The Sacrificial Lamb.

[The Leaven – exploring the relationship between science and religion (cont)]

There may have been numerous reasons why ancient communities may have performed rituals and sacrifices. Perhaps they needed to address fear, uncertainty, need, respect or gratitude. Whatever the reasons, rituals are still a part of modern life and sacrifices can still form important components to some religious ceremonies, although they are more likely to be symbolic and just a distant reminder of our pagan ancestry. In the era of the Old Testament, sacrifices were a major preoccupation of Hebrew life. It seems evident that they were carried out to avoid uncertainties and as a form of thanksgiving. They were often accompanied by rituals that were performed according to specific instructions outlined in the books of the Old Testament:

When anyone offers an animal sacrifice, it may be one of his cattle or one of his sheep or goats. If he is offering one of his cattle as a burnt-offering, he must bring a bull without defects. He must present it at the entrance of the Tent of the Lord’s presence so that the Lord will accept him. The man shall put his hand on its head, and it will be accepted as a sacrifice to take away his sins.
[Lev. 1.2-4]

The Old Testament is derived from at least four literary sources that span over several decades from 950 to 587 BC. Unavoidably, some information may have been lost or contorted through subsequent translations but the most authoritative form was thought to be the Pentateuch, a word that derives from the Greek language and meaning five scrolls. The Pentateuch was adopted around 400 BC and consisted of the five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The Hebrew word for these five books is the Torah, meaning law or teachings.

The Sacrificial Lamb. Ghent altarpiece by Jan van Eyck,1432.

The Pentateuch mainly describes the story of Moses: his birth, teachings through a covenant with God and ending with his death. It begins with the book of Genesis. This book provides an in depth history of Moses’ pedigree starting with an account of primeval beginnings to how his ancestors came to live in Egypt. The next book, Exodus, recounts the most important event in Israel’s history, the escape from servitude by its people. The Hebrews were led from Egypt by Moses. While in exile from Egypt for killing a slave master, Moses formed a covenant with God. Through using Moses as a mediator, God provided laws and commandments that Hebrews had to follow to avoid returning to servitude. Leviticus, the third book, contained the rules and regulations for performing religious ceremonies in order to honour God. It includes comprehensive details of how sacrifices are to be performed.

The following are the regulations for repayment-offerings, which are very holy. The animal for this offering is to be killed on the north side of the altar, where the animals for the burnt-offerings are killed, and its blood is to be thrown against all four sides of the altar. All its fat shall be removed and offered on the altar: the fat tail, the fat covering the internal organs, the kidneys and the fat on them, and the best part of the liver. The priest shall burn all the fat on the altar as a food-offering to the Lord. It is a repayment-offering. Any male of the priestly families may eat it, but it must be eaten in a holy place, because it is very holy.
[Lev. 7.1-6]

The book of Numbers deals with the story of the Hebrews after they left Mount Sinai. It includes details of two censuses taken by Moses, one taken of those surviving the exodus on departing Mount Sinai and another taken a generation later. The final book, Deuteronomy, is a summary of Moses achievements as the people prepare to occupy Canaan. The main objective of Deuteronomy seems to be in encouraging the people to give thanks to God. This takes the form of a liturgy delivered by Moses to celebrate future harvests:

After you have occupied the land that the Lord your God is giving you and have settled there, each of you must place in a basket the first part of each crop that you harvest and you must take it with you to the one place of worship.
[Deut. 26. 1-3]

Interestingly, this type of harvest thanksgiving has been conserved through religious tradition and is still carried out today.

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