Why, in the name of the Gods, is the sacrificial urge hoary, inveterate, and possibly everlasting?
Sacrifice in old-time religion was offering gifts of foodstuffs, animals, or people, to God or to the Gods.
Ancient anxiety about sustenance may have been the original impetus for religious sacrifice, as hungry people sought to curry favor and appease and please the Gods in return for peas and leeks and stews of curry flavor.
Sacrifice one animal and the Gods might send you ten animals in return. Offer grain, and watch the black dirt sprout green.
That may have been the beginnings, but religious sacrifice became used for other purposes too. Gods were often angry and needed propitiation. People often sinned and needed divine forgiveness. A well-placed sacrifice could help.
Before long, all the temples of antiquity, except, notably, Egypt’s, and all the antique pyramids, except, notably, Egypt’s, were set up to service sacrifice.
Many thousands of animals met their maker, as did untold numbers of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and flowering vines. The God of the Hebrew Bible is quoted saying he loves the smell of burnt offerings in the morning.
A troubling outgrowth of all this ancient sacrifice was human sacrifice. People of any age or sex, be they enemy or intimate, were cut up for the cause. Many thousands met their maker.
Hebrew sacrifice, however, stopped with animals and did not proceed to humans. It’s entirely possible that the biblical story of Abraham poised to sacrifice his son to God, and stopped in the act by God, is precisely a tale leveled against human sacrifice, which was generously practiced in the cultures surrounding the ancient Hebrews, except, notably, Egypt.Christianity permitted one human sacrifice and then had done with it. Jesus was said to be God’s self-sacrifice (to himself), since Jesus was God incarnate and died to satisfy God’s injured sense of justice over the matter of human sinfulness. Because Christianity sprung from the tail of Judaism and because it wished to supersede Judaism, Christianity announced that it was putting a period to sacrifice, and therefore it called Jesus the ultimate Lamb of God and the final efficacious offering to the deity.
In some sense, Roman Catholic Christianity continues with human sacrifice because each worship service is termed the ‘sacrifice of the mass,’ by which Catholics mean that the communion offering of the body and blood of Christ is a literal sacrifice of Jesus, not simply a memorial meal, as Protestant Christians insist.
Animal and food sacrifices are still performed in India, Africa, and Arabia. Even among atheists and Humanists, the ascetic ‘sacrifice’ of fasting from meals is everywhere.
Why is ‘sacrifice’ a thing? Why is the sacrificial urge hoary, inveterate, and possibly everlasting?
Featured image ‘The Future Demands a Sacrifice’ by Marc-Anthony Macon via Flickr