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WHAT THE BIBLE REALLY SAYS
By: J. R. Hyland

Chapter 22: SACRIFICIAL RELIGION: JUDAISM

Hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, the Latter Prophets of Israel had tried to turn their people away from the animal sacrifices that had become the center of Jewish worship. It was a process that began with the Patriarch Abraham when an angel of the Lord stopped him from sacrificing a human being.

In Abraham’s time, the sacrifice of humans was as acceptable as the animal sacrifices that were carried out to appease the gods or to extract favors from them. Like other ancient groups, the religion in the Mesopotamian culture in which Abraham was born and bred, centered on sacrificial worship.[1] And in the hierarchy of sacrificial religion, human victims represented the ultimate expression of homage to the gods.

The Bible’s story of Abraham’s attempt to sacrifice his son, Isaac, illustrates that hierarchy of religious values. But if Abraham and his descendants were to be representatives of a spiritually developing race, such sacrifices would have to stop. And the Book of Genesis records when and how that happened.

When Abraham’s son Isaac was fully grown, his father thought God was demanding the death of the boy as a sign of tribute and submission. Because human sacrifice was acceptable and common place in the ancient Near East, the Patriarch could believe that God was demanding this of him. So he set off on a three-day journey travelling north from Beersheba to Mount Moriah, where he was going to sacrifice the boy.[2]

When he arrived in sight of the Mount, he took the implements of sacrifice from his servants and told them: “The boy and I will go over there and worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham made Isaac carry the wood for the sacrifice and he himself carried a knife and live coals for starting the fire. . .When they came to the place which God had told him about, Abraham built an altar and arranged the wood on it. He tied up his son and placed him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he picked up the knife to kill him.”[3]

But this attempt at human sacrifice failed. The Bible reports that at the last minute an angel told the Patriarch: “Don’t hurt the boy, or do anything to him. . .Abraham look-ed around and saw a ram caught in a bush by its horns. He went and got it, and offered it as a brunt offering instead of his son.”[4]

This pivotal event marked both a beginning and an end. It was the end of legitimized human sacrifice in the life of Abraham and his descendants. But it was the beginning of a cult of animal sacrifice that eventually became the central act of worship among the Hebrews.

Abraham’s repudiation of human sacrifice was supposed to be the first step in the process that would eventually eliminate the killing of any creature, human or animal, in the name of God. But that process stopped far short of its evolutionary goal. The sacrifice of animals became so firmly entrenched that even its condemnation by Israel’s greatest prophets could not stop it.

For two hundred years prophets like Amos, Isaiah, Hosea and Micah had denounced animal sacrifices as ungodly. Amos told the people that God found their sacrifices abhorrent. “I hate and despise your feasts. I take no pleasure in your solemn festivals. When you offer me holocausts, I reject your oblations, and refuse to look at your sacrifices of fattened cattle.”[5]

And within a generation, the prophet Micah was proclaiming the same message. “Shall I come to (the Lord) with burnt offerings, With yearling calves? Does the Lord take delight in thousands of rams, in ten thousand rivers of oil. . .He has told you, O man what is good. . .do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.”[6]

Speaking in the name of God, Hosea told the people god’s judgment of their sacrifices. “What I want is love, not sacrifice; knowledge of God, not holocausts.”  “They love sacrificing; right, let them sacrifice! They love meat; right, let them eat it! Yahweh takes no pleasure in these. He is now going to remember their iniquity and punish their sins.”[7]

The Prophet Isaiah used the strongest language to let the people know that their sacri-fices were an abomination, that they were just as profane as any other acts of violence.

“Whoever sacrifices a bull is like one who kills a man, and whoever offers a lamb is like one who breaks a dog’s neck. . .they have chosen their own ways and their souls delight in their abominations.”[8]

But even the warnings of Israel’s greatest prophets did not end the sacrifices. It was only when Jerusalem was defeated by the Babylonians, in 587 B.C., that they stopped. And even then, they stopped only because there was no other choice. The Temple and its sacrificial altars had been razed to the ground and the officiating priests, along with most of the Jewish people, were deported to Babylon.[9]

The Exile lasted fifty years, until the Babylonians were defeated by the Persians. Their King, Darius, allowed the exiles to return to Jerusalem. And under the leadership of the priests who had religious and legal jurisdiction over the returnees, the first priority was building an altar on the Temple site so animal sacrifices could be resumed. Without such sacrifices, the priests and the Levites had no raison d’ etre.  So the slaughter began.

