There is a chance that when you enter Leviticus and start reading about animal sacrifice, you’ll want to shut down. Animal sacrifice is so foreign to the life experience of modern Westerners; most people simply don’t have categories for what’s happening here. We want to help with that, though at the end of the day it’s still going to feel weird. Our modern notions 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 just 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 unfortunately 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 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, hates you even, 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.
When Jesus gets Dragged In
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, to be a bit snarky, is the Bible. More specifically, the problem is that this story has enough biblical language in it that it can 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 an imposter.
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. This piece is one of many that will focus on atonement, sacrifice, Jesus, and what they reveal about God’s good nature.
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 results in fractured relationships that lead to power struggles, that then lead to violence and widespread, systemic evil. All of this has a corrosive, or defiling, effect, not only on the wrongdoer, but 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 all over the front of your house and heaps of trash in your living room would make you want to leave.
The temple is the throne of God within the world--the place where heaven and earth meet. 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 nastiness 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 Babylon and ultimately to Egypt. The story of what happens in Egypyt is an exploration of what happens when humans hijack God’s good world and redefine good and evil on their own. God’s justice is the only appropriate response to this kind of rebellious vandalism.
But God does not want to see his people (Israel) go down the same road and suffer the same consequences. God knows full well that the Israelites are corrupt humans like the rest of the human family. This is why he made a promise to Abraham that he would restore divine blessing to the nations through these people (remember Genesis 12). By his own word, God has obligated himself 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 up an existing practice among Israel’s neighbors (animal sacrifice) and transforms its meaning. Welcome to the biblical symbol of animal sacrifice!
By now the basic dilemma assumed in Leviticus should be clear: the Israelites are sinful and corrupt humans (like all of us) who are going to keep sinning. They’re in desperate need of God to purify and cleanse them. The Israelites needed a system of some kind that could do the following:
- Turn them away from sin
- Provide just recompense for the hard cost of the “debt.”
- Provide a way to cleanse and purify the community (specifically the temple) from the infectious nature of sin.
- Ensure God maintains his presence with his people.
Animal sacrifice was a common practice within the context of the Ancient Near East, but its meaning within this biblical story is different from the volatile, angry gods of Israel’s 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. When an Israelite cheated their neighbor or stole a donkey, they would be tempted to think it’s not that big of a deal; multiply that wrongdoing by tens or hundreds of thousands of people and you get a violent and corrupt community. This 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 symbol did even more. This animal’s death was not just a reminder of sin’s tragic consequences; its life was also offered as a symbolic substitute. If sin vandalizes God’s world with death and pain, God has every right to make people face the just consequences. Thankfully, God loves His creation and does not want to kill them, so this animal’s life is symbolically offered as a ransom payment that would cover them. The word “cover” is the literal meaning of the Hebrew words kipper/kopher, which was later translated into old English as “atonement.” The Israelites also 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 can symbolically wash the temple of death (the natural result of sin) and defilement. The end result is that God’s presence stays squarely in the midst of the people of Israel.
These atoning sacrifices were the means in which God would deal with the Israelites’ sin and provide a reliable system the Israelites could use to maintain their right relationship with God when they did sin. 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 at the same time. It reminded the Israelites of the serious nature of sin, its consequences for the individuals involved, and for the community at large. Ultimately, these sacrifices showed the Israelites how much God wanted to stay in his covenant relationship with them, so they could become the “kingdom of priests” who would reflect God’s good nature.
Jesus, Sacrifice, and Love
If we want to know how the ancient Israelites thought about the meaning of the animal sacrifice, we should read what they wrote concerning it. If we want to know what all this means for understanding Jesus’ death, we should, again, read the ancient Israelites’ writings. Fortunately for us, the apostolic letter of 1 John provides insight into both. This letter is from a man 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 to 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. My beloved ones, since God has loved us in this way, we also are obligated to love one another.
We should allow Leviticus and the story of Jesus to dismantle our presumably distorted ideas about animal sacrifice and God’s character. At the end of the day, Leviticus is about God’s love.
You didn’t see that one coming did you?