Pagan Sacrifices and Yom Kippur

A Paper by Shoeless Wanderer

The sixteenth chapter of the book of Leviticus in the Torah explores the holiday of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement in Judaism. Leviticus 16 gives an extremely specific ritual for cleansing the Israelites of their sins through a burnt offering as well as blood smearing. This ritual performed on the Day of Atonement bears a strong similarity to the pagan practice of sacrifice. The Israelites were likely influenced by the sacrificial cults of their pagan neighbors, but the addition of the covenant to pagan practices caused sacrificial rituals, such as the one made on Yom Kippur, to take on a different meaning.

The Israelites came from a pagan world full of many gods. Since the Hebrews in the Exodus story had just left Egypt, it is not surprising that the Israelites were familiar with the practices of polytheistic religions and sacrificial cults. In polytheistic religion sacrifice was considered key to maintaining a stable society. Sacrifices occurred in temples and were believed to change the divine-human relationship. Sacrifices to the gods were made for a number of reasons, including but not limited to, protection from invasion, a good harvest, a good marriage, and keeping the gods happy. These sacrifices took many forms including offerings of incense, crops and animals. The animals offered ran the gamut from common livestock like chickens, goats and birds to more exotic animals like lions in some cults. In order to make a sacrifice, the offerings would be brought to the temple and given to the temple priests. These priests would make sure that the offering was acceptable. The temple priests would then say a prayer over the

offering. If the offering was an incense offering, the incense would be burned. Food offerings might be split between the worshipper and the god or between the god and the priests. Animal offerings were a different matter. Depending on the cult there might be an elaborate ritual, such as parading the animal about to be sacrificed through the town. This was common on festival days, especially in the ancient Roman world. Priests would also have to ensure that the animal was fit for the god’s consumption. That meant making sure the animal was free of blemishes and imperfections, although minor imperfections would occasionally be allowed. After ensuring the animal was worthy of the gods, a prayer might be said over the animal. It would then be killed. From there, the blood would be drained out of the animal. The animal would then be opened up and have organs, such as the heart or entrails, removed. These body parts would become a burnt offering for the god or goddess the animal had been sacrificed to. The rest of the animal was either given to the priests or to the believer. By doing this, the believer was said to share a meal with the gods. The sacrifices made, no matter what kind they were, helped to ensure that people remained in the favor of the gods.

In many ways, Jewish sacrifice was similar to pagan sacrifice. It is clear that this practice was a very important part of ancient Jewish culture, as many laws in the Torah pertain to sacrifice. The Yom Kippur ritual in Leviticus 16 is similar to other burnt sacrifices, with “hides, flesh and dung consumed in fire.” (Lev 16: 27.) Animals were brought before the tabernacle, as one might bring an animal sacrifice to the temple of a pagan god, and there was a form of prayer said over them. In the case of Yom Kippur, this prayer was the laying of sins on the two goats and bull being offered. The bull and one of the goats were slaughtered and their bodies were burnt. The animals offered were typical of other pagan sacrifices, as bulls and goats were common livestock in the ancient world. Other burnt offerings appear in Leviticus 1 as well as Leviticus 6 and

Leviticus 8. These offerings were made to God in accordance with the covenant and to maintain the happiness of the divine, as the pagans did for their gods. Leviticus 6:13 also discusses a daily sacrifice of “…an ephah of choice flour as a regular meal offering, half of it in the morning and half of it in the evening…” The practice of bringing breakfast and dinner to God is a direct correlation with the idea of sharing a meal with the gods. In the case of Leviticus 6:13, the meal is a grain offering. Elsewhere, such as in Leviticus 8: 31, a sacrifice made to God is also eaten by Aaron and his sons. This mirrors the concept of sharing a meal with the gods by sacrifice in Paganism. Other such instances of a shared meal occur in Leviticus 7:16 and Leviticus 7: 12-15 and show lines of thought similar to pagan sacrificial cults.

Monotheistic thought caused the Jewish adaptations of pagan practices to take new theological meaning. In the case of the sacrifices on Yom Kippur, the covenant between Israel and God was reaffirmed. The sin offerings were a way of showing God that the Israelites still remained loyal to the deity and that He was the only god recognized by Israel. Laws concerning sacrifice in the Torah show that there was a conscious effort to ensure sacrifices were to God and God alone. Leviticus 17: 3-4 states that

“…if anyone of the house of Israel slaughters an ox or sheep or goat in the camp or does so outside the camp and does not bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meetings to present it as an offering to the LORD before the LORD’S tabernacle, bloodguilt shall be imputed to that man: he has shed blood; that man shall be cut off from among his people.”

By forcing people to bring all slaughtered animals before the tabernacle, it was assured that no sacrifice would be made to idols of other gods. This assured that Yahweh was

the only God Israel recognized. Leviticus 17: 8-9 also forces strangers or guests who may be living amongst the Israelites to do the same with their slaughtered animals. This requirement ensured that everyone within the camp, Israelite or not, only sacrificed to the God of Israel. In pagan society such a restriction would have been absurd, as the sacrifice to many gods, as well as the importation of foreign gods, was commonplace and completely acceptable by society’s norms.

In addition to forcing non-Israelites to sacrifice to one God, the covenant placed restrictions on what animals could be sacrificed to Yahweh. Unlike in the pagan religions where exotic animals could be sacrificed to the gods, only kosher animals such as cows, goats, sheep and certain birds could be given up as an offering to God. These animals were considered kosher by Jewish dietary laws. The use of these animals in sacrifice shows that God followed the same rules as the Israelites by keeping kosher. In many cases pagan gods often had a “do as I say, not as I do” attitude where the God or Goddess could do as they pleased but if a mortal imitated that behavior, the individual would be chastised for doing so. In the case of ancient Greek religion, the gods held men to different standards then themselves. Zeus could freely have affairs with whomever he wanted, but if a believer was having an affair, Zeus could, on a whim, punish that believer. Pagan gods tended to be arbitrary in their decision making, whereas with the covenant Yahweh willingly limited His own power and promised not to harm the Hebrews so long as they upheld their end of the covenant.

The sacrifices on the holiday of Yom Kippur reveal a great deal about ancient Israel and the foundations of the Jewish religion. They show that there was a great amount of borrowing and adapting the ideas and theological thought of the pagan world around the ancient Israelites. These sacrifices also reveal that while the ancient Israelites

adapted concepts from the polytheistic world that surrounded them, their own theological beliefs created a new view on the divine-human relationship, one that relied less on appeasement and more on fidelity to one God. This emphasis on loyalty and respect to one divine being has since then become one of the most revolutionary and influential concepts in history.

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