For many of us, Leviticus can be a challenging book to read, especially when we get to the chapters outlining animal sacrifice. Can’t we just skip this part? Animal sacrifice is a foreign practice to many modern Bible readers—most of us simply don’t have categories for what is happening in these sections of Scripture.
Our modern ideas about animal sacrifice come from all sorts of places, most of which are not biblical at all. These range from pagan practices in the temples of ancient Greece all the way to modern day examples, such as the recently suspended Gadhimai festival in southern Nepal. Many of us have inherited a story about animal sacrifice, and it goes something like this: The gods are angry with me and are going to kill me. But maybe if I kill this animal and make sure the gods get their pound of flesh, they’ll be appeased and happy. Maybe they won’t kill me or send a plague on my family.
Sure it’s barbaric, but so are the gods.
If you’ve ever read (or heard of) any of the Greek classics by Homer, such as The Iliad, or The Odyssey, or maybe the more ancient Mesopotamians works like the Epic of Gilgamesh, you’ll recognize this storyline. The problem is that when we come to read about animal sacrifice in the Bible, we assume that the same gods are at work. Much of popular Christian belief has simply imported a pagan storyline—reminiscent of the Greek and Babylonian cultural texts referenced above—into Leviticus and the stories about Jesus’ death on the cross.
The Story We Tell Ourselves About Sacrifice
The result is a tragic irony. What the Bible is portraying as an expression of God’s love gets twisted into something dark.
Our version goes like this: "God is holy and perfect. You are not. Therefore, God is angry at you, or hates you, so he has to kill you. But because he’s merciful, he’ll let you bring this animal to him and will have the animal killed instead of you. Thankfully, Jesus came to be the one who gets killed by God instead of me. Jesus rescues us from God, so now we can go forever to the happy place after we die and not the bad place."
Is this story recognizable to you? If so, you’re not alone. The main problem with this story is that it contains enough biblical language to pass for what the Bible actually says about animal sacrifice and Jesus’ death. However, when you step back and allow Leviticus and the New Testament to speak for themselves, you can recognize this story as false. These misconceptions about God’s character most often originate in Leviticus and then go on to fundamentally twist our understanding of God in the rest of the Old Testament. This misunderstanding has a domino effect—it distorts what we believe about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in the New Testament.
Sacrifice and Sin
In Leviticus, human sin is an act that vandalizes, infects, and defiles God’s good world. This idea is rooted in the depiction of human rebellion found in Genesis 3-11. Sin is the result of fractured relationships, and it leads to power struggles, violence, and widespread, systemic evil.
All of this has a corrosive, or defiling, effect, not only on the wrongdoer but on the entire community. Remember, Leviticus comes right after the tabernacle is finished, where God is going to come dwell in the center of the Israelite community. Israel’s sin doesn’t just defile the camp, it even defiles the sacred space itself. It makes God want to leave, just like vandalism and heaps of trash everywhere would make you want to leave a space.
And this isn’t just a common space. The tabernacle, and the temple, is the meeting place of Heaven and Earth—the throne of God in human space. Israel’s rebellion isn’t simply about breaking a rule. It’s about humans introducing corruption, pain, and death into God’s world. They might as well be bringing that corruption right into the dwelling place of God. If Israel’s God leaves the temple space, then the entire nation will suffer the consequences of living in a land without God.
We already know this story from Genesis 3-11, when humanity had to leave God’s presence in Eden. It led to the rebellion of Babylon and ultimately to God’s people being enslaved in Egypt. The story of what happens in Egypt is an exploration of what happens when humans hijack God’s good world and redefine good and evil on their own terms. God’s justice is the only appropriate response to this kind of rebellious vandalism.
But God does not want to see people go down the same road and suffer the same consequences. God knows that the Israelites are corrupt humans like the rest of humanity, but he wants to be near his people. So he made a promise to Abraham that he would restore divine blessing to the nations through his descendants (remember Genesis 12).
