Why make a sacrifice

Chapter 1 imageSacrifice is a word which is today frequently upon our lips. Not only preachers call their congregations to be sacrificial givers. Politicians explain to us that, in the interests of the future of our economy, various sections must be prepared to make sacrifices. In daily speech, if we stop to think about it, we shall find that we are frequently using the word to refer to some act of self-denial. A test cricketer may say, ‘I’m not prepared to sacrifice my family for sport.’

Have you ever paused to observe the oddity of our using such a distinctively religious word, when the age in which we live is increasingly secular? Many other words and concepts from traditional religion are rapidly falling into disuse. Even such a basic word as ‘God’ is rarely heard today outside the precincts of religious buildings. Yet there was a time, not so long ago in Western society, when the word was on everybody’s lips many times a day and in all sorts of contexts. Now in the course of a day’s activities it is unlikely we shall mention the name of God once.

If the name of God is being retired from everyday public discourse because of the process of secularization, why has the same thing not happened to ‘sacrifice’? For let there be no mistake: ‘sacrifice’ is a very religious word.The etymology of this word, which we have inherited from Latin, shows that it literally means ‘to do a sacred thing’, in fact ‘to make something sacred’.
Sacrifice was such a religious word that it was regarded as the key to all religious activities. Sacrifice was the religious act par excellence, the supreme manifestation of religious devotion.

When politicians call on us to make sacrifices, however, it is quite clear they are not expecting us to prepare a burnt offering on an altar. The word has evidently been changing in usage. But we need to ask: Why has the word changed its meaning? Why has the word been retained at all? What connection is there between what the word used to mean and what it means today?

Our modern use of the term ‘sacrifice’ makes it look very mundane and innocuous. Once we start to examine what it used to mean we may be in for something of a shock. The corresponding word for sacrifice in both Greek and Hebrew literally means ‘slaughter’. That is why even the Oxford dictionary to this day offers as the first definition of the word ‘sacrifice’, the ‘slaughter of animal or person as an offering to a deity’.

This immediately confronts us with a quite paradoxical situation. We may regard the age in which we live as rather irreligious. Yet no matter what our personal religious convictions may be, the idea of slaughtering even an animal, let alone a human, as an offering to God on an altar fills us all with revision. What our distant ancestors regarded as the most holy religious act, we have come to regard as immoral, as irreligious. Yet the language which described it we have retained!

To understand why this is so we must try for a moment to put ourselves back in the cultural situation of our ancient ancestors. Although we cannot say for certain that human and animal sacrifice was ever universal in all primitive cultures, it was certainly widespread. It long played a dominant role in the religious tradition out of which Judaism, Christianity and Islam eventually emerged. In the oldest parts of the Bible there are even isolated examples of burnt sacrifice. Eventually this was resorted to only in times of extreme emergency. In pre-biblical times however, human sacrifice was not at all uncommon. It had been a common practice to offer the first-born child as a sacrifice to God, just as it long remained the practice to sacrifice the first lamb of the spring season. This is thought to be the origin of the lamb which was sacrificed and eaten at the Jewish Passover.

That ancient practice of sacrificing the first-born is actually still found in the Bible as a divine command: ‘All the first-born are mine, said the Lord, I have consecrated for my own all the first-born in Israel, both of humankind and of beast; they shall be mine.’ These words lie buried in the Bible and most Christians prefer to ignore them.

Already in the evolving religion of ancient Israel itself there was a growing revulsion against human sacrifice. It became the practice, on the birth of the first child, to slaughter a sheep or goat as a substitute for the child. It was said to be the act of redeeming the child. This is how the Bible states it: ‘When the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, you shall set apart to the Lord all that first opens the womb. Sacrifice to the bard all the males that first open the womb, but all the first-born of your sons, redeem with a lamb.’

Some of you may find this language vaguely familiar, not because you are conversant with the ancient practice of sacrifice but because the terminology was taken over to explain in a religious way the death of Jesus. He was called the lamb of God. He was given the title of Redeemer, for his death was seen as a sacrifice which brought to others divine forgiveness and new life. This sacrificial terminology has remained in Christian hymns and liturgical practices right down to the present day, even though the more gruesome aspects of their primitive origin have long since been forgotten or ignored.

