THE SLAUGHTER OF THE INNOCENT
The relationship between the sacrifice of animals at the Jerusalem Temple, and the
crucifixion of Jesus.
Most of those who have been raised in the Christian tradition are aware of the
events of Holy Week--the period of time that begins with Palm Sunday and extends through
The biblical account of this last week of Christ's life is very important to
scholars as they try to understand the political and religious events that took place.
What changed the cheering, well-wishers of Palm Sunday into the jeering mob that mocked
Jesus as he stumbled under the weight of the cross? What finally brought the leaders of
the religious establishment to the point where they felt compelled to take action against
Jesus had been inveighing against the priests, the Pharisees and the Sadducees
from the time he began his ministry and had always been aggressive in his condemnation of
their legalistic practices and pious pretensions. And large numbers of people had always
been willing to listen to what he said. But the religious leaders in Jerusalem were used
to dealing with dissenters and were generally tolerant of them. There had always been
itinerant preachers and reformers who felt the need to proclaim their message in the Holy
city, and they came from all over Palestine to do that.
It was not what Christ said during the week before he died that brought the wrath
of the Establishment down on him. It was what he did that led to his crucifixion. The
Gospel account of that event follows.
When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In
the Temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at
tables, exchanging money. So he made a whip of cords and drove all from the Temple area,
both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their
tables. To those who sold doves he said, Get these out of here! How dare you turn my
Father's house into a market? (John 2:13-16 NIV)
The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew,Mark,and Luke) as well as the Gospel of John, record
this event. It is the only time that Jesus is reported to have committed an aggressive
act. And it was the slaughter of animals, in the name of God, that led to this
Most Christians know about this incident which is euphemistically called "the
cleansing of the Temple." But few realize that it is the pivotal event of Holy Week.
It set in motion the arrest, trial, and death of Jesus because in trying to end the
slaughter of animals, he was attacking the economic foundation of Jerusalem. The Holy City
had become the center of sacrificial religion 600 years earlier when the Temple there had
been declared the only legitimate place for sacrifice.
The entire city and all its inhabitants were dependant upon the Temple for their
survival. Laborers, artisans, craftsmen and farmers were as committed to the maintenance
of the sacrificial cult as were the priests, Levites, and others directly involved in its
daily activities. In modern terms, ancient Jerusalem would be classified as a
There were always many pilgrims in the Holy City and three times a year, during
the major religious observances of Judaism, the many became a multitude. And never more so
than during Passover. Because such great crowds would be gathered in Jerusalem, it was the
perfect time for Jesus to carry out his assault on the sacrificial system. Not only would
there be many witnesses to what he did, thousands more would hear about it as the story of
what took place was passed around among the pilgrims lodged in and around the city.
Mark's Gospel makes it clear that the attack on the sacrificial system was a
planned event, not an impulsive act. After describing the triumphal entry into the Holy
city when the crowds called "Hosanna," his gospel reports that "Jesus
entered Jerusalem and went to the Temple. He looked around at everything, but since it
was already late, he went on to Bethany with the twelve." (Emphasis added)
The action Jesus planned was to be a very public spectacle. But by the time he had
gotten past the cheering crowds who thronged the entry road to Jerusalem, most people had
returned to their homes or to the overcrowded inns that housed them during the Passover
season. So he went on to Bethany, where he would spend the night at the home of Lazarus.
But before Jesus left the city for the night, when he "looked around at
everything," he would have seen the animals who were jammed into the Temple
enclosure. The next day was the 10th of Nisan, the traditional day that the male
head-of-the-household picked out the animal who would be killedemdash in honor of its
The victim was chosen according to a strict protocol: the number of people eating
together dictated the size of the animal they could eat. But the animal purchased on the
10th of Nisan would not be killed until the 14themdash the eve of Passover. Because each
man killed his own animal at this season, the number of sacrificers and the number of
their victims was so great that the purchase and the killing could not be carried out on
the same day.
From ancient records, scholars have reconstructed the events that took place on
the day of sacrifice. The killing began at three p.m. and by sundown about 18,000 animals
would be dead. Because the Temple could not accommodate all the "worshipers" at
the same time, the victims had to be killed in three shifts.
Approximately 6,000 people comprised each shift and since the sacrifice was a
yearling, the men usually carried the lambs on their shoulders. Once in the place of
slaughter, they lined up in long rows next to a row of priests. The shofar would sound and
the men would wrest the lambs to the ground, slitting their throats. As they bled to
death, the priests standing next to them would catch the blood in large buckets. When
these were full they would be passed up the line to those who stood by the altar. They
would throw the blood against the side of the altar. The empty buckets would be recycled
and refilled with the blood of more lambs.
Although it was set up efficiently, neither the human nor the nonhuman creatures
who were part of the slaughter process always behaved efficiently. Sometimes the knife was
not sharp enough, or the lamb struggled too hard, and although the blood had started to
flow from its throat, a frantic yearling had to be wrestled into submission before a
better cut could be made.
Of course the slaughtered animals lost all control of their bladders and kidneys.
The smells, the frenzy of the dying creatures, and the endless buckets of blood thrown on
the altar in the name of God, make it obvious that this ritual of terror and violence was
the worship of an idol. This god-of-the-slaughter was created by human beings in their
own, fallen image.
Because this slaughter of the innocent was idolatrous worship, Isaiah and the
other Latter Prophets had called for the end of sacrificial religion. But they had not
taken action against the Temple cult. Now, hundreds of years later, Jesus Christ, who
began his ministry claiming to be the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy (Luke 4:16-20) took
direct action against that system.
From the time that Christ began his ministry, neither he nor his followers offered
animal victims at the Temple. But although the repudiation of animal sacrifice by Jesus is
undeniable, scholars direct attention away from this fact by inventing counterfeit issues
to explain his cleansing of the Temple. Among these non-issues is the claim that the Lord
was annoyed at the policies of the moneychangers, whose tables he overturned. But
Matthew's Gospel (22:17-21) shows that Jesus was not concerned with the monetary practices
of his time. He even had a tax-collector among his disciples at a time when such men were
despised by the Jewish people.
The subsequent development of Christianity attests to the fact that it was the
slaughter of God's creatures in his "Father's House" that led Jesus to free the
animals who were to be killed. His disciples always understood this prohibition; even
after his death, animal sacrifice was never a part of Christianity.
Faced with the reality that Christ, and the Christians who came after him, refused
to take part in sacrificial worship, theologians have found a way to "explain"
this refusal. They tell us that the slaughter of countless animals, over thousands of
years, was not enough to satisfy God's "justice." But when His son became the
victim--"The Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world"--the Creator was
finally satisfied. So there is no longer any need to sacrifice animals.
And mainstream Christianity still teaches that in the past it was legitimate to
kill God's creatures on His altars; that it was God who commanded this violent, murderous
worship. This perverse characterization of a loving Creator who demanded the murder of
both human and nonhuman beings, is blasphemous. These modern descendants of the Scribes
and Pharisees make a mockery of the loving God whom Jesus came to reveal. And they make a
mockery of his attempt to end the horror of animal sacrifice; an attempt that ultimately
led to his death.
Preaching against the religious establishment was one thing; trying to overthrow
the sacrificial system which was its foundation, was another. After he did that, nothing
would be forgiven him. Jesus disrupted the Temple worship on 10 Nisan. By the 14th, he was
dead. Like the innocent animals he tried to free he, too, was killed--in the name of God.
Reprinted from the March/April 1997 issue of Humane Religion. Copyright 1997 by
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