Archive for March 19th, 2008

Slaughtered Sheep (Do not click here if you are squeamish!)In Part I of this series, we examined Lamb Selection Day, and in Part II, we examined the preparations for Passover. In Part III, we delved into the Passover Banquet, now called the Seder. Tonight, in Part IV, we will examine the passover sacrifice.

Origins

The origins of sacrifice in Hebraic tradition, and so, too, for us, goes back hundreds of years before Moses and the Exodus to the time of Abram. In Genesis 15, we read:

After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision:
“Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.”

But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”

Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:1-6)

So here, God has promised to protect Abram and to reward him. In Abram’s culture, the two most important things one could have were children and land – because these were the only things that could carry on as a legacy to future generations. Abram, when told by God, Himself, that He would reward him, immediately and boldly asked God about children, and had faith in God’s answer to him (which is a bit different response than most modern/Western Christians would expect in reaction to a Word from the Lord).

He also said to him, “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.”

But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?”

Here, Abram has the chutzpah to ask the God of the universe for a sign by which he will know that God will give him land. And so God set up a Covenant with Abram.

So the LORD said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.”

Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. (Genesis 15:7-10)

Sacrificed Sheep (do not click if you are squeamish!)Note that God did not have to tell Abram what to do with the animals, as this was a common means of creating a covenant between a greater party and a lesser party. This type of covenant, sometimes called a “bloodpath” is still practiced by the Bedouin of the Negev in modern Israel – particularly in arranged marriages.

In this bloodpath ceremony, the lesser party provides an animal – or animals – to be sacrificed and the greater party provides the terms of the covenant. Then, the lesser party kills the animal(s), and drains the blood into a trough. The greater party then walks through the blood, stamping his feet in the liquid to say “If I do not provide what I promised, you may do this to me (i.e. you may kill me)”. The lesser party then walks through the blood to say “If I do not keep my end of the bargain, you may do this to me (i.e. you may kill me)”.

[Even today, in Bedouin culture, if a husband or wife is found to be unfaithful or lazy or somehow less than what was promised in the bloodpath ceremony, the father of the unacceptable spouse is very likely to end up at the bottom of a wadi with his throat slit and shoeprints spattering his blood. As you might imagine, then, there is a good deal of pressure for everyone in the family to help each other's marriages to work out!]

Back to the story in Genesis:

Abram had supplied the animals for sacrifice, but what terms was God bringing to the table? In return for God giving Abram children and land and being their God, Abram would need to walk blameless before God. If God did not keep his end of the bargain, Abram could ‘kill’ him (we Westerners scoff at this idea, but this is the Eastern picture being drawn for Abram, an Easterner). However, if Abram didn’t keep his end of the bargain, God could kill him.

At this point, Abram had to be wondering what he had just gotten himself into. How could he expect to walk blameless before God? We read:

As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. (Genesis 15:12)

“A thick and dreadful darkness came over him” is a Hebrew colloquialism which essentially means, in modern English – “he was scared out of his wits”. However, here is what happened next:

When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. (Genesis 15:17)

Throughout scripture, God is symbolized by two primary images – fire and smoke. And so it is that first, as the greater party, God walked through the blood. Then, rather than Abram walking through the blood – which would have been an almost instant death sentence – God, in the form of a blazing torch, walked through the blood as the lesser party, as well! In doing so, He was saying “Abram, if you do not walk blameless before me, I will pay the penalty for your sin”, and in doing so – at that moment – Jesus was sentenced to death.

Sacrificial System

Many Christians have a misconception that the Jewish belief was that their sins were forgiven by the sacrifice of animals. This cannot be farther from the truth. The reason for sacrifice was (at least) two-fold:

  1. It had to cost something, and in being so, it had to be messy and vile – because that is what our sin is to God
  2. It was a call to God to ‘remember’ his promise of mercy and grace – His covenant with Abraham. Not that God could “forget” and require “remembering” (as we think of the words), but that He would “remember” as He had throughout the Hebrew scriptures, by giving specific attention to the person.

After the fall of the Temple in 70 A.D., the Jewish people looked at verses like I Samuel 15:22

Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.

And so their Rabbis taught as our Rabbi Paul did:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. (Romans 12:1)

It is to be through obedience to God, not through sacrifice of animals, that they would worship the Lord – not to earn grace, but out of love for Him.

The Crucifixion

During the Second Temple period, each day there were two sacrifices made for all the people of Israel, one at 9 a.m. and one at 3 p.m. The evening sacrifice of passover (remembering that this would have been the evening BEFORE Passover in our Western measurement of day and night) was for each family unit’s lamb, which was then shared with the family in the Passover Banquet. The afternoon sacrifice, at 3 p.m. (also called “the ninth hour” of the day), was to be the Passover sacrifice for the entire nation of Israel.

And so it is that we read:

About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.”

Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. The rest said, “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.”

And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. (Matthew 27:46-50)

And so it was that, at the very time when the Passover lamb in the Temple was being slaughtered for the nation of Israel, the Lamb of God was being sacrificed for ALL the nations, for those who would be grafted into Israel. According to John, the only disciple we know was present at the crucifixion, we know that Jesus’ last words were “It is finished”. And so it was – all the blood, all the sacrifices, all of it! The promise made by God back in Genesis was made complete, and the sins of all who would accept His grace were fogiven and forgotten.

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