Making sense of animal sacrifice

[Note: Derek’s series “7 Dates Every Anglican Should Know” is on temporary hiatus. His next date and topic are entirely too close to the subject of his dissertation; it will resume whenever he can write something coherent that’s less than ten pages in length…]

By Derek Olsen

Sometimes it takes hearing something in a totally different context to come to a fundamental realization of something that has been before our eyes all the time. As a biblical scholar, part of my work, my competence, is dependent on reading through ancient sources contemporary with the Bible. It helps me get my head into the world that produced the text, the world that the biblical writers took for granted, and helps me get a grasp of what they might have been thinking about or expecting when they used certain words or concepts. Sometimes there are clear connections; sometimes there aren’t. Nevertheless, I’ll often stumble over something that I think I understand from Scripture that an ancient source reveals in a completely different way. That happened to me recently in connection with the concept of sacrifice.

Sacrifice is one of those biblical concepts that make people uncomfortable. We don’t like it, and we’re glad we don’t do it any more. It simply doesn’t make sense from a modern point of view: how is killing an animal going to help anything, and why would that make God happy? We get chapter after chapter in the latter portion of the Torah (the first five books of our Old Testament) that detail exacting rules concerning who does what with various parts of cut-up critters. Needless to say, our lectionaries skip those.

There are even signs that some in the biblical world had some skepticism towards the practice. Psalm 50, for instance, emphasizes moral and ethical acts over animal sacrifice:

7 Hear, O my people, and I will speak:

“O Israel, I will bear witness against you; *

for I am God, your God.

8 I do not accuse you because of your sacrifices; *

your offerings are always before me.

12 If I were hungry, I would not tell you, *

for the whole world is mine and all that is in it.

13 Do you think I eat the flesh of bulls, *

or drink the blood of goats?

14 Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving *

and make good your vows to the Most High.

The prophets too inveigh against those who kept the sacrificial laws yet neglected the equally divine commands of the law to act with justice and mercy:

“I hate, I despise your feasts,

and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings,

I will not accept them,

and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts

I will not look upon.

Take away from me the noise of your songs;

to the melody of your harps I will not listen.

But let justice roll down like waters,

and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:21-24)

The internal logic of sacrifice just seems off: sins committed are punishable by death and must be washed away with blood (which contains the life). Humans have sinned and the blood-debt must be paid. Therefore, we can substitute an animal and its blood instead of paying our debt ourselves and atoning with our own blood. Is it really moral—let alone praiseworthy—to kill something else in an effort to fix up our mistakes? So what do we do with these passages—reject them as relics of a primitive society or spiritualize them as a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving like the psalmist?

I recently got a clue that there’s more to this picture than these conclusions assume; there’s an important point here that we miss and that may well cause us to distort the idea because of where we place the emphasis. I was rereading one of my favorites—Homer’s Iliad—when I came across the section in the first book where Odysseus and his men are sent on a peace mission to an offended priest of Apollo who is causing a god-granted plague to ravage the Achaean armies. It struck me in a new way this time around; here’s the description of their sacrifice:

When prayers were said and grains of barley strewn,

they held the bullocks for the knife, and flayed them,

cutting out joints and wrapping these in fat,

two layers, folded, with raw strips of flesh,

for the old man to burn on cloven faggots,

wetting it all with wine. Around him stood

young men with five tined forks in hand, and when

the vitals had been tasted, joints consumed,

they sliced the chines and quarters for the spits,

roasted them evenly and drew them off.

Their meal now prepared and all work done,

they feasted to their hearts’ content and made

desire for meat and drink recede again,

then young men filled their winebowls to the brim,

ladling drops for the god in every cup.

Propitiatory songs rose clear and strong

until day’s end to praise the god, Apollo,

as One Who Keeps the Plague Afar; and listening

the god took joy. After the sun went down

and darkness came, at last Odysseus’ men

lay down to rest under the stern hawsers.

(Iliad, I.526-46)

The point here isn’t the killing—the point here is the party! In this Homeric sacrifice, the point isn’t that the blood-thirsty god was made happy because a bunch of animals were killed; instead, what happens here is fellowship: enemies unite in common praise of a god, the table is shared, meat consumed, wine quaffed, and mingled voices are raised in song.

I take away two major things from this. First, our focus on death misses what happens after the animal is killed: it becomes food, and the sacrificial act is not completed until it has been consumed. Going back to the Old Testament after this, I realized that this is far more common than we might think; I generally assume that everything got burnt—and there is an important class of whole burnt offerings (holocausts). But far more common are the rites where the family and the priest share together in the sacred meal honoring God in their shared table fellowship. The economic reality of antiquity was that when meat was consumed, chances are it came from a sacrifice. Indeed—this is why eating meat offered to idols was such a big deal in 1st Corinthians: most of the meat for sale in the local markets would have been leftovers from local sacrifices.

Sacrifice then wasn’t just about death and, it makes me wonder if we enlightened moderns couldn’t learn something about death and meat from these ancient practices. It’s not like we don’t kill animals today. Modern meat is produced with ruthless mechanistic efficiency. Death after death after death occurs in our modern meat-packing plants without a moment’s notice or pause. There’s no recognition, no realization, that a life is ending and its lifeblood poured out. Even if we find the logic of sacrifice disturbing, at least it locates meaning in death. We, the enlightened, prefer to ignore it. After all—our meat comes from the supermarket, not from animals.

Second, one of the classic arguments in Christian practice from the time of the Reformation and taken up recently after the Second Vatican Council is the issue what that thing is up there at the front of the church on which we do the Eucharist—and what that means for what we do there. Is it a table or an altar (or something else beyond these)? In recent years, the first has been the overwhelming choice. And yet—this Homeric scene makes me realize that we’re engaging in false dichotomies. The altar, the Eucharist, are multivalent. It’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and… Homer reminds us that table and altar, meal and sacrifice are not alternatives, rather they interpenetrate one another. The sacrifice is a meal, a sharing in the flesh and wine; the meal is participation in a death, a consuming of something that died on our behalf.

So, next time you hear the Eucharistic prayer, next time you consider the altar-table, next time you share meat and wine with those you love, think on these things. Ponder these mysteries of death in perennial exchange with life.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University. His full-time calling of keeping up with two adorable girls and his wife, an Episcopal priest, is complicated by his day-job as an IT Consultant. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.

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