As the culture evolves, religion evolves, and sacrifice is subjected to continuing reinterpretation and alteration.... From Greece to Asia Minor to Israel, we can see that a heightening of intellectual culture brings a heightening of moral sensibility, and calls bloody sacrifice into question. This is especially visible in the Hebrew and Greek cultures, which both moved toward an emphasis on the inward religious attitude.
As cultures enter a stablization phase, cultic tradents standardize the cult. Under their influence, ritual practices are reinterpreted, changed, or even suppressed.... The metaphysical conceptions motivating many rituals were forgotten by the time the procedures were inscribed in texts (The Background and Content of Paul's Cultic Atonement Metaphors , pp. 46-47).
In order to better understand how early Christians came to interpret the death of Jesus, it is necessary to take a look back at the concepts underlying the offering of sacrifices in ancient religion. There is a host of literature on the subject but the best introduction to the subject is probably the work edited by Jeffrey Carter entitled: Understanding Religious Sacrifice: A Reader (2003). Carter provides lengthy excerpts from some of the best studies done on the matter of religious sacrifices. From reading his work and others, I have come to the conclusion that sacrifices in ancient religions typically involved at least four purposes:
1. To placate the anger of the deity.
2. To garner the favor of the deity.
3. To bring about purification.
4. To restore harmony or order.
Most of these elements can be seen in virtually every religion that has ever practiced sacrifices. The sacrifice is seen as a gift of something valuable to the deity that accomplishes one or more of the above purposes. The concept of placating the anger of the deity and/or garnering its favor seems to be the earliest notions involved in ritual sacrifices. Homer writing about 800 BCE says that the gods are pliable and can be influenced by gifts such as roasted meat ( The Illiad, bk. 9). Plato, writing about 300 years later, was critical of those who thought they could bribe the gods through gifts and sacrifices (See Plato, Laws, bk. 10). One of the earliest references to sacrifices in the Hebrew Bible is found in Genesis 8. After Noah left the ark, he presented burnt offerings of animals and birds to Yahweh. The text says that when Yahweh "smelled the pleasing aroma," he promised never to curse the ground again (v. 21). This description of a burnt-offering being a "pleasing aroma" (KJV, "sweet-smelling savor") is repeated often (42 times) in the Hebrew Bible. According to Stephen Finlan:
[F]iguratively it means a sacrifice that God accepts, but its literal and older meaning is smoke that is tasty to God. The verbal root "nuach" means rest, so it is a restful or "tranquilizing" aroma, pacifying God's anger ... (Problems with Atonement , p. 12).In other words, the aroma of the cooked animal pacified or calmed the anger that God felt. This is the essence of propitiation (Rom. 3:25; I Jn. 2:2) to which I will return in a later post.
Sacrifices are seen often in the Hebrew Bible prior to the Levitical law. In the book of Job, which most believe predate the patriarchs, Job daily presented burnt-offerings to the Lord (1:5). The patriarchs regularly built altars and made burnt-offerings to the Lord. This was also a common practice of Israel's neighbors. The offering up of an animal (and sometimes a human being) as a burnt-sacrifice was widespread in antiquity. It was seen as an exchange, a gift to the deity in exchange for the deity's favor.
Why were ancient peoples so prone to think that a supernatural agent was causing either the good things or the bad things that were happening to them? According to philosopher, Elizabeth Anderson:
The answer is that they took it for granted that all events bearing on human well-being are willed by some agent for the purpose of affecting humans for good or ill. If no human was observed to have caused the event, or if the event was of a kind (e.g., a plague, drought, or good weather) that no human would have the power to cause, then they assumed that some unseen, more-powerful agent had to have willed it, precisely for its good or bad effects on humans. So, if the event was good for people, they assumed that God willed it out of love for them; if it was bad, they assumed that God willed it out of anger at them. This mode of explantation is universally obeserved among people who lack scientific understanding of natural events. It appears to be a deeply rooted cognitive bias of humans to reject the thought of meaningless suffering. ("If God is Dead, Is Everything Permitted," in Philosophers without Gods, ed. Louise Antony ,p. 225).
So, the offering of the sacrificial gift was seen as a means by which one could manipulate or affect the emotions and will of the deity. It really is not that much different today with religious (or superstituous) peoples. For example, many people in the USA today believe that if they attend religious services or give money to a charity, or say certain prayers they can influence a deity's attitude towards them which will result in good fortune.