Ritual Sacrifice in Ancient Israel

What are the origins of animal sacrifice in the Bible?

Biblical Archaeology Society Staff   •  10/25/2011

Ritual Sacrifice in Ancient IsraelThe ritual sacrifice of a ram is depicted in this third-millennium B.C.E. Mesopotamian mosaic.

What are the origins of animal sacrifice? We know that many ancient cultures practiced ritual sacrifice, and ancient sacrifice in Israel was a part of religious worship at the Jerusalem Temple. While ritual sacrifice is now discouraged in many modern religions–with the ritual sacrifice now often represented by symbolic acts and gestures—ancient sacrifice in Israel and many other ancient cultures was a common part of religious worship.

In his article “The Origin of Israelite Sacrifice,” William W. Hallo attempts to answer the question: “What are the origins of animal sacrifice?” For while ancient sacrifice in Israel was common practice, it wasn’t original to the Hebrews. Indeed, argues Hallo, the most convincing evidence of the practice of ritual sacrifice comes from the much older Mesopotamian civilization.

In his article, Hallo discusses not only the evidence for ritual sacrifice in ancient Mesopotamia, but also some of the possible motivations for the development of such a practice. He suggests that ritual sacrifice to the gods in Mesopotamia developed as a means of justifying meat consumption by human beings–a privilege generally reserved for the elite of society–and that by the beginning of the third millennium B.C.E. ritual sacrifice was understood as a means of feeding the Mesopotamian gods.

Ancient sacrifice in Israel was also a means of sanctifying meat consumption, but Hallo argues that it also took on several additional layers of meaning and significance. Ancient sacrifice in Israel was seen as a method for sanctifying certain human activities and as a way of imparting greater significance to certain rituals. Animal sacrifice was also a means of redress and was seen as a way of atoning for human transgressions.

To learn more about ancient animal sacrifice, read William W. Hallo’s “The Origin of Israelite Sacrifice,” Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 2011.

Peter’s Comments:

I thought I would post this article as it was most interesting and was something in which I have recently touched upon with my writing on paganism and the worship of nature. Although this article deals with the subject of ritual sacrifice, this may help to give another aspect of the world of how people interacted with the gods in those times, and how the Israelites conducted sacrifice.

I would recommend everyone to check out this website: http://alturl.com/qb2i6 which is a link I have created to the main website of, The Biblical Archaeology Society. They offer subscriptions for an excellent magazine I used to buy which is filled with a wealth of knowledge. As well, if you are interested in archaeological digs and being a part of one as a volunteer, they offer a host of sites that are currently under construction that you can join, from Israel, Italy, Spain, and Jordan.

By, Peter J. Fast

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