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A Deep Dive on “Sacrifice”

One of the great things about Union Church is our Simple Supper group program. These are monthly meetings of about 12 people who share a meal, share about their lives, and share in good discussion about the Christian faith and/or the Bible. All the groups are led by members of the church, but often Rev. Mike prepares the material the groups use for discussion. For May’s topic, Mike prepared material on the topic of sacrifice, in the religious/Biblical sense. The material led to some great discussions in our groups, so we thought we’d make it available to others as well. It’s a deep dive into a complicated topic, but if you take a bit of time, we think you’ll find it very worthwhile. Learn and enjoy!


Simple Supper material – May, 2023 – by Mike Solberg

It’s May, and as the temperatures rise, the flowers bloom, and the NBA playoffs go on and on, it feels like a good month for a fairly light Simple Supper topic. However…

I am afraid I’m not going with that feeling, as the topic that has been bubbling around in my mind for the past few weeks is sacrifice, and I’d like to see if I can talk about this in a way that feeds (or at least informs) the faith of all of you, “the people in the pews,” or “on the couches,” as is probably more accurate for Simple Suppers.

I think sacrifice is one of those topics on which we have become hopelessly confused in the church today, with some really unfortunate results. So I want to unpack my understanding of what sacrifice is all about in our faith.

But what do I mean by sacrifice? I am not talking about the most common, everyday use of sacrifice, as when we talk of giving up one thing for the sake of something else: like a football player might say after winning the Super Bowl, “Well, we really sacrificed a lot to get here today, but it was all worth it,” or more consequentially, we might say of those who die in war, “We honor the sacrifice of those gave their life for our freedom.”

I am talking rather of sacrifice in the more original meaning of the word. Sacrifice is closely related to the word sacred, and sacred ultimately means “set apart,” with the connotation that holy things, divine things, spiritual things, are set apart from the ordinary stuff of this world. To sacrifice something originally exclusively meant to set it apart for holy/divine/spiritual purpose.

Of course, in this original, religious sense, we are probably quick to think of the Old Testament and the offering of sacrifices, especially of animals, in the Temple in Jerusalem. The whole idea of animal sacrifice seems cruel and alien to us, and we can hardly conceive of, “What could they possibly have been thinking?” Our bewilderment is interesting, since animal (and grain) sacrifice was at one time, as best we can tell, nearly universal in human religious life, archeologically attested across the earth, from cultures that had little to no contact with each other.

In ancient times (again, as best as the sources reveal) different cultures had different understandings of the purpose or meaning of sacrifice, but there is a common thread. There is a common conception that this physical/earthly world is NOT really all that separate from the divine/spiritual world, and that divine beings (however conceived) and human beings are connected somehow. Furthermore, there is a common conception that how “the gods” (or, in some cultures, the ancestors) behave, what they do, can impact human beings, and that human beings can, in some way, impact “the gods.” There is a common idea that the “divide” between “this world” and the “other world” is a wispy veil, rather than a hard barrier.

In many cultures, the closest point of connection between this world and the other world (however conceived) lies in the reality of life, in the phenomenon of something being alive, in whatever “essence” it is that makes living things different from rocks. The connection is that the divine/spiritual world is “immortal” (literally, not subject to death), so it is more alive, and thus more substantive and “real” than our physical, decaying, mortal world. “Life” is thus the closest point of connection between the two worlds.

In cultures that practice animal sacrifice, it is most common for that point of connection to be physically localized in blood – the mysterious necessity of life, even the carrier of life (you will think of Genesis 4:10, of course). Slaying an animal, draining its blood, and offering that blood to the divine, provides a bridge between this world and the other world. It presents the “life force” of the animal as a mysterious and holy point of contact with the divine. You can see, perhaps, why human sacrifice is so tempting – clearly humans have a greater “life force,” so the sacrifice of a human provides the closest connection possible between the worlds. Human sacrifice was obviously practiced in the cultures around ancient Israel, and it was such a temptation that Israel had to be commanded not to do it (like in Deuteronomy 12:31, among many passages).

