleavened bread, cake and wafers).

The blood of these sacrifices was drained and either splattered, dabbed, or poured out at the altar, while the skins were burned and the meat was consumed (some by the families, some by the priests). While we continue to debate the cleansing effects of the blood (propitiation vs. expiation) and what it represented (life or death), there is a general consensus that these sacrifices were seen as gifts through which God’s people experienced reconciliation.

Jewish Breakthroughs

Despite the cosmetic similarities between Jewish sacrificial systems and those of their pagan neighbors, the Torah narrative suggests dramatic breakthroughs by which mark the first stage of our salvation from sacrifice. These include:

  • ◦ The eradication of child sacrifice through the Isaac incident. Though traumatic, the story of Abraham and Isaac was meant to forever end the practice of offering the life of one’s firstborn (common in Canaanite religion) to the gods. In fact, the temptation to do so led to the destruction of the Temple and exile of the Jews in Jeremiah’s day.
  • ◦ Next, even while the tabernacle system was designed to keep everyone but the High Priest out of the Holy of Holies, God also initiates a tent of meeting outside the camp (Exodus 33:1-11), where those who dared could meet God for face-to-face fellowship even without a sacrifice. It was a back door to intimacy with God. Sadly, it seems only Moses and Joshua took advantage of the invitation.
  • ◦ And just as profound, the annual Day of the Atonement actually seems to reverse the “Molech mentality” of sacrifices offered by people to appease the wrath of an angry god. That is, on the Day of Atonement, the priest emerges from the temple, dressed in white linen, and acts the part of God as he sprinkles the people to cleanse them. As Girardian scholar James Alison writes, “The reason why the priest had to engage in a prior expiation was because he was about to become a sign of something quite else: acting outwards. The movement is not inwards towards the Holy of Holies; the movement is outwards from the Holy of Holies. Even at that time, it was understood that it was not about humans trying desperately to satisfy God, but God taking the initiative of trying to break through for us. In other words, atonement was something of which we were the beneficiaries.”
  • ◦ The next two breakthroughs came via the Jewish prophetic tradition and the necessities of their successive exiles. First, the prophets repeatedly underscore God’s desire for mercy rather than sacrifice. At times, God makes the efficacy of their rituals conditional upon his greater concern for the true sacrifice of repentant heart and lives of mercy (e.g., Psalm 51:17-19, Isaiah 58). At other times, God overtly condemns their sacrifices and calls them worthless (Jeremiah 7, Amos 5).
  • ◦ And finally, whenever the Jews found themselves without a home, without a temple, without a priesthood, without a sacrificial option–whenever they were consigned to exile–they came to recognize that God did not require it. Reconciliation was possible without the sacred violence of sacrificial religion. Indeed, from the fall of Jerusalem until this day, the formal Jewish position is that sacrificial religion is forbidden. It is only practiced by radical extremists funded by Evangelical Christians who want to ignite the Apocalypse. God could forgive sins without the shedding of blood, even long before Christ. A contrite heart that looks for mercy finds that God has forever been gracious, compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness … just as he has revealed to Moses and to David from the beginning and throughout their history.

Sacrificial Love and the Cross of Christ

Seen this way, the Cross of Jesus Christ is indeed sacrificial and does fulfill Israel’s old covenant, but not in the way so many of us previously expected. Rather than being the ultimate expression of violent appeasement to the wrath of an offended deity … which was never the Jewish model, we see exactly what the Old Testament anticipated:

  • ◦ We see God-in-Christ hosting a covenant meal, offering divine hospitality to any sinner who desires belonging, acceptance, and a seat at the banquet. All are welcome into the shared meal of intimate fellowship.
  • ◦ We see God-in-Christ, dressed in white, offering himself to us, cleansing us with the blood that represents self-giving love and radical forgiveness, even to those who hated and murdered him. As priest and lamb, he emerges from the heavenly Holy of Holies on behalf of his Father with Good News and salvation.
  • ◦ We see God-in-Christ, revealing a loving Father whose mercy endures forever and inviting us to his royal priesthood, as agents of that same mercy in the renewed kingdom of love and grace. Would that the world would once again see us that way.

If we must speak of ‘sacrifice,’ let’s move on from primitive ideas of sacrificial violence and appeasement. If we must speak of ‘sacrifice,’ let’s use it only in the sense of self-giving love for the other — the sacrificial love of a mother who willingly endures birth pains for new life, or the sacrificial love of those who rush into danger to rescue those who are perishing, as with first responders who show up in the midst of fires, floods, and earthquakes even to their own peril. And let us see Christ in this same way, as the priest who, on behalf of God, restores us to the light of fellowship when we had run off into the darkness of alienation.

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