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LostInParadise's avatar

What is the idea behind animal sacrifice?

Asked by LostInParadise (29643points) November 20th, 2020

This in general. Please don’t poke fun at religion. This is something which I find most perplexing. Animal sacrifice has been a part of many religions, so there must be some general reason behind it. Is it like a trade with the gods? We give this animal to you so that you will treat us nicely. Is it an expression of devotion? We slaughter our best livestock to show our love and respect. In some cases the sacrificers eat most of the sacrifice, which would seem to eliminate the previous explanations.

Christians say that God sacrificed his only son. I mean no offense, but that makes no sense to me. Who was Jesus being sacrificed to? Is this a kind of reversal of the usual process. Instead of people making a sacrifice to God, did God make a sacrifice to the people?

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16 Answers

Demosthenes's avatar

Animal sacrifice is indeed a very old cross-cultural practice. The general idea is that the sacrificed animal is offered to a deity as literal sustenance for them or at least as a gift to gain favor with the deity. The Greeks, for example, would often eat much of the sacrificed animal but burn the rest as an offering the gods. In Leviticus you frequently see the phrase “fragrant odor to the Lord” in reference to an animal burned in sacrifice; this is a remnant of a very old practice in which the smell of burning animal flesh was said to appease a deity and gain favor with it. (Also in Leviticus, fat and blood are not to be consumed; the fat is reserved to be burned as an offering to God and the blood, being the very life itself, was also reserved for God alone). In the Old Testament view, sacrifices went beyond gaining favor with the deity to having a role of purification and atonement (blood was seen as having a purifying effect, shedding of blood is necessary to pay for sins); the blood sacrifices thus atoned for transgressions and purified the Tabernacle where God was said to dwell. Jesus’ sacrifice extends the concept further: his sacrifice was necessary to atone for all our sins. There is some explanation of the rationale behind Jesus’ sacrifice in the Pauline epistles:

“Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” Romans 5:9–10

It’s not so much that Jesus was sacrificed to, but sacrificed for. His death as the ultimate sacrifice atoned for the sins of humanity.

LostInParadise's avatar

@Demosthenes , I appreciate your explanation, but I am having trouble with the idea of atonement. How does a sacrifice purify ourselves? Is the idea to do damage to ourselves to show devotion? In the case of Jesus it is even more confusing. Those who killed him did not think of it as a sacrifice. Are we to believe that Jesus directed his life toward being crucified?

Jeruba's avatar

A really good comprehensive view that places the crucifixion of Jesus in a religious-cultural context is in Sir James Frazer’s opus The Golden Bough. It’s an old work, and much has been written since, but it is still a classic account of major themes in religious and magical traditions. It gives a thorough explanation of ritual sacrifices and their practical and symbolic meanings across cultures. The abridged edition is sufficient for nonscholarly purposes.

Jeruba's avatar

For starters, see descriptions of scapegoat and sin-eater.

Zaku's avatar

“Is it like a trade with the gods? We give this animal to you so that you will treat us nicely.”
– That’s more the type of thinking that corrupt Christian ministers and priests encourage, especially when it’s not a sacrifice but a tithe or donation that become the property of the church or ministers and/or priests. This corruption was part of what inspired Martin Luther and the reformation.

” Is it an expression of devotion? We slaughter our best livestock to show our love and respect.”
– Closer, but again you’re using the Christian language of “devotion”, which often doesn’t really describe the relationships in many non-Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions. Culturally Christian people often project that onto other forms of spirituality that they don’t entirely understand.

Demosthenes’ perspective on Greco-Roman sacrifices is more or less accurate as far as I know.

In other traditions and practices I know about, animal sacrifice tends to be about raising the spiritual energy of a ritual. Also sacrificing something precious and giving that energy (as well as what it would mean to you to use the animal as you otherwise would, for your own well-being).

Dutchess_III's avatar

@LostInParadise pretty sure the animals were a stand in for themselves, the humans. If we give you the most important thing we have, our lives, surely you will bless us.

Dutchess_III's avatar

But then…some cultures decided to take it one step further and sacrifice something that was even more important than their own lives. ;(

Caravanfan's avatar

I actually gave my Bar Mitzvah speech on this, as I had a very boring section of Leviticus as my Torah portion. My thesis at the time was that you had to show your devotion to God by giving something that is most dear to you—in this case food. The ancient Jewish priests sacrificed in the Temple. Once the Temple was destroyed, the priests disappeared and were replaced by the Rabbis. Even now, in Jewish culture, there is a remnant of the ancient sacrifices at the Passover table on the Seder plate.

(Of course, it’s just an allegory at best and a lie at worst. The Jews were never in Egypt, the Exodus never happened, and God is just a made up construct in order for the establishment to control the masses and for people to explain natural phenomenon.)

Dutchess_III's avatar

Frill? The Jews were never in Egypt??

Caravanfan's avatar

Nope. Absolutely no archeological evidence. Pseudo history.

Pandora's avatar

I don’t see it that way. I see the animal sacrifice as usually being grateful for blessings an showing love and reverence. As for Jesus he was the one making himself as the sacrificial lamb because he loved mankind. Yes he was sent by God and is part of the trinity but the choice was his in the end whether he wanted to sacrifice his life. Think of it as a test to see if mankind was really worthy

Dutchess_III's avatar

How is slaughtering a living being showing love and reverence, @Pandora? What about sacrificing children and young women?? You lost me.

Well damn @Caravanfan. Guess I need to go fill on atheist!

Pandora's avatar

@Dutchess_III When you have an honor guest, do you feed them a jelly sandwich or something better? Also understand I’m not condoning sacrificing children or women or even animals. Just answering the OP question. Almost the same principle with women. You sacrificed to the Gods your purest soul usually and preferably a virgin. I imagine it’s also possible that they didn’t think of it like death but an honor to go live with their God. Parents have put themselves in debt to have fabulous weddings to show their love for their child and others have sacrifice comfort or security to follow a cause they believe in. Not so wise but its how some people show devotion and love for someone or something.

seawulf575's avatar

My thought on animal sacrifice, at least in the Judeo-Christian ethos, involved an affirmation of the covenant between God and Man. There were a number of sacrifices listed that could be made, but the idea was that you gave your best to God in the recognition of the covenant that He would give you His best. When Jesus was sacrificed, He was the new covenant with man. He epitomized the “perfect man”...the son of God…and was sacrificed to show that God could/would forgive all your sins. That was His affirmation of the new covenant.

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