For as long as humans have been carnivores, animals have been killed and eaten by humans. Cooked meat has been a feature of festivities, cementing relationships and agreements between people, and used as offerings to impress people and gods. The belief that food offerings make gods happy, or calms them down when angry, seems to go back to the earliest religious rituals. It is within that context that the idea of ‘sacrifice’ emerges.
The biblical Noah sacrificed ‘clean animals and clean birds’ to his god after leaving the ark, thereby causing their extinction if the story is to be believed, as a token of thanksgiving. We are told that the smoke from the burning flesh was a pleasing aroma to God (Genesis 8:20-21). That is all relatively innocuous. But it soon becomes bloody awful, nocuous, and wrong.
What is ‘wrong’? We are all able to differentiate between right and wrong, just as we can between light and dark, and good and bad. In fact, you would never know one from the other unless both always existed. When it comes to right and wrong in moral and ethical terms, this is always about relationships. Not just people, but other life on the planet, and our relationship to the planet itself (the Bible sadly neglects this almost entirely). Understanding this requires no religion and no god. This is nature; this is natural (see my other blog posts on Taoism).
But this does not serve tyrants and political control freaks, and the gods fashioned after them. So it was found necessary, in order to maintain their authority, to invent laws to control people… or at least codify the common sense ones that always exists (e.g. killing people is harmful, stealing from people his harmful, etc). Right and wrong is then measured by abstract laws and abstract punishments. Wrongdoing becomes disobedience against a lawmaker, who demands retribution and punishment. Compensating the victim (if it happens at all), and seeking reconciliation between the offender and the victim take second place to an ‘offended’ ruler and lawmaker who is not the victim at all.
The story gets worse when wrongness becomes sin, when we bring in superstition and magic, when ‘sin’ becomes a noun (rather than a verb), some stuff, some ‘thing’, and is separated from the dynamic of relationships between people. Sin becomes easier to deal with when it is believed to be a thing. Now you can charge money for removing it by developing a professional priesthood, and build ‘cathedrals’ from the profit.
In an early form the business worked this way… Step 1: you take an innocent animal, a goat; Step 2: the sinner lays their hands on the goat; Step 3 (optional): a prayer or incantation is spoken; Step 4: there is a transfer of the ‘sin’ to the goat, by laying hands on it; Step 5: it is sent off into the wilderness to die there along with its new infection. Problem solved! ‘Out of sight and out of mind’. What happened to the ‘sin’. Perhaps it defiled the land where the animal perished. Anyway, this was the mystical mechanics (metaphysics) of purification from it.
So, the ancients turned the abstract concept ‘wrongdoing’ into a substantial thing: sin. This is the reification fallacy.
Reification is when an abstraction (abstract belief or hypothetical construct) is treated as if it were a concrete real event or physical entity. In other words, it is the error of treating something that is not concrete, such as an idea, as a concrete thing. (Wikipedia)
According to the Bible this sin stuff is physically transmitted from parent to child (through sex) so that every child born is contaminated. All of humanity is therefore infected.
Given that it is a contaminant, the best and most effective way to deal with it is some other thing that can cleanse it away… like a detergent with special properties and powers. This requires the same magic as reification, but in reverse (counter-magic). We must retrofit some thing so it has properties that it never had before. We make it holy by endowing it with unseen powers. A special incantation or ritual does the job, especially if performed by a qualified practitioner.
The magically retrofitted stuff from the animal or human sacrifice is blood, turned into a cleanser. My guess is that blood was chosen because it was symbolic of life. But so is ‘breath’ symbolic of life (Genesis 2:7). Anyway, blood it was. The working formula entailed sprinkling it on buildings, or furniture, or clothing, or people. More specifically sometimes, “on the lobe of their right ear, and on the thumb of their right hand and on the big toe of their right foot.” (Leviticus 8:24). It was a cleansing agent. It purified. Ironically, it putrefies or decomposes if not soon washed off. But let’s not get ‘modern’ and hygienic about it. This does however demonstrate that the magical and superstitious views about blood are pre-scientific, and almost certainly would not and could not develop in a modern non-religious world. Here are a few more ‘old time religion’ beliefs about blood, now shown to be pre-scientific and false:
- that babies are conceived from the mixing of blood
- that a woman’s menstrual blood is dirty and defiling
- that bloodletting prevents or cures disease
Let’s return to animal blood. Rather than animals just being a convenient mode of transport for carrying away sin (the scapegoat), they were put to death because there is magical power in the blood itself. The animal becomes a blood sacrifice with not only the power to appease an angry and offended god, but to also magically cleanse or wash away sin with its blood.
Jesus was born into this cult. And I might add, was conceived without sex so he was sinless (uncontaminated), or so the story goes. He grows up within this religious and sacrificial system and apparently supported it. His contempt for some fauna and flora may be related e.g. cursing a fig tree not fruiting out of season, and sending a large herd of pigs to their death. Anyway, the whole Bible story is constructed around the idea that sacrifices worked, and that Jesus was the ‘lamb of God’ who removes the sins of the world. I would go further and say that the whole story was invented to magnify the myth, and that it is essentially a marketing campaign to give it supremacy over competing mythologies and religions. Whatever you think of the Bible (and my reading of it), if you are an adherent of Judaism, Islam, or Christianity then you believe in the efficacy (effectiveness) of blood sacrifices, even or especially a human sacrifice. I mean real sacrifices, not ‘symbolic’ ones. There is no disclaimer like in the movies… “No animals or people were tortured or killed in the making of this movie.” Millions of animals (including humans) have been killed, and still are today, because it is believed that there is “power, power, wonder-working power in the blood.” You can sing along here if nausea and vomiting doesn’t overwhelm you. I find this abhorrent and disgusting. It is morally, spiritually, and intellectually reprehensible in the modern scientific world. I confess to you, with remorse, that I have ‘been there’ myself. This is my absolution.