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, and just 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, 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 this 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, and 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, and 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 actual 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. Over the next two weeks, our blog will focus on atonement, sacrifice, Jesus, and how it is deeply revealing about God’s good nature in all of it.
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. So, 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, and 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. Last week’s blog was an exploration of Pharaoh and 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). So, by his own word, God has obligated himself to not 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!