Over the years, one thing that has fascinated me about the gospel is the way it takes our familiar human longings and instincts and transforms their common, sinful manifestations in liberative ways.
Take the almost universal human impulse to sacrifice, for instance. Jewish philosopher Moshe Halbertal notes in On Sacrifice that sacrifice is the “most primary and basic form of all ritual.” In Greco-Roman religion, the principle do ut des (I give that you might give) governed sacrificial ritual: You gave gifts to the gods to put them in your debt so they might bless you—or to appease their wrath on the chance you angered them. In ancient times, sacrifice was the anxious, human end of the bargain.
We may think we’re too modern, enlightened and humane to practice the sacrifices that marked the worship of our ancestors, but a quick scan of our contemporary culture says otherwise. We too have rituals of sacrifice.
We put on sacred vestments and sacrifice sweat (and blood, even) at the gym so the gods will bless us with sex appeal (Aphrodite) or spare us from sickness (Apollos). We sacrifice time (and our families) at work so Mammon will shower us with possessions and recession-proof 401(k)s. We sacrifice our neighbors’ reputations in ritualized social media posts to Pheme, goddess of fame and rumor, that we might protect our own in exchange.
When it comes to Scripture, then, we shouldn’t be surprised to find sacrifices. But we should slow down and notice that sacrifice works a bit differently there. Halbertal says that in Scripture, sacrifice in its most basic form is still a gift to God. It is either offered to bring about communion and intimacy or to atone for a breach and restore that communion, ...1
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