Discuss the role of sacrifice in the religions of Israel/Judah, from pre-Temple times to the Exile. Use information from the Hebrew Bible, archaeology, and what we know of the rest of the ANE.


Sacrifice was an important part of the religious practice of the inhabitants of Canaan from very early times, as it was for most of the greater ancient Near East. The names and types of sacrifices that are recorded within the Hebrew Bible mirror the sacrifices attested at Ugarit, highlighting the cultural continuity of Israel/Judah’s religious practice. However, we have to also keep in mind that religious practice is subject to both regional and diachronic change as well differentiation across different social strata (family, village, and nation/state [i.e. who has the army]). It comes as no surprise that the Hebrew Bible is not a united voice about which sacrifices are important nor the importance of sacrifice within each cultural/religious system. This answer will look at few different ways of viewing sacrifice, the ancient Near Eastern context for sacrifice, and relevant archaeological finds within Israel that can provide context for the vary views and prescriptions for sacrifice within the Hebrew Bible.

Ways of Looking at SacrificeEdit

Rather than attempt to explain sacrifice as going back to one original notion (evolutionary explanation) or argue that a single aspect of sacrifice took primacy among people of antiquity (reductionist explanation), I will look mention ways of looking at sacrifice that are attested in the ancient world and also allow the modern researcher important analogies for thinking about the practice. These are gift giving, feeding, and communion.


In the nascent field of religious studies, it was E. B. Tylor who argued that sacrifice was basically a gift from a human to a deity in exchange for some expected benefit. Though others have provided more nuanced depictions of this explanation, there is still much to be gained by looking at sacrifice in this way. The Hebrew מנחה is used for a specific type of offering (grain offering), and it is also used as a term that includes all sacrificial offerings. This word basically means “gift.” Baruch Levine has argued that attempted to link the šĕlāmîm sacrifice with the practice of giving tribute, connecting it with the Akkadian šulmānum. This is also used for the term for “greeting-gift” that is the usual customary gift exchanged between kings. The Amarna correspondence contains a trove of data about gift exchange and the šulmānum is usually mentioned at the end of a correspondence. This might provide insight into why the šlmym is usually the last sacrifice in a series (following the purification and ʿōlā offerings).

The unevenness in the gift exchange between deity and human has been highlighted as a problem with this analogy, but the ability of the superior party to bestow much more lavishly in turn may serve to highlight their superiority. However, on another level the gift exchange is also modeled on relations between kings and subjugated vassals or subjects. Just as the suzerain would not bestow a reciprocal gift when tribute would be receive, a god does not return in kind, but instead promises to uphold certain covenantal obligations. Evidence for this type of thinking can be seen in most of the “law codes” of the Hebrew Bible itself which view Yahweh’s relationship within a political suzerain-vassal treaty. In this way, the tribute is not only as a form of worship, but it was an economic necessity for a temple complex with its cultic officiaries and attendants. Not only would it serve to provide the temple with income and food, but it would also provide cultic officiaries in less lavishly endowed cultic centers to sustain themselves through taking part in the sacrifices themselves. The collection of tithes within the Deuteronomic system also served to care for the poor, need, widows, and orphans. It is commonly thought that the Levites may have been among the poor, recently put out of work by Josiah’s reform.


Sacrifice in Mesopotamia was often explicitly thought to provide food for the gods. This is demonstrated in Mesopotamian literary texts, especially in Atra-ḫasis and the flood story of Gilgamesh. One of the central problems of wiping out human kind was the lack of nourishment available to the gods, and when Uta-napištim offered a sacrifice after the flood, the gods swarmed like flies around it they were so hungry. The gods in their shrines were also presented with the same food that the king would later eat. The ritual even included the god washing his/her hands before and after the meal. There is much debate on whether the sacrifices were thought of as feeding Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible. The common phrase indicates that sacrifices were “a sweet savior” (Leviticus, passim) and Gen 8:21 indicates that “Yahweh smelled the sweet savor.” This idea appears in both non-preistly (J) and priestly texts (P and H). It is clear that certain prophets critiqued the notion that Yahweh needed to eat the sacrifices, but the very fact that the prophets were arguing that Yahweh didn’t eat them show that this was a notion held by some during the Biblical period. As noted above, since we need to not assume a monolithic approach to sacrifice in the biblical period, we can accept that some held this view and others rejected it.

