Enduring Principles in Religious Sacrifice

Back to Frederick Turner’s essay, “The Mall as a Place of Pilgrimage” (The National Mall: rethinking Washington’s monumental core.” Ed. Nathan Glazer and Cynthia R. Field. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 2008).  In this post, I want to focus on Turner’s mention of abortion and sacrifice. Both are important to people of faith, and, of course, sacrifice is a central principle of religion. I appreciate Turner’s courage in opening this topic for discussion, although his implied criticism of American culture is unfair, in my view. That said, any approach to these controversial ideas would probably have invited criticism.

In searching for connections to transcendence in American culture, Turner said that the killing of animals for science might represent a sacrifice to America’s secular definition of nature; and clinical abortion, a sacrifice to the legal definition of a human being, or to America’s secular religion of humanism. He continues that as the home of the Supreme Court, which is the arbiter of these things, Washington lives up to its ritual role as a pilgrimage altar.

I suppose these choices make sense because of the transcendent nature of death. Again, my position is that while Americans may need to examine these policies more closely, the suggestion that they might serve the people in a spiritual sense is too extreme, even cruel. Since clarity of principle is crucial to a discussion of America’s future, this post will attempt to focus on the search for principles.

Sacrifice was the essential act of external worship, but an external act should express the true inward feelings of man if it is to be a religious act. In addition, God’s acceptance of the sacrifice must be demonstrated through ritual. Of course, all people did not practice sacrifice in the same way, or for the same reasons.

To search for the meaning of Israel’s system of sacrifice it is necessary to go to the Old Testament.  According to Roland DeVaux, who in his book, “Ancient Israel,” listed chapter and verse, every sacrifice is a gift; something needed by the giver to support life; part of one’s self. Because  everything belongs to God, the thing sacrificed could also be seen as a sort of tribute.  This can be seen in the offering of the first-fruits of the harvest and the offering of the first born.  The acceptance of this gift involves God in an obligation.

Before the reform of Josias in 621 BC, the two types of sacrifice most common in Israel were the Holocaust sacrifice and the Communion sacrifice. In a Holocaust offering, the offering is a gift and sacrifice is the acting out of the covenant.  The gift is completely destroyed by fire.  However, immolation is not the essence of sacrifice. The essence of sacrifice is the fact that the offering becomes useless to the giver, and irrevocable. Everything consecrated to God must be withdrawn from profane use.

Originally, the Communion sacrifice was the most complete and the most frequent type of sacrifice, and it involved the sharing of a meal. The motives for Communion sacrifices stem from a principled nomadic existence, which the Hebrews shared with many of their neighbors, including the Arab people. The nomadic life is considered by scholars to be the highest, truest form of community, and the sharing of a meal illustrates the importance of hospitality to this way of life. To Israel, this nomadic history represents the purity of religious life in the time of the covenant.

Expiatory sacrfice was developed from the other types of sacrifice, and in a time of national calamity, such as the Exile, it became more important.  The purpose of an Expiatory sacrifice is to re-establish the covenant when it has been broken by the sin of man.  There were two types of Expiatory sacrifice, the sacrifice for Sin and the sacrifice for Reparation, although it is difficult to say how they are different from each other.  They both differed in many respects from the Holocaust and Communion sacrifice.  For one thing, the blood played a more important part.  Also, in a Sin offering, the type of animal sacrificed depended on the rank of the person who had sinned–and on whether it was an individual or the community as a whole.   Because the person, or the people offering the sacrifice admitted their guilt, they received no part of the victim.

The sacrifice of Reparation was offered in behalf of private individuals and the only victim referred to is a ram.    This type of sacrifice was sometimes accompanied by the payment of a fine.  If the offense could be remedied by monetary payment, the guilty person had to offer a ram for reparation, and restore to the priest (as representatives of Yahweh) or to the person he had wronged the monetary equivalent of the damage, plus one fifth.  This was not considered part of the sacrifice, however (DeVaux, Roland and John McHugh. Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1997).

It is known that human sacrifice was never lawful in Israel, but even among other cultures the physical evidence for human sacrifice is weak.  Historical documents and reports insist that it took place, but DeVaux and others suggest it was not common. There are several reasons to question its prevalence. For example, Franz Cumont mentions a ritual enactment of human sacrifice in Mithraism, but the belief that this sacrifice actually took place in the distant past is speculation. Freemasonic ritual includes the dramatized murder of Hiram Abiff, which according to Masonic doctrine actually took place during the building of the Temple of Solomon. Again, this isn’t known. Jacob Rabinowitz wrote that human sacrifice was connected with agriculture, which was seen as a yearlong pre-meditated murder of the earth. However, circumcision was always a substitute for human sacrifice, as was the shaving of part of the head, for males.

On the other hand, the belief in Daemons suggests another aspect of the story. Homer wrote about ‘God’ and Divinities (‘Daimon’) interchangeably. It was Plato who later distinguished between good and evil Daemons. The Septuagint, written by Jews in Alexandria, also spoke of Daemons as potentially evil. In the early Roman Empire people were warned not to confuse God with Daemons, or the rulers of nature. They thought God was not in direct contact with the world. And since human sacrifice was not welcome to the gods it must be the Daemons who demanded it. They argued that kings and generals would not have been willing to sacrifice their children unless they were appeasing the anger of ugly, ill tempered, vengeful spirits who bring pestilence and war. Rapes, wanderings, and hiding were not done by gods but by Daemons. Some made sacrifices to these malevolent spirits, in the hope they would depart peaceably. As Grover wrote in “The Conflict of Religions in the Early Roman Empire,” superstition, and not atheism, was the biggest threat to religion during this era. These were the conditions encountered by Jesus of Nazareth during his ministry.

Superstition has always been a threat to high religious thought. Many political factors contributed to the confusion of that time, although the people continually attempted to revive or recreate ancient religious practices. For example, it was not only the Jews who performed ablutions and purification rituals. These were probably derived from Mazdaism, which had been an influence in the religion of Israel since the Babylonian Exile, and which influenced the other people of the region as well (Glover, T.R. The conflict of religions in the early Roman empire. Nabu Press. 2010).

It seems clear that symbols borrowed from antiquity may not have the desired effect in modern America, but I maintain that there are certain principles that endure. I hesitate to mention the tonsure of Roman Catholic priests as an example of an enduring principle. The modern religions reject pagan associations; and yet modern pagans criticize Christianity for rejecting paganism while its symbols and customs remain part of the church.

I believe certain principles endure because they have a rational foundation. This is not the rationality of Locke, Newton and Bacon…but that is a subject for another article.