Biblical sacrifices to God point to life

Published: Saturday, April 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 31, 2006 at 10:27 p.m.
Q: A while ago, on a religious TV show, they said that in Abraham's day, it was believed that you were washed clean of your sins if you were touching a young animal when you killed it or sacrificed it. They said this is what Christ was: the sacrificial Lamb who took away our sins.
I've gone to Catholic schools all my life and have always said those words, but I never understood that blood sacrifice was a real practice; I just thought it was all symbolism. My understanding was only that Jesus sacrificed his life for us. He stood for something and died for his belief. My questions are: 1. What's the origin of the belief that killing something in this world takes away your sins? Who told people back then to do this? Is it stated in the Bible?
2. Did Jesus believe this to be true when he died? Was it believed by most people at the time?
3. Do you believe this was true in Abraham's time - that killing an innocent one took away your sins, or was it simply something strange that people believed, like that the earth was flat?
4. If this belief still holds true, why aren't we doing sacrifices now?
5. If the reason is that Jesus was the last sacrifice needed for Catholics, what about Jews? If Jews believed in the value of sacrifices then (or believe now that they were valid in Abraham's day) but also believe that their messiah has not come yet, why don't they offer live sacrifices now? Why and when did they stop?
6. If it was true in the time of Abraham (and you still believe it was true then), are sins taken away when someone innocent dies today?
I'm a practicing Catholic. All my life, I never questioned what we were taught. When I heard this, things from the Mass seemed to have more meaning, but the meaning now seems crazy. Why would killing something in this world take away your sins, and who said that it was true?
R., via e-mail A: The ritual sacrifice of animals, or first fruits, or grain predates the time of Abraham. The idea was to appease the gods who might be jealous of people who were benefiting from the bounty of the earth. Also, these early polytheists believed that the smoke from the sacrifice was actually food for the gods.
In the Bible, the word sacrifice is used 213 times and is a central concept, but also one that evolved with time. The biblical sacrifices were meant to give thanks to the God who created everything, atone for sins, and establish the covenant between the people and God.
In the Hebrew Bible, the first children, Cain and Able, brought sacrifices to God. Cain brought whatever was in the field and Able brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flocks. Because Able's sacrifice was more heartfelt, God accepted the sacrifice of Able, and in a fit of rage, Cain killed his brother. So the idea was established that sacrifice was a way of thanking God, and that it ought to be a sincere gift - not a way to dispose of unneeded garbage.
Later sacrifices in the Bible offered a way to support and sustain the priests, who had no other source of food. At this time, the idea emerged that sacrifices were a way of atoning for sins. The blood of the sacrifice washed clean the sinner. This is indeed a paradox because in any setting other than sacrifice, blood defiles and does not cleanse. The obvious implication is that the blood of the sacrificed animal is offered up instead of the blood of the guilty sinner.
The other use of the blood of sacrifices was to establish the covenant between God and the people. This began with the circumcision of Isaac by Abraham. Moses dedicates the sanctuary by sprinkling blood over it. However, later in the Bible, the prophets brought the word of God to the people and explained that God wanted moral behavior, not sacrifices meant to cover up a life of sin.
Although the biblical commandments to sacrifice animals are still obligatory, they cannot be fulfilled as long as the Temple in Jerusalem is destroyed and as long as we are not certain of the lineage of the ancient priestly tribe of Levi. The rabbis and the apostles both offered radical transformations of the biblical sacrificial system. The rabbis transformed every sacrifice into a prayer and created a daily and holiday prayer book to contain them.
In the New Testament, a similar radical transformation of ancient animal sacrifice occurred. In the person of Jesus, the sacrifice was no longer offered to God. Now, the sacrifice was offered by God. Because of Jesus' sacrifice, Christians believe that the taint of the original sin of Adam and Eve was finally washed clean.
Because of Jesus' sacrifice, atonement was made for the sins of all people who believed in Jesus as "the Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world." Jesus believed in his sacrificial mission and offered it up freely. The ancient spilling of the blood of sacrificial animals may seem primitive to those who don't understand the deep power and meaning of sacrifice.
Sacrifice spills blood, and blood is life, and life needs to be protected and saved. In the rabbinic and New Testament transformations of this ancient practice, the concept of sacrifice is brought to new levels of spiritual richness. We believe that even the non-religious among us can grasp the deep meaning of blood sacrifice.
All of us must know, for example, that freedom is not ours because America's founding fathers happened to have thought up the idea. Freedom is ours because the blood of patriots was sacrificed for the cause of freedom. Sacrifice is not just a concept that lies at the heart of religious faith; it's a concept that lies at the heart of life.
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