Folly at the Alter

Prehistoric humans projected meanings onto their environment, and as bizarre as any was the belief that in eating an animal or fellow human you acquired its traits. This meant animal eating was valued added with the imagined profit of physical or spiritual enhancements. It is a small step to extend this to value-adding supernatural favors through the act of sacrifice, an act as ancient as religion itself. As if a quota were demanded to sate fate’s bloody maw, a sacrifice might help to ward of your own death or as a favor or homage to the gods. Supernatural reward through killing is a mentality common in human animal tribes the world over and across time.

When it comes to spiritual delusions and animal slaughter, not much separates superstitious minds tens of thousands of years apart. Eventually the sacrifice mentality was codified in religious texts by false prophets oblivious of the holocaust of slaughter their scribblings would spawn. Sacrifice was integral to the lives of neolithic agriculturists and was still being practiced through the Hellenistic period and beyond. “Yea, even the gods do yield to entreaty,” writes Homer,

Therefore to them men offer both victims and meek supplications,
Incense and melting fat, and turn them from anger to mercy ;
Sending up sorrowful prayers, when trespass and sin is committed.
(Iliad, IX, 493)

This is the passage Plato quotes through Adeimantus in The Republic, who is arguing that the unjust are invariably rewarded with ill-gotten gain, since gods might be persuaded to overlook misdemeanors. Thus we get an insight into a cultural norm at the time—a prevailing mentality far from noble:

And there are quacks and soothsayers who flock to the rich man’s doors, and try to persuade him that they have a power at command, which they procure from heaven, and which enables them, by sacrifices and incantations performed amid feasting and indulgence, to make amends for any crime committed either by the individual himself or by his ancestors; and that, should he desire to do a mischief to any one, it may be done at a trifling expense, whether the object of his hostility be a just or an unjust man ; for they profess that by certain invocations and spells they can prevail upon the gods to do their bidding.[1]The Republic of Plato, trans. John L. Davies & David J. Vaughan (New York: A. L. Burt, 1900), 52.

Take out blood sacrifice and replace it with bribery and you will have a tale endlessly repeated in modern courtrooms: it is all about getting away with it. Ritual sacrifices are about getting something for nothing, and, of course, indulging appetites at the same time. Like dubious politicians or corporate leeches, gods have apparently always been willing participants in corruption—they readily accept bribes and condone unjust and dirty deeds.

Plato’s Adeimantus conjectures that gods may or may not exist, but is swayed by tradition and poetic authorities who insist “that the gods are beings who may be wrought upon and diverted from their purpose by sacrifices and meek supplications and votive offerings.[2]The Republic of Plato, trans. John L. Davies & David J. Vaughan (New York: A. L. Burt, 1900), 54. He finally asserts that the “mystic rites” and “absolving divinities” have great power, a common view in a society where animal sacrifice was not just considered normal but believed to be integral to the proper functioning of society. It was, in fact, central to a civic religion enmeshed with social and political relationships. Acts of power and politics could not precede without it—a military campaign, commissioned works, civic officials’ schemes, all demanded animal killing beforehand.[3]Marcel Detienne & Jean-Pierre Vernant, The Cuisine of Sacrifice Among the Greeks (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1998), 3. But for all the reverential pomp, the strict ritual and flowery rhetoric, you cannot ennoble a slaughter process driven by a desire to profit and to shirk responsibility through divine bribery.

To hide what was plain old butchery and relieve any guilt or sense of injustice being done, you had the time old myth of consent. Animals had to be seen to agree with their slaughter (or “suicide”). They had to be “set up” to agree to any violence done to them. It was all a scam, of course, with the usual method being to bring the victim to the alter—not forcibly, it should amble as if to a picnic—then splash some water or sprinkle barley in its ear, causing it to shake its head.[4]See Marcel Detienne & Jean-Pierre Vernant, The Cuisine of Sacrifice Among the Greeks (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1998), 9; Foer, Eating Animals, 100. The head shake is the nod of consent. The myth of consent is just one in a series of delusions and actions, based on projected meaning, that accommodate and reinforce the original delusional error of seeing sacrifice is an act of communion with gods.

