The Evolution of Animal Sacrifice Into the Sacrifice of Praise

Through him [then] let us continually offer God a sacrifice of praise, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name.
—Hebrews 13:15

When Christians come across New Testament exhortations to offer a “sacrifice of praise” (Heb 13:15), we may instinctively assume “sacrifice” is a metaphor. Levitical sacrifice is the paradigm of literal sacrifice. Ancient Israelites slaughtered and dismembered animals, and priests spread blood on the altar and put animal parts on the wood of the fire on the altar, turning them to smoke so they could rise to Yahweh. Sacrifice involves killing an animal and shedding blood as atonement for sin.

We do not do any of that anymore, not in worship. We do not enter the sanctuary with a calf or lamb in tow. No butchering happens in the narthex. Candles burn on the altar, but the altar itself does not burn. We eat the flesh and drink the blood of a sacrificial victim, but we receive the flesh and blood through bread and wine. We call what we do sacrifice, but we do not think it is real sacrifice.

Contemporary thinkers also typically define sacrifice as violent death. For Rene Girard, sacrifice is the murder of a scapegoat that arrests the sacrificial crisis brought on by the contagion of mimetic desire.[1] Walter Burkert views sacrifice as emerging from rituals of hunting and as a sublimated form of collective murder.[2] As an anthropological description of sacrifice, these models leave out key features—priests, prayers, and especially the gods.[3]

Theologically, as Augustine recognized, these descriptions of sacrifice get things exactly backwards.[4] According to Scripture, Israel’s rites and practices were mere shadows, opaque images of reality (Col 3:17; Heb 8:5; 10:1). The new covenant unveils the reality to which the symbolic sacrifices of Israel pointed. We understand how this works in the cases of Jesus’s sacrifice. The blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sin (Heb 10:4). We know none of the goats of the Day of Atonement atoned because they had to be offered year after year (Heb 10:1-3). Jesus’s once-for-all offering does take away sin. The animal sacrifices of Leviticus symbolized the human sacrifice of Jesus. Israelites brought near a “son of the herd” (Lev 1:5), recalling Isaac the son of Abraham and pointing to the son of Abraham, who is also Son of God.

We should apply the same logic when we think about our “sacrifice of praise.” It is not that Israel’s worship was “real” and ours “metaphorical.” Their worship through animals was symbolic of our human worship. They offered the blood of bulls and goats. Joined by the Spirit to the Passion of the Son, we offer our own breath and body. Israel’s offering of dead animals has been fulfilled in our living sacrifice, which is our reasonable act of worship (Rom 12:1-2).

Rite of Re-Entry

Once we get the trajectory of Scripture fixed in mind, shadowy Levitical sacrifice can teach us what it means to offer a “sacrifice of praise.” We can get distracted, or appalled, by the slaughter and blood of temple worship. But even for ancient Israel, slaughter is only one early moment in the sacrificial rite. After a worshiper slaughters an animal, they are not finished. The priest collects and sprinkles the blood, dismembers the animal, and turns it to smoke on the altar. The sacrifice typically ends with a meal; either the priests eat portions of the animal, or the worshiper and priest share a meal in the presence of God.

Sacrifice is that whole sequence, from slaughter and dismemberment and the splattering of blood, through the burning to the festive meal. Yes, sacrifice is a death rite. No animal survives sacrifice. If the animal survives, it is a faulty sacrifice. But it is also a resurrection rite. The animal passes through death to be translated into smoke and to become food for a feast.

Sacrifice is, thus, a ritual of ascent. The worshiper wants to draw near to Yahweh, the God of heaven. Since he is earthbound, he sends an animal into God’s presence as his representative. Sacrifice is a ritual of transformation. Flesh and blood cannot enter the presence of Yahweh. The animal is transformed to smoke to rise to Yahweh, who receives it as a sweet-smelling savor.

Sacrifice is a rite of division, but also a rite of reunion. The division is obvious: The animal is slaughtered, its blood is drained from its body, and the priest divides it into its pieces. But a divided animal is not yet sacrificed. The sacrifice comes to its climax when the pieces are put into the altar fire and rejoined as a glorified animal that can ascend to the presence of God.

