Rereading Sacrifice in the Old Testament

The Following is a guest blog by Allan S. Contreras Ríos

What alternative is there to atonement theories that do not seem to grasp or be grasped by what God did through Jesus? A shift needs to be made, if God is not violent, who is? If God did not come up with the idea of a sacrifice, who did? To find an answer, the story of the first sacrifice and the story of Cain and Abel will be analyzed below that will challenge the presumption that God requires sacrifice of a deadly kind; that God is angry and is violent. Could it be that humans are the author of sacrifices, and it is humans who are angry and violent?

This question challenges another popular misconception: “If it is in the Bible, God wanted it.” It is important to state that just because something is in the Bible does not mean that God requires it, or that it is a need of His, or that He agrees with it. There are many sinful things written in the Bible, there for the purpose of teaching humankind to practice the opposite. [1] Given the question of the origin of violence and the challenge to this basic presupposition, let me propose an alternative reading to the first sacrifice and the first murder.

Sacrifices Before the Law And God’s Sacrifice

To demonstrate the consequence of evil initiated by Adam, God makes the first sacrifice in order to clothe them (Genesis 3:21) because they are ashamed.[2] This is important theologically because, “The garment given them is special…. A kuttōnet is always worn by one in authority (Genesis 37:3, 23, 31–33; Exodus 28:4, 29–30 … [15 x in all]; 2 Samuel 13:18–19; 15:32; Isaiah 22:21; Job 30:16; Song of Solomon 5:3).”[3] God covers their nakedness (shame) with something better than what they could do on their own (Genesis 3:7). In Galatians 3:27 Paul says “all of you who were baptized (Romans 6) into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more (Romans 5:20).”

It is important to see that the first sacrifice made was by God in order to cover humankind’s shame. God had to appease a soon-to-come wrathful humanity (the next chapter, in Genesis 4). This is the complete opposite of what most atonement theories teach.

Cain and Abel’s Sacrifice

Cain and Abel brought an offering to God. Cain gave from the fruit of the ground, while Abel brought from the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. Things get complicated when God accepts Abel’s sacrifice and not Cain’s. In a traditional reading, God seems to be demonstrating favoritism toward Abel. And many Apologists give several explanations of why this is so, some of these explanations include:

  • Cain brings what he wants, Abel brings the best.
  • The soil was cursed by God (Cain is offering from what is cursed).
  • Cain brings less than what he is supposed to. Abel brings the exact amount.
  •  God required a sacrifice of blood, not fruits

What is never asked and answered is, when did God ask them to bring an offering or sacrifice? What were God’s requirements? Hebrews 11:4 only says that “Abel offered a better sacrifice than Cain did.” But nowhere in Genesis 4 – or the rest of the Bible – is there any request from God to do such a thing. So, why did Abel conceive this idea of an animal sacrifice? The only previous recorded example was when God clothed Adam and Eve after the Fall. As suggested previously, given a retrospective view, perhaps it was God appeasing humanity’s wrath, not humanity appeasing his wrath. Both brothers may have had a mistaken assumption.

Abel brings a sacrifice to a God who did not ask for one, because in reality there is no wrathful God to appease.  On the positive side, at least he demonstrates a willingness to please God, and so the Lord had regard for Abel. On the other hand, Cain sacrifices Abel since his previous sacrifice was not pleasant to God. Abel found an outlet in the bloodletting of the sacrifice for the violence inherent in all human beings, Cain had no such outlet and so killed his brother instead.[4]

If we follow this logic, the significance of the sacrifice takes on a completely different meaning than that found under the logic of traditional atonement theories.

A mistake is made; the lie of sin and death remains intact. Abel offers an animal’s blood to appease God’s wrath (the lie of sin), something God did not ask for. Cain, in turn, offers his brother’s blood (the lie of death), even with God’s forewarning against such an act, the murder was committed. Two options arise: kill your brother or love your brother. These are the two options open to humankind. Unfortunately, humankind chooses – frequently – to murder the brother.

Given this understanding, Jesus mission does not begin in His death. In order to expose the lie projected onto God (that it is divine anger that requires sacrifice), Jesus exposes the source of anger in his encounters with the leading Jews. With His death the exposure of the lie is complete as is his absorption of human anger. With His resurrection there is an overcoming of the worst that human anger can mete out. He exposes and displaces the lie with the truth of love for the brother. “For one will hardly die for a righteous man…. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7-8).


[1] For example, many people in the Old Testament were polygamists, even many of the key characters (heroes of the Bible), but God did not want this or looked at it as if it was right (Genesis 2:24; cf. Matthew 19:3-12). The Bible is written not to tell humankind God’s needs, it is written to tell humankind what humankind needs in order to be the “image-bearer of God.

[2] This is an assumption; Genesis 3 does not specifically describe a sacrifice. “…but immediately in chapter 4, Abel knows to bring an animal sacrifice to God. And the Israelite reader would think of sacrifice, as well, because in the Tabernacle the skins of the animals went to the priests for clothing and additional income. (Allen Ross y John N. Oswalt, Cornerstone biblical commentary: Genesis, Exodus, vol. 1 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2008), 57.)”

[3] David W. Cotter, Genesis, ed. Jerome T. Walsh, Chris Franke, David W. Cotter, Berit Olam Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2003), 35–36. N. T. Wright explains in The Day the Revolution Began, “Humans were made to be ‘image bearers,’ to reflect the praises of creation back to the Creator…. Humans are made to worship the God who created them in his own image and so to be sustained and renewed in that image-bearing capacity.” After the Fall, humans “abdicated their vocation to ‘rule’ in the way that they, as image-bearers, were supposed to.” Humans had authority, and even after they exchanged it for a lie, God covers them with an authoritative garment.

[4] David W. Cotter, Genesis, ed. Jerome T. Walsh, Chris Franke, y David W. Cotter, Berit Olam Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2003), 42.


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