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Sacrifice Part 1


The recent discussion about calling the Eucharist a sacrifice is (surprise!) based a lot on different understandings of words. People talk past each other – using the same word to mean different things.

Here is a typical English-language definition of the word sacrifice:

1. to give up something that is valuable to you in order to help another person: 2. to kill an animal or a person and offer them to a god or gods.


as is so often the case, when the Bible and the Judeo-Christian tradition uses a (common) word, it uses the word in quite a different way, with quite a different meaning. If you want to reflect further on this, here is a reflection around church teaching that

Between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying a greater dissimilitude

This meant that ‘the word “god” is a deeply misleading starting place for us with which to begin to talk about God, but the one we have which is least inadequate’.

So, to return to “sacrifice” – in common parlance, “sacrifice” is essentially “giving something up”, it is about a “personal cost“.  Sacrifice is giving up something valuable for a greater purpose. Whilst it is seen as the right thing to do, it involves loss.


that is not the heart of biblical sacrifice.

In the First Testament, what we translate as “sacrifice” is קָרְבָּן (qārbān). The Semitic root (karev קרב) of that word means “be near”, and it is connected to the word for “close” and “relative”. Sacrifice, in the Hebrew Bible, is not so much about giving something up that is valuable; it is much more about a God-given means that draws us near to God, that gives us intimacy with God. Sacrifice is the word that applies to God taking into God’s possession; about growing union with God.

To be continued…

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image source: High priest offering a sacrifice of a goat, as on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur; from Henry Davenport Northrop, Treasures of the Bible, published 1894

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12 thoughts on “Sacrifice Part 1”

  1. I have long worried about the nature of “sacrifice”. If God is so loving, why does He not forgive us if we repent, without the need for further penalty? Who in their right mind would sacrifice his own offspring to satisfy Him? Yet it is obviously essential because THE PERFECT SACRIFICE – which God Himself provided – was needed before we were allowed back into Eden.

    1. Yes, Brian. As we get into a biblical understanding of sacrifice, Christ’s death is pictured quite differently to your description here. Blessings.

  2. This is proving interesting. I’ve long understood – indeed, was ‘taught’ – that the word was derived from Latin ‘to make holy, which isn’t so far from the second part of your blog Bosco. Or is it way too simplistic?(unless ye become as little children …). Thanks for pause to reflect!

  3. Hi Bosco. There is a danger of engaging in the root fallacy here – because a word in its usage is not necessarily defined by the meaning of its linguistic root. I haven’t done the direct work on the Hebrew word in question to know whether that is the case here or not, just thought I’d raise the danger (you may have done the necessary checking up on usage in context that gives a more helpful picture of meaning). There is also the question of the other words used for the sort of thing we think of as sacrifices (eg offerings, including the sin offering [ashah] which we find, appropriately at this time of year, in Isaiah 53:10) which feed into the concept which we usually mean by ‘sacrifice’. But perhaps that is for future posts. Just thought I’d note the thoughts as I was passing through. Go well. God bless

    1. Thanks, Chris.

      Sure – etymology does not always give the meaning. But, to give your point legs, you would need an example of קָרְבָּן not meaning “God taking into God’s possession; about growing union with God.”

      I think you may fall into another fallacy: ‘this English word is close to our understanding of that English word – so the Hebrew words they translate are essentially synonymous.’ In this case, you are saying in English we often interchange “sacrifice” and “offering”… but I cannot spot a time when the word used in Is 53:10 (אָשָׁם) is translated as “sacrifice”. Talking aloud; talking allowed… Blessings.

      1. Hi again, not so sure about those thoughts Bosco in this case.

        1) I don’t think it’s usually wise to start with etymology in that way, generally usage is the best gauge of meaning, and etymology is a helper. At least that’s my understanding of best linguistic practise. The trouble is, if you start with etymology, you can end up pre-deciding what a term does and doesn’t mean, and then rule out usages that don’t fit with that meaning. Looking at contextual use (as a good lexicon does) usually makes it harder to do that I think. But as I say, I may be wrong here, you may have done the contextual work, and you may be right.

        2) You might be right about the mistake of two English words being similar and therefore assuming two Hebrew words are when they in fact aren’t. It is certainly not necessarily the case that English similarity = original language similarity, and that is helpful to point out. But just doing a little looking at the Hebrew Bible (only a beginning), it seems to me that at least in many usages qrbn is translated as offering (by both NIV and NRSV) and the word I think (though haven’t done exhaustive work again) most often translated ‘sacrifice’ is a different Hebrew word zbch. Working out precise meanings by translation is a bit dangerous for nuanced work, but I think this is useful to note in this case. There are also words like `lh (verb and noun) which mean literally ‘something going up’ which are used, eg, in Gen 22.2.

        HALOT gives its gloss for qrbn as follows: “offering, gift (the commonest and vaguest expression for sacrifice)”. So it is a pretty general term, and presumably context will be key for understanding the meaning, assuming this lexicon has it right (but that is pretty safe for this fine lexicon, for something as general as this).

        The reason for saying all this ties to the fact that there is a gamut of words that are used for this general concept, and I don’t think it falls into the fallacy you mentioned because they are actually all used as part of what we call ‘the sacrificial system’ which is the general thing of making offering to God as seen in the OT (especially the Torah), as indicated in the picture you used to illustrate this post. For instance, all of the Hebrew words mentioned in this comment are used multiple times in the Leviticus instructions on the ‘sacrificial system’. So I guess it seems fair to think we should take notice of all of them and the way they are used in order to understand the thing we are talking about as Christians when we talk about ‘sacrifice’. I applaud the effort to understand it more carefully, as long as we do just that. At least, that’s how it seems to me.

        Anyway, I have said a lot, so I will leave it there as a contribution to the discussion – appreciate your comment re ‘thoughts allowed’! 🙂
        God bless

        1. Thanks, Chris. To do each of your examples justice and see whether they fit within my primary point (“Sacrifice is the word that applies to God taking into God’s possession; about growing union with God.”) or conflict with that will need some time. I will try my best to do that – but there are a number of other things on my plate that need my attention first. Blessings.

  4. Oh, forgot to say, what got me thinking along that line was the fact that a lot of sacrifice in the OT at least looks like it at least includes (though may not be simply reducible to – nuance is vital in these things if we are to be fair to what the text is actually saying and not saying) giving up costly things/things that are difficult to give up/handing over something valuable. so too in Romm 12 now I think of it. Hmm, worth more pondering!

    1. Thanks, Chris – shall we increase our Emotional Quotient, or at least keep to a Lenten discipline 😉 and hold off on the Greek just for the moment… Blessings.

      1. I love the NT too much to lay off Greek for lent. That’s one discipline I would want to go in the other direction!

        1. No, Chris – the allusion was to the Emotional Quotient as predicted by the ability to delay gratification, something Christians have understood for centuries before those studies – especially in Lent. Blessings.

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