Tag Archives: sacrifice

Who Promised What? Why Does It Matter?

Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield, your very great reward Genesis 15:1 NIV

We are familiar with the words covenant and testament as used in the Bible. We read the Old Testament and the New Testament, and we understand them to represent different “contracts” with humankind. The verse quoted above initiates the certification of one of the oldest of the “contracts.”

The story goes this way.

God addresses Abram and promises him protection, reward, and heirs. When Abram asks, “How can I know …? God tells him to do something that seems very peculiar to modern ears. He tells Abram to gather up a number of animals, which Abram slaughters and divides. He lays the halves of the animals opposite each other and guards the slaughtered beasts from predators.

After a time, Abram has a vision. God makes a prophecy, and then Abram sees God pass between the pieces of the slaughtered beasts. “A smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed through the pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram” Genesis 15:17-18 NIV.

The image of God as a fire is a familiar one. The notion of God traversing the path between halves of slaughtered animals seems almost barbaric. To make sense of it, we need to know that this process was an ancient ceremony of commitment to a contract. Passing between the pieces of slaughtered animals was a way of saying, “May it be to me as to these animals if I break this covenant.” In this story of the covenant with Abram, God passes through the field of slaughter, and in so doing he says, May I become a bloody victim like these beasts if I ever break my covenant.”

Just as we expect both parties to a contemporary contract to sign their names, in ancient times, both parties were expected to pass between the beasts. Yet in this story, there is no record that Abram took that walk. God took the entire burden of the covenant upon himself.

What became of that covenant? The Bible tells a sad story. Abram’s descendants could not make up their minds what they believed. They felt little obligation to the God who had committed himself to a bloody fate if He ever failed them. Story after story reveals that they were incapable of an equivalent and reciprocal commitment.

  • “The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord” Judges 3:7 NIV
  • ”They provoked the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger by their worthless idols” 1 Kings 16:33 NIV
  • “They did more evil than the nations the Lord had destroyed before the Israelites “ 2 Chronicles 33:9 NIV

And how did the God who had committed himself to a blood-enforced covenant react?

  • “To a nation that did not call on my name, I said, ‘Here am I, here am I” Isaiah 65:1
  • “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock “ Jeremiah 23:3
  • “Then they will know that I, the Lord their God, am with them” Ezekiel 23:3
  • “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel?” Hosea 11:8

Over and over, the Bible records the story—Abram’s descendants scorned the God who offered to become as a slaughtered beast in order to affirm his covenant with them. They, who had offered nothing, cried out to the God they scorned when trouble arose, but when times were good, they had no use for Him. There were two parties to the covenant, but only one had ever offered to do anything to restore the covenant if it were broken. One party remained steadfastly committed to the agreement. The other party trampled the covenant underfoot and scorned the whole idea as too limiting on personal freedom. You might ask, who would ever make good on this covenant?

“When they came to the place of the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals, one on his right hand, the other on his left” Luke 23:32 NIV

When God made a covenant with his people, he offered to become as a slaughtered beast in order to demonstrate his commitment to the covenant. On a hill outside Jerusalem He passed in the midst of slaughter again. He said again, “May it be so to me,” not because He had broken the covenant, but because we have broken it.

Imagine that you found you found yourself unable to pay the mortgage on your house. Imagine further that you had bad-mouthed the banker all over town for sending you dunning letters after you first defaulted on your payments. Then imagine that your banker said, “I’ll personally borrow the money and pay this mortgage for you.” That scenario is still more credible than the idea that the God of all creation would permit himself to be tortured and killed because we are not able to keep our promises.

Human beings do not have a good record of keeping promises. We fail, because the promise is inconvenient. We fail, because we promise what we have no power to keep. We fail, because our sense of commitment wears out and we cannot talk ourselves into it again. Yet the God who creates fulfillment of his Word by the mere act of speaking that Word never fails to keep His promises. When He was ready to show all the world that he meant business, He sent his Son into the world, and His Son explained why he was here. He was here to be the slaughtered beast that restored the broken covenant between God and man.

“God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him “ John 3:16-17 NIV

God keeps all his promises. You can count on him.


A Verse for Meditation

Torah ScrollThe sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.  Psalm 51:17

This verse falls near the end of Psalm 51, a psalm composed by David after Nathan called him to account for his adultery with Bathsheba. Read Psalm 51:1-6. In what way does verse 6 set the stage for verse 17?

1     Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
2     Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
3     For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
4     Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are proved right when you speak
and justified when you judge.
5     Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
6     Surely you desire truth in the inner parts;
you teach me wisdom
in the inmost place.

Verses 7-9 are about the work David asks God to do because of his (David’s) sin. What does David really want?
7     Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
8     Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
9     Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.

Verses 11-16 are a plea from David. Have you ever felt this way? David knows that he cannot be reconciled with God as long as the blots and stains of his sin remain? What does he think is necessary for his reconciliation?

11    Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12    Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
13    Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will turn back to you.
14    Save me from bloodguilt, O God,
the God who saves me,
and my tongue will sing of your righteousness
15    O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
16    You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. 

