Approaching God

In his contribution to Ritual and Metaphor: Sacrifice in the Bible, Christian Eberhart points out that the term qorban is Leviticus’s generic term for the variety of offerings used in tabernacle worship. The terminology “captures the dynamic movement of sacrificial material toward the sanctuary and ultimately toward God who, according to the priestly concepts, resides there” (23).

These connotations “permeate the regulations on sacrifice in Lev 1–7. Such an approach was actualized, for example, during regular pilgrimages to regional cult sites or to the central sanctuary (Exod 23:14–17; 34:18–26; Lev 23:1–44; Deut 16:1–17).” Modern theories of sacrifice mark sacrifice negatively, but “such terminological choices of the priestly communities and the ancient tradents of the Hebrew Bible texts do not convey any negative connotations. Instead, further Hebrew Bible texts indicate that specifically the burnt offering, the cereal offering, and the sacrifice of well-being are often associated with a cheerful, merry, and celebratory atmosphere (1 Sam 1:13–14; 2 Chr 29:20–36)” (24).

Eberhart rightly adds that from the biblical perspective the violence of animal slaughter is not the focal point of the rite: “these terminological choices do not point to the act of slaughter at all. In animal sacrifice, slaughter occurs toward the beginning of the ritual; the ritual, however, continues after this activity, leading toward the act of burning all or a portion of the sacrificial material on the so-called altar of burnt offering (Lev 1:9, 13; 2:2, 11; 3:5, 11; 4:10, 31). The connection between the latter and the designation of sacrifices as qorban l’YHWH – ‘offering for yhwh’ – is manifest in the interpretive comment that the priestly community usually attached to the burning rite, namely. . . ‘a pleasing odor for yhwh’ (Lev 1:9, 13, 17; 2:2; 3:5, 11, 16; 4:31). The ritual dynamics of the cultic sacrifice thus conclude when the sacrificial material is being transformed by the altar fire and its odor is perceived by God” (24).

Minchah, the common term for cereal offering, can be used for animal offerings as well, and, as Eberhart points out, in “secular” contexts to indicate “a gift or present of reverence or reconciliation, for instance in the scene of Jacob’s encounter with Esau.” In political contexts, the term can refer to a present or payment that corresponds to a power differential in the private or political realm. “The act of giving a present or tribute constitutes a required and due gesture of submission” (25). At the sanctuary, a minchah is “a ritual sacrifice is a gift of reverence or reconciliation for God. It conveys both the submission of the offerer and his or her acknowledgment of the superior status of God” (25).

The word normally translated as “sacrifice”—zabach—refers to slaughter in preparation for a meal. The term “encompasses a festive meal during which the offerer, together with family and friends, had the privilege of eating sacrificial meat (Gen 31:54; Exod 18:12; 24:5; Deut 27:7; 1 Sam 1:3–4; 2:13–16; 9:12–13; 1 Kgs 8:62–66; 19:21; Hos 8:13; 1 Chr 29:21–22). Such a meal is an integral part of this sacrifice” (26).

In sum “none of these comprehensive terms in the Bible focuses exclusively on slaughter; instead, all of them include the final act of burning” (28) and, one can add, commonly include a climactic meal. He concludes that the term “sacrifice” is polyvalent and should be used with more discrimination. Especially the ancient Hebrew usage should be distinguished from the common “secularized metaphor with rather negative connotations of loss and destruction” (32), which distinctly fails to capture the sense of sacrifice in Scripture.

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