Have you ever wondered what’s up with the constant theme of blood sacrifice that we see throughout scripture?
Have you ever wondered as I have, why God would require blood sacrifice? Especially if God is supposedly just like Jesus?
There are two things I think the western church of today needs to be aware of.
One: I don’t think that the God of the universe ever needed a display of blood worthy of a Quentin Tarantino film to cure him of a bad mood so that he could forgive.
Two: Tommy Lee Jones really reminds me of God. More on that one later.
Right from Genesis 4, we see Abel offering a sacrifice from his flock. His brother Cain also offers a sacrifice to God, but from his crop. (It appears that God prefers steak over vegetables. I can relate to that.)
By the time we get to Genesis 22, we find the story of God telling Abraham to offer up his only son Isaac as a human sacrifice, which he seemingly agrees to without hesitation. This tells us, and we can also see from non-biblical historical records, that human sacrifice was already a common and accepted practice in many civilizations.
Moving on to Exodus, God gives instructions to Moses that “You shall make an altar of earth for Me, and you shall sacrifice on it your burnt offerings, your sheep, and your oxen; in every place where I cause My name to be remembered, I will come to you and bless you.” (Exodus 20:24 NASB)
Well now it seems at least that we’ve moved on to animal sacrifices and left human sacrifice behind, but then….In the book of Judges, we have the story of Jephthah. He had the misfortune of being born to the wrong woman, and as such, was kicked out of the house. Then we have a very heartwarming underdog-turned-hero story come about where the entire nation of Israel is counting on Jephthah to save the day as their fearless military leader. Negotiations between Israel and their enemy—the Ammonites have failed and the battle is inevitable.
Jephthah really needs this victory and makes a rash promise to God that “If You will indeed give the sons of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, it shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.” (Judges 11:30b-31 NASB)
Jephthah wins the battle and comes home in victory only to have his only daughter whom he loves dearly come out of the door to meet him. So he follows through with his vow and sacrifices her to God. There is nothing here that immediately condemns his sacrifice. So we’re back to human sacrifice again.
And then in 2 Chronicles 28, we see the reintroduction of human sacrifice in the cultic practices of Israel under the reign of king Ahaz.
No matter how far we peer into history, there is evidence of human and animal sacrifice in cultures around the world. Different people groups practicing this include; ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, Neolithic Europe, the Celts, the Germanic people, the Slavic people, the Chinese, India, Hawaii, the pre-Columbian Americas, and all across Africa.
So the question is: Why is it that every ancient culture has at one point in time had the compelling, perceived need to offer blood sacrifices to a deity?
There have been three main motivators throughout history for sacrifice:
The main one was that the people had felt that they had angered their god and thought they needed to give up something to appease their deity.
The second reason was that they wanted or needed an advantage over another people group and would make a deal with their deity…a trade. A sacrifice for a decisive victory.
The third reason was for divine provision for favourable growing conditions for crops. Another trade-off. A sacrifice in return for good crops. Other reasons tied into this, like the Mayans for example, sacrificing copious quantities of innocent lives so that the sun would continue to rise day after day.
The common denominator here is one thing…Fear.
Fear of God punishing, abandoning, and excluding them. Fear is the one thing that keeps the machine of religion ticking. It is the only thing. It doesn’t seem strange then, that various people throughout scripture are told by God or by angels to “fear not” over 100 times!
Have you ever noticed the progression take place throughout the centuries recorded in scripture?
