Day 18: Matthew 5:17-18 – Part 2

To kill or not to kill. That is the question.

Day 18: Matthew 5:17-18 – Part 2   

Do not think that I have come to do away with the Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets. I have not come to do away with them, but to make their teachings come true. Remember that as long as heaven and earth last, not the least point nor the smallest detail of the Law will be done away with—not until the end of all things.

[This is the second of 5 reflections on this scripture.]

A Case Study in the Law: Animal Sacrifice

One of the seemingly fundamental aspects of the Law is the long lists detailing legal remedies to be imposed when people disobey the Law (like killing people who commit adultery) or various animal sacrifices (required for less serious sins). I’m going look at the issue of animal sacrifices, one aspect of the Law that is certainly given a lot of emphasis in Deuteronomy, and one that is particularly distasteful. According to the Law of Moses these sacrifices are used to please God or to set things right after the Law has been broken. The theory, I guess, is that when you do something wrong killing something makes it right:

When you are guilty, you must confess the sin, and as the penalty for your sin you must bring to the Lord a female sheep or goat as an offering. The priest shall offer the sacrifice for your sin. If you cannot afford a sheep or a goat, you shall bring to the Lord as the payment for your sin two doves or two pigeons, one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering. (Leviticus 5:5-7).

In the words of Jesus I’m examining today, Jesus tells his disciples that the Law of Moses can never be changed…. However, both Christians and even the strictest orthodox Jews have abandoned this practice. Why? If no detail of the Law can be changed, does this mean that all of humanity is currently breaking the law?

The History of Animal Sacrifice

I think one important point is that long before the time of Moses, the people who lived in the Middle East were performing both human and animal sacrificial rituals. This was not something unique to the Hebrew people. Sacrifices were offered to appease the gods who would in return bestow them with good fortune, or reward the gods to express their gratitude when something good happened. Sacrifices were an important aspect of religious observance for both Hebrews and pagans. Wikipedia reports that today, although ritual animal sacrifice is no longer practiced by Jews and Christians, it is still used in African traditional religions, some forms of Hinduism, and some forms of Sikhism. In Islam one animal sacrifice is offered each year. Most Hindus and Sikhs have abandoned the practice. Buddhism strictly prohibits animal sacrifice.

Animal sacrifice predates the Law of Moses. Way back in Genesis Noah built an altar and performed extensive animal sacrifices to God after the flood, believing that the odor was pleasing to God (Gen. 8:20-21). Abraham offered his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God, but God refuses to accept this offering. An angel says, “Don’t hurt the boy or do anything to him. Now I know that you honor and obey God, because you have not kept back your only son from him.” (Gen. 22:12) Jacob offers a sacrifice to God as part of his oath to honor an agreement with Laban. (Gen. 31:53-54).

So throughout history, ritual animal sacrifice has been an important part of religious tradition and practice in many religions. It is an important part of historical religious practice that predates the Hebrews and the Law of Moses. If no aspect of the Law can ever be changed, then why aren’t our churches and synagogues awash with blood like the temple in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus? However, because Jesus says we have to obey both the Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets, then the next step is to see what the prophets say about animal sacrifices….to kill or not to kill. That is the question.

To be continued….A Case Study in the Law: The Prophets and Animal Sacrifices

What does this scripture say to you?


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