******* (the meaning of these asterisks will become clear in a bit) ********

Now, in many cultures (most?), this goes in the direction of animal sacrifices being able to influence the “behavior” of the gods towards humans – and it is a short conceptual step to the idea that offerings/sacrifices of the essence of life from this world enhance life in the other world, and that that offering/sacrifice thus benefits the gods in some way, and that the gods will then reward the human making the offering. So sacrifice becomes a quid pro quo – a “something for something.” There is a more specific Latin phrase that applies, do ut des, which means, “I give, so you may give.” “I do this for you, you do that for me.”

I am afraid that this is the way many (most?) Christians today think of sacrifice in the Old Testament: that it was an attempt to influence God, to win God’s favor in some way. I will admit that some passages of the Bible could reasonably be read like that, but on the whole that is not the understanding of sacrifice that dominates in the Old Testament. The Old Testament mostly shares all the understandings of sacrifice I described above, UP TO THE POINT OF THE ASTERISKS.

Unlike many (most?) cultures, Biblical theology is grounded in a strong conviction that humans cannot influence, control, or otherwise buy the favor of God. This is NOT the meaning or purpose of sacrifice in the Old Testament, as is made clear in passages like the famous Micah 6:6-8 (the passage Jimmy Carter had the Bible open to when he was sworn in to office as President!). In Biblical theology, sacrifice does not “buy” forgiveness, but rather is a human response of gratitude to the forgiveness ALREADY given by God.

In its original meeting, the key word for sacrifice in the Old Testament, qurban, means “to be near,” or “to draw nigh.” The sacrifice is what allows the human (through the priest), in gratitude, to draw nigh unto God again, for God has already drawn nigh unto the human.

There is much more to say, and nuance to be acknowledged, about sacrifice in the Old Testament (especially with regard to how sacrifice is talked of differently in the priestly/cultic material like Leviticus, compared to how it is talked about in the prophets, like Micah and Isaiah), but I think that is enough to move on the New Testament and the meaning of Jesus’ “sacrifice” on the cross.

The New Testament does not speak with one voice on the meaning of the cross – and “sacrifice” is only one of the categories used to discuss the meaning of the cross, although it is probably the most commonly used category among Christians in the U.S. today, because of the heavy influence of fundamentalist/evangelical theology among Christians in the U.S., even Christians who are not fundamentalist/evangelical.

What is another category in which to think of the cross, you may ask? Well, “ransom” is one of them. In dying on the cross Jesus paid the price of “ransom” for humanity, which had been held captive, or held hostage, by sin/death. Colossians 1:14 says that in Jesus “we have the price of liberation,” and 1 Timothy 2:6 says Jesus “gave himself as a liberation fee for all persons…” I just mention this imagery of “ransom” to say that there are categories other than “sacrifice” for thinking about the cross. But still, sacrifice is the one that is most common and trips us up the most, I believe.

The important thing to say about the sacrifice of the cross is the same as I said about sacrifice in the Old Testament. There is no quid pro quo, no do ut des, “I give, so you may give.” Even in Jesus, there is nothing humans can do to earn/deserve/win/buy the favor of God. For God is love. God is ALREADY (by nature, not just by current mood) 100%, utterly committed to us. Indeed, because God is love, God cannot be disposed toward us other than through love.

So, in what sense is the cross a sacrifice? Because Jesus is both divine and human, he is the bridge that connects us to God, and his “sacrifice” is the closing of the distance between humans and God by offering up the life-essence carried by the blood. By being united with Christ “in faith,” in the offering of his blood our life-essence is, as well as his, joined with God – the two, our human life and the life of God, are “re-conciled” (re-united). (By the way, as with all sacrifices, the thing sacrificed ultimately comes as a gift from God, the source of all things, so humans can clearly take no “credit” here.)

Listen to the way Paul talks about this in the first chapter of Colossians (I have added parentheses to make some things clearer – and by the way, as is often the case with Paul, the grammatical syntax gets a little iffy. In “writing” his letters, Paul was actually speaking aloud, and someone was writing it down, so it doesn’t read very smoothly. English translations usually smooth it out to make it read better on the page, but that often really distorts what Paul actually “wrote.”

