Animal sacrifice has long puzzled me. Somewhere and at some point in the distant past, we got the idea that if we burned a goat or a lamb, this would please the gods and they would be nicer to us. I’ve tried to come up with a logical explanation for this practice, but haven’t succeeded. An online search, a process that usually brings me some additional insight, has also produced little new information. Sites professing to expose the origins of animal sacrifice follow a path leading, inevitably, back to the simple premise that it was commanded by God. Or the gods.
I suppose the sacrificial killing of animals could be the result of a thought process that originated long ago:
We humans are pretty miserable most of the time. It’s hot and these flies won’t leave us alone. Plus, sometimes the ground shakes and the sun goes dark in the middle of the day and the air moves fast and blows our stuff all over the place. Worst of all, there’s nothing comfortable to sit on.
The gods made things the way they are. If we’re suffering, it must be because they enjoy it. We’re down here getting maimed and eaten alive and dealing with all kinds of rashes and allergies, and the gods are up there watching in amusement. But maybe we can fill their sadistic need for torment by mutilating other living things. Maybe it wouldn’t matter to the gods who was screaming in agony, as long as it was somebody. It’s worth a try! Now whose blood can we spill? Whose flesh can we burn? How about that huge cat over there with the stripes and the really sharp teeth? Or that twenty-foot crocodile, the one that ate three of my cousins yesterday. Wait, I know! The sheep! They seem to have no ability to fight back, and they make that annoying sound. They’d probably be easy to light, too. Let’s give that a try. If it doesn’t work, at least we’ll have dinner.
This explanation doesn’t satisfy me, because where’s the Cause & Effect? I doubt anything changed after the first animal sacrifice. There hasn’t been a break in human suffering in the entire history of humanity. What would the motivation have been to continue killing helpless creatures?
Maybe that isn’t what happened. Maybe this is how it went. Picture it:
You’re standing in your pasture. It hasn’t rained in weeks and your crops are withering. You’re running out of drinking water. Your sheep are struggling to find something to eat. Then a few thunder clouds appear on the horizon and gather directly over your field. You anticipate rain but it doesn’t come. You drop to the ground and beseech the gods — because that’s the kind of talk the gods like, beseeching — and you also throw in a little pleading and imploring, just to cover your bases. A mighty flash fills the sky. You look across the field and see that one of your sheep has been struck by the jagged yellow light and has burst into flames. The animal is on fire, and running. The sight both sickens and fascinates you, but mostly fascinates. As you watch, the sheep slows down and collapses, producing a rising plume of dark smoke. Then, a boom from the sky, a deafening clap. The gods are speaking! And rain begins to fall, gently at first, but it quickly builds to a torrent. The downpour continues for hours, bringing your crops, your animals, and your family back from the brink of death. The gods have delivered your world back to you, and the price they charged was the life of one innocent sheep. One miserable, bleating, grass-eating sheep. That seems like quite a deal.
That could have been the beginning of a practice that has lasted for thousands of years. When the animal sacrifice didn’t work immediately, we simply increased the number or changed the ritual. Sooner or later we received the desired result: it rained more, it rained less, the days got warmer, the comet went away. And whatever type of sacrifice we had just completed must have been what worked. It didn’t occur to us that it was the storm that caused the animal’s death, and not the other way around, because that kind of thinking will just land you back in a state of helplessness and beseeching. And what about the possibility that there’s no connection at all, no Cause & Effect to even consider? Here’s a better question: Why take a chance? It’s just a sheep.