Sacrifice is a basic activity at the foundation of the world's religions, often involving huge expense, monumental building, and the service of dedicated priests. For both practitioners of religion and those who study religion, sacrifice is difficult to fathom. Modern society does not present any direct equivalent of sacrifice, and for that reason attempts have perennially been made to explain sacrifice in terms of more familiar social relationships. This entry surveys the basic presentations of sacrifice within the Bible and then assesses modern attempts to understand sacrifice.
SACRIFICE IN BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVE
The book of Leviticus describes sacrifice in the particular case of an offering called sacrifice of sharings (Lev. 3:1), where participation in a meal is basic. The notion that a sacrifice might involve worshippers in a feast is commonplace in ethnographic studies, and it is specifically attested to in patriarchal and Mosaic narratives. Jacob formalizes his treaty with Laban on that basis (Gen. 31:51-54), and Jethro celebrates both the Lord's greatness and the presence of Aaron and the elders thereby (Exod. 18:9-12). In 1 Samuel 1:3-5, it is recounted as a matter of course that Elkanah should distribute sacrificial portions in his own household. At the time of the sacrifice to solemnize the covenant, Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the 70 elders are said to have beheld God eat and drink. That festive communion is an example of a sacrifice of sharings (Exod. 24:4-11). The association is persistent in royal provision for feasts together with sacrifices, whether the king involved be David (2 Sam. 6:17-19), Solomon (1 Kings 3:15; 8:62-65), or Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 30:22).
In Leviticus 3, the animals offered are the focus: they must be unblemished cattle, sheep, or goats, male or female (vv. 1, 6, 12). The offerer lays his hand on the animal and kills it in front of the tent of meeting (vv. 2, 8, 13). The priests take up their duties of throwing the blood and receiving the fat of the entrails, the kidneys with their fat, and the remainder of the liver which comes off with them (vv. 3, 4, 9, 10, 14, 15). Following the logic that the fat belongs to God as well as blood, the lamb is also taken (v. 9). The priests offer these fatty portions for "an odor of pleasantness to the Lord" (v. 5, cf. vv. 3, 16), or God's "food" (vv. 11, 16). God's desire is to consume a part of what is pure with his people and sacrifice was and is a way to offer life in the way that God pleases so that life can be intensified. Hence, the Temple occupied a dominant place in Judaism as the single place where sacrifice could be offered. The Temple in Jerusalem was conceived of as the intersection between heaven and earth for prophets and teachers in Israel until its destruction by the Romans in 70 C.E.
Like many of the prophets before him and many other rabbis in his own time, Jesus keenly interested himself in how sacrifice was offered in the Temple (Matt. 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19:45-46, John 2:13-17). He objected to the presence of merchants who had been given permission to sell sacrificial animals in the vast, outer court of the Temple. His objection was based on his own, peasant's view of purity: he felt that Israelites should offer what they produced themselves, not things they had just bought from priests. He believed so vehemently what he taught that he and his followers drove the animals and the sellers out of the great court, no doubt with the use of force.
Jesus' interference in the ordinary worship of the Temple might have been sufficient by itself to bring about his execution. Roman officials were so interested in its smooth functioning at the hands of the priests whom they appointed that they sanctioned the penalty of death for sacrilege. Yet there is no indication that Jesus was arrested immediately. Instead, he remained at liberty for some time, and he was finally taken into custody after one of his meals, the Last Supper. Jesus could not simply be dispatched as a cultic criminal. He was not attempting an onslaught upon the Temple as such; his dispute with the authorities concerned purity within the Temple. Other rabbis of his period also engaged in forceful demonstrations of the purity they required in the conduct of worship. The meaning Jesus gave his meals after what he did in the Temple brought about his arrest. Jesus had long celebrated fellowship during meals as a foretaste of the kingdom. But now he also added a new and scandalous dimension of meaning. His occupation of the Temple having failed, Jesus said of the wine, "This is my blood," and of the bread, "This is my flesh" (Matt 26:26, 28; Mark 14:22, 24; Luke 22:19-20; 1 Corinthians 11:24-25; Justin, 1 Apology 66.3).
In Jesus' context, the context of his confrontation with the authorities of the Temple, his words can have had only one meaning. He cannot have meant, "Here are my personal body and blood"; that is an interpretation which only makes sense at a later stage. Jesus' point was rather that, in the absence of a Temple that permitted his view of purity to be practiced, wine was his blood of sacrifice, and bread was his flesh of sacrifice. In Aramaic, "blood" and "flesh" (which may also be rendered as "body") can carry such a sacrificial meaning, and in Jesus' context, that is the most natural meaning. The meaning of "the last supper," then, actually evolved during a series of meals after Jesus' occupation of the Temple. During that period, Jesus claimed that wine and bread were a better sacrifice than what was offered in the Temple: at least wine and bread were Israel's own, not tokens of priestly dominance. No wonder the opposition to him, even among the Twelve (in the shape of Judas, according to the Gospels), became deadly. In essence, Jesus made his meals into a rival altar, and we may call such a reading of his words a ritual or sacrificial interpretation.