We can put these dimensions together by thinking about the Edenic background of Levitical sacrifice. After Adam and Eve are expelled, the Lord places cherubim at the gateway of the garden, armed with flaming swords (Gen 3:24). If Adam wants to re-enter the garden, he has to pass by the cherubim, who will cut him in pieces and turn him to smoke. Adam cannot survive re-entry, so an animal is sent to pass by the cherubim in his place.

In the Mosaic order, the tabernacle is a new Eden, where Israel can, in limited ways, meet with Yahweh as Adam and Eve did in the garden.[5] Aaron is a new Adam, “serving and guarding” the sanctuary garden as Adam “served and guarded” the original sanctuary (Gen 2:15). To enter this new Eden, Israel too has to pass by the cherubim. They have to submit to the sword and the fire. As a movement of death and transfiguration, sacrifice is the rite of re-entry to Paradise.

Jesus offers himself as sacrifice when he dies, rises, ascends, and enters the heavenly sanctuary, the original Paradise. He passes by the guardian angels, and makes a way for us to follow to commune with his Father in the Spirit. To say that we offer a “sacrifice of praise” means that all that happened in sacrifice now takes place through praise, especially sung praise. What Israel did by offering animal blood, we do by offering our own breath. What they did by offering the fruit of the earth, we do by offering the fruit of our lips. What they did in shadow, we do in reality.

Davidic Song

Priests are the main music-makers in the Bible. During the Mosaic period, the priests blew silver trumpets over sacrifices (Num 10). With David, there is a dramatic expansion in the role of music in Israel’s worship.[6] David brings the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem in a process that includes musical instruments and singers (1 Chr 15:16-28). Once the ark is installed in the tent, he appoints musicians to sing and play before the ark (1 Chr 16:37-43).

The first institutionalized music in Israel’s liturgical history takes place at the ark shrine, and it is both choral and instrumental. Eventually, this musical worship is taken up into temple worship. 1 Chronicles 25 reports that David and the commanders of the army establish a permanent Levitical orchestra and choir, with trained musicians at the head, all under the hand of the national conductor, King David. Levitical musicians are organized like the priests, in groups that serve at the temple on a rotating basis.

Thus, in the temple, music and song are added to animal sacrifice. When Hezekiah celebrates the Passover, songs are sung and music played at the time of the ascension offering (2 Chr 29:20-36). Slaughtered animals ascend in smoke, but something new is happening—Levitical singers ascend with sound and breath.

But song is not merely an accompaniment to animal sacrifice. Song begins to take the place of animal sacrifice, becoming the reality toward which the symbolic animal sacrifices pointed. In Chronicles, priestly and sacrificial terminology gets transferred to music. Music is a form of priestly service (1 Chr 15:2). The Levites “bear” the Lord up in song as they once bore the ark and furnishings of the tabernacle from place to place (1 Chr 15:22, 26). Music is a kind of Levitical “work” (abodah, 1 Chr 6:31-32; 23:25-32). Song is offered “continually” (1 Chr 16:37; Heb. tamid), like the continuous offerings on the altar of ascensions (Exod 29:38; Lev 6:13).

According to 1 Chronicles 25:8, music “guards” (shamar), another priestly responsibility. Music preserves history and traditions; it is an aid to memory, like Psalm 78, a recital of God’s history with Israel. When we sing our history, we preserve it. Song also “memorializes” (1 Chr 16:4; a form of zachar), like the altar portion of a grain offering, offered as a “memorial” on the altar (Lev 2:2, 9, 16). Memorials are not mere aids to human memory, but are rites or objects presented to, or enacted before, Yahweh so he remembers his covenant and acts to fulfill his promises.

So long as the temple stands, animal and musical offerings overlap. Music and song take on the character of sacrifice. When Solomon’s temple is destroyed, Israel keeps offering sacrifice, now exclusively the sacrifice of praise. When the new covenant dawns, the shadows finally drop away and we are left with nothing but the reality—music and song as the true form of sacrifice.

