Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions

By Roland De Vaux ; John McHugh | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TEN
THE RITUAL OF SACRIFICE

THE altar was the place of sacrifice; and sacrifice was the principal act in Israel's cult. We shall endeavour to define the meaning of sacrifice in the religion of Israel, but before we can do so, we must first make a study of the rites connected with sacrifice, and trace their development. For the moment, we may give the following provisory definition: sacrifice is any offering, animal or vegetable, which is wholly or partially destroyed upon an altar as a token of homage to God. The study of the ritual is complicated by the fact that several terms are used for sacrifice, and they are not always clearly distinguished: one and the same word can denote several kinds of sacrifice, and one kind of sacrifice can be described by a variety of terms. The vocabulary reflects an historical development and the fusion of various practices, similar to one another, but originating from different backgrounds.

We shall start with the latest and most complete ritual, and we shall then endeavour to retrace the history of sacrifice to its origin. The code of sacrifices followed in the second Temple is contained in Lv 1-7. These chapters belong to the last redaction of the Pentateuch: they are legislative in character, and break the story of the institution of worship in the desert which ought to continue straight on from the erection of the sanctuary ( Ex 40) to the installation of the priests ( Lv 8-10).


1. Holocausts

The English word 'holocaust' comes, through the Vulgate, from the Septuagint, and in the Septuagint it is a translation of the Hebrew 'olah, from a root meaning 'to go up': a holocaust, then, is a sacrifice which is 'taken up' on to the altar, or, more probably, whose smoke 'goes up' to God when it is burnt. The characteristic feature of this sacrifice is that the entire victim is burnt and that nothing is given back to the man who offers it or to the priest (except the skin). This is why the Greek translates it 'holocaust' (meaning, 'wholly burnt'), and why the term 'olah has sometimes been replaced by the word kalil, meaning a 'total' sacrifice ( 1 S 7: 9; Dt 33: 10; cf. Ps 51: 21, where 'olah is used alongside kalil).

In the ritual of Lv 1, the victim must be a male animal without any blemish (cf. the older Law of Holiness, Lv 22: 17-25); it may be a small or a

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