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(Read this series from its beginning here.)
Twice in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus uses this phrase:
“Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ (Matthew 9:13)
“But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.” (Matthew 12:7)
Matthew 12 goes further than Matthew 9 by saying that if Jesus’ audience had understood that sacrifice is not of divine origin, we would not have condemned the “innocent.”
Once sacrifice became ritualized and religious, in other words, people believed that God or the gods demanded and required this sacrifice be done. As Jesus followers, we must refute the idea that sacrifice is demanded by a divine being. Jesus read his own Jewish sacred narratives in such a way that he concluded that sacrifice is not divine but human. I believe we have evidence that Jesus taught that the God of the Hebrews had never required sacrifice but had always been seeking to lead humanity away from it.
Consider the following passages, including the one Jesus actually quotes.
“For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God, rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6)
“‘What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?’ says the LORD; ‘I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand?’” (Isaiah 1:11–12)
Consider that last question. Isaiah’s God implies that the origins of the sacrificial practice are not found in Divine requirement: “Who asked you to even do this?” the text asks.
“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire—my ears you have opened—burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require.” (Psalms 40:6)
Jeremiah challenges these practices too.
“For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (Jeremiah 7:22)
This passage from Jeremiah is puzzling because it contradicts the entire book of Leviticus. In Leviticus, God did command the children of Israel to make burnt offerings and sacrifices. So how can Jeremiah’s God say He did not? The answer, I believe, can possibly be found in Leviticus 17:7:
“So that they may no longer offer their sacrifices for goat-demons, to whom they prostitute themselves.” (Leviticus 17:7)
The Hebrews, like the surrounding societies they lived alongside, seemed to have already been practicing sacrifice when they came out of Egypt. Archaeology shows that Egyptian sanctuaries even had a dual apartment structure of holy and most holy places as the Hebrew sanctuary and temple did. The sociological trajectory is that the ritual animal leads to a ritual human, and then to an actual human. This pattern was not only present in the Canaanite cultures of that time; I would argue it was present in most cultures of the day. So the Torah offers not only the common way of sacrifice but also subtle challenges to the way of sacrifice. Both narratives of sacrifice and narratives of anti-sacrifice are found there, and we have to ask which path is life-giving for a community and which is not.
There are competing narratives within the Christian sacred texts as well. We’ll consider those next.