A Survey of How the Bible Talks about Sacrifice

As we saw last week, for the past thousand years, the Western Christian imagination has understood Jesus’ death primarily as a sin sacrifice, almost to the exclusion of other biblical metaphors for sin and salvation. Specifically, Western theology has been dominated by a specific interpretation of what sacrifice meant and means, substitutionary atonement: In sacrifice, the animal (or in the case of Christianity, Jesus)’s death acts as a substitution for the human life in order to assuage God’s anger at sin. I ended that post by offering a number of reasons why we might want to reassess this understanding of sacrifice. And, on Sunday, I looked at how one prominent New Testament text understands sacrifice, not as substitution, but as purification through contact with life, as symbolized in blood. But this idea certainly does not exhaust the Bible’s understanding of sacrifice. Ancient Israel’s sacrificial system was a complicated phenomenon which defies any simple explanation. And so today, I’d like to take some time to do a quick survey of what the Bible has to say about sacrifice: what it was, how it did it, and what it was thought to accomplish.

First, while the sin offering is what immediately comes to mind when most of us think about sacrifice today, it was actually only one several kinds of sacrifice. The most common schema offers five different types:

  1. The burnt or whole offering (‘olah in Hebrew, Leviticus 1): Except for the hide, the animal is burnt whole, given entirely to God.
  2. The grain or cereal offering (minhah, Leviticus 2): An offering involving some combination of wheat, oil, wine, and incenses is burnt (or cooked) in devotion to God. This was the most common type of sacrifice and in the case of poverty, could be used as a sin offering.
  3. The peace or well-being offering (zevaḥ shelamim, Leviticus 3): The fat and kidneys of an animal are burnt as an offering to God; the rest is eaten in a feast. This type of sacrifice seems to have been associated with community wellbeing, peace, and the making of covenants.
  4. The sin offering (ḥaṭṭā’t, Leviticus 5.13-4.1): The animal is killed, its fat and organs burned, and its blood sprinkled or smeared on holy objects to make atonement for sins. The sprinkling of blood on the golden cover of the Ark of the Covenant on the Day of Atonement was a unique subtype of sin offering.
  5. The guilt or reparation offering (‘asham, Leviticus 5.14-6.7): Similar to the sin offering, but also involving compensation payments.

Notice the variety of both content and mechanism in these sacrifices. While most types of offering involved the killing of animals, the most common and most basic form of sacrifice did not. Some sacrifices involved a ritual meal, but others did not. Some were primarily offerings of fat and organs, while others involved the whole animal. Some, but not all, involved blood rituals. And, one added financial compensation. If we take all of this into account, the only common element is that sacrifices were burned. What made something a sacrifice was not death, but burning and smoke. (This is likely why sacrifice is so commonly referred to as “an aroma pleasing” to God.)

As interesting as all this is (at least to me), what is more important for our purposes is the question of how these sacrifices were understood to function. On this question, there is no scholarly consensus. It seems best to say that a number of different meanings were applied to sacrifice, depending on the person, time, place, and occasion. The bulk of this post will examine the most common significations ascribed to biblical sacrifices.

There are two major themes that seemed to be in play in the biblical understanding sacrifice, each with different nuances or sub-themes. These are holiness themes, especially purity, and financial themes. Discerning which theme is in view in a passage can be complicated because the primary Hebrew root involved in talking about what sacrifice does, kpr, can, in non-religious contexts, mean either/both cleaning and/or payment. (It seems these two meanings diverged from a Semitic root meaning ‘to cover’.)

Holiness Themes

Consecration (Setting Apart)

A key concept in the Hebrew Scriptures is holiness, which is effectively a setting apart of certain people or things for service to God. Sacrifices could be used to make places, people, or things holy, setting them apart from ‘common’ life. This meaning of sacrifice can be seen in 1 Kings 8.64, where King Solomon offers a sacrifice so large it has to be offered in the courtyard, thereby consecrating it:

The same day the king consecrated the middle of the court that was in front of the house of the LORD; for there he offered the burnt offerings and the grain offerings and the fat pieces of the sacrifices of well-being, because the bronze altar that was before the LORD was too small to receive the burnt offerings and the grain offerings and the fat pieces of the sacrifices of well-being.

The act of offering the sacrifice there renders the courtyard holy.

