Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? Psalm 50:13
I was recently asked the question, “Why does God want the sacrifice of animals, but then say that “I do not eat?” This is related to the more general, larger question, “Why does God want sacrifices at all when Jesus has already sacrificed himself for us?”
Great questions! To get to the root of the need for sacrifice we need to go all the way back to the beginning. In the Book of Genesis chapter 3, verse 3:21 states, “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.” This event took place after the Fall: the apple bite and cover-up fiasco. In this passage, we learn that the “cover” for sin was blood, or specifically, to provide modesty and (only necessary because of sin) blood had to be spilled (an animal had to die). In effect, God sacrificed God’s own creation (an animal) for the recovery of humankind. It is important to pause a moment here and realize how horrific this event would have been to Adam and Eve. The result of their sin had an immediate and irreversible effect on “the other,” beyond themselves.
Now we jump ahead to the Book of Leviticus where, in the 6th and 17th chapters, God instructs Moses in the way and why of animal sacrifices:
“The Lord said to Moses: If anyone sins and is unfaithful to the Lord…They must make restitution in full, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the owner on the day they present their guilt offering. 6 And as a penalty they must bring to the priest, that is, to the Lord, their guilt offering, a ram from the flock, one without defect and of the proper value. 7 In this way the priest will make atonement for them before the Lord, and they will be forgiven for any of the things they did that made them guilty." Vs. 6:1-2, 5-7
“For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one's life.” 17:11
In this instruction and in God’s example in the Garden, God was teaching a lesson to another, not needing an action for the self. Sin was born out of deception: deception from outside (the serpent) and inside (the desire) and could not be irradicated, only treated. Sin led to death. It was serious. In order to avoid their own destruction because of their sin, the Israelites had to offer something innocent to die in their place—in this case, an animal without blemish. Unfortunately, no amount of animal blood could completely wash them clean. The practice of blood sacrifice would be corrupted even as the cause of the sacrifice was a corruption. The sacrifice of innocence was consumed in the sin it was designed to cover--to pay for, and death remained in practice and in spirit. Through sin, no amount of animal blood could change the hearts and minds of the people. While the blood served as a reminder of the people’s endless guilt, it also lost its meaning as a reminder of innocence and life.
God did not need the sacrifice; there was no sustenance or power that God received from this practice. God initiated this practice to teach and lead, as offensive as this may sound to some, as a symbol of the absolute necessity of personal awareness and personal responsibility. In a much simpler way, parents make their children relive the offense by having them “own it” in a personal apology and Mea Culpa before the injured party. Why do they do that? To teach how important it is to take responsibility and to not want to do it again. They may also be required to pay (sacrifice), in one form or another, as an atonement for the harm they did to the other.
St. Paul reflects in Romans 6:23 that “the wages of sin is death,” physical death, emotional death, spiritual death, and no amount of personal sacrifice would change that. Though the lesson was still being taught by God, it was still being corrupted by the people. Ultimately humankind could only be redeemed by the blood of a sacrifice that we could not corrupt; a sacrifice that transcended the individual, yet was offered for each person. God offered God-self as the sacrifice; not out of God’s need, but through love and compassion for our need.
So, God did/does not need our sacrifice then or now. WE need our sacrifice then and now. We sacrifice of ourselves, our time, energy, and focus as a response to the sacrifice that God made on our behalf, that we could never make. Animal sacrifice pointed the way to God offering His very own Son as the ultimate sacrifice. Still a covering for sin, it was a painful, horrifying slaughter of the Innocent on our behalf, but it was the ultimate lesson; the ultimate gift of a loving God that the sinner would be made innocent by the blood of a perfect Lamb.
Peace in Christ,
Father Bill Burk†