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Sacrifice, III (In Israel)


The study of Israelite sacrifice brings one into contact with a principal element of the cult of yahweh. Although the OT did not give either a definition or a theology of sacrifice, whenever Israel "came before the Lord" to worship Him, praise Him, thank Him, petition His aid, or ask His forgiveness, it did so through its sacrificial rites.

Israel did not initiate its various rites; studies of the surrounding cultures (e.g., the findings at ugarit) indicate that the Israelites used the same basic rites as their Canaanite neighbors. Israel's sacrifice, however, was not simply an exact imitation of the traditional Semitic rites; it had its own distinctive character. Yahweh was not the same as other gods and was not to be worshiped as they were.

Israel's sacrificial rites were sacred. A specific place was set aside for sacrifice (various sanctuaries, the Temple of Jerusalem); holy objects were employed (the altar); the rite was performed under the leadership of holy men (the priests). In addition, ritual practices, fixed holy days, and seasons were established (see feasts, religious).

The exact meaning of Israelite sacrifice is not clear, but it is generally admitted that gift giving, gratitude, petition, expiation, and communion with God were connoted by each sacrificial act. Exegetes usually define Israelite sacrifice as an exteriorization of Yahwistic prayer by means of characteristic symbolic rites.

The present study treats Israel's sacrifice under the headings of terminology and liturgical calendar, the various kinds of sacrifices, and the evolution of the notion of sacrifice.

Terminology and Liturgical Calendar. Before describing the various types of Israelite sacrifices it will be helpful to examine the nomenclature of Israelite sacrifice and the liturgical calendar.

Terminology. The oldest generic term in the OT for sacrifice is minâ, meaning a gift or tribute. This tribute could be paid either to men (Gn 32.14; 33.10) or to God (Gn 4.3; Jgs 13.19; 1 Sm 2.17; 26.19; Is 1.13; Am 5.25). The use of minâ as a generic term appears confined to an early period, in which it represented both bloody and unbloody offerings. In the tradition of the Pentateuchal priestly writers and in later prophetic writings, minâ was used as a specific term meaning cereal offering (Lv 2.113). Other generic terms for sacrifice were qorbān (corban, literally "the thing brought near": Lv 1.29; Ez 20.28; 40.43) and zeba (a sacred "slaughtering": Gn 31.54; Ex 10.25; 12.27). The latter was the word most

commonly used for a communion sacrifice. Its influence can be seen in the word mizbēa, a place of sacred slaughtering, i.e., an altar. Normally, however, in referring to sacrifice, OT writers indicated a specific type of sacrifice, as for example holocaust (ōlâ ) or a communion sacrifice to complete a vow (zeba š elāmîm ).

Israelite Liturgical Calendar. Israel celebrated three major feasts in its cultic year (Lv 23.144). A commentary on the cultic calendar along with a schedule of victims to be offered on various feasts is found in Nm 28.929.39. These documents contain part of the tradition of the Pentateuchal priestly writers and consequently represent, for the most part, the liturgical practice in the Temple in the postexilic period.

In Lv 6.26 (see also Ex 29.3842; Nm 28.28) mention is made of daily morning and evening sacrifices. Each sacrifice consisted of one lamb as a holocaust, flour kneaded with oil, and a libation of wine. In Ezr 3.5 and Neh 10.34 this is called the "perpetual sacrifice" (olat tāmîd ). In Dn 8.1113, however, it is indicated that the daily sacrifices were interrupted during the persecution of antiochus iv epiphanes. They were reestablished by Judas Machabee. (see maccabees, history of the.)

The sacrifices offered on the sabbath (Lv 23.2; Nm 28.910) doubled the number of victims offered at the daily sacrifices. Presumably the Sabbath sacrifices were offered at the same hour of the day as the daily offerings.

