Thursday, September 24, 2009

sacrifice: What's all the fuss?

As I pursue my interest in the analytical difference made in our exegetical and historical reconstructions by the so-called "Parting of the Ways," both the book of Hebrews (I can't bring myself to write "epistle to") and the presence of cultic images/metaphors/references in the NT have caught my attention. So I've been reading Christian Eberhart's essay, "Characteristics of Sacrificial Metaphors in Hebrews" (Hebrews: Contemporary Methods—New Insights [Gabriella Gelardini, ed.; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005], 37–64) and, quite frankly, learning a lot. Eberhart begins by arguing that burning, rather than slaughter, is the central idea of θυσία [thusia] and זבח [zevaḥ], especially since what is burned in the burning rite rises up to God.
So both the Hebrew term זבח and the Greek term θυσία need to be understood in a broader sense. Another general Hebrew term for sacrifices, קרבן, literally means "what is brought near" and will be translated as "offering," just like its Greek rendering προσφορά. Once more, neither the Hebrew nor the Greek term stresses or alludes to animal slaughter. Instead, both express the inherent dynamics of a sacrificial ritual which, throughout its performance, "moves" toward the most holy altar, thus "approaching" God who resides in the sanctuary. Therefore a first conclusion of this survey of the sacrificial cult in the HB/OT is that the slaughter of animals is rather insignificant. (44; my emphasis)

I was a bit surprised to see the word "insignificant" used to describe the "slaughter" of sacrificial animals; I would have thought that if death weren't an important part of the idea then some animals would have been offered alive (and kept that way). But at the same time I find myself somewhat persuaded that the emphasis of this language is on "giving (up) to God" rather than "killing (for God)."

This has some rather important consequences for a number of well-known (and well-worn) passages from the NT, including 1 John 1.7 and Rom 12.1–2, which Eberhart touches on (50–55). And while sometimes he seems to be making distinctions without meaningful differences (e.g., 52, n. 32), I do find his reading compelling.

My question is, Do any of you—who probably know more about the sacrificial cult in the Hebrew Bible, in second-Temple Judaism, or as refracted in the NT—find Eberhart's argument as compelling as I do? Is there something to be said in defense of the traditional emphasis of sacrifice on "death" rather than—or simply more than—on "offering"?


Jack Weinbender said...

Not including myself as someone who would "know more about the sacrificial cult in the Hebrew Bible..." but I do find this very compelling. I wonder what Eberhart might say about the idiomatic "cutting" of a covenant (though perhaps not the 'same' as a sacrifice, there must be some semantic overlap).

Also if my memory serves me correctly, there were only some sacrifices that were burned-up completely, the others were eaten by the priests. I wonder how this might fit into an early understanding of the Eucharist?

Rafael said...

I'm not sure the use of כרת for covenant-making is relevant to Eberhart's argument; he really is narrowly focused on sacrifice.

You're right that "only some sacrifices were burned-up completely," but I think Eberhart would say that "dedication to God" rather than "burning" is the point. With זבח/θυσία and קרבן/προσφορά, the thing that is "offered" or "brought near" is dedicated. I do think this might cause some problems for Eberhart's argument; at the very least, it's a problem to think through.

Funnily enough, one of Eberhart's primary points is similar to this. He points to the cereal offering in Leviticus, which is also (I think) described as זבח, as proof that dedication more than slaughter is the point. But as I said already, I think he marginalizes the slaughter of sacrificial animals too much. If the slaughter didn't matter (only the application of the victim's blood), then I wouldn't expect the moment of slaughter to be ritualized. If it is, then the slaughter matters, even if it isn't the heart of the matter.

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