In The Republic nothing more than “the evidence of poets” is required to verify the power of animal sacrifice as a means of communicating with the gods. However, not all ancients were dupes for burning fat and pretend games. Pythagoras, according to Ovid, regarded religious sacrifices not only as a disgrace for dragging animals into ludicrous rites, but for insolently implicating the gods as well:

Not content with committing such crimes, men have enrolled the very gods as their partners in wickedness, and suppose that the divinities in heaven take pleasure in the slaying of patient bullocks! A victim of outstanding beauty, free from any blemish, whose pleasing looks are its undoing, is set before the altars, decked with garlands and with gold. There it hears, without understanding, the prayers of the priest, and sees the corn it has cultivated sprinkled on its forehead, between its horns. It is struck down, and stains with its blood the knives which it may well have seen beforehand, reflected in the clear water. At once the lungs are torn from its still living breast, that the priest may examine them, and search out the purpose of the gods, revealed therein. And then, so great is man’s hunger for forbidden food, you mortals dare to eat that flesh! I beg you, heed my warnings, and abstain! Know and understand that when you put the meat of slaughtered oxen in your mouth, the flesh you eat is that of your own labourers (Metamorphosis, XV. 122-142).

Rather than pleading for mercy, some ancient thinkers preferred to ridicule and express contempt. A church farther, Clement of Alexandria, cites a number of ancient Greek examples in his Stromata (Miscellanies), written around 200 CE. Pherecrates wrote from the point of view of the gods to point up the hypocrisy:

When to the gods you sacrifice,
Selecting what our portion is,
’Tis shame to tell, do ye not take,
And both the thighs, clean to the groins,
The loins quite bare, the backbone, too,
Clean scrape as with a file,
Them swallow, and the remnant give
To us as if to dogs?

And Menander had his own take on it:

The end of the loin,
The bile, the bones uneatable, they set
Before the gods; the rest themselves consume.
Or Eubulus
But to the gods the tail alone
And thigh, as if to paederasts you sacrifice.

Comic poets and logicians complained of more than the gods. Brihaspati, reputed founder of a materialist school of Indian philosophy dating back to the 6th century, harshly criticized Brahmic charlatans living off sacrificial pranks:

There is no heaven, no final liberation, nor any soul in another world, nor do the actions of the four castes, orders, &c., produce any real effect. The Agnihotra, the three Yedas, the ascetic’s three staves, and smearing one’s self with ashes, were made by Nature as the livelihood of those destitute of knowledge and manliness. If a beast slain in the Jyotishtoma rite will itself go to heaven, Why then does not the sacrificer forthwith offer his own father?[5]Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha or Review of the Different Systems of Hindu Philosophy by Madhavea Achabya, trans. E. B. Cowell & A. E. Gough (London: Trubner & Co., 1882), 10.

He loses all patience, when turning to the Aswarnedha, an elaborate horse sacrifice of Vedic royals complete with a copulation ritual by a queen.

The three authors of the Vedas were buffoons, knaves, and demons. All the well-known formulae of the pandits, jarphari, turphari, &c. and all the obscene rites for the queen commanded in the Aswarnedha, these were invented by buffoons, and so all the various kinds of presents to the priests, while the eating of flesh was similarly commanded by night-prowling demons.[6]Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha or Review of the Different Systems of Hindu Philosophy by Madhavea Achabya, trans. E. B. Cowell & A. E. Gough (London: Trubner & Co., 1882), 10-11.

Authors of superstitious and sacrificial absurdities are aptly classified here. What all authors of ancient religious texts had in common was magic thinking, outlandish inventions, and ranks of fools that believed them. Appealing to selfishness, vanity and ambition made it easy for others to take their own leap of nonsense. And if you slaughtered an animal in service to your delusion, who is going to complain?

Sacrifice BBQs & Passing the Buck

The Bible is full of tiresome drivel about sending the aroma of sacrificed animals aloft to the nostrils of a deity. The whole book, its very foundation, could be said to rest on a sacrificial mentality, on projecting meaning onto animals and humans as it relates to vicarious redemption.

Animal sacrifice occurs at key moments in the Pentateuch. In Genesis, God favors and respects Abel’s blood sacrifice over Cain’s offering of grain, for which “he had not respect” (Genesis 4.3-4). “By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings” (Hebrews 11.4). A tough break for Cain. So too for those animals that after weeks in a crammed ark were sacrificed by Noah upon reaching land, and the smell of them burning on the alter worked like anger management medication on the Lord (Genesis 8.20-22).

