When did animal sacrifice begin?When Did Animal Sacrifices Begin?
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By A. J. Fecko

Scriptural References:

Genesis 3:21
            4:2-4, 7, 15, 23-24
            9:2-3, 8-17
Job 10:11
Matthew 10:29
Hebrews 10:5-9

When did humans begin to sacrifice animals? In this article I hope to show that the first reference to animal sacrifice in Scripture is that of Noah after the ways of man had become corrupted (Genesis 8:20-21).

Genesis nowhere says that Noah invented animal sacrifice. Yet since the antediluvian period is describe as one of great violence, bloody rites of various sorts would be the natural product of such an age. Because the violence of the world was so great the great flood was sent,

"And the earth was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth. And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth." Genesis 6:11-13 ASV.

But afterward the Lord made a covenant with humanity and all animal species:

"And God spoke to Noah, and to his sons with him, saying, And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you; and with every living soul which is with you, fowl as well as cattle, and all the animals of the earth with you, of all that has gone out of the ark every animal of the earth. And I establish my covenant with you, neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood, and henceforth there shall be no flood to destroy the earth. And God said, This is the sign of the covenant that I set between me and you and every living soul that is with you, for everlasting generations: I set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be for a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. And it shall come to pass when I bring clouds over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud, and I will remember my covenant which is between me and you and every living soul of all flesh; and the waters shall not henceforth become a flood to destroy all flesh. And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living soul of all flesh that is upon the earth. And God said to Noah, This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth." Genesis 9:8-17 Darby.

Some people have held that Adam and Eve performed the first animal sacrifice. This is because it says

"And Jehovah God doth make to the man and to his wife coats of skin, and doth clothe them." Genesis 3:21 YLT.

However, there is no suggestion here that this is an animal sacrifice. If the Lord giving the skin to Adam and Eve indicates the death of an animal, perhaps we are being told by this passage of Genesis that sin brought death into the world for all living beings. In fact, no creature dies without our Father,

"Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall to the ground without your Father;" Matthew 10:29 Darby.

Then this would be the first death by natural causes. However, the text doesn't say that an animal died. Perhaps the Lord made the skin out of the ground or some other material (would it be harder for God to produce a coat of skin from the ground as opposed to a dead animal?). Perhaps the garments were from tree bark as some ancient writings say. Or maybe it was from the skin of the serpent as the Talmud says. Snakes shed their skin repeatedly through life, and the serpent is the only species named in the account of Adam's fall. Also they would in essence be wearing their guilt. Since they obeyed the serpent, they were given his skin to wear.

Another possibility mentioned by some early Church Fathers is that the flesh of humans changed from immortal to mortal. This possibility seems suggested by the book of Job,

"Thou hast clothed me with skin and flesh, And knit me together with bones and sinews." Job 10:11.

There are also the renderings of the Targums. The Targums are Aramaic interpretive renderings of the Hebrew Scriptures. Such versions were needed when Hebrew ceased to be the daily language of the Jewish people. In Synagogue services the reading of the Scriptures was followed by a translation into the Aramaic vernacular of the populace. Targums on this are:

PS. Jonathan: And the Lord God made garments of glory for Adam and for his wife from the skin which the serpent had cast off (to be worn) on the skin of their flesh, instead of their (garments of) fig leaves of which they had been stripped, and he clothed them.

And the Lord God made for Adam and his wife garments of honor for the skin of their flesh and He clothed them.

And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of glory, for the skin of their flesh, and he clothed them.

This suggests another possibility. That it simply means that the garments were made for the skin of Adam and Eve. Also, the root of the Hebrew word, "Owr", modified only by more recent vowel points has the meaning of bare or naked, while "coat" is more literally a covering and therefore the passage might be a "cover of nakedness". But, regardless which solution is the right one, there's no suggestion of an animal sacrifice or killing in this passage.

Others have assumed that animal sacrifices began with Abel. Bible translations typically say that Abel offered the "fat" of his sheep. According to the Documentary Hypothesis the Torah was composed by a number of authors. Many Biblical scholars believe that the account of Abel performing an animal sacrifice is a contradiction between the Yahwist and Priestly authors. It's been said that the account of man being created a vegetarian and only given permission to eat flesh was a view held by the author of the Priestly account called "P", while the author of the Yahwist account called "J" portrays man as a flesh eater at least by the time of Abel since he offers an animal sacrifice.

Other writers, whether accepting or rejecting the Documentary Hypothesis, point out that there is no disagreement here since Abel could have performed animal sacrifices, though he himself ate no flesh. Very often it's been held that one of the main points of this account is that God requires blood for expiation of sins. However, there is no reference in the account of Cain and Abel that the purpose of the offerings was to expiate sin. More importantly, there's no reference to Abel offering blood; just a seeming reference to "fat". If a major point in this account is the importance of blood for the forgiveness of sins, wouldn't it make more sense that the blood would be mentioned instead of the fat?

