Isn’t Animal Sacrifice Cruel?
“Why did God encourage animal sacrifice in the Old Testament? Isn’t that cruel & outdated?”
To many people today, particularly Hindus, animal sacrifice seems too cruel and unreasonable to be a part of God’s teachings. Before we explain, let us remember two things:
- Jesus’ followers are not taught to sacrifice animals, and there is no record that Jesus ever did so.
- Before God even started revealing the first Scriptures, sacrifice was a common practice in almost every culture. This should tell us that there is some very signficant reality behind it which makes it so common.
When God started to reveal Himself through the Taurat, he revealed himself using existing human metaphors and language: God is ‘King’, God is ‘Judge’, sin is ‘a disease’, etcetera.
We forget that whenever God communicates to humanity in human language he is constantly using and reinterpreting human language and human metaphor. Whether it’s Arabic, Hebrew or our mothertongue, Scripture always starts with common human words and concepts and gives them new meanings. It’s the same with animal sacrifice; God used this existing practice and filled it with new meaning.
Animal sacrifice was one custom that expresses very well some deep spiritual truths:
- Sin separates us from God – the reason why people sacrifice is because of guilt, they know God’s anger is against them for some sin they have committed.
- Punishment – Our acts of rebellion against a 100% Holy God require the ultimate punishment, which is death, the shedding of blood.
- Substitutionary atonement – The only way for us to escape this just punishment of death is for another person to voluntarily give their life for us.
- A spotless, pure sacrifice – in sacrifice, the victim must be without fault or blemish, which symoblizes sinlessness
Animal sacrifice is obviously an imperfect metaphor for these truths, because a goat or cow is not equivalent to a human, it is not a voluntary substitution, and it is not sinless. But it still is a powerful way to communiate these truths, and that’s why God told the Israelites to keep doing sacrifice to remind them of how their sins need atonement. These reminder sacrifices point forward to the real voluntary sacrifice of Jesus who gave his life for us, so that God’s people would recognize the significance of his death.
The Bible says that animal sacrifice can’t really atone for sin, it’s just a picture:
The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Hebrews 10:1-4)
Since Jesus gave himself as the ultimate real sacrifice, no more animal sacrifice is needed, because we’ve seen the real thing.