“Sacrifice and meal offering You have not desired; My ears You have opened; Burnt offering and sin offering You have not required.” (Psalm 40:6 NASB)
“For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, And in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6 NASB)
“For what purpose does frankincense come to Me from Sheba? And the sweet cane from a distant land? Your burnt offerings are not acceptable And your sacrifices are not pleasing to Me.” (Jeremiah 6:20 NASB)
“Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, “Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat flesh. For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this is what I commanded them, saying, ‘Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you will be My people; and you will walk in all the way which I command you, that it may be well with you.’ Yet they did not obey or incline their ear, but walked in their own counsels and in the stubbornness of their evil heart, and went backward and not forward.” (Jeremiah 7:21-24 NASB)
“With what shall I come to the LORD And bow myself before the God on high? Shall I come to Him with burnt offerings, with yearling calves? Does the LORD take delight in thousands of rams, In ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I present my firstborn for my rebellious acts, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:6-8 NASB)
“But go and learn what this means: ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT SACRIFICE,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”(Matthew 9:13 NASB)
“But if you had known what this means, ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT A SACRIFICE,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Matthew 12:7 NASB)
“Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says, “Sacrifice AND OFFERING YOU HAVE NOT DESIRED, BUT a BODY YOU HAVE PREPARED FOR ME;  In WHOLE BURNT OFFERINGS AND sacrifices FOR SIN YOU HAVE TAKEN NO PLEASURE.” (Hebrews 10:5-6 NASB)
“After saying above, “Sacrifices AND OFFERINGS AND whole BURNT OFFERINGS AND sacrifices for SIN YOU HAVE NOT DESIRED, NOR HAVE YOU TAKEN PLEASURE in them” (which are offered according to the Law)” (Hebrews 10:8 NASB)
So we have to ask, what’s going on here?
Has God, the immutable One changed his mind about sacrifice?
Does the change in the tone of scripture from God seemingly wanting sacrifice to not desiring sacrifice mean that scripture is fallible and errant after all?
I think that people who dogmatically insist on the inerrancy and infallibility of scripture are missing the point. As Rob Bell says in his book, “What is the Bible?”, the Bible is a story about what it means to be human. It is an accurate collection of stories which show how a specific group of people understood God as he has progressively revealed himself to us, culminating in his full disclosure of character when the cosmic Christ became enfleshed and lived among us.
What’s going on here is that God met man where he was: Lost, in pain, uncomfortable, believing in a false identity, forgetting who God really was and imagining what he was like based on fear.
I believe that our lostness is rooted in our trying to live within the parameters of a self-made moral code, when we were designed to live in perfect relationship, which ultimately makes any moral code obsolete.
Who was it then that desired sacrifice? Man or God?
I believe man desired sacrifice so that we could control our way into right standing with God. We mistakenly thought that God desired it and could be manipulated through a transaction.
Let’s dig into this further…
Matthew Distefano writes the following in his excellent book, “From the Blood of Abel”:
“Consider the backdrop for a moment. Here we have a man who does not bear a son with his wife, Sarah, until he is 100 years of age (Genesis 21:5). Not exactly the most ideal period in life to procreate!
Miraculously though, it happens. A baby boy! But then, one day God decides to ‘test’ Abraham, commanding, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the…’ (Genesis 22:2)
No, no, no…that cannot be right. It sounds too ridiculous!
Well, not so fast. If we transport ourselves back in time, perhaps 3,000 years or more, then we will discover a vastly different culture, with very specific theological assumptions (starting to sound familiar yet?).
The important thing to understand is that once upon a time, people in the Middle East were polytheists. More specifically, and this applies to the early Hebrews, they were henotheists.
Simply put: gods were tribal. I had my god, you had your god, and they had their god. So, for instance, Yahweh was the God of Israel, while Molech was the god of the Canaanites, and so on and so forth. With that in mind, let’s get back to the story…
What Abraham and Sarah faced religiously and culturally sounds brutal for any parent.
Certainly, they both “knew” that in order for God to be appeased, blood had to be shed—and what better blood than that of a first-born son? This was just the way it was. I believe that is why there is no mention of Abraham contesting God’s “commands.”
Notice, in Genesis 22:3, immediately after getting the instructions from God, we are simply told that Abraham “rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac.”
