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LostInParadise's avatar

What is the idea behind animal sacrifice in religion?

Asked by LostInParadise (29660points) December 10th, 2012

There have been, and probably still are, religions that practice animal (and sometimes human) sacrifice. The temple of Solomon was primarily used as a place where people brought their animals for ritual sacrifice by the priests. What is the idea behind such acts? Did people think that the gods would somehow make use of the animal? Was the sacrifice of a prized animal a way of demonstrating one’s faith? Or was it simply something demanded by the gods?

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13 Answers

starsofeight's avatar

In the Bible, the basic concept behind it was that God killed animals to redress Adam and Eve in the Garden. You know—that little fig leaf incident. In the actual practice of animal sacrifice by the Jews, parts of the animals were dedicated to the priests as their sustenance. They had no land, no farms, etc., and there was a boo-koo of them serving their posts in rotating shifts.

thorninmud's avatar

The old testament concept of divine justice revolves around the idea of paying for one’s sins with life, but life was a fungible commodity, and so that payment could be made through a surrogate, “ransom” fashion. The paradigm was that eventually a messiah figure would be sacrificed, and that this would be the ultimate sacrifice that would compensate for the sins of all humanity. All of the animal sacrifices demanded by Jewish law were seen as prefiguring that future messianic sacrifice, kind of a “down payment”.

But my sense is that this rationalization grew out of a preexisting fertile crescent tradition of religious sacrifice that was more about buying the favor of the local gods: give us a good harvest and lots of livestock, and we’ll skim off some of the best for you. Kind of a divine “protection” racket.

LostInParadise's avatar

What you say about using animals as surrogates makes sense. It is the original idea of the scapegoat. I wonder though if the idea of the messiah as making the ultimate sacrifice is more of a Christian interpretation.

thorninmud's avatar

@LostInParadise Isaiah 53 is one of the OT passages that uses the language of messianic expiatory sacrifice. Some excerpts:

“Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed”

”...the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all”

“For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was punished.”

“Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin…”

Rather than Christians reinterpreting OT passages in a messianic light, scholars think it likely that the accounts of Jesus’ life were massaged to make them fit the OT messianic prophecies.

LostInParadise's avatar

Thanks, very interesting. I did not know that the idea of dying for sins was an OT concept.

LostInParadise's avatar

@thorninmud , I did a Web search on Isaiah and found a different interpretation I do not present this as a refutation, only to show that there is another point of view. I am going to have to shake the cobwebs off my copy of the OT and look at Isaiah 53.

burntbonez's avatar

I think that the priests often were experts at slaughtering animals, whereas ordinary people were so poor that they rarely had an animal to sacrifice. So they would bring it to the temple, and the priest would “sacrifice” it for them. It would be done in a sacred way, taking care to do it properly (presumably with the least pain for the animal), and in return, the animal husband would give a “sacrifice” of some part of the animal for the god (temple/priest).

In some cultures, there are very specific ideas about how to kill animals, and the priests were trained in these ways. There are also rituals and words used to create a suitable solemnitude to the proceedings. People would be taught to exhibit suitable appreciation for the sacrifice the animal made for their sustenance.

Kardamom's avatar

@bookish1 I think @starsofeight means Beaucoup

That is what people are referring to when they use the Americanized term boo-coo bucks, with the incorrect spelling.

DominicX's avatar

I wish I had more of an answer. I know that in the Roman religion, “sacrificium” literally means “to make holy” and for them, it was a way of reinforcing the powers of the gods and thus they would grant benefits in return.

Though most of the comments here are about the Bible, I find it interesting that animal sacrifice occurs cross-culturally in many, many different religions and traditions. What is it about killing an animal to appease a higher power that seems naturally appealing to humans?

flutherother's avatar

I’m just guessing but I think the concept of sharing food lies deep within our primitive natures and that includes sharing with the god that made food possible. Primitive man would have felt uneasy if he didn’t share because the availability of food was never certain.

Berserker's avatar

Although sacrifices probably vary from one religion to another, I think that such acts were a way to somehow give credence and face to a belief that otherwise had no face. Make it more ’‘believable’’ through ceremonies, sacrifices, statues. Give a reason for the religion to exist and maintain the belief. Given that a lot of old religions did this all around the world, and that many of these people have probably never met each other, there certainly has to be some reason, even if unconscious, why many methods and practices were similar to one another.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

Although the surrogate theory is true in the Abrahamic sense, I think the more relevant explanation when considering wider animal sacrifice (including the Sumerians, Ancient Greeks, Aztecs, Mayans, Pagan Celts etc.) is value. In ancient societies, wealth was often measured in terms of animal ownership. For example Job’s wealth in the Bible was measured in the number of camels and sheep he owned.

If you sacrifice a symbol of your wealth and prosperity to your chosen deity, it has two effects:
1. You are acknowledging that your material success is due to the divinity of the deity, and your continued worship is linked to your continued success.
2. The sacrifice has worth, which adds meaning to the ritual. If people sacrificed rats, the ritual would be taken lightly, because sacrificing a rat entails no real personal loss. A sheep, goat, or even a bird, has real personal value, and therefore symbolises dedication to the deity by taking on actual material losses.

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