Growing up in suburban Cincinnati, sacrifices were not part of everyday life. I know, some of you are probably shocked by that revelation. Sacrifices were something I read about in the Bible or learned about in Sunday school. I’d never experienced a sacrifice and all that it entailed. That is, until last Thursday evening at sunset.
Let me back up and provide a little context.
When the Roman General Titus and his legion destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE, Jews had to come to grips with how they were going to maintain their relationship with God without the Temple. If they couldn’t offer sacrifices, how were they going to fulfill the commandments of Torah?
Christians (including Jewish Christians) came to an understanding that Jesus was the “Lamb of God” that was slain and had overcome death, putting an end to the need for sacrifices once and for all. Jews, under the guidance of the Pharisees, put their focus on the study of Torah and living a proper life with good deeds as the best way to maintain their relationship with God. These lines of thinking exist to this day.
However, there’s another group that has been around since shortly after the Assyrians carried off the northern tribes of Israel in 722 BCE. We know them as the Samaritans. Today, they are few in number (currently around 800). They had been excluded from Temple worship since the days of the first temple. As such, their approach to worship was not affected when the second temple was destroyed in 70 CE. They continued to celebrate Passover more in keeping with the original traditions that date back to the Exodus.
Samaritans are the descendants of the Israelites left behind by the Assyrians and the people the Assyrians force-migrated into Israel from Babylon. 2 Kings 17:24-41 gives the account of how these people converted to become followers of the God of Israel after they entered the land.
In 586 BCE, the southern kingdom of Judah was captured by the Babylonians—destroying the first temple and Jerusalem in the process. Many of the upper class and nobility were carried off to Babylon to live in exile. Yet, the Samaritans remained in the north.
Somewhere between 465 and 398 BCE, the Judean exiles returned from Babylon to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. Apparently, the Samaritans offered assistance, which was soundly rejected. Josephus records that the Samaritans built their own temple on Mt. Gerizim that was every bit as big as the temple in Jerusalem. He writes that it was destroyed by the Hasmoneans in the 2ndcentury BCE. However, the Samaritans today don’t have a temple tradition and the archaeological evidence of such a temple is debated. What is well-documented is that, for centuries, there was bad blood between the Jews and Samaritans.
Samaritans were in a no-win situation. The Jews said that sacrifices could only be offered at the Temple in Jerusalem and the Samaritans weren’t welcome there. The Samaritans believed that Mt. Gerizim was a holy mountain. Since they didn’t have any other real option, their worship of God was centered on this location.
Samaritans follow Torah—although they have amended it slightly. They don’t consider themselves to be Jews. They consider themselves to be Israelites—true descendants of the northern kingdom of Israel. They claim that their form of worship is much more aligned with the religious practices of ancient Israel than Judaism of the second temple period, or even today.
Jesus encountered a Samaritan woman next to a well in the town at the base of Mt. Gerizim. It’s no surprise what topic she wanted to discuss with this Jewish Rabbi: “Why do you Jews say we can’t worship God on Mt. Gerizim?” Jesus tells her that in the very near future, location won’t be the issue.
All of this is a round-about explanation to say that the Samaritans still celebrate the Passover in a way more aligned with the commandments in Torah. To put it another way, they still sacrifice the Passover lambs.
That brings me to last Thursday evening on Mount Gerizim.
Passover on Mt. Gerizim
The Samaritans have built a special place for celebrating the Passover on Mt. Gerizim. It has a centralized place for the slaughter complete with a stone-lined trough to catch the blood and all the necessary accoutrements for preparing the animal. It has a series of very large fire pits for roasting the lambs and a covered area under which they can eat the meal. They’ve even set up viewing bleachers for the many visitors that come each year to witness the event. Six of us from JUC joined a group going from Jerusalem for the experience.
When we arrived, they were bringing in the lambs. I was able to watch as some of them were shepherded into the area where they were to be sacrificed. Sheep have a reputation for not being “sharpest tools in the shed.” I’m not a shepherd, so I’m not really in a position to comment. However, I am 100% certain that these sheep knew something was up and it wasn’t going to end well for them. They were agitated and they were not going quietly. Honestly, a few of them reminded me of that famous scene from “Silence of the Lambs,” where Clarice Starling tells Hannibal Lecter, how she heard the lambs screaming on her uncle’s farm. Yes…Sheep can scream.
Samaritans wear white. The traditional outfits are white robes for the men with red hats that resemble a fez. However, their garments have taken a leap into the 21stcentury. Most of the younger Samaritans were wearing white jeans, sneakers, and tops—even white baseball caps. Those participating in the slaughtering of the lambs had special white suits that looked like they were part of a CSI crime lab, complete with hoodies that fit snugly over their heads and water/blood-proof, rubber boots.
Once everyone had gathered—a few minutes before sundown—they began with a recitation of Torah. I am not sure exactly what language they were speaking. It may have been Samaritan dialect of Hebrew or Aramaic. As I understand it, they recited the portions of Torah related to the Passover sacrifice. And, just as the sun was setting, in accordance with the directions God gave to Moses; the lambs were slaughtered.
In one sense, I am thankful that the number of Samaritans participating in the sacrifice was so large that it was impossible to see any specific animal get its throat slit. Yet, part of me wanted to experience it more directly to better understand what God commanded of His people. I can tell you that not all of the lambs died quickly. Some were still kicking and flailing for quite a while.
Each of the Samaritan men had a smudge of the blood placed upon their foreheads as a symbol of the blood that was painted on their doorposts during that first Passover observance in Egypt. There was a real sense of joy on the part of the participants as they continued the preparations for this sacred feast.
What About the Lamb?
Yet, this experience has me thinking more about the sacrificial animal. By the time of Jesus, all Passover lambs were slaughtered in the Temple. Realistically, there was no way that all of those animals could be slaughtered simultaneously like they were with the Samaritans. It must have taken place in phases, yet the blood would have remained. I can only imagine that a lamb in the Temple could smell the blood of those that went before him, heightening their awareness of what was about to happen. My sense is that plenty of those lambs were screaming as they were led to their deaths too.
If you lived in ancient Israel you didn’t eat a lot of meat. We have substantial archaeological and written evidence for this. Your herds and flocks were your working capital. You took milk and wool from the animals—they were worth too much for you to eat them—except on special occasions. Which meant that slaughtering or sacrificing an animal was not something you probably did every day.
As such, I wonder if sacrifices were intended to be a bit horrific for everyone involved. Perhaps it was something that was supposed to stick with you—to see the animal struggling, stricken with fear, screaming, and clinging to life as its blood drained out. Was this God’s tangible way of demonstrating to His people the ugliness and unholiness of sin? I wonder.
Witnessing this sacrifice made Isaiah 53:7 a little more relevant for me:
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth. (NRSV)
From what I witnessed, lambs are not silent as they are led to the slaughter. I think Isaiah knew that too. He wrote this to get our attention. The lambs never go willingly or quietly!
And yet, nearly 2,000 years ago, we (Christians) believe that’s exactly what Jesus did. He willingly and silently went to his own sacrifice on the cross. John refers to him as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)
Jesus’ sacrifice is important. But what’s even more important is that the Lamb didn’t stay in the tomb. Death is not the end of the story. It no longer has the final word. Jesus’ resurrection means that God is bringing about the restoration of all things; enacting His plan to bring mankind and creation back to how they were intended to be from the beginning and in full relationship with Him. In Hebrew that word is Shalom.
During this Easter/Passover season, my prayer is this:
The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you Shalom!
Because, He has Risen!