The Shedding of Blood

Posted: February 18, 2013 by J in Bible, Theology
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The Shedding of Blood
Sacrifice in the Bible

What is the point of the sacrificial system in the Torah? Why codify it in such massive detail, the way the Torah does? Why give so much time to it in the legal code – the bulk of Leviticus and goodly portions of Exodus and Deuteronomy? From the point of view of progressive revelation, or (from our side) of biblical theology, why major on this – after all, even the OT prophets teach that sacrifice is not the thing Yahweh ultimately cares about: ‘to obey is better than sacrifice’. And the whole system is eventually to become obsolete in Christ. So then, why does sacrificial law material dominate in the Torah’s acount of Yahweh-worship? How does it warrant all that space in the book?

A couple of possible answers suggest themselves:

1. perhaps sacrifice really was a core part of God’s concerns at that time, but later things were changing, and the prophets reflected the change of priorities. OR

2. the amount of space given to sacrifice-instructions in the Torah reflects the difficulty of dealing with the topic, rather than its intrinsic importance.

Option 1 has the problematic implication that God’s priorities changed with time. This doesn’t fit well with Jesus and his apostles teaching that Jesus is the fulfilment of the whole OT. If it all points to Jesus, if pointing to Jesus is the Jewish Scriptures’ big picture, that implies a fair degree of consistency in the aims and intentions of Israel’s God all along.

Option 2 is interesting. It raises the further question, what made sacrificial practices so difficult to deal with in Israel’s Torah?  Again a couple of possibilities suggest themselves:

A. sacrifice is intrinsically complicated and problematic, needing careful instruction

B. the particular circumstances, what was going on at the time, made it necessary to spend a great deal of time sorting out this issue of sacrifice.

A. is probably true. The priests no doubt needed detailed understanding as to how to proceed in various cases: the Torah provides the detail, and this takes time and space in the book. Leviticus is a priests’ handbook.

But there are plenty of indications in the Scriptures themselves that B. is also true. In fact, there’s an ongoing argument through the OT in favour of Yahweh’s sacrificial system over against the practices prevalent at the time.

An understanding of what was happening with sacrifice at the time, in Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) society, might explain why the issue was so problematic, and needed such detailed treatment in the Torah. This may be an important context for understanding the Torah sacrificial laws. There are various sources of information about religious practices of the ANE. For this study, we will simply look at what can be gleaned from the Scriptures themselves.

Sacrifice in the Ancient Near East

Moses did not invent sacrifice! People were already sacrificing before that: Abel, Noah, Abraham, etc. We know that the Canaanites performed sacrifices in the times before Israel arrived. And pretty much all Israel’s neighbours also followed this practice. In fact, it seems pretty much everyone in the ANE used to make sacrifices back then. Seems to have been a very natural impulse: left to themselves, lacking a good reason not to, people would sacrifice. It’s a bit like how we go to the shopping mall nowadays: everyone did it.

At the social level, the thing that was most problematic about pagan sacrifice was the tendency to sacrifice humans. This sort of violence was very widespread, a common approach to resolving a conflict, settling a dispute, righting an injustice, avenging a crime, averting a disaster, or generally correcting an imbalance in the social or religious order. There are many accounts of this practice from antiquity. In the Hebrew Scriptures the tradition can be seen in the approach the (pagan) Gibeonites take to seeing justice done after Saul had slaughtered their people. Seven of Saul’s descendants were to be ceremonially impaled before God, to ‘expiate’ Saul’s sin (2 Sam. 21:1-14). This sacrifice was to right the injustice, restore the balance of things.

Tomorrow: “Running through the OT is a polemic contrasting two different sacrificial approaches…”



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