It sometimes comes as a shock to us to realise that while human sacrifice ceased to be practised by the ancient Israelites, the sacrifice of animals on the altar at the Jerusalem temple continued as a regular Jewish practice until after the rise of Christianity. It seems almost certain that Jesus himself witnessed these sacrifices. Though he is said to have driven the money changers out of the Temple, there is no record of his having expressed any criticism of the sacrifices which took place there. The first generation of Christians, being Jewish, continued to frequent the Temple and be present at the priestly sacrifices.

It was not due to any Christian pressure that animal sacrifice came to an end among the Jews. It was because the Roman armies destroyed the city and Temple in 70 AD and prevented the Temple from being rebuilt. The cessation of animal sacrifice was for political and secular reasons rather than religious ones. Today that magnificent Muslim building known as the Dome of the Rock stands on the site of the former Jewish Temple. Should, at some future time, that site ever return to the hands of the Jewish people, the strictly orthodox Jews would be faced with a dilemma. For on the most rigid interpretation of Jewish law those ancient sacrifices should be reinstated.

I do not believe this will ever occur. For just as Christians came to believe that the time for animal sacrifice had been superseded (indeed the New Testament book known as Hebrews was largely written to explain why) so also Judaism learned how to live without the animal sacrifices. Both Christians and more liberal Jews owe this solution to a viewpoint on sacrifice which began to surface in Judaism some 800 to 600 years before the Christian era. And it is to these people, the prophets of Israel, that we must look to understand the radical changes which took place in the practice of sacrifice and its continuing significance.

These prophets began to attack the practice of animal sacrifice in the most provocative and iconoclastic ways. Listen to how the prophet Isaiah interpreted what was going on in the mind of God:

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
I am fed up to the back teeth with the burnt offerings of rams
  and the fat of well-fed beasts.
I take no delight at all in the blood of bulls, or of lambs or billy goats.
Don’t bring these vain offerings to me any more.
I’m sick to death of receiving them.

Just as the primitive human sacrifices had already been replaced by animal sacrifices, so the ancient prophets made a strong plea for a further radical change. The sacrifice of living creatures should now be replaced by a new and bloodless form of sacrifice. What was to be the new mode? The prophet Micah put it this way:

Should I come to the altar of God with burnt offerings?
Shall I sacrifice my first born to atone for my sins?
Of course not! He has shown you, O man, what is good
What does the Lord require of you
  but to do justice, and to love kindness
  and to walk humbly with your God?

Like all the prophets, the Israelites were ahead of their time. Their plea was rejected. The animal sacrifices were continued. People found it impossible to abandon the old and tried ways.

Yet slowly the words of the prophets began to take root. The concept of sacrifice came to be raised to a higher level. It was translated into moral or ethical demands. The focus of attention in all sacrificial acts began to shift from the slaughter of animals to moral and social reform, such as the establishment of social justice. The elimination of oppression, and the caring of defenceless people, particularly orphans, widows and the socially handicapped. These moral duties became a new form of performing outwardly the supreme sacred act.

As well, sacrifice began to take an inward, spiritual form. This is how a later psalmist put it:

O Lord you take no delight in sacrifice.
Were I to give a burnt offering you would not he pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit.
A broken and a contrite heart, you will not despise.

For over 1900 years of Jewish and Christian religious practice, animal sacrifice has been replaced by the moral and spiritual forms of sacrifice. Yet the language of sacrifice has remained. This has been particularly so in Christian usage. Christian hymns and theology have been permeated with the language of sacrifice. During the Middle Ages the most solemn act of Christian worship – the Mass – became conceived as a sacrifice on an altar. In this ritual the death of Jesus on the cross was portrayed and represented as a sacrifice which was thought to bring new life to the worshippers. The elements of bread and wine were believed by a divine miracle to be transformed into the actual flesh and blood of Jesus, the sacrificial victim. The very word ‘host’ so dominant in Roman Catholic practice, is derived from the Latin word hostia, which means ‘victim’ or ‘sacrificed animal’. For nearly 1,000 years the most serious penalty one could receive was to be excommunicated, i.e. to be cut off from the spiritual benefits which flowed from that sacrifice.

