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(Read this series from its beginning here.)
There are competing narratives within the Christian sacred texts as well:
“Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: ‘Sacrifice and offering you did not desire . . . with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased.’” (Hebrews 10:5)
Some will ask, “Didn’t God originate sacrifice in Genesis?” It is true that Cain and Abel made sacrifices, but that only proves that it was common. When Cain departs after killing Abel, the earth is characterized as well-populated (see Genesis 4.14, 16–17). But there is not one single verse where God originates and commands sacrifice in Genesis.
Others will say, “Didn’t God make clothing for Adam and Eve out of animal skins?” Yes, but the types of animals one skins to produce clothing are not the animals typically used in ritual sacrifices. You would not sacrifice a lamb to get wool for clothing. You would simply shave it. In other words, there is no intrinsic connection between ritual sacrifice and the production of clothing. One does not imply the other.
Finally, some may wonder, “What about God’s acceptance of Abel’s sacrifice and God’s rejection of Cain’s?” As we discussed briefly in Enough for Us All, much is missed when we read stories from our context rather than from the context of the original audience. This story was originally told in the context of Mesopotamian landowners and nomadic herdsmen. The “tillers of the ground” were in positions of privilege in that society. For agricultural reasons, they looked at land very differently than the nomadic herdsmen did. The herdsmen believed the land belonged to everyone and was not to be privately owned. Being nomadic, they were also the weaker of the two. The tillers of the ground had more permanent settlements and were thus stronger. They oppressed the migrant nomadic herdsmen as intruders on their property.
In the Cain and Abel narrative, God takes the side of the oppressed, cursing the ground for Cain’s sake and turning him from a tiller of the ground into a nomadic wanderer so that he can learn to view life through the lens of the marginalized.
Those who claim that God accepted Abel’s sacrifice because it contained blood and Cain’s didn’t, should remember that Cain’s sacrifice was completely acceptable under the Levitical rules for grain, wine, and food offerings. These did not involve blood either. The story of Cain and Abel was not a matter of “blood” being required by a God who demanded sacrifice. Their story is about the way of mercy rather than sacrifice. This is a story concerning liberation from oppression, ritual and sociological sacrifice, and societies being founded on the way of mercy rather than mutual hatred of a common enemy.
The Hebrew sacred texts include a trajectory that reverses the common sacrificial story:
- People are called from ritual human sacrifice to ritual animal sacrifice.
- Hebrew prophets call for a movement away from even animal sacrifice
- Jesus concludes this prophetic trajectory in the gospels by calling his society from the way of sacrifice to the way of mercy.
Eventually, the Jewish people had to abandon animal sacrifices by necessity when they lost their temple in 70 C.E. Yet there was a social transformation that accompanied this ritual transition Karen Armstrong explains:
“But the most progressive Jews in Palestine were the Pharisees [of the school of Hillel], who developed some of the most inclusive and advanced spiritualities of the Jewish Axial Age. They believed that the whole of Israel was called to be a holy nation of priests and that God could be experienced in the humblest home as well as in the temple. He [sic] was present in the smallest details of daily life, and Jews could approach him [sic] without elaborate ritual. They could atone for their sins by acts of loving-kindness rather than animal sacrifice. Charity was the most important commandment of the law . . . In Rabbinic Judaism, the Jewish Axial Age came of age. The Golden Rule, compassion, and loving-kindness were central to this new Judaism; by the time the temple had been destroyed, some of the Pharisees already understood that they did not need a temple to worship God, as this Talmudic story makes clear: It happened that R. Johanan ben Zakkai went out from Jerusalem, and R. Joshua followed him and saw the burnt ruins of the Temple and he said: ‘Woe is it that the place, where the sins of Israel find atonement, is laid waste.’ Then said R. Johanan, “Grieve not, we have an atonement equal to the Temple, the doing of loving deeds, as it is said, ‘I desire love and not sacrifice.’’
Kindness was the key to the future; Jews must turn away from the violence and divisiveness of the war years and create a united community with “one body and one soul.” When the community was integrated in love and mutual respect, God was with them, but when they quarreled with one another, he [sic] returned to heaven, where the angels chanted with “one voice and one melody.” When two or three Jews sat and studied harmoniously together, the divine presence sat in their midst. Rabbi Akiba, who was killed by the Romans in 132 CE, taught that the commandment “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” was “the great principle of the Torah.” To show disrespect to any human being who had been created in God’s image was seen by the rabbis as a denial of God himself and tantamount to atheism. Murder was a sacrilege: “Scripture instructs us that whatsoever sheds human blood is regarded as if he had diminished the divine image.” God had created only one man at the beginning of time to teach us that destroying only one human life was equivalent to annihilating the entire world, while to save a life redeemed the whole of humanity. To humiliate anybody—even a slave or a non-Jew—was equivalent to murder, a sacrilegious defacing of God’s image. To spread a scandalous, lying story about another person was to deny the existence of God. Religion was inseparable from the practice of habitual respect to all other human beings. You could not worship God unless you practiced the Golden Rule and honored your fellow humans, whoever they were.” (The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions (Kindle Locations 7507-7540)
Jesus models this same movement away from sociological sacrifice to mercy. Nonetheless, the elites embrace the way of sacrifice and choose to unite around their fear of the social changes Jesus’ teachings would create. Those of privilege and power felt they had everything to lose from a more distributively just society. So they arrest Jesus (Luke 22:52), and those who had previously been enemies unite in their desire to silence him (Luke 23:12). This is the way of economic, political, and sociological sacrifice. Jesus becomes the actual sociological sacrifice, the enemy around which rival enemies experience newfound unity and friendship. The story of his execution has all the telltale signatures of a sociological sacrifice story, including an angry mob that gets swept up in the scapegoating mechanism.
Yet Jesus’ story does not end in yet another sacrifice of an innocent by yet another human society. We can read the Jesus story so that it is not a narrative about a cross, but that it’s a narrative about how that unjust sacrifice of crucifixion was undone, reversed, and overcome. This is a story, not where death is overcome by another death, but where death-dealing is overcome and reversed by life and life-giving. The resurrection reversed and undid what was accomplished through the crucifixion of Jesus.
This is a story that calls us to imagine a world founded on the way of mercy rather than sacrifice. This is an alternate way of organizing human life that Jesus modeled and taught, a way the Hebrew prophets called for, and a way that can be found in the narratives of both the text of Christians and the Jewish people.
These narratives speak of a God who, rather than demanding someone’s sacrifice, stands in solidarity with those our societies sacrifice. We are called by these narratives to do the same.