Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions

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

CHAPTER THIRTEEN
THE RELIGIOUS SIGNIFICANCE OF SACRIFICE

SO we come to our last question: what was the purpose of sacrifice? What was its religious significance in the minds of the Israelites? What place did it occupy in their conception of man's relations with God? In seeking to answer these questions, we ought to beware of two dangers. Historians of comparative religion are tempted to misuse the comparative method, and to bring forward, as an explanation of Israelite sacrifice, the practices or the ideas of peoples with different religious concepts; in particular, they look for analogies between Israelite ritual and the customs of so-called 'primitive' peoples, for among these primitive peoples, they claim, we find the fundamental significance of ritual. Theologians, on the other hand, tend to use the sacrifice of the New Testament (and subsequent Christian doctrinal interpretations of it) in order to explain the true meaning of Old Testament sacrifice. Both parties tend to neglect or to underrate elements which may be proper to Israelite sacrifice. It is true, of course, that one must take into consideration the world in which Israel lived, and also inquire how the sacrifices of the Old Law are prolonged and fulfilled in the sacrifice of the New Covenant; but surely the first task is to examine the notion of sacrifice as presented in the Old Testament itself? We shall begin by setting aside a number of theories which are unsatisfactory.


1. Was sacrifice a gift to a malevolent or a selfish deity?

This theory was expressed in a particularly brutal way by Renan in his Histoire d'Israel: 'That state of madness through which humanity passed in the first ages of its existence has bequeathed to us many errors, but of them all, sacrifice is the oldest, the worst and the most difficult to uproot. Primitive man, whatever his race, thought that the way to quieten the unknown forces around him was to win their favour as one wins the favour of men, by offering them something. This was logical enough, for the gods whose favour he sought were malevolent and selfish. This appalling absurdity (which the first appearance of religious common sense ought to have swept away) had become an act of subjection, with man, as it were, the liege of the Deity. Patriarchal religion could not emancipate itself from this notion. The prophets of the eighth century B.C. were the first to protest against this error,

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