I have briefly sketched how, over a period of 3,000 years, the outward forms of sacrifice changed, first from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice and then from animal sacrifice to symbolic ritual. Sacrifice slowly became moralised and spiritualised. But the terminology remained. Christian worship is literally bloodless – yet to this day the Christian Eucharist speaks of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the sacrificed Jesus. To appreciate why, we must ask what it was which motivated our ancient ancestors to slaughter animals, and even humans, as their supreme act of devotion.

In looking for the answer to this question, we stumble on another strange thing. As I have said, sacrifice was a widespread practice. There are two religious traditions in particular in which we have inherited full and detailed instructions of how it should be done. One is the Hindu tradition. Their explicit instructions for the proper conduct of sacrifice are preserved in their sacred books, the Vedas. The other tradition is that of ancient Israel and it is preserved in the Jewish and Christian Bibles, where it takes up some 50 chapters.

But the strange thing is this. in spite of the most detailed instructions of what to do, there is neither in the Vedas nor in the Bible any hint of why it should be done. The spiritual purpose which sacrifice fulfilled was apparently self-evident to the ancients. There was no need to argue a case in its favour. This suggests that the widespread practice of human and animal sacrifice evolved out of a deep-seated and unconscious urge. They found themselves doing it without being consciously aware of any rational theory of why they were doing it.

Modern scholars have tried to penetrate into the subconscious mind and search for those urges which made the ancients feel that sacrifices were spiritually effective. One theory, for example, suggests that a sacrifice was essentially a gift to the deity. After all, we humans both celebrate and strengthen our personal relationships with one another by exchanging gifts at appropriate times. Would it not be natural to show gratitude to God by bringing a thank-offering to his altar? We can take the analogy further. A husband who feels guilty towards his wife for some failure on his part may send her a surprise gift of flowers. If the misdemeanour has been really serious he may go so far as to buy her a new car! Would it not be natural for the worshipper, then, to atone for his or her sins by offering a really costly gift?

There is no doubt some truth in this gift theory but it still does not explain why the blood and flesh of a slaughtered victim seemed to be called for. Another theory suggests, therefore, that a sacrifice was essentially a common meal shared by the deity with his worshippers through the priests. In the ancient Semitic world every slaughter of an animal was treated as a sacrifice and the consumption of flesh for human nourishment was a sacred and relatively uncommon experience.

It may even point back to a more primitive period in which the gods were thought to be dependent on humans for their regular sustenance. In that context the sacrifices were seen to be the very food of the gods, prepared and offered by their menial servants, the human race, in return for various divine favours. The Babylonian version of the great flood myth reflects this view. It notes that while the flood waters covered the Earth no sacrifices could be offered to the gods. So the first thing the Babylonian Noah did, as the waters receded, was to make a sacrifice. And so, the myth says, the gods gathered round like flies. They were simply starving for nourishment. Of course all that sounds very comic to us.

Once again there is some truth in seeing the sacrifice as a common meal in which worshippers and their God are all present. This has been a significant factor in the Jewish Passover and in the Christian Eucharist, or Holy Communion. Moreover, in the transition from mediaeval times to modernity, the emphasis on Christ as the victim has been replaced by the emphasis on Christ as the bread of the world, broken to be shared by the worshippers.

But even the ‘communion meal’ theory leaves an essential aspect of the sacrifice still unexplained. Why did there have to be a taking of life? The New Testament puts it very succinctly: ‘Under the Jewish law almost everything is purified with blood and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.’

There emerged a third theory of the origin of sacrifice which maybe called the ‘life releasing’ theory. This rests on the obvious relationship between life and blood. If we suffer a serious loss of blood, life ebbs away. The ancients very understandably identified life with blood. ‘’The life of every creature is in its blood.’ says the Bible. Because of that ancient conviction. to this very  day the strict Jew will eat only Kosher meat, flesh from which the blood has been drained away at the time of slaughter. In the same way the Muslim world insists on the Halal method of slaughtering its animals for food. (For the same reason Jehovah’s Witnesses forbid the transfusion of blood from one person to another.) Blood was thought to be the very life or soul of a person.