No protesting, no pleading for the boy’s life; just that he saddled up for the journey. Now, after the two reach the place where Isaac is to be slain, Abraham immediately builds an altar (Genesis 22:9). I can imagine a rudimentary pile of rocks with hefty pieces of wood strategically placed on top. I picture them doused in a flammable oil of sorts, perhaps something like animal fat. After all, the body would have to be burned so as to reach the nostrils of God. Once everything is just right, Abraham binds his beloved Isaac and takes out his knife. With a shaking hand, he is ready.
But all of a sudden, in comes the plot-twist. As Abraham goes to kill Isaac, we read, in Genesis 22:11: “But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”
Immediately following this, Abraham sees a ram and sacrifices that instead. After he does this, he names the place Adonai-Jireh, or “The Lord will provide” (Genesis 22:14). In order to determine the power and meaning of this text, we are provided with some very strong clues in the very language used.
• Verse 1: Elohim tested Abraham…
• Verse 3: Elohim had shown him…
• Verse 8: Elohim himself will provide…
• Verse 9: Elohim had shown him…
• Verse 11: But the angel of Yahweh called…
Here we have a wrestling with “God’s will.” Initially, a theological assumption is made about the creator God, Elohim, arguing that he needs Isaac’s blood to be spilled. But then the God of Abraham, and then later Isaac, and Jacob, via a messenger angel, rescues Isaac from this false, and might I say murderous, sacrificial assumption. Remember, everyone in Abraham’s day believed all gods, Elohim included, demanded blood. But this is simply false.
In fact, it is a lie, and ultimately comes from satan—or in other words, the human principle of accusation—the one whom Jesus would later label a liar and murderer from the start (John 8:44). The lie that satan hides behind here is that God demands blood. The truth though, is that really we are “satan” – the lying, sacrifice-demanding murderers, not Elohim. In all reality, the one true God—whether named Elohim or Yahweh—has never demanded blood sacrifices, but that theological understanding is not our starting position; the belief in a God who demands human sacrifice is.
This passage takes us from one theological place to another. It is a baby step in a way, but it is also huge (especially for me!) because it is ultimately the reason we do not sacrifice first-born sons any longer (and I am a first-born son!).”
One theme that we see throughout the story of humanity in the Bible is how we have gotten lost and God has met us, not where we should be, but rather where we are—lost, broken, confused about who we are and confused about who God is.
Around twenty years ago, a bunch of friends and I had the brilliant idea of climbing to the top of Mt. Burke and tobogganing down the north face. Mt. Burke is in the Canadian Rockies and has a 3000 ft elevation gain. Oh, did I mention this was on December 23rd?
We ended up getting lost on the way down and what should have been an easy two-hour hike to the base of the mountain turned into an exhausting adventure trudging through deep snow in the dark, trying to find our way back. This was one of the few times in my life where I actually thought I was going to die.
Fortunately, one of the guys that had started up the trail with us had gotten tired out and turned back while we were on the way up. He was waiting for us back at the vehicle and had started wondering what was taking us so long. He became concerned for our safety and managed to get the help of some guys who had their snowmobiles out. Together, they went looking for us.
Where should I have been at eleven o’clock at night on December 23rd? Probably at home with my wife and my one-month-old daughter. That’s not where I was though. I was cold, tired and hopelessly lost in the forest somewhere on the north-west side of Mt. Burke. I needed rescue and my rescuers came to where I was and took me to where I should have been.
To me, this is a picture of how God has met humans where we were throughout history and brought us to where we should be.
I want you to imagine someone important in your life. A person you cannot imagine living without. It could be your spouse, a sibling, a parent, a grandparent, that crazy uncle, a lifelong friend. Picture that person in your mind. Now imagine something you could do that would hurt that relationship. Imagine you have done that thing…whatever it is. You feel incredible remorse and want more than anything else to make things right with that person. You are willing to sacrifice anything of yours which you hold as valuable in order to have that relationship back. Your whole view of that person you love has now changed. You imagine them to be, at best, disappointed with you, and at worst, furious.