Purification

As discussed at length in my Integral reading of Hebrews 10.11-25, ritual defilement and purification was the dominant metaphor behind the sin offering, including the rituals on the Day of Atonement. To summarize that discussion, the holiness of the sanctuary and priests was always at risk, and they could be defiled by any number of things, including both sin and natural processes. The ritual sprinkling or smearing of sacrificial blood acted as a sort of detergent that cleansed objects and people of their defilement, restoring their status as holy.

Financial Themes

We now come to a set of closely related ideas, with varying connotations for us, ranging from the generous and openhearted to the mercenary and manipulative. Some of the nuances below are difficult to tease out in the Scriptures because the language used for them is similar, if not identical. We rarely get an explicit explanation of the motivations behind a sacrifice. The best we can do when interpreting is to understand the breadth of ideas that could be at play and choose, with all due humility, the best for the context.

Gift

The first of these financial understandings is sacrifice as a gift, a free offering of devotion or thanksgiving for God’s goodness. This would appear to be a primary meaning for the peace offering and grain offerings. In everyday language, minhah — the technical term for the grain offering — could simply mean ‘gift’. Some examples of sacrifice being understood as a gift of thanksgiving can be seen here:

  • With your thanksgiving sacrifice of well-being you shall bring your offering with cakes of leavened bread. (Leviticus 7.13)
  • He also restored the altar of the Lord and offered on it sacrifices of well-being and of thanksgiving (2 Chronicles 33.16)
  • Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the Most High. (Psalm 50.14)
Tribute

Ideas of thanksgiving and gift blend easily into tribute; it’s a fine line between offering a gift out of gratitude and offering a gift out of obligation. This is particularly the case in the Ancient Near East, where patronage relationships between stronger and weaker kings governed international politics: Before the era of the great Empires, stronger states exerted their domination not by direct rule but through vassalage. Weaker states would recognize the superiority of their patron by paying him tribute, set out in treaties and covenants. It should come as no surprise in this context that worship of God was imagined as functioning in a similar way. Here, sacrifice is not a free gift but a recognition one’s lower status before God. One good example of this is the first fruit offering set out in Leviticus 23, which just like a political treaty, sets out the tribute owed to the stronger party by virtue of their relationship with the weaker party.

Payment, Compensation, Reparation, and Redemption

The next idea along this spectrum of financial images is sacrifice as payment or compensation for services rendered. This sense is expressed well in Psalm 54, which states: “I will offer you [God] a freewill offering …. for he [God] has delivered me from every trouble.” Closely related to the idea of compensation is reparation. This seems to be formally part of the guilt offering; as explained in Leviticus 6.4-5, “When you have sinned and realize your guilt, and would restore what you took … you shall repay the principal amount and shall add one-fifth to it.” It should also be noted that reparation or repayment can often take on a darker meaning. Vengeance is often described using the same vocabulary as sacrifice.

Appeasement or Propitiation

Once we’re in the realm of tribute and payment, the idea of appeasement will almost always follow. If the goal is to reconcile or re-establish impaired relationships, paying off someone’s anger rather than the harm committed to them can easily come into view. In a non-ritual setting, Jacob’s gifts to Esau are intended to appease his brother; the word translated as ‘appease’ is a form of that same Hebrew root kpr mentioned above. We know from non-Hebrew cultures that appeasement of the gods was a common motivation for sacrifice and so, even if there is little indication that appeasement was a major category in the Bible (if anything, the Prophetic critique of sacrifice suggests that far from requiring sacrifices, God rejects sacrifices when angry!) we should not be surprised to find it lurking in the background.

These, then, are the major themes through which the Hebrew Bible understands sacrifice. We should expect that for most of those participating in the sacrificial system, these ideas would be thrown together without much distinction. Old Testament scholar Christian Eberhart provides a great example of such a mixing of meanings in his own summary of atonement in the Hebrew Scriptures: “Sin and impurity necessitate forgiveness, purification, and appeasement; the acknowledgment of the status difference requires a token of homage” (“To Atone or Not to Atone,” in Sacrifice, Cult, and Atonement in Early Judaism and Christianity, 216). When trying to understand the motivation behind sacrifice, then, it is less an issue of picking out one signification than it is understanding the breadth of the concept as a whole.

Before moving on to what the New Testament does with these images, a brief word would be helpful about two major rituals that were not understood to be sacrifices: the scapegoat ritual of the Day of Atonement and the Passover ritual, and an important development in sacrificial imagery that occurred in between the Testaments: the martyr as sacrifice.

