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In the book of Leviticus, the people of Israel are given a number of instructions regarding when and how to perform sacrifices to God.

I have often found that cultural context is extremely valuable in Biblical hermeneutics. Therefore, I am wondering what are some of the similarities and differences in Egyptian, Babylonian, Akkadian, Sumerian and Assyrian sacrificial traditions and how these compare to Israelite practices.

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  • These are meant to be in the vein of Hawkeye's similar questions from several years ago. Jan 2 '16 at 23:37
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    This seems pretty broad to me.
    – Susan
    Jan 3 '16 at 6:32
  • @James Shewey (Regarding Genesis) Yes, agreed. On retrospect, perhaps it is better to present my own answer than to criticise another. Point taken (and point remembered for the future).
    – Nigel J
    Jan 26 '18 at 20:44
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Sarah Iles Johnston (Religions of the Ancient World, page 330) distinguishes the notion of 'offerings' from 'sacrifices'. She says that in the biblical world, sacrifice more typically connotes a specific offering in which blood is poured out. Connected with this is the idea that blood is endowed with a special power. This idea is common to most of the Semitic world, but is unknown in Mesopotamia, because sacrifices in the strict sense did not exist there. The Hebrews did offer blood sacrifices, as we see in Exodus:

Exodus 23:18: Thou shalt not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leavened bread; neither shall the fat of my sacrifice remain until the morning.

Exodus 24:6: And Moses took half of the blood, and put it in basons; and half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar.

In the ancient Near East, offerings were intended as a way of nourishing and entertaining the gods, who participated in the sacred meal that such offerings represented.

Beate Pongratz-Leisten ('Ritual Killing and Sacrifice in the Ancient Near East') provides a study of the cultural background of ancient Near Eastern sacrificial rituals. He says (page 6) William R. Smith suggested that sacrifice allowed communion between man and god during a sacramental meal. Smith's idea was that the blood of the sacrificial animal connected humans and gods.

Johnston says (Religions of the Ancient World, page 332) that the alphabetic cult texts from Ugarit provide parallels with the sacrificial system of the Hebrew Bible.

Scapegoat traditions were common in ancient times. David Leeming (The Oxford Companion to World Mythology, page 348) says in the Jewish tradition, the scapegoat was one of two goats used in a ritual celebration on the Day of Atonement. One goat was sacrificed to Yahweh, while the other was thrown over a cliff to take the sins of the people with it. Sarah Iles Johnston (Religions of the Ancient World, page 33) says that evidence has been found in cuneiform tablets that the scapegoat ritual was practised in Ebla as long ago as the third millennium BCE, and that Hittite texts also refer to a similar ritual. In the Hittite practice, it was the king who presides over the ritual and it was performed to rid the kingdom of pestilence, whereas in Hebrew practice it was the high priest who presided and the ritual removed the sins of the people. In other cultures, traditions sometimes involved the sacrifice of a prisoner or a child, or the symbolic or actual killing of a 'king for the day'. In the scapegoat myth, the hero metaphorically carries the sins of the society away with him into the sacrificial death.

bibliotecapleyades.net says a cult of shedim that originated in Babylon and involved human sacrifice spread to Canaan and eventually to Israel. Hurwitz is cited to say that that a sacrificial altar existed to the Shedim next to the Yahweh cult, although this practice was widely denounced by prophets who retained belief in Yahweh.

Human sacrifice is well attested among the Semitic peoples of ancient times. It is almost universally assumed that the Israelites did not, and could not have, sacrificed young children, and that is at least true from the time of the Babylonian Exile. There are several Old Testament references to kings and others causing their children to 'walk through the fire', which are actual references to child sacrifices. Mark S. Smith says, in The Early History of God, page 172, that Isaiah 30:27- 33 appears as the best evidence for the early practice of child sacrifice in Israel. He says that Leviticus 20:2-5 suggests that this sacrifice is not to take place in Yahweh's temple, perhaps to avoid performance of it in his name. Nevertheless it would appear that Jerusalemite cult included child sacrifice under Yahwistic patronage; it is this that Leviticus 20:2-5 deplores. Ezekiel 20:25-26 provides a theological rationale for Yahweh causing child sacrifice:

Ezekiel 20:25-26 Therefore I gave them also statutes that were not good, and judgments whereby they should not live; And I polluted them in their own gifts, in that they caused to pass through the fire all that openeth the womb, that I might make them desolate, to the end that they might know that I am the LORD.

Ancient Egyptian retainer sacrifice is a type of human sacrifice in which pharaohs and occasionally other high court nobility would have servants killed after the pharaohs' deaths to continue to serve them in the afterlife. In Egypt, retainer sacrifice only existed during the First Dynasty, from about 3100 BC to 2900 BC, and dying out long before the establishment of the Hebrew kingdoms. Herodotus provides a very detailed description of animal sacrifice in Egypt in later times.

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