On the first day of each new lunar month a holocaust was offered (called the sacrifice of the New-Moon Feast) consisting of two bulls, one ram, seven lambs, cereal offerings, a libation, and a goat as an offering for sin (Nm 28.1115). In many ways this sacrifice was typical of the sacrifices offered on the major feasts of the year. Although the motives prompting the celebration of the feasts varied, the victims remained numerically and specifically constant. The sacrifices offered on the following feasts were the same, generally, as those on the Hebrew new-moon feast: the Feast of passover (Lv 23.4; Nm 28.1625), the Hebrew Feast of pentecost (Nm 28.2631), and the Hebrew Feast of the New Year (Lv 23.23; Nm 29.16). On the Day of atonement (Yom Kippur: Lv 23.2632; Nm 29.711) only one bullock was offered, while the accompanying victims were as usual. The primacy of the Feast of booths (Tabernacles: Lv 23.3343; Nm 29.1238) was indicated by its octave of sacrifices. Each day of the octave had its specific offering, fewer victims being offered as the eight-day celebration drew to a close.

Various Kinds of Sacrifice. The richness of Israelite ritual allowed for many different classes and modes of sacrifice, depending upon the sacrificer, the things offered, and the way in which the sacrifice was performed.

Public and Private Sacrifices. Public sacrifices were offered for the community as a whole. In Lv 4.1321 a young bull was to be offered as a sin offering for an inadvertent fault of the people. Sacrifices offered for the alleviation of a plague (2 Sm 24.2125; 1 Chr 21.2227), for the sin of a priest having social consequences (Lv 4.3;16.11), sacrifices at the consecration of an altar, at the ordination of a priest (Lv 8.136), at the installation of a king (1 Sm 10.8; 11.15), and at the outset or end of a battle (1 Sm 7.9; 13.9) were all public sacrifices.

Private sacrifices were offered on behalf of individuals. In this category there were some of the sin offerings and guilt offerings. The sacrifice for sin had a graduated system of expiatory victims depending on the rank and public character of the offender (Lv 4). Other descriptions of guilt offerings are found in Lv 5.1426;7.16. votive offerings (Lv 7.1617), peace offerings (Lv 7.1121), free-will offerings (Ex 35.2029), communion sacrifices and sacred meals (Jos 22.2129; Jgs 20.26), and holocausts, or wholly burnt offerings (Gn 8.20; Ps 50[51].21; 2 Kgs 16.13), all served as private sacrifices. In addition, to celebrate certain personal events, offerings were made on behalf of individuals, such as the sacrifices offered after childbirth (Lv 12.67), and at the consecration of nazirites (1 Sm 1.2428).

Victims. The predominant objects of sacrifice were the products of the herd, the flocks, and the fields. Catalogs of sacrificial victims are found in Lv 1.17.38; Nm 7.188; 18.832; 31.154. Like their neighbors, the Israelites sacrificed those things on which their daily life most depended. Although certain specific sacrificial victims were varied as Israel changed from a seminomadic status to an agrarian one, nevertheless the most common victims remained constant.

The products of the field that were offered were mostly cereals mixed with frankincense, oil, and/or salt (Lv 2.113). Of the animals, any beast "without blemish" could be offered (Lv 1.23, 10), such as cattle (Gn 15.9; 1 Sm 6.14; 2 Sm 24.2225), sheep (Gn 22.7, 13; 1 Sm 7.9), and goats (1 Sm 10.3). In the case of free-will offerings the victim did not have to be "without blemish," but male animals were preferred (Lv 1.3; 1 Sm 1.24).

Although cereals could be offered only in the form of parched grain (Lv 2.1416; 6.716), most cereal offerings were concomitant to other sacrifices (Nm 2829). The bread was unleavened, since leaven induced putrefaction and therefore uncleanness.

Human sacrifice was sometimes offered in Israel (Ps 105[106].3738), but at no time was it considered a part of orthodox Yahwism, for the practice was vigorously condemned (2 Kgs 16.3; 21.6; Jer 7.31; 32.35; Ez 16.20;23.3739). The accounts of Abraham's intended sacrifice of Isaac in Gn 22 and Jephte's sacrifice of his daughter in Jgs 11.2940 were, possibly, polemical stories aimed at stamping out the custom of human sacrifice.