Abraham’s covenant with God about the Promised Land occurs after a sacrifice, and God had even selected the victim species (Genesis 15). In Exodus, sacrifice is essential as part of the divine plan for the nation of Israel. The sacrifice for passover enables the Children of Israel to escape from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 12.1 – 13.18). The avoidance of divine judgment required animal substitutes or scapegoats and blood sacrifices to distinguish the truly holy people. Later Moses sacrifices oxen and sprinkles their blood over the alter and over people, as it is “the blood of the covenant” God makes with them (Exodus 24.5-8). It seems pretty clear at this point that if you want get anywhere with God, you need to spill a lot of blood.

Instructions in Exodus for building the tabernacle or sacrificial compound (29.45-46), emphasize that killing an animal is fundamental for enticing the presence of God. Following that up is Leviticus, from end to end a bizarre manual on the intricacies of alter butchering and its expected magical effect. Leviticus systematically presents types of offerings, or the variety of reasons for killing an animal, indicated by ritual type. But atonement is the primary aim—that is, making up with God through the blood of another, through a scapegoat.

For the simple minded, it was conceivable you could, merely by placing your hand on an animal’s head, transfer sins and then kill the animal to have all sins forgiven! (Leviticus 4.20-35). Thanks to the science of sacrifice, it would work with different species, too. Leviticus has some wonderful passages of this nonsense that illustrate how comically puerile it was:

And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for the scapegoat… And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness: And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.(Leviticus 16.8, 21-22)

While one scapegoat, up to its neck in sins, finds itself in the desert, another one is killed so its blood can make atonement. Atonement is possible for an individual, group, or entire nation. So if the Bible is about anything, it is about this ridiculous concept of blood atonement:

For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that makes an atonement for your soul” (Leviticus 17.11).

Nearly everywhere in the Bible regarding the human convent with God involves sacrificial bloodletting. Animal killing is essential to get you off the hook!

All of this smacks of the cheapness of an easy bribe to have sins forgiven, the avoidance of responsibility by making an innocent carry the blame, and the intellectual laziness in accepting simple symbolism as something real. That a deity not only allowed for but demanded this is, of course, laughable. Not so funny was the reality of children and animals that became embroiled in the stupidities and chaotic social affairs of illiterate and ignorant tribal barbarians. Often no one went to the trouble of an elaborate religious ritual. An animal could be selected as a substitute or scapegoat for the transgression of others and killed for redemption even without an altar, like the heifer beheaded in the stead of a murderer in Deuteronomy (21.3-9). All it takes for such madness is the belief that magical thinking works and that symbolism is as good as reality and you’re good to go.

Biblical sacrifice is essentially no different to pagan rituals. The basic mentality is the same—a combination of selfish ends, wishful thinking and a devious hope of manipulating fate—it is just a matter of switching in and out different gods. Which is what adds comic irony to Ezekiel’s sacrificial competition over whose god is the most magical and able to start a spontaneous fire (I Kings 18.25-40). Ezekiel mocks the Baal worshipers, for their failed attempts at contacting their seemingly impotent pagan god:

Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked.

For Ezekiel’s proof of his real god, oxen are hacked to pieces and spread on fagots, then he enhances the party trick by dousing everything in water. The gory fairy tale is then complete with God starting the fire for his own smoky barbecue.

One can sympathize with God getting fed up and turning against the practice, and in Isaiah we have what is perhaps the most famous passage on the Almighty’s flip-flop:

To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me?” saith the Lord: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats … Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me. (1.11-12)

It might seem that God just plain had it with all the bribery from tribal barbarians. But no, he does not condemn sacrifice so much as nonchalant devotees going about their altar butchering without due reverence. You see, God was not actually objecting to the flow of sanctifying blood. In fact, He was not against sacrificing children or animals or anything else, just so long as you did it in His name and not any other god. Get your priorities straight, then kill whatever you want.

