sacrifices in the Old Testament

Article

The notion that God is honored by man if the latter, who is the king of all creation, offers to his Creator some of the beings which are nearer to him, is so natural that we find it put into practise from the very dawn of the history of mankind (Genesis 4). All ancient peoples, Semitic peoples included, whose institutions we know, offered sacrifices. The patriarchs acted in accordance with this custom; and when Moses, under God’s direction, drew up the religious code of the Hebrews, he sanctioned the practise, only removing from it whatever elements were obviously adverse to the dignity of the Divine nature. Under the general name of sacrifices are included in the Mosaic worship two kinds of offerings, bloody and unbloody.

BLOODY SACRIFICES

Consisted in the slaying of certain animals: ram (or he-lamb, or again ewe- lamb), goat, bull (or calf, or heifer), turtle-dove, and pigeon. Human sacrifices were absolutely banned from the worship of the true God. It is true that God declared that the first male child born in a family belonged to Him; but it should be redeemed, not slain. Human sacrifices among the Hebrews are always spoken of as an abomination committed by people contaminated through the influence of their pagan neighbors. The victim offered must be without blemish (Leviticus 22; Malachias 1). The offerer led it to the entrance of the tabernacle or temple, and laid his hand upon its head, transferring thereby to it his intention of adoration, thanksgiving, atonement, or petition, as the case might be. The animal was then slain, regularly by the offerer, save in the case of birds, which were killed by the priest. The priest’s office was to receive the blood of the victim and to offer it, pouring it round about the altar or anointing therewith some parts of the same altar. The true essence of the bloody sacrifice resided precisely in that oblation of the blood, for, as is explained in Leviticus 17, by virtue of the life contained in the blood, which belongs to God, atonement is made by the application of that blood upon the altar. The fat covering the entrails, the two kidneys with their fat, the great lobe of the liver of all animals offered in sacrifice, and the fat tail of the rams were burned upon the altar; the other parts were disposed of in various ways according to the various sacrifices.

Four kinds of bloody sacrifices are enumerated.

1) The most perfect as well as the oldest and most usual was the holocaust, or whole burnt offering. The Hebrew ritual styled it oldh (raising), because the whole victim, except the hide (which was given to the priests) and the hip muscle, was made to ascend to God in fire and smoke as an expression of man’s absolute subjection to God. As the “perpetual oblation,” it was offered twice daily, morning and evening. A holocaust accompanied likewise the cleansing of the leper, the purification after childbirth, the purification of the Nazir, etc. Private holocausts were frequent, and could be offered even at the instance of pagans (no imposition of hands then took place). Holocausts were offered by various Syrian kings, and Emperor Augustus ordered a daily whole burnt offering of two lambs and a steer in the Temple.

2) Sin-offering was intended to expiate misdeeds committed through ignorance, forgetfulness, or hastiness. Deliberate crimes were not so expiable; among these were reckoned the omission of circumcision, the desecration of the Sabbath, blasphemy, failure to celebrate the pasch, eating of blood, working or failure to fast on the Day of Atonement. The kind of victim offered depended not so much on the gravity of the offense as on the dignity of the person. The blood was rubbed on the horns of the altar of holocausts or the altar: of incense, according to cases, then the remainder was poured out at the foot of the altar. The choice pieces (fat, kidneys, lobes of the liver) were burnt on the altar, and the rest eaten by the priests in the outer court.

3) Guilt-offering was especially appointed for transgressions demanding restitution. In addition to the restitution proper, which was taxed at six-fifths of the value of the thing concerned, a guilt-sacrifice had to be offered. This consisted of a ram, whose blood was sprinkled around the altar; the fatty portions were consumed on the altar of holocausts, and the rest of the flesh was eaten by the priests inside the holy place.

4) Peace-offerings were either in thanksgiving or in fulfilment of a vow, or simply voluntary. The rite of these sacrifices contained two special features, the first of which was the remarkable ceremony of the “wave” and “heave,” which the Talmud describes as follows: the priest, after cutting off the breast and right shoulder of the victim, placed the breast on the hands of the offerer, then, putting his own bands under those of this person, moved them backward and forward (wave) in token of the reciprocity in giving and receiving between God and the offerer. The same ceremony was then performed with the right shoulder, except that the motion of the hands (heave) was upward and downward. The breast and shoulder used in these ceremonies went to the priests and their families. The second special featur:e of this kind of sacrifice was that the remainder of. the flesh went back to the offerer, who ate it with his friends near the sanctuary; guests, ceremonially clean, and the poor could be invited to these sacrificial meals. Should anything of a thanksgiving-offering remain after that, it should be burned; if, on the other hand, anything remained of a sacrifice for a vow or a free-will offering after the sacrificial meal, it could be eaten on the second day; but the remnant must be burned. To these various kinds of bloody sacrifices must be added that of the paschal lamb, and two others, of a rather extraordinary character, offered outside the sacred enclosure; viz., that of the red heifer, the ashes of which entered into the composition of the “water of aspersion”; and of the heifer slain at the occasion of the murder of a man in case the murderer remained unknown.

UNBLOODY SACRIFICES

More properly oblations, were, with the exception of incense, offerings of articles of solid or liquid food. They consisted of toasted ears of corn or shelled grain, and of the finest wheaten flour, both together with oil and incense, and also unleavened bread. All bread offered at the sanctuary had to be unleavened, except that made of the first-fruits and presented at the Pentecost, and the bread offered with thanksgiving-sacrifices; even these were not brought to the altar but went to the priests. All food-offerings prepared from corn were seasoned with salt; honey was banned from all sacrifices. These food-offerings accompanied every holocaust and peace-offering, but never sacrifices for sin or guilt, save at the cleansing of a leper. They were also on occasions offered by themselves. Oil and wine were the only liquid articles used in connection with sacrifices, and were never offered independently. Oil entered into the preparation of the bread; some also was burned with the other gifts on the altar; wine was poured out as a libation before the altar.

MLA Citation

  • “sacrifices in the Old Testament”. New Catholic Dictionary. CatholicSaints.Info. 13 June 2010. Web. 24 September 2017. <http://catholicsaints.info/sacrifices-in-the-old-testament/>