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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature

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The sacrifices and other offerings required by the Hebrew ritual have been enumerated under Offering; and in this place it is only requisite to offer a few remarks upon the great and much controverted questions—Whether sacrifice was in its origin a human invention, or a divine institution; and whether any of the sacrifices before the law, or under the law, were sacrifices or expiation.

From the universality of sacrifice, it is obvious that the rite arose either from a common source, or from a common sentiment among nations widely dispersed, and very differently constituted. Remembering that Noah, the common ancestor of the postdiluvian nations, offered sacrifice, we are enabled to trace back the custom through all nations to him; and he doubtless derived it through the antediluvian fathers, from the sacrifices which the first men celebrated, of which we have an example in that of Abel. The question concerning the divine or human origin of sacrifices, therefore, centers upon the conclusions which we may be able to draw from the circumstances and preliminaries of that transaction. Abel brought for sacrifice one of the lambs of his flock, for he was a shepherd; and with his offering God was well pleased: Cain brought of the fruits of the ground, for he was a husbandman; and with his offering God was not well pleased. We are told by the Apostle () that it was 'by faith that Abel offered a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain,' which presupposes a divine revelation: otherwise we cannot see how faith could have been exercised, or to what object it could be directed.

That this was not the first sacrifice is held by many to be proved by the fact, that 'unto Adam and his wife the Lord made coats of skin, and clothed them' (); for, it is urged, that as animal food does not appear to have been used before the deluge, it is not easy to understand whence these skins came, probably before any animal had died naturally, unless from beasts offered in sacrifice. And if the first sacrifices had been offered by Adam, the arguments for the divine institution of the rite are of the greater force, seeing that it was less likely to occur spontaneously to Adam than to Abel, who was a keeper of sheep. Further, if the command was given to Adam, and his sons had been trained in observance of the rite, we can the better understand the merit of Abel, and the demerit of Cain, without further explanation. Apart from any considerations arising out of the skin-vestures of Adam and his wife, it would seem that if sacrifice was a divine institution, and, especially, if the rite bore a piacular significance, it would have been at once prescribed to Adam, after sin had entered the world, and death by sin, and not have been postponed till his sons had reached manhood.

Among the considerations urged in support of the opinion, that sacrifice must have originated in a divine command, it has been suggested as exceedingly doubtful, whether, independently of such a command, and as distinguished from vegetable oblations, animal sacrifice, which involves the practice of slaughtering and burning an innocent victim, could ever, under any aspect, have been adopted as a rite likely to gain the favor of God. Our own course of scriptural education prevents us, perhaps, from being competent judges on this point: but we have means of judging how so singular a rite must strike the minds of thinking men, not in the same degree prepossessed by early associations. The ancient Greek masters of thought not infrequently expressed their astonishment how, and upon what rational principles, so strange an institution as that of animal sacrifice could ever have originated; for as to the notion of its being pleasing to the Deity, such a thing struck them as a manifest impossibility.

A strong moral argument in favor of the divine institution of sacrifice, somewhat feebly put by Hallet (Comment. on , cited by Magee, On the Atonement), has been reproduced with increased force by Faber (Prim. Sacrifice, p. 183) It amounts to this:

Sacrifice, when uncommanded by God, is a mere act of gratuitous superstition. Whence, on the principle of St. Paul's reprobation of what he denominates will-worship, it is neither acceptable nor pleasing to God.

But sacrifice, during the patriarchal ages, was accepted by God, and was plainly honored with His approbation.

Therefore sacrifice, during the patriarchal age, could not have been an act of superstition uncommanded by God.

If, then, such was the character of primitive sacrifice: that is to say, if primitive sacrifice was not a mere act of gratuitous superstition uncommanded by God—it must, in that case, indubitably have been a divine, and not a human institution.

If it be held that any of the ancient sacrifices were expiatory or piacular, the argument for their divine origin is strengthened; as it is hard to conceive the combination of ideas under which the notion of expiatory sacrifice could be worked out by the human mind. The doctrine of an atonement by animal sacrifice cannot be deduced from the light of nature, or from the principles of reason. If, therefore, the idea existed, it must either have arisen in the fertile soil of a guessing superstition, or have been divinely appointed. Now we know that God cannot approve of unwarranted and presumptuous superstition: if therefore he can be shown to have received with approbation a species of sacrifice undiscoverable by the light of nature, or from the principles of reason, it follows that it must have been of his own institution.

That piacular sacrifices existed under the law of Moses can scarcely admit of denial. But the question, of the existence of expiatory sacrifice before the law, is more difficult, and is denied by many, who believe that it was revealed under the law. The arguments already stated in favor of the divine institution of primitive sacrifice, go equally to support the existence of piacular sacrifice; the idea of which seems more urgently to have required a divine intimation. Besides, expiatory sacrifice is found to have existed among all nations, in conjunction with eucharistic and impetratory sacrifices; and it lies at the root of the principle on which human sacrifices were offered among the ancient nations. This being the case, it is difficult to believe but that the idea was derived, along with animal sacrifice itself, from the practice of Noah, and preserved among his various descendants. This argument, if valid, would show the primitive origin of piacular sacrifice. Now there can be no doubt that the idea of sacrifice which Noah transmitted to the postdiluvian world was the same that he had derived from his pious ancestors, and the same that was evinced by the sacrifice of Abel, to which we are, by the course of the argument, again brought back. Now if that sacrifice was expiatory, we have reason to conclude that it was divinely commanded: and the supposition that it was both expiatory and divinely commanded, makes the whole history far more clear and consistent than any other which has been or can be offered. It amounts then to this—that Cain, by bringing an eucharistic offering, when his brother brought one which was expiatory, denied virtually that his sins deserved death, or that he needed the blood of atonement.

These are the principal considerations which seem suitable to this place, on a subject to the complete investigation of which many large volumes have been devoted.





Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Sacrifices'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature". https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​kbe/​s/sacrifices.html.
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