Does God Want Sacrifices? part 5: Sacrifices in the Hebrew Scriptures
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion Article from


Stephen Kaufman, M.D., Christian Vegetarian Association (CVA)

Does God Want Sacrifices? part 5: Sacrifices in the Hebrew Scriptures

Defenders of substitutionary atonement theology often point to the ancient Hebrew sacrifices as proof that God desires blood sacrifices for sins. However, the Levitican sacrificial codes describe animal sacrifices for thanksgiving as well as for sins, undermining the notion that blood sacrifices fundamentally relate to punishment for sins. J. Denny Weaver () has noted that the Hebrews believed that the blood carried the essence of life.
The Hebrew blood sacrifices involved a priest spreading the animal’s blood over the altar, where God presided. Significantly, the person offering the sacrifice identified with the sacrificial animal through the laying on of hands, and consequently the lifeblood offered to God constituted a symbolic rededication of the person’s entire life to God. Weaver has written, “This ritual did not involve destruction of an animal in place of killing a person. Rather, the life of the animal, namely its blood, and with it the life of the worshiper, was given to God” (The Nonviolent Atonement, p. 59). According to this view, neither the animal’s blood nor the animal’s death was a penalty for human sins.
Along a similar vein, James D.G. Dunn (The Theology of Paul the Apostle) has observed that the act of sacrifice denoted by the Hebrew verb kipper aimed to eradicate the sin or the sinner’s propensity to sin. (Kipper relates to “Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Hebrew calendar and means “Day of Atonement.”) Dunn has written:
“But in Hebrew usage God is never the object of the key verb (kipper). Properly speaking, in the Israelite cult, God is never ‘propitiated’ or ‘appeased.’ The objective of the atoning act is rather the removal of sin—that is, either by purifying the person or object, or by wiping out the sin. Atonement is characteristically made ‘for’ a person or ‘for sin.’ . . . Of course, the atoning act thus removes the sin which provoked God’s wrath, but it does so by acting on the sin rather than on God.” (p. 214)
In my book Guided by the Faith of Christ, I discuss New Testament passages that seem to endorse substitutionary atonement theory, such as Romans 3:21-25. I offer alternative ways of looking at those passages that, I think, are true to Scripture.

I want to emphasize that I am not claiming that substitutionary atonement theory is wrong. Rather, I see it is one of several possible explanations for Jesus’ death, and it is an explanation that (similar to the many other explanations that Christian theologians have proposed over the ages) is fraught with difficulties. We can and should try to discern the intent of the Creator, but our limited human minds result in evidently insurmountable barriers to our understanding. Next essay, I will start to explore these barriers. These barriers should not lead to despair – humans can gain great insights with our minds – but they are cause for humility. This humility, I will argue, encourages us to err on the side of compassion. 

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