And he (Jesus) is before all things, and all things hold together in him, and he is the head of the body, of the assembly (usually translated as “church”) – who is the origin, firstborn from the dead, so that he might himself hold first place in all things – for in him all the Fullness (i.e. the fullness of the Divine) was pleased to take up a dwelling, and through him (i.e. Jesus) [here it is probably helps to add: “the Fullness was pleased…] to reconcile all things to him (the Fullness), making peace through him (Jesus) by the blood of his cross, whether the things on the earth or the things in the heavens.

I hope you can “hear” the tone of this. Clearly “the blood of his cross” is not a do ut des sacrifice (I give, so you may give), but a sacrifice of a life-essence that is the bridge that unites the human and the divine – actually, not just the human and the divine, but “all things…whether the things on the earth or the things in the heavens.”

The end result of this is that we can (should?) conceive of salvation very differently than I believe we normally do. Boiling it down to the bare minimum, the common story, with the common understanding of sacrifice, goes something like this:

We were created by God and “in the beginning” lived in perfect communion with God. Then “we” (through Adam and Eve) disobeyed God. We made God angry and we were henceforth in “debt” to God. God then punished us with separation from God. A long time later, Jesus finally comes, and because he is a “sacrifice” of infinite worth, he pays off the debt we owe to God, and thus God forgives us (is no longer angry with us), and we get to “go to heaven” (be with God again).

But with the view of sacrifice that I have been describing the story of salvation reads more like this:

We were created by God and “in the beginning” lived in communion with God, although as creatures of the dust, that communion from the beginning was complicated. Adam and Eve, like children wanting to explore their limits, disobeyed God, and found that they had alienated themselves from God. God was crushed by seeing “his” children alienated from “him,” and at first protected them from harm in their alienated state, and then began the long process of restoring communion between the human and the Divine. Dealing with the limits of time/history/contingency (which come with being creatures of the dust), God first chose and used the people of Israel to close the gap, and then completed the process through the “sacrifice” of Jesus (in whom human “being” and Divine “being” are already united) – uniting human “being” (and “all things!”) to Divine “being” through the “bridge” that is the life-essence/blood of Jesus.

Or, to make the point more briefly, in the first story, God’s anger is the problem that must be “fixed.” In the second story, human alienation from our true home is the problem that must be “fixed.” I think the second story gives us a God who far more worthy of worship than the God of the first story, and the second story, unlike the first, gives us a God of whom we can say “God is love.”

Well, okay, that’s enough for now. As I said at the beginning, I hope I have talked about this in a way that feeds your faith, and ultimately makes you long to respond to God’s love with glad and generous hearts.

Questions for discussion:

1. How does this material make you feel? Frustrated? Confused? Hopeful? Grateful? Relieved? Something else?

2. Has the whole matter of “sacrifice” in the Old Testament ever bothered you? Have you ever really thought about it much? Or just sort of stopped after thinking “Ugh, that’s awful!”

3. Is the matter of “sacrifice” or “the blood of Jesus” one of those things that you remember hearing about as a child that sort of just turned you off to the Church/Christianity? Do you know anyone for whom that is true?

4. I make the claim that sacrifice (even in the Old Testament) is often understood as a matter of do ut des. Do you agree it is often understood that way? Do most people see Biblical sacrifice as a quid pro quo? Is this understanding of sacrifice part of your way of thinking?

5. Has talk of the “sacrifice” of Jesus ever bothered you? Do you just mostly ignore talk of “the blood of Jesus”?

6. We don’t use language of “sacrifice” or “the blood of Jesus” much at Union Church (at least not with my leadership), largely because of all the likely misunderstandings (and downright harmful understandings) that usually come with that language. Do you think we lose anything much by avoid this language? Should we use it more – making an effort to increase understanding of what it is really talking about?

7. God is love. Discuss.

8. How can you more fully respond to the reality that God is love?