Human sacrifice also had been widely practiced for millennia across the ancient Mediterranean and Middle East. Typical in ancient tribal warfare was sacrificial murders of prisoners or enemies, such as Samuel cutting Agag to pieces before the Lord (I Samuel 15.33). But the most vile was surely the slaughter of children, usually by psychopathic tribal lunatics among whose number, of course, was the Lord himself. King Ahaz sacrifices his son (2 Kings 16:3) and his grandson, Manasseh, later follows his example (2 Kings 21:6); King Heil sacrifices two sons for the rebuilding of Jericho (1 Kings 16:34); King Mesha, the king of Moab, makes burnt offering of eldest son to thwart defeat against the Israelites (2 Kings 3:27).

These were pagan-god offerings, abominations in competition with the updated, new model one-and-only God, as Moses points out, “they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods (Deuteronomy 12:31; see Leviticus 18:21). Yet God Himself is just as guilty of psychotic child murdering and directly commands it, demanding the sacrifice of “all the firstborn of Israel,” including animals (Numbers 3:13 ), and without delay, He commands, “the firstborn of thy sons shalt thou give unto me” along with oxen and sheep (Exodus 22:29). In Ezekiel 20.26, God confesses to engineering child murder or the sacrifice of firstborns:

I polluted them in their own gifts, in that they caused to pass through the fire all that openeth the womb, that I might make them desolate, to the end that they might know that I am the LORD.

Of the most famous examples of God’s familiarity with and advocacy of child sacrifice, the second most famous was his pulling Abraham’s leg. Abraham showed his devotion by demonstrating he was willing to offer his firstborn son as a sacrifice. But as it was all a test, a ram was sacrificed instead. This episode was something of an illustration that pagan human sacrifice is out and animal sacrifice is in. Next comes God’s most famous sacrificial event, involving vicarious redemption through something even more potent than a child or an animal. Jesus, of course, was God’s own firstborn sacrifice. God really did practice what he preached!

Thus, child and animal sacrifice ultimately led to the Christ innovation—an up updated model, a world-encompassing enhancement over your garden-variety magic murder ritual. All the various sacrifices in the Bible, human and animal, prefigure the epic finale of the most famous first-born sacrifice, Christ’s sacrifice.

Isaiah chapter 53 explains the substitution of a person in sacrifice with the terms and language of the established sacrificial system. There is the Lord laying on of hands (Isaiah 53.6), a quiet assenting victim (Isaiah 53.7), the Lord making the guilt offering (Isaiah 53.10), and the victim bearing the iniquities as all good scapegoats should (Isaiah 53.11). There is nothing particularly novel about plugging an errant preacher into this enhanced paradigm.

Hebrews’ analogies show how the Christ model comes from the old sacrificial system, even if there is an attempt to distance it (9.13-28). The old pagan style of multiple sacrificing is declared incomparable with a one-off real deal—“we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (10:1-10). So much more economical to redeem everyone in one go. The elaborate fabrication of Christ as “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John, 1.29) is simply a twist on the old sacrificial lamb or goat. Christ’s an all-in-one model, however, is on a grandiose global scale that overrides all local sacrifices.

Swap in and out the species, enlarge the scope of the covenant, and distort the logic of blood sacrifice into a human myth of vicarious redemption and voila, you have the foundation for an enduring religion. It is a perverse mentality either way, whether killing a human or nonhuman in the belief that a bridge is made to a deity.

The advent of Christ’s sacrifice is a classic example of how stupid beliefs and sophistry so easily morph into an inverted value system, turning barbarism and immorality into a widely practiced social virtue. It has not only been normalized, but is an integral part of cultural law everyone is supposed to obey, such that insane statements like this are classed as the height of spiritual knowledge: “all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission” (Hebrews 9.24). Yeah, you have to shed that blood.

The irony of the Christ myth is that, apart from being a fiction, it is based on the pagan concept of blood sacrifices, whose underlying mentality dates back to the prehistoric and stupid. There is nothing at all divine about it.

Atonement Rebranded and Repackaged

All the centuries of animal-sacrifice carnage were completely unnecessary and to no avail once the Christ myth was introduced. “Old Testament sacrifices, according to Christian theology itself, did nothing to atone for anyone’s sins…nothing,” writes John Loftus, since if they were given credit Christ would not have had to die as a sacrifice (Hebrews 10:1-18).[7]John Loftus, “The Bible and the Treatment of Animals,” The Christian Delusion, The debate over the propriety of sacrificial rights was a long-standing issue in ancient times, and even after Christ’s death vehement opposition to worship through ritual sacrifices could get you killed, as happened to Stephen, the first Christian martyr.

