The Bible requires that sacrifices be offered to God. What exactly is a sacrifice? And, how was it done?
A good part of the Book of Leviticus is set aside to discuss the various sacrificial offerings, which were influenced by the practice in the ancient Near East. (I feel for the Bar/t Mitzvah students whose celebrations fall within the cycle of Torah readings that deal with these technical subjects). Let us look first at what was done in Mesopotamia:
By offering a sacrifice, people accomplished four main goals: 1. Provide food for the deity; 2. Reach a mystical union with the gods; 3. Induce the divine beings to provide help to individuals and community; 4. Expiation of their sins.
In those days, people thought that gods lived a luxurious life like kings, but even better. Each sacrifice was a banquet, consisting of a meal, libations and burning incense, to which other gods were often invited. It included specific cuts of meat, flour, fruit, and some liquids. Food was placed in front of the divine image and believed to be consumed by the gods who merely looked at them. Water was also brought in for washing, and the inner side of the temple was then fumigated in order to dispel the odor of food. (That is the basis of the incense used during services today in Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches). Musicians performed during the ceremony. Gods “ate” alone; there was no communion between the deity and the worshiper.
Having been presented to the divine statue, the consecrated dishes from the gods’ meals were taken away and sent to the king for his consumption. In the city of Uruk, an ancient city of Sumer and later Babylonia, situated east of the present bed of the Euphrates river, this was done twice a day, morning and evening.
2. In the Bible
Ancient Israelites, under the influence of those living in Mesopotamia and Canaan, set up their own sacrificial system, first in many cities, and finally in the temple of Jerusalem.
Each sacrifice was considered “the food of [his] God” (Lev. 21: 17,22). Offerings to the deity were called by various names, such as: korban- “that which is presented/brought close”, minhah – “a gift/grain offering” or nedavah--“a free will offering.” In earlier times, many individuals offered sacrifices to god (e.g., Noah [Gen. 8: 20]; Samuel [I Sam. 7: 9] David [II Sam. 24: 25] etc.), but after the centralization of the cult in the 8th cent. BCE, only priests were allowed to do that in the temple of Jerusalem.
Offerings were usually presented twice a day, morning and evening (Num. 28:4). Even though the biblical description of the sacrificial acts is not very clear, they most likely occurred in the temple compound as follows: after the lay person brought the animal, laid his hands on it, and actually slaughtered it, the priests took over and tossed away the blood, burned the animal on the altar and disposed of the remains (See, Lev. 1).
There were different types of sacrifices for all kinds of occasions: for purification, thanksgiving, vows, reparation, and others. The main meal consisted of meat, flour, oil and liquids. It was believed that God assimilated the food through its scent: “And YHVH smelled the pleasing odor (of the sacrifice)” (Gen. 8: 21). In some cases, the food was actually consumed by “a fire than that came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offerings and the fat parts on the altar” (Lev. 9: 24).
As time went on, the prophetic literature records a tendency to limit or eliminate the sacrificial system altogether. In fact, there are many passages saying that they are not sufficient. For ex.: “I desire steadfast love, not sacrifice” (Hos. 6: 6), or unnecessary: “When I freed your fathers from the land of Egypt, I did not speak with them or command them concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices. But this is what I commanded them: do my bidding….”(Jer. 7: 22-23).
When the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 CE, the sacrificial system finally came to an end. However, because they appear in the Hebrew Scriptures, the instructions about them had to be reinterpreted. Thus, for instance, Philo of Alexandria (4th cent. BCE) stated that the fact that the sacrificial animals had to be unblemished is a symbol that the offerers had to be wholesome in body and mind. Later on, the Rabbis taught that the salt, an essential ingredient of the sacrifices, stood for the moral effect of suffering (Ber. 5a). In medieval times, Maimonides taught that the sacrificial requirements were given to the Israelites as a concession, as a teaching devise, with the ultimate intention of weaning them from the debased religious rituals of their idolatrous neighbors (Guide, 3: 32). For the medieval mystics, the sacrifices represented the spiritual worship of God in which material means were employed as symbols; they brought about the dynamic union of the divine powers, restoring the soul of humans and other created beings.
Today, except for a few fundamentalist Jews, who still pray for the reestablishment of the 3rd temple in Jerusalem and the restoration of the sacrificial system, the majority of Jews use prayers as a replacement for the old sacrifices. We still read the texts about them in the Bible, but only as a recollection of what happened in the distant past.
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.
Books by Rifat Sonsino:
FINDING GOD (URJ; Behrman House)
THE MANY FACES OF GOD (URJ; Behrman House)
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN I DIE? (URJ; Behrman House)
DID MOSES REALLY HAVE HORNS? (URJ; Behrman House)
SIX JEWISH SPIRITUAL PATHS (Jewish Lights; Turner)
THE MANY FACES OF GOD (URJ; Behrman House)
AND GOD SPOKE THESE WORDS (Commentary on the Decalogue; URJ; Behrman House)
VIVIR COMO JUDIO (Palibrio)
MODERN JUDAISM (Cognella)
MOTIVE CLAUSES IN HEBREW LAW (Scholars Press)