By his own word, God has promised not to destroy Israel when they sin against him. This brings us to God’s alternative way of dealing with Israel’s sin and rebellion. It’s a symbolic ritual that takes an existing practice among Israel’s neighbors (animal sacrifice) and transforms its meaning. Let’s get into it!
The Symbolic Substitute
By now, the basic dilemma assumed in Leviticus should be clear: The Israelites are sinful and corrupt humans (like all of us), and they are going to keep sinning. They’re in desperate need of God to purify and cleanse them. The Israelites needed a system that could turn them away from sin, pay their sin “debt,” cleanse and purify the community and the temple from sin, and allow them to stay in God’s presence.
That brings us to the practice of animal sacrifice introduced in Leviticus. Animal sacrifice was a common practice within the context of the ancient Near East. But it has a totally different meaning and significance in Leviticus—the Israelites are not dealing with the angry, volatile gods of their ancient neighbors.
For the Israelites, cutting an animal’s throat and watching its blood (that is, its life) drain from its body was a visceral symbol of the devastating results of their sin and selfishness. The stakes are high—human evil releases death out into the world. It may not seem like such a big deal to cheat your neighbor or steal a donkey. It’s not like you’re murdering someone, right? But multiply that wrongdoing by tens or hundreds of thousands of people and you get a violent and corrupt community. Sin released into the world compounds and begins a downward spiral that we’ve seen before in the biblical story. So the animal’s symbolic death is a physical symbol of what’s really at stake—the life or death of the community. You could call this part of the symbol a deterrent.
However, the animal’s death was not just a reminder of sin’s tragic consequences. The animal’s life was also offered as a symbolic substitute. If sin vandalizes God’s world with death and pain, then God has every right to make people face the just consequences. But God loves his creation and does not want to kill them, so the animal’s life is symbolically offered as a ransom payment that would cover them.
Sacrifice and Atonement
The word “cover” is the literal meaning of the Hebrew words kipper/kopher, and was later translated into Old English as “atonement.” The Israelites saw the blood of an animal as a symbol of the animal’s life itself (see Leviticus 17:11). Since blood represents life, or the opposite of death, its sprinkling around the temple would act like a detergent. It symbolically washed the temple of death and defilement (the natural result of sin). The end result is that God’s presence stays with the people of Israel.
These atoning sacrifices were the means by which God would deal with the Israelites’ sin and provide a reliable system to maintain a right relationship between God and sinful humans. This substitute, so to speak, is not offered by humans hoping to appease a volatile and angry deity. It’s precisely the opposite! In Leviticus, this substitute is provided by God himself.
The symbolism of animal sacrifice in the Bible is a concrete expression of God’s justice and grace. It reminded the Israelites of the serious nature of sin and the consequences for the individuals and the community at large. Ultimately, these sacrifices showed the Israelites how much God wanted to stay in his covenant relationship with them. He wanted them to become the kingdom of priests he called them to be.
Jesus, Sacrifice, and Love
If we want to better understand what the ancient Israelites thought about animal sacrifice, we should read what they wrote about it. And if we want to see how this practice brings Jesus’ sacrifice into new light, we should look toward the ancient Israelites’ writings. Fortunately for us, 1 John provides insight into this ancient practice and the significance of Jesus’ death.
John was a disciple of Jesus who grew up going to Jerusalem for Passover every year and offered many sacrifices in the temple throughout his life. He also spent time with Jesus in Galilee and Jerusalem. And most significantly, he was one of the only male disciples who watched Jesus die on the cross. When he reflected on the meaning of Jesus’ death and how it was a sacrifice for our sins, he did not say anything about God’s anger or how he wanted to kill people—just the opposite. He speaks of Jesus’ sacrificial death as the ultimate expression of God’s love.
This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
We should allow Leviticus and the story of Jesus to dismantle our distorted ideas about animal sacrifice and God’s character. At the end of the day, Leviticus, just like the rest of the biblical story, is about God’s love for his good world and his desire to be in the midst of his people.