Subverting sacrifice in the psalms

Posted: October 17, 2013 by J in Bible, Theology
Tags: , , , ,

There is an interesting tension in the Jewish Scriptures in the area of sin offerings and required sacrifices. They are there, they are expected by God, but yet the are often disparaged and pushed to one side, again by God. Sacrifices are necessary to preserve God’s favour and blessing, yet they are not the thing that secures that blessing, nor are they mainly aimed at securing blessings in the first place. It’s pretty ambiguous. Let’s take a look.

There is extensive material in the Torah about sin offerings and propitiatory sacrifices of various kinds. Obviously Leviticus is home territory for this, but there are also the important passover requirements in Exodus, as well as scattered material in the other books. The idea of these offerings is that they in some sense ‘cover over’ the sins of the people, and so make them clean in God’s sight. The sacrifice leads to blessing.

This basic concept (sacrifice –> blessing) is absolutely traditional for Ancient Near Eastern cultures. The gods needed feeding. Humans could feed them through sacrifices. That would make the gods happy. And if you scratched their back they would hopefully scratch yours.

Gods were easily offended and hard to please. If things went wrong for you, you have probably got on the wrong side of a local deity. You’d better calm him/her down with sacrifices. If you wanted something good to come to you (say, a good crop), you made a sacrifice and hoped that would do the trick.

The structure of the transaction (and it was thought of as a transaction) was generally: sacrifice first, receive payoff later.

In the Torah, it seems as though that traditional ANE structure might be functioning. But the Psalms mess this up quite a bit.

The psalms were designed largely for temple use. So if any writings were going to reference sacrifice you’d expect it to be the Psalms. But here we find a few surprises.

First, there’s not very much about sacrifice in this temple liturgy. The language is there, but it’s hardly the dominant theme in the Psalter. Interesting…

Even more interesting is what is said about sacrifices when they are mentioned. The traditional ANE view gets a nod, once:

May [YHWH] remember all your offerings,
and regard with favour your burnt sacrifices. (Psalm 20:3)

But after that, things go in unusual directions. For one thing there is this anti-sacrifice theme:

Sacrifice and offering you do not desire,
but you have given me an open ear.
Burnt offering and sin offering
you have not required. (Psalm 40:6)

Not strictly speaking, true. But this is poetry, so we’ll give a bit of licence. This motif comes back a few times:

For you have no delight in sacrifice; (Psalm 51:16)

There are many times when the psalmist promises to make a sacrifice. This seems to be a category allowed for in the Torah: a vow offering (Leviticus 7:16). These vows are often made in the context of distress or crisis. Superficially this resembles other ANE sacrificial practices: sacrifice if things go wrong. But actually it is structured quite differently: the offering is always envisaged as coming at the end, after Yahweh has acted. The structure looks like this:

crisis –> prayer including vow –> deliverance –> sacrifice

This gives sacrifice quite a distinctive function compared to other ANE traditions: it is a thank offering. It is not propitiatory, to atone for past offences. It is not ‘contractual’, seeking to secure God’s blessing. Rather than motivating God to act, the offering acknowledges the saving action he has already carried out.

And this structure, this thanksgiving approach to sacrifice, is what the psalms everywhere encourage:

Whoever sacrifices a thank offering honours me. Psalm 50:23
And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices,
and tell of his deeds with songs of joy. Psalm 107:22

By placing the sacrifice at the end of the event,  the psalms shift the emphasis or meaning of sacrifice away from the propitiatory sin offering, away from ‘contract fulfilment’ or ‘performance of set duty’, and toward ‘joyful response’. The duty is one incurred voluntarily, by the psalmist who makes the vow. 

The ‘anti-sacrifice’ theme pushes in the same direction.

What about this vow though? Doesn’t it function like a substitute sacrifice, bringing us back into ‘contract’ territory? Not quite.

The vow is part of a prayer. It does not seem to be treated as a downpayment, nor is the sacrifice vowed described as a delayed ‘payment for services rendered’. Rather, the vow functions as part of a prayer. The vow tradition channels Israel to seek God in prayer when in need, rather than in sacrifice. What matters most at that time of crisis is to connect with God at a personal, relational, verbal level. Yahweh is to be appealed to as one who is known, and who is already well-disposed toward his people.

The sacrifice promised is classed in the category of voluntary offerings. It is the way to properly acknowledge what God has done. There is no question of an equal contract here: the same thanksgiving offering could apply for small deliverance or great. Israel cannot buy God’s favour: all they can do is return thanks to him in retrospect. This is not a payment: but a continuation and consummation of the fellowship that began earlier in the crisis-prayer.

The restructuring of the sacrificial tradition of the ANE around vows, is a core achievement of the Psalter. Not only do many psalms encourage such vows, but very many more move from crisis to thanksgiving. And the whole Psalter moves from the early cries of King David through to the extended ‘symphony of praise’ in the last dozen or so psalms. For of course, the main thing about a thanksgiving offering is the thanks itself. And so the Psalter enshrines in liturgy the place of these offerings in the life of Israel.

In these ways the Psalms push God’s ancient people away from reliance on sacrifice in times of crisis, and towards reliance on Yahweh directly, in prayer. God is not hungry. He does not want their meat: he wants their hearts.

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