Mercy not Sacrifice
While God temporarily accommodated to animal sacrifice in the Old Testament, the prophet Jeremiah gives us a startling revelation on his part in it: ‘For in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.'(5) The literal rendering of the text and all the best translations interpret it as saying that God essentially had no part in the sacrificial system.
Regardless our interpretation of these verses, other important passages throughout the Bible confirm the fact that God did not really desire animal sacrifice: Jesus himself told us that God wants ‘mercy not sacrifice’.(6) So one may ask why the Law of Moses seems to command sacrifice? It would appear from an overview of Scripture that the Law of Moses consisted in both human and divine elements, and large amounts of compromise between God’s ideal and human weakness and ignorance.(7) We are told, for example, that the Israelites could not withstand the awesomeness of God’s holiness and goodness, and that a veil was necessary: ‘Whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would remove the veil, until he came out. And when he came out and told the people of Israel what he was commanded, the people of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face was shining. And Moses would put the veil over his face again, until he went in to speak with him.'(8) In a similar way Moses is allowed to see only a fraction of God’s goodness and glory:
Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.” And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”(9)
In the Old Testament God’s beauty is constantly cloaked under a veil, this was because of the weakness and ignorance of the Israelites that would not have been able to cope with a greater revelation of God. Paul tells us that in Christ the glory and goodness of God is finally being fully revealed and is no longer masked under human dross.(10)
Religion: The Market and The Emperor
In Scripture religion can be seen as having another two functions. The first metaphor is that of a market. In this sense religion has an essentially economic role, it is part of a system of buying and selling. In fact religion is at the head of the gargantuan Babylonian network(11) that we are told rules the world and is based on the commodification and monetisation of both humans and animals.(12) Ultimately religion ends up buying and selling God himself. We see this with the selling of Jesus on the part of Judas for thirty pieces of silver, and Christ’s indignation against the physical manifestation of this system in his cleansing of the temple:
And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.”(13)
But religion also serves a political and social function. While he misunderstood genuine faith, and his criticism of society was much deeper and nuanced than most realise, Marx was right when he described religion as ‘the opium of the masses’.(14) Religion has always served as both a political catalyst and a pacifier of the masses. Elections have been won and kingdoms overturned through religion. For the most part though, religion has served as a way of sacralising the status quo and cementing the powerful hierarchies of the powers that be. Tyrannical institutions and cruel traditions have often been maintained through appeal to religious values or cleverly exegeted Bible verses. The priestly class in this way has almost always pandered to political power and has often simply been an extension of it. We see this time and again in the mighty empires of history, from the Ancient Egyptians and Babylon to Rome, Russia, France and even Britain. It is in fact amazing the amount of ingenuity that has been employed by regime theologians in order to attempt to effectively neutralise every eschatological impulse that the Bible so naturally overflows with. One can only applaud the sheer cunning of those exegetes that managed to turn the gospel’s message 180 degrees, and transformed it from being the expectation of the breaking forth of the future kingdom of God to looking back into the past in order to maintain tradition and the kingdoms of this world.
By confessing that ‘Jesus is Lord’, that is Kyrios, the early Christians challenged not only the religious pantheon of their time but also the sacred political power of the Emperor. Ultimately theirs was a radical revolt against both the political and economic powers that were intertwined with the Roman state religion, and a courageous witness to the Age to come.
(5) Jeremiah 7:22.
(6) Hosea 6:6, Matthew 9:13. See also Psalm 40:6-8, Hebrews 10:8, Psalm 51:16, Micah 6:6, Psalm 69:31 and 1 Samuel 15:22.
(7) In Matthew 19:8 Jesus states this quite emphatically.
(8) Exodus 34:34-35, see also 2 Corinthians 3:13-18.
(9) Exodus 33:18-23.
(10) 2 Corinthians 3:7-18.
(11) Revelation 17:3-5.
(12) Revelation 18:13.
(13) Matthew 21:12-13.
(14) K. Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.
Stay tuned for Part Three over the coming weekend.
Thank you for reading and following our blog! Please share with others, and any comments or questions are welcome. Blessings ~ Marcello