Ways of Israelite Oblation. Israelite sacrifice was offered in four different ways. When the offering was an inanimate object, e.g., money or the Temple tax (2 Kgs 12.45), it was simply surrendered to the proper authority. The offering of the first fruits of the soil in thanksgiving did not entail any destruction but provided for a sacred meal, while tithe offerings were surrendered for the use of the priests and the poor (Dt 26.115). Other sacrifices were partially consumed by fire, the remainder being eaten by the offerer and the priests or by the priests alone, as was the case with sin offerings and guilt offerings. Finally, in another common type of sacrifice, the offerer brought the victim to the altar, placed his hands upon it, killed it by himself or through the priest's ministry, and had the priest collect the blood and sprinkle it on the base of the altar. The animal was then skinned and quartered, the offerer washing the inner organs and hind quarters. The priest then burned the entire victim on the altar until it was completely consumed (Lv 1.9).

In the latter ritual the symbolic significance of the imposition of hands admits of no easy explanation. Some interpret it as a transferral of sin to the animals, as in the ritual of the scapegoat (Lv 16.2022). This explanation is unlikely, since the scapegoat was driven from the community as unclean because of the sin imposed upon it, whereas Leviticus demands an unblemished animal for a holocaust (Lv 1.39). It is more probable that the gesture proclaimed the union between the victim and the offerer. What was about to take place in the victim's body expressed what was taking place in the offerer's mind, namely, his regret for past sins, his total surrender to God, and his desire to ascend and be united with God like the smoke rising from the altar. Perhaps the best explanation, because of its simplicity, is that the gesture signified that the victim came from this individual donor as an offering in his name and that the benefits of the sacrifice should accrue to him (see R. De Vaux, Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institutions, tr. J. McHugh [New York 1961] 416).

The complete or partial destruction of the offering was not absolutely necessary, but it was commonly regarded as the best way to assure God's favorable reception. Perhaps in the minds of the Israelites such destruction rendered the victim useless and the gift irrevocable (see R. De Vaux, Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institutions, 416). Also, such destruction transferred the victim into the realm of the invisible. The use of an official sacrificer, i.e., a priest, was not essential to the sacrifice, since, even in the case of a wholly burnt offering, it was not always the priest who slaughtered the victim, but the donor himself sometimes performed this rite (Lv 1.5).

The sprinkling of the victim's blood on the sides of the altar evolved from the Semitic concepts of blood and altar. For Israel and its neighbors blood was the symbol of life, indeed it was life itself (Gn 9.4; Lv 3.17), while the altar represented the deity and was a symbol of God's presence, the place of mediation between God and man. By sprinkling against the altar the blood that he had been given by God, a man acknowledged the gift and returned it to God. (see blood, religious significance of.)

Sacrifice as a Gift. The earliest generic term for sacrifice was minâ, a gift or tribute. Yahweh commanded Israel, "No one shall appear before me empty-handed" (Ex 23.15; 34.20). In bringing their gifts to the Lord the Israelites chose the animals and vegetables that were needed for their sustenance. The gifts were thus part of themselves. The ritual used for giving the gifts was, consequently, made up of symbolic gestures expressing the offerer's disposition. Since all things already belonged to God (Ps 49[50].715), however, the gift aspect of Israelite sacrifice must be interpreted accordingly. In the culture of the Near East the giving of a gift to a superior was an expression of tribute (2 Kgs 5.5; Jgs 3.17; Mal 1.8). A notion of tribute was thus involved in the gift aspect of Israelite sacrifice, a conclusion supported by the Canaanite culture, which viewed its gods as giving life to all things that grew in the soil. As a tribute to their fertilizing role, the deities were entitled to a share of the procedure. This sentiment is echoed in the prayer of 1 Chr 29.1216 and in Hos 2.1011.

The giving of the first fruits of the barley and wheat harvest manifested this gift-tribute aspect. The Israelite joyfully brought before the Lord the first fruits as a tribute of thanksgiving (Lv 23.1011; Dt 26.111). The firstborn son and the firstborn male domestic animals were likewise brought before the Lord (Ex 13.12) to acknowledge God's dominion over His creatures. The father of a firstborn son bought him back through the payment of a ransom (Nm 3.4451) and recalled thereby God's merciful redemption of Israel from Egypt (Ex 13.1116).

