Homer’s Iliad is an epic poem, originally written in dactylic hexameter in Greek in the 8th Century BC. It tells a story, set in the tenth year of the Greek siege of Troy, about a falling out between the Greek hero Achilles and the Mycenean King and leader of the Greeks Agamemnon, after Agamemnon dishonored Achilles, which led to Achilles withdrawing with his men from the war. The gods are very active participants in Homer’s account of the war, and Zeus decrees that the Greeks will lose to Hector’s Trojan forces until such time as Achilles is properly honored and returns to the war. Agamemnon seeks to make amends to Achilles, but the hero will not listen until, with the Trojans on the verge of burning the Greek encampment, he allows his friend Patroclus to fight in his armour in his place. Patroclus is killed by Hector at which point Achilles, turning his wrath from Agamemnon to Hector, reenters the battle and slays Hector. The poem ends with King Priam, Hector’s father, ransoming the body of his son from Achilles.
Sacrifice is to be found throughout the Iliad. Greeks and Trojans alike sacrifice to the gods of Olympus. Sacrifice, in the Iliad, is conceived of both as offerings which are the gods just due, and a means of placating the wrath of an angry god. The former concept can be seen in Zeus’ arguments with his wife Hera. Hera is single-mindedly set upon Troy’s destruction and is displeased with Zeus’s decision to temporarily turn the tide of battle in Troy’s favour. Zeus takes the position that since he has already decreed final victory for the Greeks that ought to satisfy Hera and that at any rate Hector deserves honor too. He points out that due to Hector’s conscientious piety the altars of the gods in Troy have never been empty. The second concept can be seen in the first book of the Iliad, where the Greeks return Chryseis, the daughter of Chryses, priest of Apollo, to her father. They also bring a hecatomb (a sacrifice of 100 cattle). The purpose of the sacrifice was to appease Apollo, who had answered his priest’s prayers and sent a plague among the Greeks.
The most disturbing sacrifice in the Iliad, however, is that offered by Achilles himself, at the funeral of Patroclus. At the funeral which occurs in the twenty-third book, Achilles slays twelve captive sons of the Trojan nobility and burns their bodies on the funeral pyre as a sacrifice, fulfilling a vow he made to his deceased friend in the eighteenth book. This is the only human sacrifice to occur in the Iliad.
Whatever the sacrifice – cattle, oxen, wine, captured enemies, and whether offered as a routine pious obligation or as a propitiation on the part of a sinner who has offended a god, sacrifices were perceived as gifts men give to the gods and/or to the departed spirits of their comrades and ancestors.
This kind of sacrificial system was not unique to the ancient Greeks. Indeed, versions of it existed among virtually all ancient peoples and some versions of it survive to this day. This includes the ancient Middle East where the true and living God spoke to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, made a covenant with their descendants the ancient Israelites, and later revealed Himself fully in the person of His Son Jesus Christ.
What does the true and living God think of sacrifice? Does He demand sacrifices from His worshipers or accept them if they are offered?
God’s revelation of Himself begins with the five books the Jews call the Torah and which are also called the Pentateuch. These books are the record of God’s covenant with His people Israel. God had promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that He would make of their descendants a great nation, give them the land into which He had called them, and they would be His people and He would be their God. The first book of the Torah ends with the Israelites in Egypt, the second book of the Torah begins with them still in Egypt, 400 years later, in slavery. God reveals Himself to Moses, an Israelite who had been adopted into Pharaoh’s family, and Moses leads the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt into the wilderness of Sinai. There God makes a covenant with Israel, in which He gives them His commandments, a priest class and religious system to worship Him, and a basic constitution for when they enter the Promised Land.
In the Torah, the God who makes a covenant with Israel, is revealed to be the one true God, the God who created the heavens and earth and all that exists. At the very beginning He is seen as accepting sacrifice from Abel and rejecting the sacrifice of Abel’s brother Cain, which leads to Cain’s jealous fit in which he murders his brother. A few chapters later man has become so corrupt that God sends a Flood to destroy the world, preserving Noah and his family in the ark. After the Flood is over, Noah builds an altar, and offers sacrifices of clean beasts and fowl. God “smelled a sweet savour” – He accepted the sacrifice. God accepts sacrifices from the patriarchs as well.
