What meaning is evoked in people’s minds by the word “sacrifice?” One of the things I like to do when teaching is to simply write a word on the board that is commonly used in Biblical and/or Christian discourse and get people to give me various things that this word means to them. I try not to specify the context too closely.
The other day I did this while teaching a bit on the tabernacle service, and its relation to the theme of Hebrews 7-9. Yes, I know, big subject. But I started by writing the three words “temple”, “priest”, and “sacrifice.”
The result was not entirely unexpected, but was instructive. I’m going to stick with the word “sacrifice.” The group focused on giving up things for others or for some benefit for oneself. For example, one person talked about giving up certain things in life in order to pursue an avocation for tennis. Others talked about sacrificing in order to help the poor.
It is probably indicative of the group involved that, even though we were in Sunday School class, the “church” meanings did not come up. When I brought up the idea of sacrifice for sin and the various ways in which that might be understood, people acknowledged it with an “oh yeah.”
Now this was not a stupid group of people. Far from it. They were one of the most interactive and constructive groups with whom I have had the privilege to work recently. But what was uppermost in their minds was not quite entirely unlike a picture of sacrifice in the ancient world, but it was pretty close.
The idea of offering a sacrifice “to” anyone–God, for example–again did not come up.
When I have done a similar exercise with more conservative groups I will likely get all the words that relate to sin and atonement, but they will often miss the idea of a sacrifice in order to accomplish something, a simple offering for thankfulness, or the fairly common purification sacrifices. Those are ideas that are not part of either the liberal or conservative universes.
So how does one read and/or teach Hebrews in such a context? First, I consider my use of that exercise completely justified. I can get an idea of where people are, and then point out the differences and similarities between their view of sacrifice and that of the ancient world.
Elements that may be missed by various groups include:
- Any concept of substitution
- Purification (clean and unclean)
- Magical rituals in which the animal is slaughtered less as a sacrifice and more as a part of the magical ritual.
- Sacrifice as part of the continuing liturgy.
There is a difficulty here, I think, in teaching a book like Hebrews without having some exposure to sacrifice, priesthood, and temples in the ancient world. A good start on that exposure would be to look at the sacrifices as taught in Leviticus especially, but such a process tests the patience of the best of classes.
I’m not one to maintain that the author of Hebrews was some kind of expert on the Torah. On the other hand he certainly did have a working acquaintance, at least with the LXX version of it, and he would not necessarily see sacrifice in the same way we do. In order to get some portion of his perspective, we need to do some reading of that same literature.
Even simply looking at each of his quotes and perhaps their Old Testament context will be inadequate. We need somewhat of a picture of how ancient Israelite religion worked, placed in an ancient near eastern context, before we can learn how one New Testament author wanted to change, or better, <em>transform</em> it.