Substitution and Expulsion: The Scapegoat

As discussed at length previously, at least on the Day of Atonement — the major feast dealing with the forgiveness of sins — the idea of substitution comes into play, but not in the sacrifices. The sins of the people are transferred to a goat, which, instead of being sacrificed, is abused and then sent off into the wilderness. The idea here is very literal: the evil within a community is sent away into the wilderness.

Protection: The Passover

The Passover ritual is unique in the Hebrew Bible in its apotropaic function: its original purpose in the Exodus story is to ward off the curse and thereby protect the community of faith:

The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. (Exodus 12.13)

Martyrdom and Sacrifice

The Hellenistic period, the time in between the Persian and Roman Empires, was a time of great political and religious upheaval for the Jewish people. One theme that rose to prominence during this period was that of the martyr, the hero who lost his life for the safety of the community. This may have been an independent development within Judaism, or a result of Greek cultural influence. This perspective can be seen in 4 Maccabees, an important non-canonical text from this period. Its heroes understand their deaths as substitutionary sacrifices: “Make my blood their purification, and take my life in exchange for theirs” (6.29). And again:

Because of them our enemies did not rule over our nation, the tyrant was punished, and the homeland purified—they having become, as it were, a ransom for the sin of our nation. And through the blood of those devout ones and their death as a Mercy Seat, divine Providence preserved Israel that previously had been afflicted (4 Macc. 17:20–22).

In these two short texts alone, we see themes of purification, substitution, payment, and redemption living side by side in a context of self-sacrifice on behalf of the faithful. If today we often talk about brave acts done for the greater good in terms of sacrifice, we have these Jewish texts — and, as we will see below, their likely influence on Paul — to thank.

Sacrificial Language in the New Testament

All of this so far has just been context-setting for the question of how Jesus’ death is understood to be sacrificial in the New Testament. Again, for much of the past thousand years, it has been largely assumed by Western Christianity that Jesus was offered as a substitutionary sin sacrifice to pay the penalty demanded by God in our place, namely our lives.

What we have seen so far suggests at the very least that this is not as cut and dry as the historical atonement theories suggest. Many different images were used to describe sacrifice in the Old Testament, only some of which carried meanings of payment, only few of which carried the idea of retribution, and none of which carried a primary meaning of substitution. Similarly, my study of Hebrews 10 showed that the most elaborate discussion in the New Testament of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice references a particular ritual act in which the meaning was clearly purification, not substitution or punishment. But what of the rest of the New Testament?

A cursory examination shows that, on the whole, sacrifice and atonement are not majors theme in the New Testament. In fact, words related to the Greek word for atonement (hilaskomai, ‘I conciliate’) appear only six times in the entire New Testament. While word counts do not necessarily correlate with conceptual importance, this should still give us pause considering how big a role ideas of atonement have played in Christian theological history.

Ritual sacrificial language is largely absent from the Gospels, and there is a general consensus among the scholarship I’ve seen that the Passion narratives do not lend themselves to a sacrificial interpretation (let alone to any specific theory about sacrifice). Jesus speaks out against the hypocrisy of the Temple and performative religion in ways that echo the Prophetic critique of sacrifice, and goes one step further in rejecting the whole concept of ritual purity that the system presupposed. While there is a lot of talk in the Gospels of self-sacrifice and offering up one’s life, this language is far more in line with the Maccabean understanding of martyrdom as analogous to, but apart from, the sacrificial system than with any of the rituals described in Leviticus.

Where the New Testament talks about what Jesus’ death does, it uses language is as varied as its Old Testament precedents. These concepts include:

  • redemption (Hebrews 9.12 &15; Matthew 20.28; Luke 1.68; Titus 2:14; 1 Peter 1.18)
  • purification (Hebrews 1.3, 9.14, 10.11-25; Ephesians 5.26; Titus 2.14; 1 John 1.17)
  • a new covenant in blood (Luke 22.20; Hebrew 9.15-22; 1 Corinthians 11.25)
  • expiation (Romans 3.25; Hebrews 2.17)
  • sanctification or consecration (Hebrews 2.11, 10.10, etc.)

There is an additional layer of language that can be, but does not need to be, understood in terms of substitution or vicarious suffering. This is the Pauline language of Christ dying “for” others (see for example, 1 Corinthians 8.11; 2 Corinthians 5.14; Romans 5.8; 1 Thessalonians 5.10). If Paul has a sacrificial understanding in mind here, this particular language fits in better with the Maccabean martyr-sacrifice than the ritual sacrifice of the Temple.