But what came to be forbidden to humans was in fact the most appropriate offering to God. To sacrifice a human or animal was to return the blood, or life, to God, the giver of life. The slaughter of living creatures came to be seen as not only the costliest but the most sacred religious practice. The life released from the victim was believed in some way to bring spiritual benefit to the worshipper.

The ancients sensed here the mysterious relationship between death and life. Not only does life come to an end in death; paradoxically, death also releases new life. ‘He died that we may live,’ Christians have been in the habit of saying about Jesus. But the very same thought keeps coming out in more secular contexts. On many a war memorial throughout our country you will find such words as, ‘They paid the supreme sacrifice.’ The implication is that the freedom and life we enjoy has been made possible by their death. So we call their death a sacrifice.

There is widespread agreement in the scholarly world today that none of these theories of the origin of sacrifice contains the whole answer. There is a certain amount of truth in each of them – the gift theory, the common meal theory, the life releasing theory. But the urge to sacrifice goes psychologically and religiously deeper than all of them. That is why, through the ages, people have continued to make sacrifices without being able to offer rational reasons for doing so. That is why, in spite of the diversity of forms of sacrifice, and in spite of the radical reforms which it has undergone, we still use the language of sacrifice. Thus when we call upon people to make personal sacrifices for the greater good of all, we have some confidence that it will strike a responsive chord in the depths of the human heart.

It is no doubt somewhat debatable whether or not we humans are all religiously programmed in such a way that the concept of sacrifice will always have the capacity to strike home to us because it touches something very deep in our human condition. let me tell a little story which illustrates how, in fact, that may be so.

I first heard this story when l was quite young, being brought up in the aftermath of World War One. A few Australian soldiers had been cut off from their unit in the battlefields of France. They were sheltering in a shell hole. They were in no-man’s land, caught in the crossfire between the two opposing front lines. Shells were continuing to explode all around them. At any moment, it seemed, one was likely to land right on top of them. There were never any atheists in a shell hole, it used to be said. In this extremely critical predicament they looked to each other for someone to take the lead in praying for divine help. ‘You can pray, Tom.’ But Tom couldn’t even remember a prayer from his Sunday school days. Another tried to say the Lord’s prayer but petered out after the second phrase. At last, in desperation, one said, ‘Ere, give us yer tin hat Bill. I’m going to take up a collection. We’ve gotta do something religious!’ This was not a true story, of course, but a joke, in which we used to laugh about the ridiculous incongruity of taking up a church collection in a shell hole.

But at another level this story may serve as a parable about something which is deep in the human psyche. In matters of life and death one must take extreme measures. All religious beliefs and practices originate out of life and death situations. One must do something to reach out to ultimate reality – the reality we traditionally call God. In the ancient world it caused men to reach out by slaughtering animals, and even fellow humans, without knowing why they did it. In that Australian digger we may see the same existential urge at work as, unconsciously, he grasps for that last remnant of the sacrificial act still present in the Protestantism of his boyhood.

You may have been wondering if what I have been saying about ancient sacrifices is very relevant to the kind of world we live in today I have tried to show that though the mode of sacrifice has changed, the language and concept have continued. if it is true, as I have suggested, that this is because the urge to make a sacrifice, to do this holy thing, arises in times of emergency out of the depths of the human condition, then any attempt to
understand the nature of sacrifice is very relevant indeed.

An increasing number of people are coming to view the surface of this planet as a kind of global shell hole in which we are going to be forced to cower while the superpowers direct their nuclear missiles at each other. In such a condition what holy act, what sacrifice shall we be urged to make? To find the enormous sums of money necessary to build these armaments, the superpowers have been forced already to sacrifice millions on this planet to die by starvation. Think not that human sacrifice was stamped out in the ancient world. More horrendous forms of it have occurred in our century than ever before. There are sacrifices and sacrifices. Some we are called to condemn. Some we are called to make. In the next three chapters we shall be taking a critical look at the forms which this ancient religious practice is taking in our day, in spite of the fact that we call it a secular age.