Animal Sacrifice, Then and Now

I don’t  normally blog about the lectionary passages but this week’s Hebrew Bible passage concerning the institution of Passover prompted some reflection about the relationship between God, humans and animals. Take a moment and read Exodus 12:1-14. Like most Bible passages, there is a lot  that can be said about it. There are all sorts of interesting things to consider.  We are not even going to pretend that this is a comprehensive discussion of the text or about topic of sacrifice and offering or about Egypt and the plagues, or about the Exodus.

There are just a few things I want to discuss today.  

For many Christians, the final plague- the death of the first born is difficult to read about.  Again there is a lot that should be discussed. What I want to point out is this, that first born of all the Egyptians and all the animals are killed. Everyone is affected; not just Pharaoh, not just priests, not just government officials. Most people in Egypt were not responsible for the enslavement of the Hebrew people, many were struggling to survive themselves. Average folks didn’t have input into what Pharaoh did. From a western 21st century perspective this story can strike us as unfair.

So what should we make of this? It seems to me the story points out the unfair and unhappy reality that we are all inextricably bound together.  Sadly we don’t have to think too hard to recall modern day equivalents, situations where innocent people suffer and even die as a result of the actions of a powerful few. In this story, all of Egypt suffers from Pharaoh’s sin. And not just the humans, even the animals lose their first born. All of creation in Egypt suffers from Pharaoh’s sin. 

 Remember in Romans 8:19-25, the whole creation suffers, awaiting redemption. And remember in the book of Jonah, all Nineveh repents and is saved, even the animals. (Jonah 3:6-10, 4:11) Their fate and ours is somehow bound together both ecologically and theologically.

The second topic for reflection concerns animal sacrifice. It’s another subject that makes many 21st century Christians uncomfortable. We can take the easy way out and simply dismiss the topic.  It was a different culture, a different time and so long ago that it doesn’t need to concern us today. We don’t sacrifice animals and so we don’t need to spend time thinking about it. Well, OK, but I suspect some of you are wondering, why was there animal sacrifice at all? Why would God ever have wanted that? That’s a reasonable question. Once again, my disclaimer- what follows is not a complete discussion of the topic of sacrifice and animal sacrifice. It is too complex a topic to fully discuss here, but I will offer two thoughts for your consideration.

From The Torah: A Modern Commentary.

“Today the word “Sacrifice” means an act of self-deprivation. We give up something of value for the sake of a greater value: we may sacrifice a vacation to make more money, or sacrifice luxuries in order to educate our children, or sacrifice life for nation or faith. Such a sacrifice is deemed regrettable, even though necessary; if we could attain the larger end without the sacrifice, we should do so. Prudence therefore counsels us to make a sacrifice only after careful deliberation and to sacrifice no more that is needed to attain our goal.”

“That was not what the ancients meant by sacrifice. To them it was a religious rite, most often a joyous one. The offering was as large and choice as the worshiper could afford to make it. It was always a sacrifice to some deity or power, not-as in our usage- a sacrifice for some end.”

Sacrifice was not so much about killing and destruction and divine bribery as it was about the giving of life. It requires some major rethinking on our part to associate sacrifice with life and wholeness and relationship. The sacrificial animal was not a substitute, killed so the person or community escapes death. The sacrificial animal was in a sense an extension of the person, both their lives were given to God resulting in relationship, communion with God. Somehow, it seems that animals were a necessary part of the relationship with God.

Blood was understood to be the life force. Blood didn’t symbolize death, as it so often does for us, it symbolized life – it was life. The slaughter of animals was not a trivial matter, neither was it something to be hidden way. The slaughter of animals must be done humanely, respectfully and with care.

And finally. How animal sacrifice was performed and what it meant varied with each culture and varied over time. But the animals sacrificed to God or the gods was a source of meat for people.  Obtaining meat to eat was and is a serious business. There was more going on than just stopping by the store on the way home to get something for dinner. (That’s why early Christians were concerned about the source of the meat they ate. See 1 Cor 8:4-12 for example)




The author of The Torah: A Modern Commentary  writing about the sacrificial laws in Leviticus says:

“It requires an enormous effort of imagination on our part to understand how untold generations found the sacrificial rites inspiring. We eat much more meat than our biblical ancestors did; but it come to us neatly prepared and packaged, and many of us do not even see it till it is ready for the table. The sights, sounds, and smells of the slaughterhouse would be very upsetting to our squeamish generation. Ancient man [sic] was not so sheltered. He lived closer to the realities of birth, life, and death. He was not unfamiliar with the slaughtering of animals and their preparation for food; and, when these activities were performed in a sacred place as part of a solemn ritual, he found them dignified and meaningful.”

Respect for the lives of animals is why some people don’t eat meat. Respect for the lives of animals should be a greater concern for those of us who do eat meat. What does it say about our culture, about us,  that the activities of food production are performed in routinized, assembly line fashion far removed for the lives of most of us?


I’d like to know, what do you think?


The Torah:A Modern Commentary, Edited by W. Gunther Plaut, commentaries by W. Gunther Plaut and Bernard J. Bamberger, essays on Ancient Near Eastern Literature by William W. Hallo. Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York, 1981, page 750, 753.

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