“I have no charges against you concerning your sacrifices
or concerning your burnt offerings, which are ever before me.
I have no need of a bull from your stall
or of goats from your pens,
for every animal in the forest is mine,
and the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know every bird in the mountains,
and the insects in the fields are mine.
If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world is mine, and all that is in it.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls
or drink the blood of goats?”
– Psalm 50:8-13 (NIV)
I read the above Psalm this morning and it got me thinking again about animal sacrifice in the Old Testament. I have never understood what it was about the blood sacrifice that could possibly atone for individual or corporate human sin. What strange ancient magic in the universe could this be? From my 20th/21st century vantage point, that sort of thing has always seemed archaic, a relic from the ancient world that made sense in a particular context but not a whole lot in our own. And yet there it is: sacrifice, the shedding of blood in atonement for sin, is embedded the Christian meta-narrative. An essential aspect of Christian theology and doctrine that I don’t fully understand. I’m okay with that, actually. I don’t need an answer to all my questions to be compelled by the birth, life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
And yet the mystery remains. Atoning sacrifice still doesn’t make complete sense to me. And to complicate matters, there are plenty of scriptures like the above Psalm which indicate that sacrifices are not needed by God or, in some cases, wanted by him. There are a couple of instances in the Psalms and perhaps most famously, Hosea 6:6: “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, / and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” So we have a situation where sacrifice is necessary for atonement, but a God who does not desire those sacrifice.*
BUT… I’ve been reading John Stackhouse’s book Can God be Trusted?: Faith and the Challenge of Evil. Later in the book he gives an overview of the Christian story of creation, fall, and redemption. He briefly covers the topic of sacrifice and I was struck by this passage:
Two principal images have been used by Christians to explain what Jesus accomplished on the cross: Christ as Sacrifice, and Christ as Victor. The former harks back to the extensive symbolism of Israelite temple worship, in which animals were killed and offered to God as substitutes for the human sinners who gave them up. “Life for life” was the basic principle, because sin at its root is the enemy of life. The Hebrew prophets themselves made clear that these rituals together formed an elaborate picture of God’s holiness (God views sin as mortally serious, and therefore the most graphic symbolism of life and death was necessary to portray its cost and its redemption) and God’s mercy (God was willing to accept animal substitutes, although it makes no logical or moral sense to do so: how can the blood of bulls and goats possibly make up for human sin?). The ultimate payment for, the ultimate cost of human sin, had to be borne by human beings. (133-4 in the 2nd edition)
What particularly struck me about this paragraph was animal sacrifice as a picture of God’s mercy. I have often been reminded that grace is not a concept limited to the New Testament and the coming of Jesus. The Old Testament is also filled with God’s grace to humankind. Looking at the story of Israel in particular, we see God repeatedly calling the wayward Israelites back. The Israelites were constantly breaking their covenant with God and therefore constantly placing themselves under God’s judgment. God is the giver and sustainer of all life and to sever our relationship with the Life-Giver means the end of life. God was perfectly within his rights to let Israel perish on any number of occasions. But God is slow to anger and rich in love, mercy, and forgiveness, and each time Israel severed their ties with him and walked away from the Life-Giver, God pursued and called them back to life and wholeness.
So grace and mercy are there in the Old Testament; Jesus didn’t bring in anything new in that regard. But I had never thought of the sacrificial system as a grace-filled thing. It was about restitution, atonement, making things right, and even (in my tradition) salvation by works. But the reality is that animal sacrifice itself does not forgive sin–only God forgives sin. And in his grace and mercy he provided Israel with a way to enact their repentance–to show that they acknowledged God–which, though not in itself sufficient to forgive sin, moved him to forgive.
Perhaps I’m taking Stackhouse’s words farther than they should be taken. Fair enough; what he said simply set my mind to thinking about grace. It makes a great deal of sense to me that, even though human sin is serious enough that death is a legitimate result, God, because he loves humankind so much and wanted things to be right between himself and Israel and the world, set up what was in fact a sub-par arrangement to atone for sin and said, “That’ll do,” and restored his wayward people.
Yes, things did change significantly with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We no longer need to offer blood sacrifices because the Final Sacrifice has been made. But God has always been full of grace and mercy, even in the Old Testament.
* This leads to a tangent issue, of course: if we were merciful and truly acknowledged God, sacrifice for sin probably wouldn’t be needed.