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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
Don’t you think that the killing of animals as Old Testament sacrifices was a type of animal cruelty?
No, I don’t think so. Today the idea of killing animals as a religious act is foreign to most Christians. In fact, we are suspicious of people who kill animals for religious or superstitious reasons. It’s true that individuals in Israel occasionally offered animal sacrifices to the Lord, but we should read the biblical text on its own terms. The sacrificial system reveals at least three main objectives for animal sacrifices: devotional, dietary, and theological.
1. Expression of Religious Feelings: Sometimes the Israelites brought sacrifices to express their gratitude and joy to the Lord: “Sacrifice fellowship offerings…rejoicing in the presence of the Lord your God” (Deut. 27:7, NIV). Occasionally, the offerings were from the produce of the earth (Lev. 2:1-10; 23:9-11), but most of the time the person gave a substantial offering, a sacrificial animal. The costliness of the offering was related to the level of gratitude they wanted to express, and to the finances of the person. Some could bring a bull, others only a sheep, a goat, or even a bird (Lev. 1:3, 10, 14). Giving a bull or a female animal would today be the equivalent of writing a substantial check to the church. Remember, for Israelites, their animals were their bank accounts.
2. Dietary Interest: Very often the religious and dietary concerns were both present in animal sacrifices. This is particularly the case with the fellowship offering. It was brought to the Lord for specific religious reasons; but at the same time the flesh of the animal was shared with others in a communion meal (Lev. 7:12-18). During some religious festivities the king offered many sacrifices in order to provide meat to the people during the festivity (1 Chron. 29:21, 22). In such cases, the people benefited from the wealth of the king without having to touch their “bank accounts.”
Meat was also accessible through the routine, or secular, slaughtering of animals and hunting clean animals (Deut. 12:15; Lev. 17:13). In these cases the blood, instead of being poured at the base of the altar, was to be poured out on the ground and covered with dirt. This showed respect for the life of the animal as one of God’s creatures.
3. Atonement and Sacrifice: From the theological point of view, animal sacrifice had the fundamental purpose of symbolically mediating reconciliation with God through the removal of sin and impurity (Lev. 4). It appears that in most cases atonement was accomplished through a sacrificial victim, whose blood became a vehicle for the removal of sin/impurity from repentant sinners. In this case, the theology of the sanctuary services becomes important, in particular the nature of sin and atonement. The use of a sacrificial victim raises the question of the connection between sin and death, atonement and life.
Bloody sacrifices ultimately reveal that sin cannot be separated from its immediate result, death. This was best expressed through the ritual death of an animal. The fact that the sacrificial animal was an innocent victim pointed to the costliness of redemption. Yes, repentant sinners could go home forgiven, alive; but only because the life of a sacrifice was given in place of theirs. This theological dimension of sacrificial killing lies at the heart of the biblical concept of redemption and found its deepest expression in the sacrificial death of the Son of God. I would dare to say, and you do not have to agree with me, that in both cases death caused pain in the heart of God, as well as in the heart of true worshippers.
4. Animal Suffering:The sacrificial killing of animals brought with it pain and suffering. We don’t know how animals were slaughtered, but it has been suggested that the Hebrew verb shachat, “to slaughter,” really means to “slit the throat.” In that case the only pain was the cut that drained the blood and soon rendered the animal unconscious. The divine intention was to reduce suffering to a minimum, thus showing God’s concern for animals. Later Jewish traditions required that the knife used be sharp and smooth to avoid inflicting unnecessary pain to the victim.