When Moses goes to Pharaoh to demand that He let God’s people go it is for the express purpose that they might go out into the wilderness and sacrifice to their God. At Mt. Sinai the covenant God makes with Israel is sealed with a sacrifice. It is there that God gives the Israelites, as part of their religious system, a system of sacrifice. The sacrificial system, like most of the ceremonial aspects of God’s covenant with Israel, is recorded in the Book of Leviticus.
How does the Levitical sacrifice system compare to pagan sacrificial systems? There are many similarities. In the Levitical system God ordained sacrifices of animals as well as burnt offerings of grain and other agricultural produce. There were offerings which were to be conducted simply as acts of worship and there were sacrifices that were to be brought by repentant sinners. Then there was the Day of Atonement, to be held each year, in which the High Priest would enter the innermost part of the Tabernacle/Temple with an offering for the sins of the people in general.
There is one very noticeable difference between the sacrificial system established by the Lord and that of many pagan religions, especially those of the other people groups in the Middle East in that era. This is a difference that the Lord emphasizes and which plays a very important role in subsequent Israeli history. The difference is that the Lord condemns the sacrifice of human children as an abomination and a capital crime, whereas Ba’al and Moloch demanded such sacrifices.
There is only one occasion in the Old Testament where God appears to demand a sacrifice of this nature. On that occasion, recorded in Genesis 22, God speaks to Abraham and tells him to take his son Isaac, and go to the region of Moriah and offer Isaac as a burnt offering to the Lord on one of the mountains there. Abraham, obediently set off for Moriah with Isaac and two servants. Leaving his donkey with his servants, he and Isaac took the wood, fire and a knife, and began to climb the mountain. When Isaac noticed that they appeared to have forgotten an essential element of the sacrifice and asked about it, Abraham replied:
“My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering”.
Abraham bound his son, laid him on the altar, then reached for his knife to complete the sacrifice. Here God stopped him and said:
Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.
Abraham then noticed a ram caught in a thicket behind him which he sacrificed instead.
This is the only occasion where God commands a human sacrifice of anyone in the Old Testament. (1) He commands it, knowing that He will prevent it from actually taking place, in order to test and demonstrate Abraham’s faith.
In contrast, among the peoples of that part of the world in that era, the sacrifice of first-born children to idols was prevalent. References to the practice can be found throughout the Old Testament. It was the practice of the peoples who were living in Canaan before the Israelite invasion under Joshua and Caleb. This is the context in which God’s order to the Israelites to wipe out the peoples of the land of Canaan after He led them out of Egypt and the wilderness must be understood. It is not explicitly stated as the reason, for God does not need to justify Himself to man, but Israel’s failure to follow through on the order, led to her own contamination. The historical and prophetic writings of the Old Testament record that Israel would in periods of repentance and revival, tear down the altars of these idols, but that in periods of backsliding and apostasy they would not only tolerate these practices among the remnants of these peoples but would join in the worship of the idols and the child-sacrifices themselves, which would bring God’s judgment and condemnation.
There was only one actual human sacrifice which God would ever accept. It was a very different kind of human sacrifice than Achilles’ sacrifice of the 12 Trojans to the spirit of Patrocles or of the offering of firstborn children to Moloch. It was not a sacrifice God demanded of people nor was it an offering man made to God. It was the last sacrifice God would ever accept and it lies at the heart of the New Testament.
It is foreshadowed in the account of the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22. Note that Abraham told Isaac that “God will provide himself a lamb”. After God stops him from sacrificing Isaac, it is a ram that Abraham finds and sacrifices, not a lamb. It would be centuries later that God would provide that lamb Abraham spoke of.
John the Baptist pointed Him out in John 1:29 where, seeing Jesus coming to him, he said “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.”
Christ’s death on the Cross was a sacrifice – the final sacrifice, the last blood sacrifice God would accept, and the only one which would ever be truly effective in taking away people’s sins. St. Paul, writing to the Church in Ephesus, wrote:
And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour. (Ephesians 5:2)
Writing to the Church in Rome, St. Paul wrote that God set forth Christ “to be a propitiation through faith in his blood” (3:25). A propitiation is a sacrifice that appeases the wrath of a deity, that turns away the deity’s anger against a sinner, and makes that deity pleased with the sinner again.
