From time immemorial, man has slaughtered animals. For food, for clothing, for the hunt, for divination, for an odd variety of reasons, man has used animals for his own benefit.
As far as ancient written record has it, the Hebrew story of Genesis 3 (or, Genesis 1-4) contains probably the first example of the slaughter of animals. Interestingly, however, the use of the animal is not for food, but for clothing (skins). And it was not man that slaughtered the animals, but the Creator (אלהים יהוה) Himself. This is exceedingly unique in ancient lore. No such tale evolves from Mesopotamia.
In Sumerian, Akkadian, or Chaldean (Old Babylonian) records there is an abundance of intricate relief illustrating man and beast together, as well as hybrid human/animal creatures. And, indeed, Moscati informs us that Mesopotamian religion was the dominant and ubiquitous practice of civilization, and central to it was the animal “sacrifice.”¹ However, the Mesopotamian records lack any such intimate, personal relationship with deity as depicted in the Hebrew story.
Perhaps the key word here is “sacrifice” (זבח), first used in reference to Jacob (Genesis 31:54), and to be distinguished from “offering” (מנחה), which was used first in Genesis 4:3 in reference to Cain’s “tribute” or “donation” of fruit to the Lord. Cain’s מנחה did not involved the death of an animal at all, nor was it accepted by the Lord. However, Abel’s offering was in fact a lamb, at it was accepted. From this point on, it is clear that the animal offering was primary in the worship of the Hebrew God.
It is also important to point out that, initially, when God provided skins for clothing (for Adam and Eve, Genesis 3:21), the concept of substitution, propitiation, or sacrifice–this for that, was not declared openly, at least in the text. Today was know sacrifice to mean giving one one thing for something else, generally for something that is more important, more valuable, or even more necessary.
Animals sacrificed at the Khairling
Fair in Calcutta, India.
In the process of slaughter in the history of civilization, of course, man’s curiosity would naturally come into play. Cutting up animals, examining their parts, became a method of divination, or of foretelling the future. The ancient Romans were experts at this. But, in fact, Abraham had done something similar nearly 2,000 years before (Genesis 15: 7-21). The origin of this practice is unknown, factually.
However, observing carefully the ancient literature, and the chronology of it’s origins,² it appears that the profound, massive systems of idolatry and heathenism are essentially gargantuan perversions of simple principles introduced in Genesis 3 and 4. Appeasing the angry and unloving gods, feeding, clothing, watering the fickle deities (with drink offering), etc., all find their origin is some partial, some morally misdirected, some twisted element of the original sacred account of origins. Thus, the human sacrifice and torture would be the ultimate manifestation of such, as history parades the story.
Interestingly, in past American Indian life, there are some interesting reverberations of these natural instincts and intuitions. (As a matter of fact, TaTanka Productions is currently creating a documentary on the plains Indians and our historical regard for animal killing.)
Not an easy thing, to bring down a buffalo with an arrow, with or without “religion.”
The documentary is about how we related to the buffalo especially. There is a tradition in the Northern Plains of some religiously articulated remorse or recognition that a precious life has been taken, and that the hunters must offer some thanksgiving or some acknowledgment that life is cyclic, and that the animal life was taken only to provide life. The Indians offer prayers, sage, and other paraphernalia, even on prayers alters in some high places. This is religion, indeed.
However, no such communal or personal response was found among the Comanche. No ceremonial gratitude, no prayers offered to a higher being, spirit or otherwise. It was good to find food, clothing, shelter, and life from the animal, but the arrow and the bravery of the hunter procured that. His was the glory, alone. The clan could be happy, but, such elation was never expressed in a formal, abstract, conceptual way, as in “religion.” The Comanche would use every part of the buffalo, including the intestines, but ritual was frankly a waste of time.
Finally, we in the West all know the ultimate “use” of the sacrificial lamb. From the heart of ancient Hebrew ritual came the overwhelming and dramatic proposition that God Himself would sacrifice, for man. This would be “the lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). This, of course, was a concept taken directly from Isaiah 53: 5-7; 10.
For this cause, we must halt, in solemnity, at the strange and superimposed heathenism of ritualized remorse over a slaughtered animal. Is it inevitable that we should feel sad that we have killed an innocent animal, which rendered no malice, no harm, or no moral aversion to us?
Is there no escape from the archetypes of the Almighty?
¹Sabatino Moscati, Ancient Semitic Civilizations (New York: G. Putnam’s Sons, 1960), pp. 64-70. Cf. S. H. Hooke, Babylonian and Assyrian Religion (University of Oklahoma, 1973); p. 50, f.; Georges Contenau, Everyday Life in Babylon and Assyria (New York: Norton, 1966), pp. 133-135; E. W. Heaton, Everyday Life in Old Testament Times (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1956), p. 217, f.
For some reason, Budge does not offer us any testimony of ancient Egyptian animal sacrifice, though he offers abundant evidence of offerings to the gods. See, Sir Wallace Budge, Egyptian Religion (1899; rpt. New York, Bell, 1959). Yet, we know the Egyptians, as well as the ancient Greeks (and later the Romans) all practiced ritual animal sacrifice. We know that Egyptians once practiced human sacrifice as well. See, Richard Poe, Black Spark, White Fire (Prima, 1997), p. 224, f.
²I personally take the position of Genesis 5, and the genealogy of oral tradition, mouth to mouth, by date. This would put the Hebrew story at the beginning of all other tales of creation and history. Oral tradition always precedes written tradition in these matters.