Coming to the end of this long penitential prayer, David makes a startling statement. How does the statement in verse 17 enhance the meaning of the statement in verse 19?

17    The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart,
O God, you will not despise.
18    In your good pleasure make Zion prosper;
build up the walls of Jerusalem.
19    Then there will be righteous sacrifices,
whole burnt offerings to delight you;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.

Would you agree that verse 17 is the climax of this psalm-prayer? If not, which verse do you see as the most powerful statement of the message of this psalm?

When was the last time you felt as guilty as David felt when he wrote this psalm? Have you ever come to God with your shame as David did? Think of your shame and the disappointment you feel about yourself. Pray this prayer for yourself.

A Hymn for Meditation

 For the Beauty of the Earth

For the beauty of the earth
For the beauty of the earth (Photo credit: Ben Bawden)

For the beauty of the earth,
for the beauty of the skies,

for the love which
from our birth
over and around us lies;
Christ, our God, to thee we raise
this our sacrifice of praise.

 For the joy of human love,
brother, sister, parent, child,

friends on earth
and friends above,
for all gentle thoughts
and mild.
Christ, our God, to thee we raise
this our sacrifice of praise.

 For each perfect gift of thine,
peace on earth and joy in heaven.
For thyself, best gift divine,
to our world so freely given.

Christ, our God, to thee we raise
this our sacrifice of praise.

                      Folliott S. Pierpoint

 Questions for thought and prayer:

  •  At the end of each verse, you sing the words “sacrifice of praise.” Do you think it is a sacrifice to give praise to God? If ”sacrifice” means to surrender something that you might really want to keep, what are you sacrificing when you praise God?
  • The hymnwriter speaks of humans being immersed in love from the moment of birth. What does he mean? Do you agree with him? Why, or why not?
  • The third verse offers praise for “peace on earth,” recalling the promise of the angels when Jesus was born. Is there peace on earth? Where? Who has peace? Can there be peace on earth when nations are at war?
  • Even if you don’t write poetry, what would you include in a fourth verse to this hymn?

© 2012 Katherine Harms





A Sacrifice of Thanksgiving

Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me.  Psalm 50:23 


The first time I read this verse, printed all by itself in my Daily Texts, I was taken aback. I have read the Bible through several times, but it is truly startling sometimes to be reminded that simply reading through the Bible does not imprint every word in my heart. I read these words as if I had never seen them before. Thanksgiving as a sacrifice. I wondered what it could mean.

When I try to teach others how to understand the Bible, I always emphasize that every verse has context, and that the context is the best place to look for guidance in understanding the verse. I read the context. Psalm 50 is not long, and this verse is the concluding verse, so it didn’t take much time to read the whole thing. Imagine my surprise when I read verse 14: “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving.” There in the center of the psalm is this idea again, the idea of thanksgiving as a sacrifice.

I read the Psalm again. Over years of Bible study following any number of guides and methods, I have learned that the most important principle is to keep reading until the Holy Spirit teaches me something. In fact, the Holy Spirit has taught me that the way to the truth is often simply to hammer persistently at the words. Read them more than once.

I began to see a pattern to the psalm. I noticed that verse 5 included the word sacrifice, too. In this verse, God says that his faithful followers had made a covenant with him by sacrifice. In verse 8 God is complaining about Israel, however, and even though he says “Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you” he then proceeds to say that he doesn’t like their sacrifices. God is angry. He says, “If I were hungry, I would not tell you.” Of course, this statement refers to the image of a god eating the burnt offerings of worshipers, and there are many references in the Old Testament to the notion that a burnt offering created a fragrant or pleasing aroma for God to enjoy. However, in this psalm, God says he does not enjoy those offerings.

Then he explains. God is displeased, even angry to the point of retribution. By verse 22, any doubt about the level of God’s outrages is cleared up as he says, “I will tear you apart.” That statement is graphic.

After reading the psalm yet again, I realized that the problem lay in people’s notion that when they sacrificed a bull they were giving up something. They were not giving up something. All those bulls and everything else in the world already belonged to God. They were not giving up something; they didn’t own anything to give up. It was supreme ego for them to feel deprived when they sacrificed a bull or a lamb or any other offering.

The people were bringing their offerings to God because they thought it was something they were required to do. They thought God would be mad if they didn’t do what he said, and they resented every bit of it. In fact, everything in their lives testified to their complete disdain for God and for each other.

You hate discipline

You make friends with a thief

You slander your own mother’s child

You thought that I was one just like yourself


Every person who brought an offering to God was griping internally at the obligation. Every one of them fretted that he had lost something by giving up this animal, and for what? Every person who put something on the altar was inwardly consumed with anger that he had to give up something he wanted for himself. They all felt needy. They all felt like victims of religious tyranny. In this psalm, God expresses his outrage that they are all so busy worshiping themselves that they cannot worship him, and he says they can just quit bothering with it. God wants one thing from them: he wants them to stop worshiping themselves.

This is why he says he wants a “sacrifice of thanksgiving.” This is why he says that “those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me.” They are the people who recognize that “every wild animal of the forest is [God’s].” They are the people who know that they can’t give God anything; it all belongs to him already. They are the people who thank God for all his gifts and for his provision for their every need and for the animal that they put on the altar. The people who give thanks for the sacrificial animal also give thanks for God’s sovereignty. They don’t feel they have lost something when they give God what is his already.