In fact, the importance of offering food items extends beyond the personal gods or the high gods but was an important part of the care and feeding of ancestors as well. It was believed that the dead who passed on needed to be supplied with food and water on certain occasions by their descendants, otherwise their condition in the afterlife would be much worse. Although there is no direct evidence for the kispu-ritual in Israel, it is apparent that the care and maintenance of one’s ancestors was important there as well. Deuteronomy specifies that of a certain tithe a portion should not be given to the dead, thus implying that this was a common practice. This is also mentioned positively in the book of Tobit.

This is in some way connected to Frazier’s idea that sacrifice was related to killing an otherwise forbidden totemic animal that represented the god and tribe. Eating of it as a community created a bond between god and tribe and enhanced solidarity. Discarding the totemic idea, the insight that meals shared between social groups and with deities served to create bonds is an important one. Sacrifices were often accompanied by ritual meals in the ancient Near East and Israel. This did not seem to be a common practice in Mespotamia with regards to the high gods, but one was expected to always offer a part of one’s food to one’s personal god(s). This can be seen in the DINGIR.ŠA3.DIB.BA prayers where the supplicant asserts their own obedience to this practice or confesses to have violated it. The ritual meal that accompanies sacrifice could serve the same purpose between god and humanity as it serves between groups. Sharing food and meals with other humans creates bonds and enhances solidarity. The important of attending the ritual meals for these family occasions is seen by David excusing himself from the king’s table to attend.

Priestly SystemEdit

Another approach to understanding sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible is to understand the priestly system outlined in Leviticus as a system. This is the approach taken by Jacob Milgrom. Although he is very much concerned with the ritual systems of Israel’s neighbors, he is rather unconcerned with the origins of these practices, but at explaining how they work if one assumes that the priestly writings can cohere into a unified system. Milgrom’s findings show that there is an important internal logic to the system. In doing so, Milgrom is able to differentiate between two different priestly understandings of the role of sacrifice within the temple context as represented in the sources P and H.

Sacrifice was very important to the purity system as it is outlined within priestly writers. Milgrom admits that “comprehensive rationales” for the מנחה and the עלה are unclear but feels that the šĕlāmîm can be explained within the systems. The šĕlamîm in P will brought for thanksgiving, vow fulfillment, or a free-will offering (Lev 7:11-17). With profane slaughter being forbidden in H, it was mandated that the blood be sprinkled upon the altar (Lev. The neglect of doing so made the killer of the animal essentially a murderer (Lev 17:3-4). The other two offerings for expiation are mostly mentioned in priestly texts. The first is called the “purification offering” (ḥaṭṭʾāt), which Milgrom has argued is mostly for purging the sanctuary from contagion contracted by means of human disobedience or merely impurity (childbirth, bodily discharges). The “reparation offering” (ʾāšām) is closely related to the purification offering and the lines between the two can be fuzzy. It was an offering often meant as restitution for violation of property, often sacred things or other offences. This offering often involved both an offering and monetary payment.

Diachrony/Social GroupEdit

The development and changes with regard to vocabulary and practice of sacrifice was important in Wellhausen’s reconstruction of the ordering and development of the four pentateuchal sources. In some ways it is possible to discern a change in the function of sacrifice through the diachronic perspective. The diachronic perspective advocated by Wellhausen does have its drawbacks in attempting to understand the role of sacrifice. As mentioned above, diachrony is not the only method for explaining discrepancies between pentateuchal sources, though this is an important point. The priestly writers (both P and H who arguably have different ideas about the cult) have competing views themselves about the ritual system of Israel, and this difference is even more distinct when compared against the non-priestly writings of JE and D.

The historical books as well as JE and D mention only the zĕbaḥ/šĕlāmîm, minḥā, and the ʿōlā (except for 1 Sam 6 and 2 Kgs 12:17 mentions money of the purification and reparation offerings). This may be evidence that other offerings were added later to the sacrificial system.


Anderson, Gary A. “Sacrifice and Sacrificial Offerings.” Anchor Bible Dictionary V. New York: Doubleday, 1992. Averbeck, R. E. “Sacrifices and Offerings.” Edited by T. Desmond Alexander and David W Baker. Dictionary of the Old Testament Pentateuch, 2003. Milgrom, Jacob. “Priestly (‘P’) Source.” Edited by David Noel Freedman. Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1992. Miller, Patrick D. Religion of Ancient Israel. Westminster John Knox, 2007. Weinfeld, Moshe. “Social and Cultic Institutions in the Priestly Source Against Their Ancient Near Eastern Background.” In The Place of Law in the Religoin of Ancient Israel, 34–63. Brill, 2004.

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