However, some early Christians such as the Montanists apparently thought Abel offered the dairy products of his flock:

In the second century the African Montanists were sometimes called the "Artotyrites" because they added cheese, instead of wine, to the bread in the Eucharist on the ground that the Aquarii, and first men offered the fruits both of the earth and of their flocks (Gen. iv. 3, 4). http://www.wpl.lib.oh.us/AntiSaloon/print/wine.html 

Josephus says Abel offered milk:

They had resolved to sacrifice to God. Now Cain brought the fruits of the earth, and of his husbandry; but Abel brought milk, and the first-fruits of his flocks: but God was more delighted with the latter oblation,

There's even some memory of the tradition that Abel offered milk in the mideaval Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine.

The Hebrew of the Old Testament was originally without vowels. The vowel marks were added at a later time. The particular word render "fat" in the account of Cain and Abel (there are a number of different Hebrew words that mean "fat") is spelled the same as the word for milk and curds. Only the vowels are different. The present Hebrew vowel system didn't come into use until about the ninth or tenth century AD. In fact, it seems likely that when Genesis was written that there was no difference between khay'-leb and kheh'-leb (both of which are spelled cheth - lamed - beth). Both clearly evolved from the same word, and Genesis being one of the oldest Hebrew works, it may be that there was no difference in pronunciation at that time.

One way the passage on Cain and Abel may be rendered is:

And she gives birth to his brother, even Abel. And Abel is feeding a flock, and Cain was a worker of the earth. And it comes to pass at the end of the season that Cain brings from the fruit of the earth a present to the Lord; and Abel, he has brought, he also, from the female firstlings of his flock, namely from their milk (or possibly curds or milkings); and the Lord looks unto Abel and unto his present. Gen. 4:2-4

The Hebrew word rendered "and" in many translations here most likely means "namely" (This is an example of "hendiadys"). The Septuagint, in the form that it's come down to us, has it that Abel offered from his "fat ones". The point being that Abel offered from his best, while Cain from the worst part of his crop. This is especially clear since we also read in the Septuagint that the Lord said

"Hast thou not sinned if thou hast brought it rightly, but not rightly divided it? be still, to thee shall be his submission, and thou shalt rule over him." Gen. 4:7 LXX.

It may, indeed, be true that Cain offered the most defective portion of his harvest, however, the Hebrew author here seems to be emphasizing a different point. It's the fact that Abel's offering was the product of the firstborn of his flock, whereas Cain's came "at the end of days", that is, at the "end of the season" that Abel's offering is preferred. Not only the firstborn, but the first-fruits are treated as sacred in the Old Testament. Because there was a sign of God's favor on Abel's offering of his dairy products, Cain was jealous and killed Abel. Here God gives the first commandment regarding a murder

"Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance." Gen 4:15 NRSV.

But God's Law of mercy was treated as license in that violent age, "Lamech said to his wives:

"Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold."" Gen 4:23-24 NRSV.

Later, to Noah, was given the law of capital punishment along with the concession to eat flesh. But the death penalty was not the law from the beginning.

Considering this, it seems that Genesis 4:2-4 is in harmony with the portrayal of the creation of humans as vegetarians. So assuming the Documentary Hypothesis is correct, then "J" and "P" seem to be more in agreement than previously supposed. This would make the first reference to animal sacrifice to be that of Noah, which is directly connected to the concession for humans to eat flesh (Genesis 9:2-3).

"And Noah built an altar to Jehovah; and took of every clean animal, and of all clean fowl, and offered up burnt-offerings on the altar. And Jehovah smelled the sweet odour. And Jehovah said in his heart, I will no more henceforth curse the ground on account of Man, for the thought of Man's heart is evil from his youth; and I will no more smite every living thing, as I have done. Henceforth, all the days of the earth, seed time and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night, shall not cease." Genesis 8:20-22 Darby.

Here the Lord feels pity for man and decides to accept him as he is. However, that was not His perfect will. Indeed, we are told that the Lord wanted animal sacrifices abolished. This Jesus did, as it says:

"Wherefore, coming into the world, he saith, 'Sacrifice and offering Thou didst not will, and a body Thou didst prepare for me, in burnt-offerings, and concerning sin-offerings, Thou didst not delight, then I said, Lo, I come, (in a volume of the book it hath been written concerning me,) to do, O God, Thy will;' saying above -- 'Sacrifice, and offering, and burnt-offerings, and concerning sin-offering Thou didst not will, nor delight in,' -- which according to the law are offered --then he said, 'Lo, I come to do, O God, Thy will;' he doth take away the first that the second he may establish;" Hebrews 10:5-9 YLT

A. J. Fecko

See the following related articles and commentaries:
Reflections on Romans 14
Commentary on 1 Corinthians 8
A Commentary on the Second Chapter of Colossians
When did the Church abandon animal sacrifice?

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