Sacrifice in God’s history

Several weeks ago, I began to write about the sacrifice in worship and promised myself that I’d continue.  This post concludes the series.  First, a few (and there are many to be found!) Bible instances of sacrifice.

Prior to the Egyptian captivity, Jacob/Israel exemplified it:

Then Jacob offered a sacrifice on the mountain, and called his kinsmen to the meal; and they ate the meal and spent the night on the mountain.  (Gen. 31:54)

Prior to the great exodus, the Hebrews made a request of the Egyptians that referred to their desire to sacrifice:

Then they said, “The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Please, let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness that we may sacrifice to the LORD our God, otherwise He will fall upon us with pestilence or with the sword. (Ex. 5:3)

Something about sacrifice seems to have been calling the Hebrews spiritually. What role did sacrifice play in the Hebrew religion, and how is it, or is it not, significant for us today?

A description in Exodus 24 of a sort of high-priest-originated, ceremonial worship–which I take in contradistinction to worship of the New Covenant–has Moses sprinkling sacrificial blood on an altar and over the people.

Later in Exodus, sacrifice is dealt with in chapters 8, 10, 12, 13, 20, 23, 30, and 34.  And Leviticus and Numbers are filled with references to sacrifice.  (No surprise there.)

As the period of the judges drew to a close, could it be that sacrifice was so uncommon (only mentioned once in the book of Judges) that Elkanah’s practice was, because it was at this point atypical, worthy of note?

Now this man would go up from his city yearly to worship and to sacrifice to the LORD of hosts in Shiloh. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests to the LORD there.

Here, as in the Genesis account of Jacob, I notice a curiosity:  “sacrifice” apparently wasn’t total, because the humans ate the meat.  (Hannah got a double portion!)  And I wonder about this … was the element of sacrifice, of giving up something, to be more conceptual or spiritual than physical?

In 1 Sam. 15:22, Samuel warns David that it is better to obey than to sacrifice. I have to wonder whether sacrifice had lost some meaning and had become a mere salve for the conscience.  Psalm 51’s reticence (“You do not delight in sacrifice”) also deserves mention here, and in Hosea, God delights in loyalty rather than sacrifice (6:6).

Psalm 50 mentions the “sacrifice of thanksgiving.”  Was something changing in the Hebrew religion?  Or were the non-fleshy sacrifices assumed, alongside the animal ones, from the patriarchal era through the Mosaical one?

Famously, Elijah and the Baal prophets dealt with sacrifice (1 Kings 18).   In this case, if indeed the “offering” is truly to be considered a sacrifice (sarcasm and conflict drip from the parchment-paragraphs of this story!), it was completely burned up.  No humans ate the meat of the bull.

In Zephaniah 1:7, “the LORD has prepared a sacrifice.”  Strange.  Maybe this mention is metaphorical, speaking cryptically of the readiness for something to happen spiritually?  In other words, to a Jewish reader who prepared sacrifices for a spiritual purpose, perhaps ascribing such preparation to God made the mind and heart expect something to happen.

Against the backdrop of the longstanding practice of Hebrew sacrifice appear Romans 12:1 and the whole of the Hebrews letter.  Jesus offered Himself as the once-for-all sacrifice (Heb. 10:12), and there are implications for our lives (Heb. 10:26).  Our “sacrifice,” metaphorically speaking and according to the writer of Hebrews, is the sacrifice of praise (Heb. 13:15, and cf. Psalm 50, above).  The blood-symbolism is complete in Christ, and the need for repeated physical sacrifices is no more.

Paul personally exemplifies self-denial (e.g., Philippians 2:17; 3:7-8; 2 Timothy 4:6), and this seems related to personal sacrifice.  After extensive treatment in the Romans letter of the Old way, which masterfully concludes with more discussion of the relationship between Jew and non-Jew, Paul doxologizes God and follows with this passage, which does not speak of worship per se, but which does speak articulately about the wholly devoted, sacrificial Christian life.

Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is, logically/rationally speaking and by extension, your way to serve God.

A song I learned at camp asked this of ourselves:  “Would you be poured out like wine upon the altar for me?  Would you be broken like bread to feed the hungry?”  Immature, we sang these words, and some of us even thought about them for a few moments, maybe … but never really changing.  As much as we might “understand” sacrificed life, it strikes me squarely that no one I’ve ever known really lives it out.

It seems that the primary New Covenant sacrifice is just this–the devoted life, “offered” acceptably to God.  This type of sacrifice, of course, creates much less mess than knifing lambs and bulls and putting them on the fire … but the wholly sacrificed life is much more likely to go unattended to.  We may live three-quarters of a century of a Christian life without ever really being poured out … offered … laid down on the altar, as it were.

I make no claim to having given sufficient treatment to Old Covenant sacrifice.  I merely suggest that there were a lot of sacrifices back then, and that sacrifice also plays an important role in the New Covenant, although it is now sans specially designated priests and blood and physical altars and such.  Now, it appears to me that I am “called” by Jesus’ transcending sacrifice to do two things in response:

  1. “sacrifice” my spirit in worship and praise, vertically “loving God,” as it were
  2. consider my whole self to be “sacrificed” in life, serving others — and, by extension, serving God

In other words, 1. love the Lord my God, and 2. love my neighbor.


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