For several years, I lived up the street from a slaughterhouse, close enough to hear the sounds of the desperate cows going to their death. I remember one day of liberation, however. It was November 14, 1995. As cattle were lined up for slaughter, a brave two-year-old heifer leaped the five-foot gate and ran into the woods behind our house to her freedom. The story of Emily, the cow who escaped my hometown slaughterhouse and cleverly evaded capture, attracted the attention of animal lovers and vegetarians both near and far.
As I recall that story, I am reminded of the first slaughterhouse built for God’s abode, which raises some troubling questions about God’s relationship to animals. Why would God approve of animal sacrifice? If He’s so compassionate as to notice even the smallest sparrow fall, why does He sanction the wholesale slaughter of innocent cows, sheep, and goats? Animal lovers tend to consider the Old Testament sacrifices as crude and primitive—rejecting them as not good in any way. These stories are largely devalued parts of Scripture, even among Christians. The gory details of spattering blood and guts seemingly portray God as a bloodthirsty deity who demands the slaughter of innocent animals, while in the New Testament, Jesus is portrayed as a pure and benevolent deity who tenderly holds rescued lambs in His arms. While animal concerns are a different issue today than ritual sacrifice, examining what happens in Leviticus reveals the unmistakable meaning of God’s sacrificial system, and I think we then see that God is an animal lover after all.
Perhaps a helpful way to understand Old Testament sacrifices is to consider God’s choice to communicate “His revelation to the Israelites within the cultural conventions of their day” (Andrew E. Hill & John H. Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament; pp. 48–49). Because sacrifices are common and culturally appropriate within the context of the Ancient Near East, God directs some of those deaths to a higher purpose. God presents a system patterned after a heavenly origin (Exodus 25:8–9; Hebrews 8:5), which acknowledges that the death of animals does not reflect the highest good and points forward to the day when death will be no more (Genesis 9:1–5; Isaiah 11:6–9; Hebrews 10:8; Revelation 21:22). On this day, God will redeem suffering and end death, and the tabernacle is part of this redemption. The purpose of the sacrifices is to draw people nearer to God’s presence, while informing them that a new and enduring covenant will be necessary to completely transform mankind. The beauty of God’s instructions is that they reveal the path away from the practice of killing animals—calling us back to the Garden of Eden.
The Old Testament sacrifices are popularly understood as gratuitous destruction of sentient creatures to abate God’s anger. However, the divine theology of offerings does not assign animals a low moral status, rendering cute, woolly lambs expendable symbols of human penitence. The tabernacle is not a perpetual slaughterhouse for atonement of individual sin. Compared to the many modern factory farms, where animals are exploited and butchered by the millions, the personal sacrifices in the sanctuary are not only humane (refraining from inflicting unnecessary pain) but infrequent acts. In 1 Samuel, we get a glimpse into a common Israelite family’s annual trip to offer a sacrifice in thanks to God (1 Samuel 1:3; 2:1). Those who live in the farthest regions of Israel don’t make trips for every sin to get a confessional fix. The sacrifices do not reflect our modern obsession with sin and guilt. They are about drawing close and fellowshipping in God’s presence.
Furthermore, the offerings are not really about the death of animals—they are about life. The point is not to kill an innocent animal (the infliction of death) but to offer its lifeblood (Leviticus 17:13–14). The covenant relationship, which includes accepting and affirming the value of life, serves a sacred purpose that outweighs a creature’s death. Protestant theology is primarily concerned with individual salvation, focusing on the relationship between sins and sacrifices. While it is true that these offerings are a way to deal with human acts of sin that defile God’s world, they are mostly about celebration. In fact, most of the five personal sacrifices are voluntary acts. Except for the trespass and purification offerings, the majority of the sacrifices express joy and thankfulness for life’s blessings.
The Christian focus on personal salvation fails to recognize how the sacrificial system foretells the restoration of creation as a whole. The idea that God will “dwell among them” is the first step toward raising the Israelites’ awareness of their relationships with animals and their environment, encouraging them to see what is wrong and to seek a life of harmony with God and the whole of creation. God does not desire to have the life of any creature taken (Genesis 1:29). Sin and death are an intrusion upon His good creation. Death is man’s idea, not God’s. Thus, the sacrifices do not reflect God’s will but the dangers inherent in man’s departure from God’s perfect society of love and peace. To our Western sensibilities, it may seem that God commands strange actions, but when we see Him guiding each Israelite from life-threatening sins and healing creation from the devastating effects of our choosing death and violence, it becomes clear that the sacrifices are acts of reparation and love.