What are we to make of all this? Stephen Finlan summarizes the situation well:

What is most important to notice, now that Paul’s main atonement metaphors have been listed, is how he repeatedly and vividly mixes them, in a way that stimulates reflection. Paul and his successors link social/economic redemption language … with cultic terminology …. This mixing can produce confusion or argument if people insist on trying to narrow his soteriology down to one simple concept, or to get him to produce a rigidly logical account of exactly how atonement takes place. Rather, Paul offers a suggestive range of images, in ways that work well as preaching tools, but do not work well for philosophic exactness or rigidly logical doctrine. (Sacrifice and Atonement, 96)

What he’s concluded here is that there is no “atonement theory” in the New Testament, but rather a broad understanding of Christ’s saving work that includes a variety of images that cannot be easily conflated. Contrary to the penal substitution models of the atonement that have so dominated the Western Christian imagination, substitution and vicarious suffering are at most minor themes in both the Jewish sacrificial system and the New Testament’s understanding of Jesus’ death and salvation more generally.

Next in this mini-series on sacrifice, I’d like to take a closer look at another important New Testament text about Jesus’ death, Romans 3.21-26, in light of what we’ve found so far.

Bibliography

Abusch, Tzvi. “Sacrifice in Mesopotamia,” in Sacrifice in Religious Experience, ed. Albert I. Baumgarten. Leiden: Brill, 2002.

Baumbarten, Albert I. “Introduction” in Sacrifice in Religious Experience, ed. Albert I. Baumgarten. Leiden: Brill, 2002.

Calabro, David. “A Reexamination of the Ancient Israelite Gesture of Hand Placement, in Sacrifice, Cult, and Atonement in Early Judaism and Christianity, ed. Henrietta L. Wiley and Christian A. Eberhart. Resources for Biblical Study 85. Atlanta, GA: SBL Press, 2017.

Destro, Adrana and Mauro Pesce. “Forgiveness of Sins without a Victim: Jesus and the Levitical Jubilee,” in Sacrifice in Religious Experience, ed. Albert I. Baumgarten. Leiden: Brill, 2002.

Eberhart, Christian A. “Introduction: Constituents and Critique of Sacrifice, Cul, and Atonement in Early Judaism and Christianity,” in Sacrifice, Cult, and Atonement in Early Judaism and Christianity, ed. Henrietta L. Wiley and Christian A. Eberhart. Resources for Biblical Study 85. Atlanta, GA: SBL Press, 2017.

Eberhart, Christian A. “To Atone or Not to Atone: Remarks on the Day of Atonement Rituals according to Leviticus 16 and the Meaning of Atonement” in in Sacrifice, Cult, and Atonement in Early Judaism and Christianity, ed. Henrietta L. Wiley and Christian A. Eberhart. Resources for Biblical Study 85. Atlanta, GA: SBL Press, 2017.

Finlan, Stephen. Sacrifice and Atonement: Psychological Motives and Biblical Patterns. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2016.

Hubert, Heri, and Marcel Mauss. Sacrifice: Its Nature and Function. Translated by W.D. Halls. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964.

Ibita, Ma. Maricel S. “‘What to Me is the Multitude of Your Sacrifices?’: Exloring the Critique of Sacrificial Cult and the Metaphors for YHWH in teh Prophetic Lawsuit (Micah 6.1-18 and Isaiah 1.1-20)” in in Sacrifice, Cult, and Atonement in Early Judaism and Christianity, ed. Henrietta L. Wiley and Christian A. Eberhart. Resources for Biblical Study 85. Atlanta, GA: SBL Press, 2017.

Rayburn, Robert S. Commentary on Hebrews. Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2019.

Stokl, Daniel Johannes. “The Christian Exegesis of the Scapegoat between Jews and Pagans,” in Sacrifice in Religious Experience, ed. Albert I. Baumgarten. Leiden: Brill, 2002.

Thompson, James W. Hebrews. Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008.

Vis, Joshua M. “The Purgation of Persons through the Purification Offering,” in in Sacrifice, Cult, and Atonement in Early Judaism and Christianity, ed. Henrietta L. Wiley and Christian A. Eberhart. Resources for Biblical Study 85. Atlanta, GA: SBL Press, 2017.

Zeper, Eleonora. “Blood Sacrifice and Bloodless Sacrifice in Porphyry and Iamblichus*.”* In Syzetesis– Rivista di Filosofia. Vol. 2 (new Series), 2015.

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