Today I want to get into the background of sacrifice in ancient Israelite practice. Stephen Finlan, professor of NT at Seton Hall and Fordham (and whose work inspires much of this post) notes that “For many centuries, sacrificial practice and interpretation in Israel resembled that of Israel’s neighbors: Canaanites, Moabites, Babylonians and others.”
A sacrifice often involved the killing of an animal, most often a bull, a goat, or a lamb. Sometimes birds such as doves were offered. Sometimes grain offerings were offered. At base, sacrificial meat was considered “the food of the deity.” In Numbers 28:2, YHWH calls it, “My food, the food for my offerings by fire, my pleasing odor.” The phrase “pleasing odor” occurs 42 times in the Hebrew Bible. Finlan notes that figuratively it means a sacrifice that God accepts, but its literal and older meaning is smoke that is tasty to God. The verbal root of nuah (which occurs in the phrase ‘pleasing odor’ or reach nichoach) means rest, so it is a restful or “tranquilizing” aroma, pacifying God’s anger, as is evident in Genesis 8:21, where “Noah’s sacrifice assuaged God’s wrath.”
“This is what the term “propitiation” means: appeasing and making peace with someone who is angry. Sacrificial ritual preserves this idea of the offering being persuasive or even coercive, but other ideas are added to the understanding of sacrifice. The food-offering gets described with the more dignified label of gift, thus emphasizing respect and obeisance rather than manipulation. However, we must notice that the gift still consists of the culture’s best available food items, just what an anthropomorphic god (and one capable of being persuaded) would want.”
What’s interesting is that there are varying threads of how sacrifice is perceived in the Torah (or Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible) by its various authors. One of the authors (or one group of authors) is labelled P by scholars. P, notes Finlan, is uneasy with the notion of God smelling the sacrifice, of ‘receiving pleasure from the sweet aroma.’ Perhaps too archaic a notion, or perhaps they’re trying to modernize the reasons for carrying out the sacrifices. So they bring in a new concept: sacrifice as a kind of technology for spiritual cleansing, not for persuading God. Impurity is taken quite literally, as a stain on the sacred installations and altars of the Temple needing to be removed. God will abandon the Temple if impurity is allowed to persist. Impurity stands – in this view – for disorder, for a kind of spiritual chaos. Ritual sacrifice then, is seen to restore order, and is protective, rather than propitiatory.
Another author of the Torah, H (standing for Holiness Code), reintroduces anthropomorphism, and repersonalizes the cultic transaction. For H, it is the attitude of God that matters most. The role of blood remains, but is lowered in importance. The notion of the pleasing aroma returns, but here it is added with a ransoming effect.
“So we have three distinct concepts: sacrifice as a food-bribe (indicated by the “sweet aroma” in J [standing for JHWH – originating from the German in which Y’s are J’s]); sacrificial blood as a spiritual detergent (P’s purification idea); and sacrifice as ritual payment (H). Blood has literal, payment value in J and H. It has supernatural power in P and H.”
The ritual was the means by which forgiveness was attained. No ritual, no forgiveness. The social corollary is: no professional priesthood, no forgiveness.
And if you perform the ritual wrongly, or are unauthorized in performing the ritual (not part of the priesthood), there is a narrative of divine violence upholding the mythology of holiness, says Finlan. Note the stories of Uzzah, who reached out to steady the ark of the covenant and was struck dead, or if you offer the “wrong fire” (or strange fire) as Aaron’s sons did: also struck dead. Or if you are a non-Aaronid and you approach the incense altar: “fire came out from the Lord and consumed the two hundred fifty men offering the incense” (Num 16:35).
In light of this, it is no surprise that independent prophets like Isaiah and John the Baptist meet strong resistance from the professional priesthood. Why? Because a God who says, “come, let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18) can grant forgiveness without the intervention of the ritual class, and this is a threat to their power, authority, and reason for existence.
So the argument around atonement as found in the Hebrew Scriptures often boils down to two views: a) propitiation, or persuasion, appeasement, a payoff or gift meant to soothe God’s anger; and b) expiation, a wiping-away, a cleansing. Most scholars would concede that both ideas are present, though they argue about which is primary and which is secondary. Most hold to the idea of appeasing God’s anger (propitiation) is the older, or more primitive view. But in light of the development of the priestly class, expiation or cleansing due to lack of holiness later took the primary focus.
There is much more to say along these lines, but in light of this cursory overview of sacrifice, what are your thoughts? Do any of these reflect the kind of God Jesus seems to represent? Is it possible to hold to an ancient Near Eastern view of God’s anger needing to be appeased through blood being spilled? Do you think Jesus thought of himself, God, or his own mission in light of any of these views? Or was Jesus more in tune with an independent prophet, outside the establishment, like Isaiah or John the Baptist? If so, does it make sense to define his life and death in terms of establishment ideas? Or would it be even more radical if Jesus was echoing the idea that the God is so loving and forgiving, that he can be approached directly, apart from the priestly class, without sacrificial or ritual intervention, that indeed, God “desires mercy, not sacrifice”?