Communion Sacrifices. In the early cult of Israel, communion sacrifice, in which the sacrificer and his family ate at least part of the roasted or boiled animal, was perhaps the most common. The practice may have developed from a form of totemism in which union with the god was thought to be achieved by eating a portion of the totemic animal. Tribal gods of the Canaanite milieu were thought to be related by kinship to the tribal members. The life of the god circulated in a special animal (totem) sacred to him. In the sacrificial meal in which this animal was eaten the tribal members hoped to be united with their god and in some way share his divine life. Another theory about the origin of communion sacrifice holds that in the sacrificial ritual the imposition of hands and the sprinkling of blood played a central role. At the imposition of hands the person's sins and life principle were transferred to the animal and took up residence in the animal's blood. By the slaughtering of the animal the person's sins were carried away, and the life principle was released along with the blood. The blood was then taken and sprinkled on the altar or a representation of the deity, thereby establishing a union between god and man. There is insufficient evidence that either of these attitudes was the foundation for Israelite communion sacrifices.

The general characteristics of communion sacrifice were the immolation of the victim and a subsequent sharing of the victim by God, the priests, and the offerer. The ritual for communion sacrifice is found in Lv 3.117;7.1138; 10.1215; 22.1725.

Although communion sacrifice exemplified their quest for union with God, the Israelites had no idea of being physically united with God, either by eating a victim delivered by death to God or by transferring into the divine realm a victim with which man identified himself. The portion set aside for Yahweh was presented to Him on the altar; the offerer with his friends and relatives then ate the remaining portion at a communal religious meal. Just as the Semites concluded a contract by sharing a meal (Gn 26.2830; 31.4454), so too the covenant, the personal fellowship between Yahweh and His people, was symbolically renewed by this sacrificial meal (Ps 49[50].5; 80[81]).

The Israelite communion sacrifice, then, was not necessarily a meal taken with God, although Canaanite thinking very likely influenced the attitude of the common man so that he thought he was sharing a meal with God. Orthodoxy in this matter is found in Ps 49 (50). 1213. The texts mentioning the table and the food of Yahweh (Ez 44.7, 16; Mal 1.7, 12) are rather late (i.e., exilic and postexilic) and therefore from a period when Israel could not possibly have thought God to be in need of food. These passages must have retained formalized phrases of a more primitive mentality and were used, not in their literal meaning, but for their symbolic value alone.

The communion sacrifice had three modes of expression: the thanksgiving sacrifice (Lv 7.1215; 22.29), the voluntary sacrifice (Ex 35.29; Lv 22.1823) offered spontaneously out of devotion rather than by legal prescription, and the votive sacrifice (Gn 28.2022; Nm 21.23) offered by one who had obliged himself by a vow.

The ritual for communion sacrifice is described in ch. 3 of Leviticus. The victims were the same as for the holocaust with the exception of birds. The portions belonging to Yahweh, which were placed on the altar, consisted of the kidneys, liver, and fat around the intestine. The fat, like the blood, was considered a life-giving part. The priest received two portions: the breast that was "waved" before the Lord and the right leg that was "raised" before the Lord. The remaining portions went to the offerer. Usually there were concomitant cereal offerings of which Yahweh and the priests received a share.

Evolution of Israelite Sacrifice. The OT contains many warnings that urged the Israelite worshiper to purer interior dispositions and a greater obedience to the Lord than was occasioned by bloody sacrifices (1 Sm 15.22; Prv 21.27; Sir 34.1819). Especially in the Prophets is this true. By their criticism of hypocritical, external worship, they paved the way for NT concepts of sacrifice.

The Prophets and Sacrifice. The Prophets' criticism of Israelite sacrifices was so severe that many scholars have questioned whether they attacked sacrifice itself as an institution or merely the ritual abuses that they observed. Recently the common opinion among Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish exegetes is that the prophetic condemnations were directed at hypocritical ritualism and not at the institution as such.

