What do we believe about sacrifice?

Among the ancient literature are bits of propaganda by one group against another. Greek and Roman propagandists wrote some pretty disparaging things about Carthaginians. In fact some of the things claimed by the propagandists were dismissed as hyperbole like the claim that the Carthaginians sacrificed children to give thanks for favors from the gods. Except that there is now significant archeological, epigraphic and literary evidence that the Carthaginians did exactly that. They did kill their children, and from inscriptions that have been found they did so not just as an offering for future favors but also to fulfill a promise that had already been made. There is even evidence that they bought the children of poor people and raised them specifically for sacrifice. It was a brutal practice.

It isn’t just Carthage.

Human sacrifice and ritual killing was part of the Etruscan Culture. A famous mural has images of human sacrifice. Urns are carved with images of sacrifice.

During the Shang Dynasty, human sacrifice was important in China. The Celts practiced human sacrifice as part of their religious rituals. The Druids participated in and officiated at human sacrifices. In Ancient Hawaii, a luakini temple, or luakini heiau, was a Native Hawaiian sacred place where human and animal blood sacrifices were offered. Kauwa, the outcast or slave class, were often used as human sacrifices at the luakini heiau. They are believed to have been war captives, or the descendants of war captives.

The Mespoptamians, the Aztec, the Incas - they all practiced forms of human sacrifice.

It is possible that human sacrifice is part of our religious heritage as well, although there is no known direct evidence. We d know that such a practice was pondered by our people and Abraham, the father of our faith, whose very name means “father of nations” came very close to the practice on two occasions. He took his son, Isaac, to Moriah believing that he is complying with God’s demand that he sacrifice the boy. He builds an altar. He lays the firewood, he binds his son, he raises the sword. It is only at the last minute that the practice is interrupted, a ram is discovered, the boy is saved. Another time, at the demand of his wife Sarah, Abraham cast out the slave woman Hagar and the son she bore for Abraham. Ishmael and his mother are set in the desert, where he nearly dies of exposure and thirst. The action, on Abraham’s part isn’t exactly a human sacrifice, but it comes close to murder by neglect. The boy and his mother miraculously survive and the sacrifice is averted.

Long after our people had given up consideration of human sacrifice, the religious rituals described in our Bible are filled with instructions for animal sacrifice. Man different creatures from doves to lambs and goats and calves are sacrificed in the temple in Jerusalem well into the time of Jesus. The book of Leviticus describes five types of sacrifices: the burnt offering, the grain offering, the peace offering, the sin offering and the trespass offering. Each sacrifice involved specific elements. Some involved animals and others grain or other fruit of the field. The burnt offering required a bird, ram or bull without blemish. The meat and bones of the animal were totally burnt and offered to God. The hide was given to the Levites who sold the hides for income. Peace offerings also involved animal sacrifice. Sin offerings varied from a measurement of flour to a young bull depending on the severity of the sin. A trespass offering had to be a ram. The fat portions, kidneys and liver were offered to God and burned completely. The remainder of the ram was eaten inside the court of the tabernacle.

It was this practice of sacrifice against Jesus railed in the cleansing of the temple, reported in all four Gospels. He expelled the merchants and money changers, tipped over tables, made a whip and drove the merchants who were selling animals for sacrifice out of the building and courtyard. He refers to the Temple as “my father’s house” and indicates that the practices of the merchants are incompatible with an accurate understanding of God.

Do we actually believe, as did so many ancients in so many different cultures, that God is, at the core angry with humans and demands sacrifice to atone for sins? Do we believe that God demands killing to satisfy some kind of blood lust? At the core of our images of sacrifice is our concept of God.

While Christians do not have human or animal sacrifices in our traditional practices, the concept of substitutionary atonement is a part of mainstream theology. It is the notion that human sin deserves punishment by God, but that Jesus’ sacrifice and death on the cross makes up for human sin. As the “lamb of God,” Jesus is sacrificed in place of us and his sacrifice becomes the way for forgiveness of our sins. This mainstream theological concept comes very close to promoting the image of an angry God who demands punishment. Such is evidenced by the tone of many a Christian sermon. Our congregational forebear, Jonathan Edwards, a famous preacher of the Great Awakening, famously wrote a sermon entitled, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” that appeals to sinners to recognize that they will be judged by God and that this judgment will be more fearful and painful than they can comprehend.

Our notions of God, however, are challenged by the Gospels themselves, especially the descriptions of Jesus’ actions in the temple. His cleaning of the temple did not endear him to the temple authorities. It did not garner him popular support or respect. Within days of the cleansing of the temple he was on trial and some of the things he said were used as testimony against him: “I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands.” His popularity with the common folk was not high, either, as they screamed “crucify him!” at his trial.

It is enough to make us question our own notion of the nature of God - a good thought for pondering in the season of Lent.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!