Jesus talked about the same thing. Jesus, God in flesh, said that people who wanted to follow him had to deny self first. In other words, they had to stop worshiping themselves and feeling like victims every time there was some inconvenience or persecution or loss.

We all do it. It comes time to put money in the offering envelope, and it is hard to let go of that money, because the credit card bill is shockingly larger than expected this month. The church asks for volunteers to help serve food to homeless people on Saturday morning, and it seems like a great imposition on the only day you can sleep in. The youth director asks if you are willing to be a chaperone for the summer youth mission project, and you think, “But I only have two weeks of vacation a year. There goes one of them.” We all think we have rights, and we think we have ownership, and we think God asks too much.

God doesn’t ask much at all. All he really asks is integrity. Honesty. He wearies of never hearing a “Thank you” when every good gift we have in life is a gift from him.

The sacrifice of thanksgiving is not a barely audible “Thank you” choked out through clenched lips by a pouting child. We give the sacrifice of thanksgiving when we pray as we are taught by Christ, the one who sacrificed himself for us on the cross, “Thy will be done.”

What’s the Truth Here?

Jesus casting out the money changers from the ...
Image via Wikipedia

Sunday’s readings

Exodus 20:1-17

Psalm 19

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

John 2:13-22

All four gospel writers describe the day that Jesus cleansed the temple in Jerusalem. He was like a whirlwind roaring through, overturning tables and scattering coins everywhere, driving out animals and people in his fury. When we remember that Jesus truly is God in the person of the Son, we know where this fury came from. It takes us back to the wilderness trek of Israel, when God first explained to them what he expected of them. The wilderness is the place where we can put the cleansing of the temple in its right perspective.

In the wilderness, God told the people what sort of sacrifice he expected. Any animal or any fruits of harvest given over to God as a sacrifice was to be the best of all. Over and over he emphasized that gifts to God should be unblemished, perfect in every way. In the temple of Jesus’ day, vendors sold blind, lame, pathetic animals that were the rejects they could not sell elsewhere. Moneylenders who were there to serve people of all nationalities and convert their many different forms of money to coins acceptable for shopping in the temple routinely gouged their customers in the rates and fees for money exchange. As a consequence, every worshiper who did not arrive with his own perfect animal ready for sacrifice was subjected to the untender mercies of vendors and moneylenders who cheated the customers and cheated God. It is said by some commentators that temple inspectors collaborated in the whole scheme by ruling that perfect animals brought from home had defects and must be replaced by animals bought within the temple grounds. The offerings were lies to God as a result of the people lying to themselves. The temple had become a place to celebrate big lies and scorn for both God and people.

Jesus, God incarnate, took action to show what a fraud the whole operation was. His action, taking place shortly before he himself became the only perfect sacrifice for the sins of humankind, highlights what a complete lie the whole worship experience had become. Every worshiper had become part of a scene that honored neither God nor man. Jesus’ action said with great clarity that God hates lies and he hates fraud and he hates the behaviors that sustain such attitudes.

When Jesus cleansed the temple, he was preparing it for the day when the curtain that hid the Holy of Holies would be ripped from top to bottom, the day Jesus himself was sacrificed on the cross. Jesus told his disciples, “I am the way, the truth and the life,” and on the day of the cleansing, he acted as purifying truth to cleanse the temple and ready it for the one true sacrifice that would wipe away the sin of all humankind.

This is the truth celebrated in today’s psalm. This is the truth revealed in God’s law. The psalmist knew about that truth. He wrote that God’s law is the revealed truth that the heavens wordlessly sing about day and night. God’s law, which is often viewed as restrictive and oppressive, is revealed by the psalmist and by Jesus’ work of cleansing the temple to be liberating and fulfilling.

Some people have great difficulty “finding” any money to give to God as an offering when they worship. The lesson of the temple cleansing, pointing back to the lessons of Israel’s wilderness days, is that our gifts to God come first. They are the most special gifts we give to anyone for any reason. Our gifts to God must be our first fruits, our most perfect, our free gifts of love and gratefulness. We deny the blessing and mercy of God in our lives when we begrudge him our best.

This is the reason that we must give in gratefulness and love, not out of any sense of obligation. There were, no doubt, individuals who were sickened by the deceitful marketplace the temple had become in Jesus’ day, but their anguish was completely overwhelmed by the power of those who thought of worship as an opportunity to enrich themselves. They had no respect for God, and they caused even faithful worshipers to sink beneath their bad attitudes. There were almost certainly faithful believers who refused to have anything to do with the temple because of this problem.

We can be thankful that this story is in the gospel. It is a reminder first that Christ supplanted all the sacrifices ever burned in that temple by being the perfect sacrifice no animal ever could be. Beyond that, it is also a reminder that we never fool God when we give him less than our best, when we give him only our leftovers. Jesus is the way God tells us that we are so important to him that he gave his best for us. This gift demands that we give only our best to him.