You end up avoiding that person out of guilt, maybe working up the courage to make a phone call or send a text offering to make up for what you have done. If you could only exchange something valuable of yours for forgiveness, it would have the effect of easing your conscience.
This is a picture of the human condition. In the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve made a wrong decision. They decided to act like less than they really were. In their minds, God was angry with them and they needed to do something to make up for what they had done.
Then they produced children, and these children got their ideas about what God was like from their parents. The children also made wrong decisions and assumed that God was angry with them and that they need to do something to make up for it.
This is the system of sin which Adam and Eve introduced, something which evangelicals would call the “sin nature.” Here’s the thing though. God was never angry or disappointed. I think it’s quite difficult to be angry or disappointed with anyone when you exist outside of time and have already known for a few billion years what decisions people will make.
The first thing God does in fact, after Adam and Eve sin, is to come looking for them so that they could go for a walk as they usually did. Together, enjoying relationship.
Notice that here, God did not withdraw from Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve hid from God.
God has always demonstrated forgiveness. Yes, even before the cross. In fact, I believe that the very act of creation was an act of forgiveness. God never needed for us to “make up for what we had done.” He never needed an exchange of something valuable in order to forgive.
Let’s get back to Tommy Lee Jones, shall we?
In the 1997 movie “M.I.B.”, the characters “Kay” played by Tommy Lee Jones and “Jay” played by Will Smith have cornered a villainous alien known as the “Bug”. In their epic final confrontation, the bug ingests the weapons of our would-be heroes.
Kay tells Jay that he’s gonna get his gun back, and then moves in front of the alien shouting insults. He screams at the bug, “EAT ME!” The bug more than gladly obliges, thinking that this is the end of one enemy. Kay, however, finds his gun inside the alien and kills it from within.
Just like God did to religion.
He climbed into our darkness, into our mythology, our misconception—our religion—for the purpose of killing it from within. He met us where we were and continues to meet us where we are; smack dab in the middle of our lostness.
In the preface of his book, “Across All Worlds”, Dr. C. Baxter Krueger brilliantly writes:
“Jesus wants His Father known. He is passionate about it. He cannot bear for us to live without knowing His Father, without knowing His heart, His lavish embrace, His endless love—and the sheer freedom to be that works within us as we see His Father’s face.
Jesus knows the Father from all eternity. He sits at His right hand and sees Him face to face, and shares life and all things with Him in the fellowship of the Spirit. How could He be content to leave us in the dark with no vision of His Father’s heart? How could this Son be indifferent when we are so lost and afraid and bound in our mythology?
Burning with the Father’s love for us, inspired with the Spirit’s fire, the Son ran to embrace our broken existence, baptizing Himself into our blindness. He braved the seas of our darkness to come to us. Why? So that he could share with us His own communion with His father in the Spirit, and we could know the Father with Him, and taste and feel and experience life in His embrace.”
I can hear the objections from my religious readers already: What about Hebrews 9:22 where it says, “In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” (NIV)
First of all, if you are still reading an NIV Bible, do yourself a favour. Light it on fire and get yourself a better translation that isn’t jam-packed with sloppy interpretive bias.
Here’s a better rendering of that verse with some context:
“Therefore even the first covenant was not inaugurated without blood. For when every commandment had been spoken by Moses to all the people according to the Law, he took the blood of the calves and the goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, “This IS THE BLOOD OF THE COVENANT WHICH GOD COMMANDED YOU.” (Hebrews 9:18-22 NASB)
And in the same way he sprinkled both the tabernacle and all the vessels of the ministry with the blood. And according to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”
There is a clear distinction here in, “ONE MAY ALMOST SAY”, and “ACCORDING TO THE LAW.”
Whose law is this anyway? God’s, or man’s?
Since we know now that God never wanted sacrifice, I think we can confidently say that this was man’s law, made by men who mistakenly thought that God wanted sacrifice.