In their zeal for the orthodox religion, the Prophets, of course, attacked sacrifices offered to pagan gods, to idols (Hos 11.2; Jer 11.12), or to sacred animals (Ez 8.715), as well as human sacrifice (Ez 20.31). In their zeal for a more holy worship of Yahweh they inveighed against the number and costliness of the sacrificial rites performed in His honor (Is 1.1117; Am 4.45; 5.45, 2125; Mi 6.68) and the intemperance that at times accompanied the cult (Hos 4.419; Am 2.78). They labeled the sacrifices of the immoral as abominations and useless. The essence of the Prophets' attack was the condemnation of the formalistic, mechanical performance of the sacrificial rites. In their demand for a more spiritual religion they stressed obedience to the Lord's word (Jer 7.2123), moral goodness, and justice (Is 1.1620, 2627).

Along with their sharp criticism of the cult, however, the Prophets did exhibit respect for sacrifice (Is 19.1921). They spoke respectfully of the Temple and the Temple liturgy (Jer 7.511; 26.2; 33.11; Is 30.29). Hosea considered the cessation of sacrifice a punishment for the nation (3.4; 9.45). The school of Jeremiah envisioned a place for sacrifice in the purified worship of the future (Jer 17.26; 33.18). Finally, despite their call for a more moral and interior religion, the Prophets often performed symbolic religious acts (Is 20.26; Jer 27.2). Their attacks on sacrifice, then, were part of their general criticism of a decadent and impious society.

Sacrifice in the New Testament. The Israelite concept of sacrifice is found again in the Epistle to the Hebrews. (For a treatment of the specifically Christian notion of sacrifice, see sacrifice, iv.)

Of all the NT writings, Hebrews most elaborately amplified the ancient-Israelite theme of sacrifice. The author of Hebrews was concerned with contrasting the Levitical sacrifices with the sacrifice of Christ. He depicted God as the initiator of the sacrifices of the Old Covenant, but he also maintained that these were merely foreshadowings of Christ, in which He was both High Priest and victim (Heb 7.110.18). He argued that the sacrifices of the Old Law were temporary, whereas Christ's was eternal and unique (8.12; 9.2526; 10.1114; 12.2). The holocausts of Israel (10.510), the covenant sacrifices (9.1528), the offerings for sin (10.110), and the atonement sacrifices (9.114) had all been replaced by the unique efficacious and eternal sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

The mortal and sinful priests of Israel had been replaced by Christ, the Son of God who was without sin (7.118.6). Nine times in Hebrews Christ is called our High Priest. The author had in mind the Feast of the Atonement when the High Priest offered the annual sacrifice for his own and the people's sins (Lv 16.134). Now it was Christ who had assumed this priestly function. He was the one who had expiated the sins of the people. He had once and for all destroyed sin by His sacrifice. The blood of goats and calves had been replaced by the blood of Christ.

See Also: high priest; sacred and profane; showbread; worship (in the bible).

Bibliography: a. mÉdebielle, Dictionnaire de la Bible, suppl. ed. l. pirot et al. (Paris 1928) 3:1262. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek 208290. r. de vaux, Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institutions, tr. j. mchugh (New York 1961) 406474; Les Sacrifices de l'Ancien Testament (Paris 1964). a. j. heschel, The Prophets (New York 1962). b. vawter, The Conscience of Israel (New York 1961). j. pedersen, Israel, Its Life and Culture, tr. a. mØller and a. i. fausbØll, 2 v. (New York 192640; rev. ed. 1959), v. 2. l. sabourin, Rédemption sacrificielle (Bruges 1961). w. eichrodt, Theology of the O. T., tr. j. a. baker (Philadelphia 1961), v. 1. g. von rad, O.T. Theology, tr. d. stalker (New York 1962). h. ringgren, Sacrifice in the Bible (pa. New York 1963). p. van imschoot, Théologie de l'Ancien Testament, 2 v. (Tournai 195456), v. 2. w. j. o'rourke, "Israelite Sacrifice," American Ecclesiastical Review 149 (1963) 259274. h. h. rowley, "The Religious Value of Sacrifice," Expository Times 58 (194647) 6971; "The Prophets and Sacrifice," ibid. 305307; "The Meaning of Sacrifice in the O.T.," Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 33 (195051) 74110.

[j. s. homlish]

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