Further evidence for this conclusion is that the Israelites are continually reproved by the prophets, including Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos, and Micah, for misusing the sacrifices. While the Israelites maintain the ritual form, its meaning soon becomes indistinguishable from that of its pagan counterparts. Yet, in the system of sacrifice, the Israelites eventually reach an ethical milestone.
During the time of Jesus, the temple becomes a massive and corrupt slaughtering operation. Social injustice and economic oppression of the poor become inextricably linked to the exploitation of animals. So many animals are slaughtered during Passover that the priests can hardly keep up with the demand. When Jesus enters the temple, He sees the unfair transactions and the meaningless shedding of blood, which indicates that the “animals were being treated as mere means to a selfish purpose rather than as living beings whose lives should only be taken with fear and trembling” (Stephen H. Webb, Good Eating, p. 92). Jesus, opposing the merchants’ exploitation of the poor and misuse of animals for profit, drives out the lot of them, calling the temple a place of robbers and thieves (Mark 11:15–17).
Jesus not only protests the religious and economic oppression of the poor but in true prophetic style, challenges what the rite of sacrifice has become. He attacks the corrupt institution that has turned sacrificial animals into marketable commodities for both worship and consumption. Viewing the story through the lens of animal compassion, we see Jesus ending animal abuse and halting the empty sacrificial system. The one who notices the sparrow falling targets those involved in the system of animal misuse. We see Jesus driving out herds of animals and releasing caged doves. Jesus qualifies His actions by echoing a major Old Testament theme: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6, NIV). This is a call to cultivate a heart moved with compassion. Jesus’ actions are good news not only for the poor but also for animals.
We must also remember the words spoken by Jesus as He departs the temple. “See! Your house is left to you desolate” (Matthew 23:38, NKJV). The Israelites’ distorted acts of social injustice and animal exploitation—to buy one’s way into the presence of God—has polluted His temple, and they are driven out by their own selfish and abusive actions—visibly so in AD 70, when the Roman army attacks Jerusalem. With the Roman army’s destruction of the temple at Jerusalem, the centralization of sacrifice ends. In fact, Jewish sages tell us that meat consumption also virtually ceases at this time. The Jews even debate whether they should ever resume eating meat (Talmud,Tracte Bava Batra 60b).
The many biblical passages about misusing sacrifice that call for higher moral standards are truly remarkable for their time. It seems that we have forgotten or misunderstood God’s longstanding covenant of grace and mercy with animals, a covenant violated every second by industrialized factories in which animals are mistreated. The House of Prayer intended to bring healing to the nations has been replaced by modern slaughterhouses, enabling our selfish exploitation and mistreatment of animals. There is a world of difference between a covenantal understanding of sacrifice and today’s factory farms of animal slaughter. Though we have not yet arrived at a perfect world without death, Jesus would oppose what is happening in our time.
Those of us who claim Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf should be inspired to extend that reconciliation and mercy on every level of creation. Perhaps the most profound example of God’s love and concern for animals is Jesus’ death, which eliminates the need for further sacrifices. In the image of the slaughtered lamb, God becomes an animal sacrifice metaphorically speaking, the victim of all human cruelty and violence (Revelation 5:6). “God’s identification with the animal that suffers can also be read as the broadening of the incarnation to include, and thus redeem, the suffering of all creatures, especially those who are victims” (Stephen H. Webb, On God and Dogs, 1998, p. 187).
We have overlooked the implication of Jesus’ death for animals. Represented as a slaughtered lamb, Jesus quite literally dies in a position like those of the animals who represent Him. The Lamb of God slain from the foundation of the word absorbs all the suffering, cruelty, and pain, allowing for a new world of peace and justice. At the end of the day, the biblical sacrifices and offerings are about God’s love, which is actually good news for animals.
Craig Ashton Jr.