Why the animals are sacrificial offerings throughout the Bible. Thousands of animals died for what purpose? Why would God want innocent animals to be killed?
When studying the history of religion, a common reality of many, if not almost all religions in times both ancient and contemporary is the reality of sacrifice. When considering this basic historical truth, it is important to know that “religion,” by definition, is a way of “binding together” those who practice a particular
religion with the one sought by those practicing the religion (in our case, the one true God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). The role of sacrifice in this act of binding together is that by offering something (usually material) to the one who is worshiped, a greater relationship is established between the one who makes the offering and the one to whom the offering is made. While the manner by which the sacrifice is offered, the intent of the sacrifice, and, of course, that which is sacrificed all differ from one religion to another, it is these common elements of seeking to be in relationship by sacrificing and this bringing or binding together those who sacrifice with the one to whom the offering is made that is the beginning of an answer to this question about sacrifice of animals.
Realize as we talk about sacrifice in a general sense that any true sacrifice is meant to be an offering of one’s self. In some religions, offering of self is only understood as killing one or more person (such as child sacrifices of various pagan religions throughout history). In our Catholic faith, one of the most beautiful realities about our worship (even if we have not taught this very well in more recent generations) is that when we participate in the Church’s worship – what we often call “liturgy” – we are able to offer ourselves in a manner that does not require our own destruction or that of other human beings or live animals. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in his writings on the liturgy, speaks of the one sacrifice of Christ as the “unblemished lamb” as a “restorative” sacrifice – whose fruit is not death and destruction, but life and restoration – through His death and resurrection. Whenever we participate in the one sacrifice of Christ in the Eucharist, it is the life-giving and restorative sacrifice within which we partake. Our call is to “offer ourselves” in the sense that we give our whole lives to God, that He may live in us and we in Him (this, by the way, is at the very foundation of receiving Holy Communion worthily, and why those in mortal sin ought not receive communion until they are reconciled). When we offer ourselves to God in the liturgical worship of the Church, the end goal is to be drawn into more perfect communion with God (hence, the “binding together” that is the meaning of religion), so that our whole life in this world and in the realm of eternity may be lived in Him and for Him.
Given our manner as Catholics of participating in the sacrifice of Christ, it is notable by contrast (and thus, an answer to the given question) that in the Old Testament, the sacrifices of the animals were understood as substitutionary. That is, when the lambs, bulls, goats, etc. (clean animals) were offered, these offerings were made as substitutes for offering our own human blood – as our life blood is sacred to the Lord. The various actions of the sacrifices that including laying hands on the head of the animal (transferring our sins to the animal), the sprinkling of the blood of the animal, or the burning of its flesh, etc., always took place in reference to the people seeking to be purified and thus brought into more perfect relationship with God. The animals, for their own part, were material offerings taken from the herds of those who offered them (and in this way, were understood as an offering of “their selves”). On the other hand, we see in the prophecies concerning Jesus that such sacrifices had no power to save from death – only Christ would offer such a sacrifice that could save from death, giving eternal life. Still, the sacrifices of animals in the Old Testament were a means of living out the covenants by substituting the blood of animals for their own human blood – until such time that the Christ would offer the one, true, eternal sacrifice – within which you and I are privileged to partake in each and every Holy Mass – that the saving sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Christ may purify us and create in us the true, Holy Communion to which we are called in the new, eternal covenant.