This comparative study has examined sacrificial practices in the ANE world which is the setting of the OT story. It has tried to paint of picture of the cultural background and instincts, regarding blood sacrifice, which are the context in which the Torah laws must be read and understood. We have limited ourselves for the time being to examining the evidence provided by the Hebrew Scriptures themselves.
We have seen enough to further confirm our thesis, explaining the extreme length and detail of the Torah sacrifice-laws. We asked at the start, if sacrifice ultimately turned out to not be central to Yahweh’s concerns for Israel, why did it receive such extensive treatment in the Mosaic law? One possible solution was that the massive size of the sacrificial code reflects the difficulty of dealing with the topic, rather than its intrinsic importance.
We have discovered that there was indeed an inherent difficulty in this area which made it problematic to regulate and control: the opposing tradition of human sacrifice ran deep in ANE culture. It surrounded the Hebrews on all sides. The challenge was not in persuading Israel to sacrifice. We cannot say that the Torah ‘reveals’ the practice to Israel: sacrifice was part of the Hebrews’ common cultural heritage. The challenge was not in instituting animal sacrifice: this also was widespread. The difficulty was in replacing human sacrifice with animal. And this was the Torah’s particular contribution, a distinctive feature of Yahweh-worship. While other gods at times required the blood of firstborn sons, the practice ‘never entered the mind’ of Israel’s God.
The massive length of this legislation in the Torah, then, should probably not be taken to indicate the importance of sacrifice as such in Yahweh’s intentions for Israel. It does not function to give great weight to the practice, for sacrifice already had an important place in the life of the Hebrews.
Rather its length is more likely a reflection of the difficulty of regulating existing sacrificial practices. Yahweh’s unique legislation would not be received easily by the community of Israel. Great emphasis and repetition was needed to achieve such a radical change, and to preserve it once established. Many layers of protection and control were required, to wean the Hebrews off and keep them off the traditional practice of human sacrifice which was so firmly rooted in their cultural world. We have seen how many of the law’s provisions, including priesthood and tabernacle, were explicitly aimed at this goal. There were other practices associated with pagan deities which were also difficult to eradicate: divination and spirit-mediums etc. But human sacrifice was the worst, the one most in the cross-hairs of the Mosaic legislation.
If this is so, then the Mosaic Law will need to be read in a slightly different light. It is true that the Torah upholds the problem of sin and the need for atonement. As the writer to the Hebrews says, ‘without the shedding of blood there is no release from sins’. But this was scarcely a new idea, or unique to Israel’s religion. Everyone in the ANE would have said the same. The Torah sacrificial system confirms this sense, widespread in ancient society, that blood atonement was needed to restore balance and order to the world. But this is not the Torah’s unique contribution. The new thing, the radical and world-changing thing which it introduces and codifies, is the replacement of human sacrifice by animal sacrifice. No longer must men destroy their children in the name of God. Israel had been set free from the clutches of the dark gods, and come into the life-giving hands of Yahweh.
This suggests that when we employ the Torah sacrificial laws in our account of the gospel of Jesus, we should speak of it in this light. How would this emphasis fit into our gospel story, how would it affect what we said about the cross of Jesus? Those are questions for another paper.