Offerings to God: The Ancient Hebrew Cult of Sacrifice

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The Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban, means ‘to come near’. The inner meaning of ‘offering a sacrifice’ is to elevate oneself spiritually and to draw near to God – not unlike the Latin root of our English word sacrifice, which means ‘to make holy’. In the Tabernacle, the Israelite would ‘come near’ with an offering. This external act symbolizes the internal process of transforming worldly desires into prayers – the ‘longings of this world’ into the ‘longing for God’. Purified in the flames, these prayers then rise like fragrant smoke to the heavenly Throne.

Animal sacrifices did literally take place in the Tabernacle, a custom which our society generally considers primitive and horrifying. But the important work of the Tabernacle was the inner psychological and spiritual work of Initiation. The symbols and rituals of animal sacrifice would enhance this inner adventure, and simultaneously provide vivid experiences of spiritual and religious significance for those who were as yet unprepared to embark on the inner road to Initiation.

The first sacrifice is the Burnt Offering. The worshipper who wishes to present this gift is to bring an unblemished animal (usually from among their cattle or goats, though a poor person could bring a dove) to the Tabernacle entrance. There, he or she is to place their hands on the animal’s head: this symbolically transfers their sins so that the animal becomes a substitute, or ‘ransom’, which God may accept for atonement. The offeror must then slaughter the animal and give it to the Priest. The Priest takes the animal’s blood and throws it on all sides of the Altar. He cuts the carcass into pieces, washes its innards and feet in water, and places the entire animal on the Altar where it must be completely burned, completely turned into smoke. “It is a burnt offering,” God tells Moses, “an offering by fire, of pleasing odor to the Lord.”

Symbolically, the Burnt Offering represents a general purging and cleansing of the sins of the Body, the first step of purification. The initiate who has successfully completed this work now transfers the sin from this level to an animal (representing the physical, ‘animal’, level of consciousness). He or she then ‘kills’ it, i.e., destroys the sin, and asks the Priest to burn it completely and offer it up to God.

The Priest first takes the blood, through which the soul is connected to the body, and dashes it on God’s Altar. In other words, the living soul – which is symbolized by the blood – comes from God and always belongs to Him, so it is first released and given back to its owner. Only the sin is ours, so it is only our sin which we can purge in the fire and offer to God as atonement.

This level of sin must be completely annihilated, just as Moses completely annihilated the Golden Calf, so every last bit of the Burnt Offering is burned on the Altar. The rising smoke symbolizes human negativity that has been transformed into prayer. This is the “pleasing odor to the Lord”, for it represents our voluntary self-transformation, and only this, as David would later say in the Psalms, is the gift God desires from us.

More on Sacrifice tomorrow.