Archaeology and ancient sacrifice in the Bible

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Bible Study Resource

Ancient Sacrifice

When people in the ancient world offered a sacrifice to Yahweh or to the gods, they took the best living animal they owned and offered it as a gift. They killed the offering, making it impossible for the gift ever to be taken back or reclaimed. It was the best they had, and they gave it to God.

The Israelites believed that everything belonging to a person acquired something of that person's personality. Therefore, in making a gift, a person gave something of themselves. To do this, they used an altar as a linking point between God and themselves. The gift being offered was placed and burnt on the altar, while the climax to the sacrificial ritual came when the blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled there.The sacrificial Horned Altar excavated at Megiddo
In the time of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, sacrifices might be offered by anyone. But when the Israelites settled in Canaan after their migration from Egypt, ministry at an altar in a recognized sanctuary became the prerogative of specially appointed priests.

The Ceremony of Sacrifice

There were six stages in the ritual: 

  1. The worshipper brought his victim near to the place of sacrifice, i.e. to the 'door' of the Tent of meeting, or into the court of the sanctuary, north of the altar.

  2. The worshipper lay his hands on the head of the victim (Leviticus 3 :2, 8 etc.) and confessed his sins. In the case of an offering for the whole people of Israel, the leaders of the community lay their hands on the victim’s head (Leviticus 4:15). 

  3. The victim was slaughtered by the worshipper in the case of an individual offering, or by the priest in the case of community offerings (Leviticus 16:11; II Chronicles 29:24). 

  4. The blood of the sacrifice was collected in a bowl on the northeastern or southwestern corner of the altar, and then sprinkled by the priest on all four sides of the altar, at least in the case of burnt peace and guilt offerings (Leviticus 1:5; 7:2). When the victim was a turtledove or pigeon (Leviticus 1:15) with little blood, it was drained on to the wall of the altar. The blood of the guilt-offering was sprinkled on the altar or put round about it. 

  5. A child bringing a goat for sacrifice: excavated at the Roman city of Ostia The burning: Apart from the blood which belonged wholly to God, the 'fat covering the entrails and all the fat that is on the entrails and the two kidneys with the fat that is on them' (Leviticus 3:3-4) had to be burned on the altar in every case. In peace, sin or guilt offerings, these parts alone were burnt, but in the case of an 'olah' or whole burnt offering in atonement for the sins of the community, the whole carcass was burnt, only the liver being saved and given to the priests (Leviticus 7:4). A certain proportion, the 'memorial part' of meal and vegetable offerings was burned (Leviticus 2:2 etc.). 

  6. The feast: The parts of an offering which were not burnt were served at a solemn feast. Peace-offerings were served to both worshipper and priests (Leviticus 7:32); offerings might be served to the worshipper, his family and the priests, or, in some cases, to the priests alone. The priests’ portions of peace offerings (Leviticus 10:14; 22:10 ff), first-fruits and tithes were considered holy, but the priests and their families could eat them in any pure place in Jerusalem. Sacrifices of reparation and sin offerings (Leviticus 6:26; 7:6) and the meal offering were considered most holy and could only be eaten by the priests within the precincts of the Tent of Meeting, or in the Temple court.

Graeco-Roman Sacrificial Rites

The religions of the Graeco-Roman world included observance of the 'thusia' which in some respects resembled the 'zebah' or communion sacrifice of the Hebrews. The thusia was a rite in which a portion of an offering was solemnly and ceremoniously offered to the deity and burnt upon the altar, after which the remainder was eaten by priests or worshippers in a common meal. The thusia was a fixed element in the Mycenean culture and was continued by the Greeks. 

Greek vase painting showing attendants handling the meat with five pronged forks; 
the priest is standing on the left.

Worshippers at a thusia were not passive onlookers, but active participants. The rite began with lustrations and the scattering of barley grains, followed by prayers in the form of vows and thanksgiving, culminating in the immolation of the victim and often concluding with processions. The central act was the solemn burning on the altar fire of pieces of the thigh of the animal wrapped in fat and covered with other pieces of meat, as in this vase painting (above) which shows the attendants handling the meat with five-pronged forks (the priest is standing on the left). Organs below the diaphragm were also eaten or at least tasted. After the priests had taken the portions of the animal belonging to the god, the roasted victim was eaten in a banquet to the accompaniment of libations of wine, oil and honey, music and dancing. 

The thusia was used increasingly among the ancient Greeks to express thanks to the gods. Over the centuries a more elaborate ritual and new accessories came into use. Magnificent temples took the place of open-air altars and spontaneous acts of devotion to the gods were replaced by the formal worship offcially adopted by the different city-states and kingdoms of the Graeco-Roman world. 

The Greeks also practiced special rites against evil demons in which sacrificial victims were wholly burned at night and in complete silence, but these rites were carefully distinguished from the thusia, performed in daytime as an act of worship of the gods of Olympus.

The Hebrew 'olah' or holocaust was peculiar to Israel and it had no parallel among contemporary peoples. Its special significance of complete surrender of the worshipper to God marked a specifically Hebrew spiritual development. 

Rural scene of sacrifice on a Roman terracotta plaque

Rural scene of sacrifice on a Roman terracotta plaque. 
Notice the pipes being played (left) by Faunus, the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Pan.

All Roman sacrificial rites were intended to propitiate friendly and avert hostile powers. The rites were conducted by the priests with the utmost precision according to a ceremonial which preserved their mystical character. The main features of the rites were the ceremonial preparation and immolation of the animal being sacrificed, a careful examination of the vital organs to make sure they were in perfect condition then the burning of the victim on the altar. The whole rite was conducted in complete silence, music being played on pipes to drown any sound (see above). Once the animal had been burnt, it lost its ritual sanctity and became the property of the priests.

Sacrificial ceremony on a Roman bas-relief

Sacrificial ceremony on a Roman bas-relief

Because the Roman cults were concerned with propitiation and aversion, the Greek sacrificial meal shared with the gods was never widely adopted by them. 


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Bible Study Resource for Archaeology

The ceremony, choice of sacrificial victim, Jewish sacrifice: what happened? The altar at Megiddo, Greek and Roman sacrificial rites, offerings to the gods

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