There is growing acknowledgment on the part of theologians and academicians that the bible passages which condemn animal sacrifice have not received the kind of attention they deserve.
This realization has been particularly important to scholars who understand that the glorification of violence in our society stems in part from our sanctification of biblical violence. Whether atheists, agnostics, or believers, our lives and values have been formed by the Judeo-Christian civilization in which we live. Unfortunately, it is often a way of life rooted in self-serving interpretations of the bible—interpretations that either gloss over or sanctify human violence.
Those who seek to maintain this violent status quo claim infallibility/inerrancy for the bible. They do this in spite of the fact that the bible, itself, refutes their claim. In the book of Jeremiah, the prophet plainly states that the laws of God, which the people had preserved in their sacred scrolls, were not an infallible guide. Some things had been changed to reflect human, rather than divine, commands. "How can you say, 'We are wise, for we have the law of the Lord,' when actually the lying pen of the scribes has handled it falsely"? (Jer. 7:8 NIV)
But to argue whether or not the bible is free from error—or is contradictory—is to miss the point. It is conflict, not contradiction, that the scriptures express. Within the Old Testament, the revelation of a God of infinite love and compassion co-exists with the worship of a destructive deity who demands the slaughter of both humans and animals.
This is because the bible traces the spiritual journey of a particular people and, as such, it preserves a record of the spiritual heights to which human beings can aspire, as well as the depths to which they can descend. And when the reader makes no distinction between the precepts of the God of divine revelation and the dictates of the false god created by man in his own fallen image, the bible can become a handbook for idolaters.
It is an idolatry marked by the worship of a loving/hate-filled God; by the adoration of a compassionate/ruthless deity. For thousands of years, rabbis and theologians have set themselves the task of trying to reconcile these irreconcilable differences. They have developed various doctrines, commentaries, and creeds to support a belief in this man-made God. It is only recently that scholarly people of faith have taken on the task of separating the wheat from the chaff; of separating the Creator God from the violent and vengeful deity created by men.
One of the most important tools that scholars are using in this task is the issue of animal sacrifice. Previously, the scriptural texts which condemned the slaughter of nonhuman beings were either ignored or distorted. Except in footnotes, biblical scholars did not bother to confirm the explicit message of these texts.
But now there are some who understand that it is just as blasphemous to kill animals in the name of God, as it is to kill humans. And because there are many scriptures that condemn animal sacrifice, it is much easier to prove the bible's condemnation of their slaughter than it is to prove the un- godliness of human slaughter. Consequently, much scholarly work is now being published, that deals with this issue. (A list of some of these publications follows this article.)
That is the good news. The bad news is that most of this new scholarship uses the bible's denouncement of animal sacrifice only as the means to an end. The concern is not for the violence directed against animals—it is for the violence people inflict on each other. These scholars believe that by showing animal sacrifice to be a ritual instituted by men, not by God, they prepare the way for showing that the annihilation of human "enemies" is also a human mandate that men have attributed to God’s command.
Scholars are anxious to uncover the myth of sacred violence because it is still used to rationalize man's inhumanity to man. We live in a world in which people are killed and maimed because of their race, their religion or their ethnicity, and in churches all over the world, clergymen and congregations thank God for helping them to destroy their enemies.
When it comes to human abuse, scholars are careful to show that the violence of our contemporary culture is an extension of our sanctification of biblical violence. But they show no concern about the animal abuse of today. They limit the condemnation of violence inflicted on animals to biblical times.
Those who are trying to show that man's violent treatment of other humans does not have the blessing of God, are doing an invaluable work. However, they are mistaken in their belief that they can work to overcome man's abuse of other people without trying to end the abuse of animals.
But as increasing numbers of people of faith come to understand that the abuse of any creature is abhorrent to the Creator, biblical scholars may give more consideration to the suffering of animals, per se, rather than seeing its study only as a means to stop human violence.
In the meantime, the work of these scholars provides an invaluable resource that refutes the corrupt exegesis of the past which refused to acknowledge the scriptural condemnation of animal sacrifice.
Books that deal with the sanctification of violence:
The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred, James G. Williams,
Violence Unveiled, Gil Bailie, Crossroad, NY;
Must There Be Scapegoats? Raymund Schwager, S.J., Harper& Row;
Violence And The Sacred, Rene Girard, Johns Hopkins University Press.