A bloodthirsty God?
It is the summer of 1521. The Spanish forces of Hernan Cortez have retreated to distance from the great capital of the Aztec empire, Tenochtitlán, now known as Mexico City. From there they can only watch while an horrific drama unfolds. Sixty-two of their comrades had been captured.
One of the Spaniards, Bernal Díaz, later wrote about what he witnessed:
"The dismal drum … sounded again, accompanied by conches, horns, and trumpet-like instruments… when we looked at the tall temple-pyramid from which it came we saw our comrades who had been captured in Cortés defeat being dragged up the steps to be sacrificed. When they had hauled them up to a small platform in front of the shrine where they kept their accursed idols we saw them put plumes on the heads of many of them; and then they made them dance. Then after they had danced the Aztec priests laid them down on their backs on some narrow stones of sacrifice and, cutting open their chests, drew out their palpitating hearts which they offered to the idols before them."
It certainly makes a Sunday morning at your ordinary suburban church look rather tame.
The Aztecs are an extreme example, but almost all human societies have practiced ritual sacrifice as a means of dealing with the gods.
It seems very strange to us. We would not be reassured to witness something like that. And we would rightly ask: what kind of god is it that is so bloodthirsty?
When we open the pages of the Bible, we are also confronted by plenty of blood. While it condemns human sacrifice, the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament describes a system for animal sacrifice and for the sprinkling of blood.
What’s more, this then provides the backdrop for the central act of the whole Bible: the death of Jesus Christ on a cross. Let’s face it: the cross is a very violent image. It’s an image of a man being tortured to death, with his body contorted in pain – a human sacrifice, no less.
So: is the God of the Bible just like all the other gods in that he can be bought off by the shedding of blood?
When we turn to the pages of the Old Testament we discover that sacrifices are made of a wide variety of things and for lots of different reasons. You made a sacrifice when you were celebrating, when you were having a national holiday, or when you were repenting of sin.
These different types of sacrifice represented two things that human beings need to recognise in their relationship to God.
The first of these is our dependence on God the Creator as his creatures – for which we give him thanks and praise.
The second thing that the sacrifices recognised was our needs before God the Judge as sinners – for which we need cleansing and atonement.
The basic form of ritual for sacrifice went something like this: if you were the worshipper, you would bring in the animal – one without defect mind you – lay your hands on it, and kill it before the priest. The priest then sprinkled the blood on the altar and burnt some of the flesh. The rest of the animal would then be eaten.
What did it symbolise?
Two things, essentially. First, the terrible reality that human beings cannot approach a holy God in the fierce light of his purity without an intervention, because we are tainted by our involvement with evil.
That God is holy means he is pure with a fierce purity. He dwells in unapproachable, brilliant light: and he cannot stand to look at evil. He is not simply dispassionate about it, as a parking officer is when he gives you a ticket. He finds evil offensive.
The sacrifices show that this is the state of things between us and God. There needs to be an atonement to cleanse us from our sin.
And that’s where the second part of the sacrifice comes in. The sacrifices showed that a substitute could stand in our place. That’s why the worshipper put his hands on the beast as it died: to show that the guilt for sin was being transferred to the beast. The sacrifice was the death in your place, so that your life was to be spared.
But was this any different from the sacrifices of the Aztecs?
Yes: the Aztecs were simply trying to repay and pacify their gods.
On the other hand, the Israelites were approaching God because God had approached them first. The holy God wanted to draw near to them. He gave them sacrifice as a way of making that possible.
Now: it is important to realise that there was nothing automatic or magic about this system. It wasn’t a sin-economy, in which the rich farmer with lots of animals could sin more, because he could sacrifice more animals.
People in Israel started to think this way, and the prophets like Amos and Isaiah started to be critical of empty, hypocritical sacrifices.
And at the same time, the prophets started saying that the sacrifices pointed forward to a deeper and more permanent reality. They had to: since how could the blood of animals really atone for the sins of the people? They could symbolise it: but could they achieve it?
That’s what really extraordinary about the famous Servant Song passage from Isaiah 53. It points forward to a human sacrifice – one to be offered by the servant of God, for the sins of the people.
…He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isa 53:5-6)
This is the language of sacrifice, but applied to a person: one on whom the punishment sins of the people would be placed, like the beasts at the altar, as a substitute.
And this is how Jesus sees himself, and how the New Testament authors see him: as the one, true, lasting and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. As Paul writes:
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.
Jesus stands in our place, the innocent for the guilty, the righteous for the unrighteous, and brings us back to God.
I was speaking to someone this week and they said that they found Good Friday very hard, because God having his Son killed seemed like cruel and unfair. I know what she means: if Jesus is just an innocent bystander, brought in off the streets and crucified for things he didn’t do, then it seems like an outrage against everything good.
But Jesus is no bystander. Jesus went to the cross willingly, laying down his life for his friends, as an act of great love. And such is the closeness between the Father and the Son that we are meant to understand that God exhausts his hatred of our evil in himself. Instead of us needing to offer a sacrifice to God in order to please and placate him, God offers himself as a sacrifice for us to bring us back to him.
The great Australian and Christian poet Les Murray once wrote:
The true god gives his flesh and blood.
Idols demand yours off you.
Here today we encounter a God who dies for us. We can now approach the throne of the holy God not in terror, but in confidence, cloaked in pure garments washed in the blood of Jesus Christ - clothed in his righteousness alone, faultless to stand before his throne.
The only possible response is to receive this gift with thanks. We cannot repay God for his gift; we can only thank him for it. So then, as those who receive the gift of God’s sacrifice with gratitude in our hearts, we seek to live lives that are not attempts to cajole God, or to nag him - but rather to thank him.