At my church, I’m often there to help with preparing the elements of communion—a task, I’m sorry to say, that leads me to boredom, rather than thoughtful contemplation of Jesus’ death on the cross. When I prepare the symbolic body and blood of Christ, filling hundreds of little plastic cups with grape juice, monotony creeps in like a mental fog.
Then there’s the act of communion itself. Although my pastor says I am partaking of the body and blood of Jesus—something that sounds barbaric—the whole business is utterly bloodless. At my church, this is as graphic as worship gets.
While the symbols of sacrifice I prepare for communion seldom stir me, I suspect actual sacrifices like the ones offered in the tabernacle in the Old Testament would. If subjecting one of our cats to a routine vet visit unnerves me, how much more would the slaughter of a ram or bull? After spending a lifetime in the often antiseptic world of the modern church, I’d surely consider the tabernacle gruesome by comparison.
When I set out to read the whole Bible for the first time, I understood the Israelites sacrificed animals for the atonement of sins. I also understood Jesus to be the Ultimate Sacrifice, intended by God to pay humanity’s penalty for sin once and for all.
Yet, in journeying through Leviticus, I walked from the shallows of this basic understanding into the depths of the sacrificial practices of the tabernacle. What I read unsettled me.
If this beautiful creature must die because of my sin, then Lord, never let me sin again.
“He shall lay his hand on the head off the burnt offering, that it may be accepted for him to make atonement on his behalf,” Leviticus 1:4 reads. “He shall slay the young bull before the LORD; and Aaron’s sons the priests shall offer up the blood and sprinkle the blood around on the altar that is at the doorway of the tent of meeting” (Leviticus 1:5).
Right out of the gate, Leviticus goes for the jugular—literally.
For seven consecutive chapters—the first seven in the book—the author outlines all manner of offerings: burnt offerings, grain offerings, peace offerings, and sin offerings, to name a few.
I tried to envision what it would be like to slaughter a bull in atonement for my sins. As I pictured myself doing this, I felt overcome by the thought, If this beautiful creature must die because of my sin, then Lord, never let me sin again.
I imagined that anyone who sought the mercy of Yahweh in this manner likewise came face to face with the inescapable severity of a sacrifice and, with it, the severity of the sin that necessitated the sacrifice. Such an experience surely had the potential to alter a person’s heart.
I realize this speculation comes from one whose own heart breaks when animals suffer—but I may be onto something, too. Perhaps we cannot understand what breaks the heart of our Maker unless the things that cause Him pain likewise cause us to hurt inwardly.
In America, we penalize people for their actions. We would never dream of transferring the blame to anyone else.
While this makes sense to me, the actual logic of substitutionary atonement is admittedly unusual. Animal rights activists would undoubtedly find the slaughter of an animal in a human’s stead unjust. What did the bull do, after all, to deserve death? In America, we penalize people for their actions. We would never dream of transferring the blame to anyone else, let alone an animal that cannot consent to accept someone else’s sentence.
That being said, it seems to me that God used literal scapegoats in the tabernacle because it was the only way for the Israelites to understand the cost of sin—death, plain and simple—without paying that dreaded debt themselves. Dead people cannot repent, after all. Surely animal sacrifice was a mysterious mercy from God for His people.
Reading Leviticus helped me see that the penalty for sin has always been death—whether for animals in the Old Testament or for Jesus, “The Ultimate Scapegoat,” in the New Testament. Fortunately for humanity, God has also always offered forgiveness, and with finality in Christ. While I do not believe that the elements of communion become the literal body and blood of Jesus, perhaps I would do well to keep in mind that, because of what my sins cost Christ, communion will never really be bloodless.
Illustration by Jeff Gregory