Readers of the Old Testament and the Book of Mormon are often puzzled, if not baffled, at the focus on animal sacrifice. Why kill animals? The Pearl of Great Price may provide the most relevant and beautiful explanation, “This thing is a similitude of the sacrifice of the Only Begotten of the Father, which is full of grace and truth” (Moses 5:7).
Here is context from the ancient world for how sacrifice was understood, but let’s start in the modern world.
Our Westernized modern world is carnivorous. We are voracious meat-eaters. Yet, the majority of our society is totally cut off from the realities of meat production.
I’ll say it simply: Something must die for us to live.
Anytime we eat plants or animals, something has died to sustain us. Death, ultimately, is a natural part of life or, at least, in the sustaining of life. But again, most are entirely cut off from and likely unfamiliar with the process of raising animals, killing them and then preparing their bodies for consumption. Because we have industrialized the process of meat production, very few of us raise animals and then kill them for our evening meal.
The ancient Old Testament and Book of Mormon times were different (see "The Essential Old Testament Companion" by Kerry Muhlestein and "Sacrifice in the Old Testament: Its theory and practice" by George Buchanan Gray). People were closer to the process of meat production and consumption. People typically lived with the animals they would eventually eat.
The ancient Old Testament and Book of Mormon times were also different in how they approached killing animals and eating them (see "Ascending the Mountain of the Lord: Temple, Praise, and Worship in the Old Testament"). Killing animals was a ritualized, sacred activity to be shared in a community and culminating in a feast attended by family, priests and God. Instead of the sterile and industrialized killing of animals in our modern food processing, in ancient times the act of killing an animal was prescribed in ritualistic order and detail.
Portions of the animal were consumed by the priest (as payment for his services), a portion consumed by the individual or family offering the sacrifice and a portion was consumed by God via the smoke that ascended to heaven from the sacrifice. The purpose of eating this sacred meal together was to strengthen the community (see "By Our Rites of Worship: Latter-day Saint Views on Ritual in Scripture and Practice," by Daniel L. Belnap), to reinforce the truth that life is sustained by death, to remember that the Lamb of God would eventually give life to all through his death and to renew the covenantal commitments of the community. Truly, this was a sacred, communal meal.
Although we are no longer required to make animal sacrifices, the meaning is retained today. Consider the weekly sacred meal that we call the sacrament, or the act of making something sacred.
This symbolic meal represents the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. In turn, the sacrifice of his flesh and blood meant that the flesh and blood of animals were no longer required elements of the sacred meal that brought priest, people and God together into holy communion. Now we celebrate this communal feast quite simply, at least it appears simple from an outward perspective.
Notice that at our weekly reenactment of the Last Supper three parties are in attendance. First, the people have gathered together — often in families — petitioning for God’s presence and grace. Second, the priests are there to officiate in the ritual and to mediate the experience. Analogously to ancient priests, modern priesthood holders prepare the “flesh and blood” of the holy meal. Finally, and most importantly, God joins the holy meal, communing with his supplicating people.
Remember the words of the sacrament prayer, uttered in humility and precision by the representative priesthood holder:
“O God, the Eternal Father, we ask thee in the name of thy Son, Jesus Christ, to bless and sanctify this bread to the souls of all those who partake of it; that they may eat in remembrance of the body of thy Son, and witness unto thee, O God, the Eternal Father, that they are willing to take upon them the name of thy Son, and always remember him, and keep his commandments which he hath given them, that they may always have his Spirit to be with them. Amen” (see Moroni 4:3).
The last phrase of this oft-quoted verse has long struck me: “that they may always have his Spirit to be with them.” If people always remember Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, the ultimate sacrifice of flesh and blood, then they have the promise that God’s presence will always be with them.
Now think of that. If God’s presence is always with a person, he or she will always retain a remission of their sins. Because God cannot dwell in unholy temples, as we remember Jesus Christ we are continuously accessing the never-ending Atonement to become clean and pure for the presence of God to attend our lives.
Just as individuals and families in ancient times needed a priest to prepare and bless their sacred meals, meals that pointed minds toward the Lamb of God who sustains all life, so too, in the modern day, people gather as individuals and families for priesthood holders to prepare and bless the weekly sacred meal that renews our memory of Christ’s sacrifice and covenant with God.
Taylor Halverson holds doctorates in biblical studies and instructional technology. He is a BYU teaching and learning consultant. His website is at taylorhalverson.com. His views are his own.