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  Did God Approve Animal Sacrifices?

This week’s question comes from Carleen in Maryland. She asks, “Did God authorize man to sacrifice animals to Him? As a God of love, I find it impossible to believe that God would ever want His beloved creatures killed in His name. Additionally, I have another friend who asks, ‘If sacrificing animals was wrong, why did God tell Noah to take seven sets of clean beasts to give as sacrifice after the Flood?’ I must admit, she has me stumped with that one.”

It’s again a slippery slope we walk when we try and fathom the mind of God, and yet it’s one of those paths it seems we are compelled to travel. Carleen’s question opens a can of squirms that calls into question the role and nature of scripture, the role of God versus the role of humans in writing the scriptures, and the legitimacy of scholarly scriptural interpretations. The archive of A Pastor’s Ponderings has dealt with a number of these questions in a variety of ways, so for this edition, we’ll look at Carleen’s question as directly as possible.

The quick answer to her question, “Did God authorize man to sacrifice animals to Him?” has to be yes if we’re using the Bible as the primary resource for our study. The scriptures are full of examples and laws about the kinds of sacrifices that were prescribed in the Torah, that is, the Law (Genesis through Deuteronomy). According to the book of Exodus, Moses came down from Mount Sinai not only with the Ten Commandments, but with a long list of sacrifices that were required for righteousness before God. 

Examples abound. The first sacrifice mentioned in the Bible is in Genesis 4 when Abel offered portions of a lamb to God as a sacrificial act. In Exodus 12, we read of the first commanded animal sacrifice in the scriptures. There we find Israel commanded to sacrifice a yearling lamb and to sprinkle blood on the doorframes to ward off the angel of death that was to visit Egypt. Most of the ink in Leviticus was used in prescribing the number and types of sacrifices required by God. Even in Jesus’ life we read that there were appropriate sacrifices made for him after his birth: “They offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons’” (Luke 2.24). And as an adult, it is clear that he participated in the Passover festival, which included sacrificing a lamb at the Temple (Luke 22). 

However, a good scholar could argue about the origins of the sacrificial system and could effectively cast some doubts as to whether or not it was really God’s intentions that humanity should kill animals in his name.

The first explicit command came to Moses and the Israelites as recorded in Exodus 12. The purpose of that sacrifice was likely twofold. One, was to nourish the Israelites for their flight the following day—remember, they were oppressed slaves who probably ate meat rarely. The second purpose was stated, that is, to ward off the angel of death. However, even though this is the first commanded sacrifice, it is by no means the first sacrifice offered. Indeed, it seems that sacrifices had been offered by the descendants of the Israelite people for several thousand years.

So, why did sacrificial system begin if the Law didn’t specify it and God didn’t require it?

In anthropological studies of early religions, it is clear sacrifices were often thought to feed the gods. Indeed, it seems the Israelites may have at one time believed this to be the case in their faith as well. In Psalm 50.8-15 the psalmist writes that God doesn’t need to be fed by the Israelite’s sacrifices—God already owns all the cattle on the hillside, and if God was hungry God wasn’t going to call on the Israelites to fix it. Then too, in Genesis 8, the sacrifices Noah made were said to be “a pleasing aroma” to God (8.21)—implying perhaps a feast fitting God.

For whatever the reason, it is clear that sacrifices were made from very early on. Abel, the fourth human on earth, begins the ritual of animal sacrifice in Genesis 4. Abraham is tested and called to sacrifice his son, but the son is spared and Abraham catches a ram and sacrifices it instead—even though there was no request for such an offer. Jacob, the father of the Israelite nation, sacrificed several times, and again there was no call for such an act.

So, for thousands of years the people offered sacrifices, it seems of their own accord. And then came the Law. Any scholar worth his or her salt could suggest that the codification of the law simply reflected the current practices of the religious peoples.

So, did God demand sacrifices? The Bible says so; Jesus apparently participated in it; but an argument could be made….

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