Musical Offering in the Church

All this has important implications for our understanding of liturgical music. All that Levitical sacrifice symbolized is done with greater intensity in the sung worship of the Church. Animals ascended to God in smoke; we ascend to God in song. Animals ascended to be a soothing aroma in Yahweh’s nostrils, to be a memorial of his promises; in song, we ascend as a sweet-sounding song in his ears, a musical memorial of his promises. Animals re-entered Paradise, acting as substitutes and representatives for Israelite worshipers. Through Jesus, we gain access to the heavenly sanctuary, and as we sing in the Spirit we come to the heavenly courts of Yahweh and join with myriads of angels in joyful assembly (Heb 12:18-24).

Animals were transformed by sacrificial fire; we are transformed by sacrificial song. The Spirit fills us so that we sing Psalms, hymns, spiritual songs, so we sing and make melody with all our hearts, and offer continuous thanks (Eph 5:18-19). Those who are transformed by the Spirit sing; those who sing in the Spirit are transformed by song. Animals were dismembered in flesh in order to be reunited in smoke and fire. Our musical offering crosses the firmament to reunite heaven and earth, as we join with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.

Song binds us as one body. Each voice makes its unique contribution to the complex but united sound of the choir of Christ’s body. Each singer glorifies the singing of every other singer. Song is a real-world sonic anticipation of the world to come, the new Jerusalem of perfect harmony. Wherever two or three sing in the Spirit: Behold, there is new creation.

None of this is metaphor. We truly ascend to join the heavenly liturgy. We are truly transformed by the Spirit and song. We really are united, even physically, as our voices sound through one another’s bodies. Animal sacrifices look solid and real, but they are mere shadows compared to what happens in every Christian liturgy.

We can also draw some conclusions about musical practice in the Church, especially this time of year, right around the Feast of St. Cecilia, early Christian martyr, and patron saint of music. Our worship should be as musical as Israel’s worship was sacrificial. That is to say, it should be thoroughly and completely musical, as musical as we can make it. As James B. Jordan likes to say, If you can sing it, why say it? Israelites had to offer physically perfect animals “without blemish.” Our musical worship should aspire to exhibit the same quality. Are our musical offerings the best we can offer? Are they true? Are they lovely? Is this hymn, Psalm, canticle suitable to ascend to the presence of God? Will it be sweet-sounding in his ear?

Finally, we do not have the luxury of delegating this responsibility to “professionals.” Each member of the Church has unique gifts to serve the body. Some lead and exercise authority; some teach; some are shepherds. Choirs have their place. Accompanists are essential, and instrumental ensembles are good. But every baptized Christian is a priest, and all offer the sacrifice of praise together. If you sing badly, sing badly to the Lord, or learn to sing better. You do not have the option of being silent. If you are baptized, you are a priest. It is your job to offer a sacrifice of praise. Singing is one of your main jobs. So sing.

[1] Among many books, see Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979).

[2] Walter Burkert, Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).

[3] See F. S. Naiden, Smoke Signals for the Gods: Ancient Greek Sacrifice from the Archaic through Roman Periods (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[4] What is commonly called “sacrifice,” Augustine says, is only a “symbol” of the true sacrifice of love (City of God, 10.5). In the following section (10.6), Augustine defines sacrifice as any act done in order to unite with God in holy society.

[5] See L. Michael Morales, The Tabernacle Pre-Figured: Cosmic Mountain Ideology in Genesis and Exodus (Leuven: Peeters, 2012).

[6] For detailed discussions, see my From Silence to Song: The Davidic Liturgical Revolution (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2011), which draws heavily from John Kleinig, The Lord’s Song: The Basis, Function, and Significance of Choral Music in Chronicles (JSOT Supplement #156; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993).

Featured Image: Orazio Gentileschi, Saint Cecilia with an Angel, 1621; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Peter Leithart

Peter Leithart is President of the Theopolis Institute and author of many books, including The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church.

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