Why did God want human sacrifices, for example, Isaac and Jesus? (Part 2)

Q. Why did God want human sacrifices, for example, Isaac and Jesus?

In my first post in response to this question, I showed that the clear and consistent teaching of the Bible is that God does not want human sacrifices.  Now in this post I will consider the cases of Isaac and Jesus, which might appear to be exceptions.

To start with Isaac, when we consider in its entirety and in its cultural context the story of God telling Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, but then stopping him at the last minute, we realize that this story was actually included in the developing Hebrew Scriptures to discourage later generations of Israelites from offering human sacrifices.  As I say in another post, in response to a slightly different question, “It’s not as though God thought up human sacrifice as an extreme way to test Abraham’s loyalty. Rather, God was asking of Abraham what it was believed the other gods were asking of their followers. When Abraham demonstrated his complete devotion, God then made clear that he didn’t want human sacrifices.”

In other words, this episode from the life of Abraham was recorded and retold in the Scriptures  precisely so that later generations of Israelites would follow the example in the story and offer the animals God had designated as acceptable sacrifices, instead of their own children.  The need for this example is understandable.  The surrounding cultures were offering human sacrifices, and the Israelites might otherwise have felt that they were not as devoted to their own God, or that their God was not as deserving of costly devotion as other gods, if they did not do the same.

Turning to the case of Jesus, even though his death is often spoken of as a “sacrifice,” it’s important to understand that it was not a “human sacrifice” in the sense of the sacrifice of a human being to God.  Rather, it was God, in human form, sacrificing himself for our sakes.  Jesus described his own death in this way: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.”

The death of Jesus is so rich in meaning that in the Bible and Christian theology it is described and explained in many different ways.  Each way brings out a different facet of its significance.  One common understanding is that our sins and wrongs against God and other people were so serious and destructive that they were deserving of death.  But Jesus willingly accepted the death penalty in our place, satisfying the justice of God.  This is the sense in which he “sacrificed” himself for us.

But there are many other understandings of the meaning of Jesus’ death as well.  Perhaps the one that comes closest to what ancient cultures were trying to accomplish through human sacrifice is the idea of “propitiation.”  This term refers to the act of doing something generous for, or offering something valuable to, another person in order to change their disposition from hostile to gracious.  (The term comes from the Latin word propitius, meaning “gracious,” “favorable,” or “well-disposed.”)  The idea is that Jesus’ death on the cross was a precious gift to God that won His favor.

Accordingly John writes in his first epistle that Jesus is “the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” Later in this same epistle John elaborates to say, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”   In other words, God himself provided the gift that won back His own favor for us!

We should note, moreover, that what made Jesus’ sacrifice such a precious gift was not that it embodied the value of a human life, not even that of the long-awaited Messiah, as opposed to some less valuable offering.  Rather, it was the spirit of obedience, humility, generosity, and especially love in which Jesus offered himself that made his sacrificial death so pleasing to God.

And so we can see that the cases of Isaac and Jesus are not exceptions to the Bible’s consistent teaching that God does not want human sacrifices.  When we do consider them, however, these cases reveal more about what God has done for us in Christ.  Christian interpreters, in fact, have long seen a foreshadowing of Jesus’ incarnation and self-sacrifice in Abraham’s statement to Isaac that “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering.”  As Micah said, in the words I noted last time, God does not want me to “offer my firstborn for my transgression,” or “the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul.”  God himself, in Christ, has graciously made all the provision any of us needs to be forgiven and restored.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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