Animal victimization at the altar continued during the lifetime of Jesus and after for many decades. His own parents had sacrificed turtledoves (Luke 2:24), Jesus himself had urged a leper to sacrifice some animals (Matthew 8:4), and the Apostle Paul offered up animal sacrifices after Jesus’s death (Acts 21:23-26). Apparently, it took a while for the theology to catch up to the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice.

Animal sacrifice did decline, however, with the Roman destruction of the central sacrificial Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. Without a sacrificial temple, Rabbis were obliged to contrive a theology that skipped over animal slaughter and went straight to the communion part. In the past you needed burning animal fat to attract a god’s attention, but now your feelings of repentance and wishful thinking could do the trick—after all, since all magical thought is equally invalid, it can support infinite levels of the impossible.

The Rabbis’ rejigging of the imaginary basically eliminated any need for pagan-based animal sacrifices. It was a pivotal moment in the slow morphing of the blood thirsty and savage Yahweh of pagan origins to a more refined and civilized deity.

It might be argued that with this move Christianity disassociated animals even further from anything holy or sacred. Even if they were just sacrificial victims, it took away any measure of moral respect. But it is hard to imagine that genuine moral consideration ever really existed at the altar, certainly not as a priority over karmic self-protection and egoistic desires for spiritual or physical profit.

Incredibly, many examples of the sacrifice mentality of ancient times can be found in the 21st century, as ancient ignorance and credulity has been faithfully passed down through generations. Among orthodox Jewish populations there is a tradition called kaporos or kapparot requiring that a live chicken be bought and sacrificed before the Day of Atonement. The chicken is tied up waved around in the air above the head, with the idea being that their sins are transferred, and then it is killed—the chicken dies, that is, for someone’s sins. It’s a mini-scapegoat enactment.

Other moronic blood rituals have become part of traditional religious festivals based on vague, incoherent justifications or else for reasons no one can explain. These blood festivals boost economies with regular tourist dollars, and despite the hallmarks of ancient ignorance and stupidity, few locals stop to recognize them as embarrassingly barbaric, medieval and shameful. Yes, Brihaspati had it right long ago, all these buffoons, knaves, and demons really were and are pathetic.

Notes   [ + ]

1. The Republic of Plato, trans. John L. Davies & David J. Vaughan (New York: A. L. Burt, 1900), 52.
2. The Republic of Plato, trans. John L. Davies & David J. Vaughan (New York: A. L. Burt, 1900), 54.
3. Marcel Detienne & Jean-Pierre Vernant, The Cuisine of Sacrifice Among the Greeks (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1998), 3.
4. See Marcel Detienne & Jean-Pierre Vernant, The Cuisine of Sacrifice Among the Greeks (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1998), 9; Foer, Eating Animals, 100.
5. Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha or Review of the Different Systems of Hindu Philosophy by Madhavea Achabya, trans. E. B. Cowell & A. E. Gough (London: Trubner & Co., 1882), 10.
6. Sarva-Darsana-Samgraha or Review of the Different Systems of Hindu Philosophy by Madhavea Achabya, trans. E. B. Cowell & A. E. Gough (London: Trubner & Co., 1882), 10-11.
7. John Loftus, “The Bible and the Treatment of Animals,” The Christian Delusion,

1 Comment

  1. A thorough article. It was a good read. Thanks.
    Just want to point out few things ;

    – There are scholars that claim children were encouraged to be sacrificed in Exodus but as it is with most claims there are of course opposing views :

    – One should also note that animal offerings didn’t immediately cease post Jesus’ death (sacrifice) as you have already noted, because those examples mentioned were thanksgiving offerings which obviously have little to do with “atonement for sin”. Interesting though, is that the New Testament does not really encourage or forbid animal offerings as a token of thanksgiving, but it doesn’t exist today (oh, perhaps one or two oddish Christian hunters are thanking God before pulling the trigger!). I think it’s a practial matter – cash works better for charity works than a pint of animal blood.

    I think, thanksgiving in the Old Testament and the New Testament (and modern times) are not really different because having faith in symbiosis with deed is what pleases God. Cain’s offering didn’t please God while Abel’s offering did because Abel harbored faith.
    James mentions this in chapter 2 that faith and actions must go hand in hand. If you have faith, there will be deeds that reflect it.

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