It is the author of the Book of Hebrews who gives us the fullest picture of Jesus Christ as the true sacrifice. The Book of Hebrews depicts the Tabernacle/Temple, priesthood, and sacrifices of the Old Covenant as shadow-pictures of Christ, Who is the true High Priest (3:1, 4:14-15, 5:1-10), without sin of His own, Who offered up Himself as the one true sacrifice once and for all (7:27) and so was able to enter the true Holy of Holies, in the eternal Tabernacle in Heaven with His own blood to take away the sins of the world (9). Christ’s sacrifice is forever (10:12), perfects those who are sanctified, i.e., set apart as belonging to God, by it (10:14) and has therefore done away with offerings for sin because it has accomplished remission of sins (10:17-18).
What makes this sacrifice different from the human sacrifices which God condemned in the Old Testament?
For one thing Jesus was the only truly innocent victim. Other human beings have “all sinned and come short of the glory of God”. Offering one person, tainted with the guilt of sin, cannot atone for the offences of other sinners. At the Cross, however, God “made Him to be sin for us, Who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him” (Col. 5:21)
Then there was the fact that Jesus’ sacrifice was a voluntary sacrifice. The prophet Isaiah, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, looked ahead through the centuries and wrote of Christ:
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth. (Isaiah 53:7)
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus, hours away from the Crucifixion, prayed “Father, if Thou be willing, remove this cup from Me” but submitted to the will of His Father “nevertheless not My will, but Thine, be done” (Luke 22:42). He did not fight back, or allow His disciples to fight back, when Judas brought the priests and temple guards to arrest Him.
Finally, and most importantly, Jesus’ sacrifice was not something that men offered to God, or that God demanded of men. While pagans had a concept of sacrifice as propitiation for sins, the way they understood it to work was that when they had offended the gods, they would offer them a gift, to butter them up, and appease their anger. Tragically, God’s own people often tended to think of it this way as well. This is why there are so many passages in the Prophetic writings where God tells Israel that He doesn’t want their sacrifices – that He wants faith and humility, mercy and justice, instead. This is why King David, in Psalm 51, composed after Nathan had come and exposed his sin in the affair of Bathsheba, wrote:
For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. (vv. 16-17)
Instead of being something men offer to God, Christ’s sacrifice is God’s gift to man. We have all sinned. We all sin. We have nothing we can offer God to make up for our sin, to make things right between us and God. God, however, being loving and gracious, chose to make us right with Himself. The sacrifice necessary, to make things right between man and God, was not something we could give to God. It was something He had to give to us.
Although Jesus was condemned to die by the chief priests of Israel, those priests did not condemn Him with the purpose of offering Him as a sacrifice. Jesus, as the book of Hebrews tells us, was both the priest and the sacrifice. He offered Himself to God as the final propitiatory sacrifice to reconcile man to God. God declared His acceptance of the sacrifice by raising Christ from the dead and seating Him at the right hand of the Father in Heaven.
It is important that we remember that Jesus was Himself divine. This is vitally important to contemplation of Christ’s sacrifice for at least two reasons. First, the sacrifice of Christ was not just the sacrifice of an innocent man. It was the sacrifice of a Man Who was also God. The Person offered up to God on the altar of the Cross was God Himself, and therefore of infinite worth. That is why His sacrifice is once and for all. Secondly, since Jesus was God Himself, this sacrifice was not something God demanded from or received from human beings. This was a sacrifice, in which God offered up Himself as a sacrifice to Himself, on our behalf. That is why this sacrifice, unlike any other, takes away the sins of the world.
When Jesus died the veil dividing the Holy of Holies, the innermost part of the Temple which signified the direct presence of God with His people, from the rest of the Temple was torn in two from the top to the bottom. It is man’s sin that barred him from access to God’s presence. Christ’s death took that sin away and we are now invited, through faith in Christ and His sacrifice, to boldly enter the presence of God Most High.
Christ’s sacrifice sealed a New Covenant between God and man, a covenant in which everyone who believes in the Savior God has given are now part of God’s people, a covenant in which obedience to God is to flow out of love, not in order to earn God’s acceptance, but out of faith that we are already accepted by God through Christ. The only sacrifices that God will accept from His people today are the “broken spirit” and “broken and contrite heart” that David wrote about and the sacrifice St. Paul wrote about in Romans 12:1:
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.
(1) Judges 11 is not an exception. There the judge Jephthah makes a rash promise to sacrifice the first thing that comes to meet him when he returns from his victory over the Ammonite. It turns out to be his daughter. There is a debate about whether Jephthah actually literally sacrificed her or fulfilled his vow in another way, by placing her in service to God in the Tabernacle. Whatever the case, if he did literally sacrifice her it was in clear violation of the Mosaic Law. There is no indication that God accepted such a sacrifice.
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