God entered our religious system to meet us where we were. God does not require anything in order to forgive. In fact, as soon as you bring a transaction of any sort into the picture, it is not forgiveness anymore. It is a payoff.
One other thing that my religious readers will bring up is a verse from the NASB since that is what I have been primarily using in this essay:
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” (1 John 4:7-11 NASB)
Yes, even the NASB has some sloppy translation, and the usage of the word “propitiation” is a perfect example of this. The NRSV correctly translates this as “atonement”. Why is this important? The word, “propitiation” carries the meaning of “being appeased”, which necessitates a transaction, which is then no longer forgiveness.
Atonement is an excellent word choice. It means to reunite, to make whole again. It has the imagery of the Hebrew word, “shalom”—nothing broken, nothing missing. It’s interesting to note that the Greek word irresponsibly translated as “propitiation” is ἱλαστήριον (hilastērion).
This word comes from the Hebrew word כּפּרת (kappôreth) which means “lid”, referring to the lid of the ark of the covenant. This is the place where God (the uncreated) and the high priest (being the representative for the created) would meet (At-one-ment) together in the holy of holies and were able to do so because of the blood sacrifice covering sin.
Sin needed to be covered so that the people’s conscience could be cleared at least for a while in order to enjoy relationship with God. God enters the sacrificial system and allows them to use this as a means to relationship—atonement.
Jesus the Christ became the lid or the place of atonement where the uncreated and the created are able to meet. Jesus was the sacrifice (who was not sacrificed to God, but rather to humanity) and he did not just cover our sin, but actually removed it. We are now a kingdom of priests able to always be in the holy of holies.
1 John 2:2 says, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (NRSV).
John 1:29, speaking of John the Baptist says, “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”.
Why was it important for Jesus to remove the “sins of the world”? Sin leads to a guilty conscience. A guilty conscience leads to the severing of relationship.
“But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Hebrews 9:11-14 NASB)
When we look at the whole picture of God that scripture paints for us, we must come to one of four conclusions:
- God is not immutable. his essence can change throughout the ages.
- There is disunity within the Godhead with God the Father being the angry, punishing judge, God the Son being the loving, forgiving, self-sacrificing one and the Holy Spirit being the neutral one.
- Scripture is unreliable as it presents two clearly different and conflicting views of God’s character.
- God is immutable. God the Father is, always has been and always will be like God the Son. We haven’t always known this as a human species, but with the perfect revelation of God in Jesus, we now do. Scripture is simply a reflection of our progressive knowledge of this.
I believe number four is the correct conclusion.
God entered our religious mythology and, though never desiring or needing sacrifice to forgive, recognized that it was us who thought we needed the system of sacrifice to appease our guilty consciences. He met us where we were, not where we should have been.
We see throughout the story of scripture how God reveals more and more truth about himself until we finally have the full and perfect revelation of God in Jesus—whom we sacrifice on the altar of religion, violence, empire and human independence in our lostness, confusion, and sin-sickness.
Was Jesus a sacrifice? Yes. In fact, the ultimate sacrifice to end all sacrifices.
He was the sacrifice that we demanded, not God.
He was the sacrifice that proved that no matter how much we fell short of what it means to be human, made in the image of God. No matter how independent, selfish, prideful and violent we were, God in Christ would hang on the Roman instrument of torture, bleeding, hurting, and lost in our darkness, just like us…and He would say, “Father forgive them.”
God never asked for sacrifice. We did. And God entered our lostness and met us where we were, giving us what we asked for, to relate to us, to show us that he is here for us as our healer and rescuer.
Ryan Harbidge is the husband to one beautiful woman and a father to three gorgeous young ladies. He lives in the small town of Nanton, Alberta, Canada and owns a painting company. Ryan likes to spend his free time reading, writing, playing music, camping, hiking, riding his motorcycle, growing a large beard and most importantly, basking in the reality of God’s love. It is Ryan’s hope and dream that others will understand and experience God’s love through his writing, music and life.