Maintaining ‘Sacrifice’

There is much about sacrifice and, in particular, cultic sacrifice in the Old Testament, even if it nowhere offers a rationale for sacrifice. In general, publicly recognized priests offered, ritually and in the name of the people, sacrifices in some kind of sacred setting. These authorized priests served God at an altar and performed cultic, sacrificial acts on behalf of the community. Sacrifices took three forms: (1) gift-offerings of praise and thanksgiving, (2) sin-offerings, and (3) communion-offerings or covenantal sacrifices involving a communion meal.14 The Old Testament also used the language of sacrifice in a wider sense, as being a matter of inner dispositions and praiseworthy behaviour. Thus, Psalm 51 appears to have ended originally by proposing a ‘contrite heart’ as ‘the sacrifice pleasing to God’

14 Along with the references provided in Ch. 1, see also G. A. Anderson and H. J. Klauck, ‘Sacrifice and Sacrificial Offerings’, ABD v. 871 91; I. Bradley, The Power of Sacrifice (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1995); P. Gerlitz et al., ‘Opfer’, TRE xxv. 251 99; and G. O’Collins, Jesus Our Redeemer: A Christian Approach to Salvation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 156 72.

(vs. 17). A later addition (from the time of the Babylonian captivity or shortly thereafter) aimed to modify what seemed an anti-cultic sentiment and to bring the psalm into line with liturgical ritual. It asked God to ‘rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Then you will delight in right sacrifice, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar’ (vv. 18–19). But the wider, noncultic sense of sacrifice would also persist. In any case, the Old Testament taught that external rituals were worthless without (1) the corresponding interior dispositions, and (2) compassionate behaviour. One psalm acknowledged that doing God’s will counts for more than any formal sacrifices of thanksgiving (Ps. 40: 6–8); these verses would be quoted and endorsed by Hebrews 10: 5–7. Matthew would explain Jesus’ practice of forgiveness by having him quote Hosea 6: 6 and so challenge conventional ideas about divine forgiveness and sacrificial sin-offerings: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’ (Matt. 9: 13; see also 12: 7). A wise scribe was to react to Jesus’ teaching on love towards God and neighbour by declaring that practising such love ‘is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices’ (Mark 12: 33 parr.). The prophet Micah provided an Old Testament warrant for such a position: rather than all manner of burnt offerings and other sacrifices, what God expects of his people is ‘to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God’ (Mic. 6: 6–8). St Paul, as we saw, used the terminology of sacrifice in both a cultic (e.g. 1 Cor. 5: 7) and a non-cultic way. Gordon Fee illustrates how the apostle’s use of the imagery of blood shows how he understood Christ’s death in a cultic, sacrificial way.15