The Strangeness of Animal Sacrifice

Daily Reflection / Produced by The High Calling
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If you present an animal from the herd as a peace offering to the LORD, it may be a male or a female, but it must have no defects. Lay your hand on the animal’s head, and slaughter it at the entrance of the Tabernacle. Then Aaron’s sons, the priests, will splatter its blood against all sides of the altar.

Leviticus 3:

Just over three years ago, my family and I moved to Texas from California. I'm pleased to report that we've adapted well to our new home. But there were a few surprises along the way.

One of these happened during my daughter's first day of seventh grade, which was also her first day as a student in Texas. In her biology class, the teacher was outlining her plans for the year. In this context, she said, "Oh, next semester we'll be dissecting deer hearts in class." As my daughter cringed at this thought, the teacher went on, "So, how many of you think you can bring in a deer heart after hunting season?" Every hand in the classroom shot up in the air, except my daughter's. "Where am I?" she wondered to herself. "Have I entered some strange world where everybody hunts animals and is comfortable with bringing their hearts to school?" The simple answer was: Yes.

In California, my family and I knew only a couple of men who hunted, and they didn't talk about it much because hunting was generally frowned upon. But in the Hill Country of Texas, a rural environment overrun with deer, hunting is common, even among middle school students. Many who hunt also do their own carving up of the venison. Thus, people here aren't particularly squeamish about things that would upset folks from California, including my daughter.

When you read about the animal sacrifices in the opening chapters of Leviticus, you might feel like my daughter in her seventh grade biology class. If, like my family and me, you only encounter meat when it is nicely packaged or found in a bun, the whole idea of killing and slaughtering animals for sacrifice can seem very foreign, perhaps even offensive.

Here is one of those places when the cultural gap between most of us and the people in the Bible is particularly wide, unless you're like some of my neighbors who raise cattle for food or enjoy hunting. This means, if we're going to do justice to the text of Leviticus as a historical document, not to mention a portion of God's Word, then we need to find ways to cross the cultural divide. We need to realize that, for the Israelites, killing animals and carving them up was not a strange or repulsive activity. It was as common for them as going to the store and buying a package of meat is for us.

Once we get over the strangeness of animal sacrifice, we can grapple with why God required the Israelites to do it. We can see that God requires people to give to him that which is costly and dear, such as a valuable animal with no defects. We can sense that there is something remarkable about the shedding of blood, a topic that I'll address in future reflections. We can note that even though priests handled various aspects of sacrifices, the person offering the animal was intimately involved in the process. Even in the Old Testament, sacrifice wasn't simply delegated to the experts. It was, if you will, a kind of lay ministry.

I will conclude today's reflection by admitting that I am glad I don't have to sacrifice animals in order to worship the Lord. But I am reminded of the call to sacrifice something far more costly . . . namely, all that I am! In Romans 12:1, Scripture calls us to "give [our] bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him." So, today we are called to offer not just our physical bodies, but our whole selves to the Lord as we worship him in all that we do. This is our sacrifice in this age, our response to God's grace in Christ.

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: How do you respond to the descriptions of animal sacrifices in Leviticus (and elsewhere in Scripture)? Why do you think God required the Israelites to offer animal sacrifices? How can you offer yourself to God today as a living sacrifice?

PRAYER: Dear Lord, I am thankful that you make yourself known in each generation, in each culture. And I am thankful that your revelation is anchored in history, as you revealed yourself and your ways to the Israelites, and then, most of all, in Jesus of Nazareth. Thank you for communicating in such a way that we human beings can understand you.

Yet there are times, Lord, when the cultural dimension of your revelation can get in the way. I must admit that I don't relate to the killing of animals. Some of the explicit descriptions of sacrifice in Leviticus are unsettling to me. So I ask you to help me. Help me, Lord, to understand your ways. Help me to grasp the meaning of animal sacrifice for the people of Israel. Help me not to be put off by things in Scripture that I cannot easily comprehend or relate to.

Beyond this, help me, dear Lord, to know what it means for me to offer my body—indeed, my whole —self to you as a living sacrifice. May I see my life as a sacrifice for you each day, beginning right now.

I pray in the name of Jesus, the sacrificial Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Amen.

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