Saturday, January 28, 2023

Blood, Animal Sacrifice, and the Hope of Immortality

This reconstructed horned altar at Beersheba would have been familiar to Abraham the Hebrew.

Dr. Alice C. Linsley

William W. Hallo, former Yale professor, considers ancient Mesopotamia to be the point of origin of animal sacrifice. Hallo writes, "Here we have not only, as in Israel, the canonical (literary) formulations of how sacrificial rites are to be performed, but also economic texts providing accounts of events after the ritual and objectively recorded, detailing the expenses of each step in the ritual against the possibility of a future audit by a higher authority. These records leave no doubt that in Mesopotamia, animal sacrifice, though ostensibly a mechanism for feeding the deity, was at best a thinly disguised method for sanctifying and justifying meat consumption by human beings—a privilege routinely accorded to priesthood, aristocracy and royalty, and sporadically, notably on holidays and holy days, to the masses of the population."

Hallo is correct that blood sacrifice was performed on behalf of chiefs, rulers and high kings. However, to understand the history of animal sacrifice, we must go farther back in human history. We must explore the connection between blood and the hope for immortality. The connection between animal sacrifice and the hope of life after death is evident in the practice of sacrificed animals that were buried with their masters. 

For at least 100,000 years humans buried their high-ranking persons in red ocher powder, a symbolic blood covering. For those people this ore was as valuable as gold is for us today. In some burial sites a pet or sacrificed animal is also found with a covering of red ocher.

Why only the clan chief or spiritual head? It seems that early humans believed that their whole group would follow their leader should he or she rise from the grave. Paul, referring to Psalm 68:18, speaks of this in Ephesians 4:8 - "When He ascended on high, He led captives in his train..."

Among meat eaters, the blood of hunted animals was not wasted. It would replace the costly red ocher. Eventually, sacrificial rituals developed around the bloodletting. The French historian Jean-Pierre Vernant believed the distribution and consumption of sacrificial food was a way to bound a community together, with each member of the community consuming an equal portion of meat. However, it is also possible that the chief, as a representative of the High God on earth, received a more substantial or better portion of the meat.

Among the early Hebrew (c. 5000-2000 BC) animal sacrifice was performed only in cases of extremely grave offenses. Cattle and sheep were their source of wealth, so they did not sacrifice them often. It is possible also that animal sacrifices were offered at times of crisis or when a leader needed a sign from the High God. This appears to be the case with Abraham on Mount Moriah. There he was given the sign of the Ram which for him was a Messianic promise.

In the Axial Age (900-200 BC) Jewish and Hindu priests were paid to offer sacrifices. Greed among corrupt priests led to the slaughter of enormous numbers of animals. Blood flowed in the temples and through the drainage ditches. Buddha rejected animal sacrifice. Buddhism is an attempt to reform this feature of Hinduism.

Animal Sacrifice and Worship

At First Things, Peter Leithart wrote, "What are the chances that someone sometime in nearly every ancient culture decided that killing animals was a good way to worship their gods? What are the chances that this would be a near-universal practice without any tradition, any traditio/handing-over, of sacrificial rites? Aren’t the facts much better explained if we assume that there was mutual interaction, cross-fertilization, borrowing and mimicry, perhaps an Ur-sacrifice and an Ur-sacrificer?"

It seems that initially animal sacrifice was not about worship. It was about a yearning for a greater life, or for immortality. The notion that animals were feed to the deities may be true among the Greeks for whom propitiation meant satisfying hungry gods. It does not appear to be the case among the early Hebrew, however. 

Consider Psalm 50. Here the LORD says, "I will accept no bull from your house, nor he-goat from your folds..." and "If I were hungry, I would not tell you; for the world and all that is in it is mine. Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?" (vv. 9-13)

For the Hebrew ruler-priest caste animal sacrifice was an act of atonement. (An extraordinary and unique perspective in the ancient world.) The ruler-priest Job is said to have made atonement for the sins of his entire household daily. If this is true, Job, the Horite Hebrew, was a very rich man. It is safe to assume that the sacrifices were offered with prayer.

The oldest known site of Hebrew worship is at Nekhen on the Nile. Proto-Saharan nobles were buried with red ochre at Nekhen (3800 BC). It appears also that there may have been a preference for sacrificial animals from the Nile. Some animals imported from the Nile Valley were sacrificed in Canaan during the Bronze Age (3300-1200 BC). Analysis of a sacrificial donkey found in the foundations of a house in ancient Gath reveals that it was born and bred in the Nile. There is a suggestion that some living in Canaan may have preferred sacrificial animals bred by the Nilotic Hebrew.

Leithart's recognition of the widespread practice of animal sacrifice in the Ancient Near East may be explained by the early dispersion of the Hebrew ruler-priest caste. Well before Abraham's time they had dispersed from the Nile Valley into Arabia, Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and parts of the Zagros Mountains. 

Among the early Hebrew, animal sacrifice had less to do with worship than with atonement, the bounding of their community, and the ratification of treaties

As a caste, the Hebrew did not eat with those outside their caste except to ratify treaties. Communal meals encourage conversation, increase familiarity, and can lead to marriages outside the caste. Since the Hebrew married only within their caste (endogamy) eating with non-Hebrew was discouraged. 

The Hebrew handled blood with great care because it was viewed as having power. The Hebrew Scriptures speak of the blood of Abel calling to God from the ground (Gen. 4:10). The shedding of blood was a serious matter. It could bring curses on those responsible for the shedding of blood. Blood guilt and blood pollution were to be avoided. The early Hebrew priests were renown in the ancient world for their lives of purity. Even the animal to be sacrificed was to be inspected and approved as pure. Herodotus reported that "for one who sacrifices a beast not sealed the penalty appointed is death."

The Hebrew priests who flayed the carcasses of sacrificial animals were to carefully follow prescribed procedures. The Hebrew tanner was called "Tahash". One of Abraham's nephews was a Tahash.

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