“Then the people of Israel-- the priests, the Levites and all the others who had return-ed from exile--joyfully dedicated the Temple. For the dedication they offered 100 bulls, 200 sheep, and 400 lambs as sacrifices, and 12 goats as offerings for sin, one for each tribe of Israel. They also organized the priests and the Levites for the Temple services in Jerusalem...”[10]

This was a direct refutation of what the Prophet Isaiah had proclaimed to his people. “The multitude of your sacrifices--what are they to me?” says the Lord. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. . .Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight. . .”[11]

Although Isaiah and the other Latter Prophets demanded an end to the slaughter, they had not taken any direct action against the sacrificial cult. But Jesus did. And it was his assault on the sacrificial system that cost him his life.

It was this assault that changed the cheering well-wishers of Palm Sunday into the jeering mob that mocked Jesus as he stumbled under the weight of the cross. It was this assault which finally brought the leaders of the religious establishment to the point where they felt compelled to take action against him.

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.

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.

But 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 according to John, records the event.

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 out 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?”[12]

“The chief priests and the teachers of the Law heard of this, so they began looking for some way to kill Jesus.”[13]  All four of the Gospels record this event. It is the only time that Jesus is reported to have committed an aggressive act.

Because Christian theologians, like their Jewish counterparts, have refused to accept the condemnation of animal sacrifice by Israel’s Prophets, they have gone to great lengths to generate a rationalization of Christ’s assault on the system. Their theory is creative but it contradicts the Bible’s report of the event.

Scholars euphemistically call that assault “the cleansing of the Temple” and attribute the action of Jesus to his being disturbed by the dishonesty of the moneychangers, who exchanged foreign currency for pilgrims in the Temple courtyard. Alternatively, they claim that he was angry because the Temple sacrifices had become “too commercial.” But there are no biblical or extra biblical facts on which to base such theories.

The Bible does not say that people were being cheated and exchanging currency for those who wanted to purchase animals, for sacrifice was a necessary service. When the exchange had been made, they would then go on to buy one of the live animals who were crowded into the Temple court, waiting their turn to be slaughtered. And from all accounts, Christ was never particularly concerned with the monetary practices of his time.[14]  He even had a tax collector among his disciples: they were men despised by the Jewish people as traitors and agents for the Roman occupiers.

Moreover, the religious leaders would hardly have plotted Christ’s death because he was concerned that the pilgrims at the Temple were being cheated. They knew the assault for what it was: an attack on the system of animal sacrifice. And in attacking that system he was attacking the economic, as well as the religious foundation of Jerusalem.

The entire city and all its inhabitants were dependant upon the Temple for their economic 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 tourist-dependent 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.”[15]

The action Jesus planned was to be a very public spectacle but by the time he got past the cheering crowds who thronged the entry road to Jerusalem, most people had re-turned to their homes or to the overcrowded inns that  housed them during the Pass-over 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 that 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 that would be killed -- in honor of its Creator.

The victim was chosen according to a strict protocol: the number of people eating together dictated the size of the animal they would eat. But the animal purchased on the 10th of Nisan would not be killed until the 14th - - the eve of Passover. Because each man killed his own animal at this session, 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.[16]  The killing began at 3 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 where 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 bowels. The smells, the frenzy of the dying creatures and the endless buckets of blood thrown on the altar in the name of God, made 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.

Unlike modern religious commentators who portray the Temple sacrifices of the past as some kind of sacred undertaking, pleasing to God and ennobling to the men who worshipped in this way. Jesus knew the reality of what took place. He knew full well that it was a nightmare of butchery, carried out in the name of God; that it turned the Temple into a giant slaughterhouse, awash in the blood of its victims.

Preaching against the religious establishment was one thing; trying to overthrow the sacrificial system that 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 day, he was dead. Like the innocent animals he tried to free, he too, was killed--in the name of God.


[1]  Studies show that human sacrifice can be traced throughout the Near East, including Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, Egypt and Syro-Palestine. See A.R.W. Green, “Role of Human Sacrifice in the Ancient Near East” 1975

[2]  Tradition has it that was the place where the altar of animal sacrifices would later be established in the Jerusalem Temple.

[3]  Genesis 22:5-10  TEV

[4]  Genesis 22:11-13  TEV

[5]  Amos 5:21, 22  JB

[6]  Micah 6:6-8  NAS

[7]  Hosea 6:6; 8:13 JB

[8]  Isaiah 66:3  NIV

[9]  The Jerusalem Temple was and still is the only legitimate site for animal sacrifice.

[10]  Ezra 6:16-18  TEV

[11]  Isaiah 1:1-16  NIV

[12]  John 2:13-16  NIV

[13]  Luke 19:47  TEV

[14]  See Matthew 22:17-23  NIV

[15]  Mark 11:11  TEV

[16]  Joachim Jeremias,  “Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus”. (Phila. Fortress Press, 1969)  99.79-84

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