All the time talking about meat and antiquity makes me curious to know Matt’s perspective on one particular animal: the lamb. At Local Yocal, the largest demand for lamb is always around the Passover.
I am not surprised. In scouring the Bible for mentions of lamb and sheep, one word kept emerging as synonymous with sheep: sacrifice. This traces back to the opening pages of Genesis. Beginning with Adam and Eve, God covers human sin and removes shame with animal skins, marking the first animal sacrifice. Abel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all made sacrifices which likely involved sheep. God institutes the command to sacrifice as a way to atone for one’s sins. Recognizing the high-cost world of livestock helps us understand the high-cost ask of God. Each sacrifice represented an offering of precious resources and future income.
At the Passover, the blood of the sacrificial lamb dribbles down Israelite doorposts and rescues God’s people from the knock of death on every door. Later, when the tabernacle appears in the desert, whole burnt offerings, guilt offerings, and sin offerings rise from within its velvety drapes. The first seven chapters of the book of Leviticus describe the main types of animal sacrifice. In burnt offerings, the whole animal is consumed in the fire, an extravagant gift because the entirety is given to God. For guilt and sin offerings, innards are also burned, but the meat is eaten only by the priest. In fellowship or peace offerings, the fat, kidneys, and section of liver burn in the fire. The remaining meat is divided between the priests and the offerer.
Israelite worship could have centered on prayer and piety, but God sets the table in the temple, too. Meat, including lamb, often appears on the altar, filling the holy spaces with savory scents.
The Scripture makes it clear that when making a sacrifice, God prefers His meat roasted instead of boiled.
One of the all-time greatest scenes of sacrifice in the Bible appears during the temple dedication under King Solomon. Twenty-two thousand cattle and 120,000 sheep and goats roast in the mega-meat-tastic event. Some of the offerings are completely consumed, but the rest are enjoyed by the priests and people in a weeklong feast.
As a butcher, Matt describes the scene as impossible to comprehend. The largest, most efficient plants in the nation have the technology and equipment to process 8,000 cattle a day, but that requires 2,200 employees working around the clock. Almost 80,000 family farmers and ranchers are needed to care for six million sheep in the United States — that’s one person for every seventy-five sheep.
“What they did is unfathomable — to have that many animals let alone butcher them all,” Matt gapes. “All those sacrifices placed the people in a position to trust that God would rescue them, continue to feed them, continue to be their provider.”
The Torah gives specific instructions regarding the selection of every lamb that appears on that altar. The animal must be one-year-old and unblemished. Matt explains this detail is deliberate. At one year old, a lamb is mature enough to be full-grown but not old enough to consume more resources than it will return. The yearling represents a year of hard work and investment.
“God wants a person’s best,” Matt says. “He’s saying, ‘Don’t bring me the lamb you’re going to have to kill anyway.’ If it only has three legs or lacks an ear, that’s not what God wants. He wants our best and to trust Him that when we sacrifice, He’ll provide the next animal for the offering.”
Then the prophet Isaiah promises the long-awaited restoration of God’s people will not come through animal sacrifice but human sacrifice. The suffering servant will be a guilt offering for the people of God. Like a lamb led to slaughter before the priests, he will neither resist nor protest.
When Jesus appears on the scene, those who have waited for Him don’t recognize Him. Hoping for a political mover-and-shaker, they forget Isaiah’s description of a sheep-like savior, even as John the Baptist cries out,
Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!
From a butcher’s point of view, it makes sense that Jesus would take on lamb imagery rather than aligning with other livestock.
“A lamb is the most vulnerable animal,” Matt explains. “The only thing more vulnerable is a baby chick, because the parents won’t defend it.”
Those hearing Jesus’s words would have understood that John was saying, “Here’s the most vulnerable One, or rather the One making himself most vulnerable, who takes away the sins of the world.” Perhaps they noticed that John made the declaration near the Passover.
This becomes all the more apparent in the book of Hebrews, where the imagery of sacrificial animal blood reveals the cleansing blood of Christ. For ancient priests, every morning is like the last — standing at the same altar, offering the same sacrifices each day. Christ overturns this system by offering Himself as the perfect, unblemished offering, a one-and-done sacrifice for sins.
The scope of Jesus’s sacrifice reaches cosmological proportions as God, through Christ, reconciles all things in Heaven and on earth to Himself, making deep shalom, a holy peace, through the blood of God’s Lamb.
Then a beloved disciple trapped on the island of Patmos provides a glimpse of this spiritual reality. John’s mind-boggling visions in Revelation circle around Jesus as shepherd and lamb. In the New Jerusalem, he says, we will gather around the Lamb enthroned; a place without temple or offering, because He is the Temple and Offering.
By the time I leave the Meat Apostle, I know he’s given me a lot to chew on — biblically, spiritually, personally, and well, literally. I depart with a deeper appreciation for the life of the animal, its welfare, and the rancher. Matt teaches me to see meat as a treat, as a delicacy, something to savor and enjoy on special occasions.
The Ultimate Lamb
After returning home, I determine to reduce the number of nights a week we eat meat. The transition proves far and makes carnivore-nights extra special. On one such eve, I attempt to grill my first lamb lollipops — petite portions of lamb chops. I breathe in the salty, sweet scent of the sizzling meat. I’m reminded that this is the same aroma that brought God delight in sacrifices.
From the Bible’s opening to the closing garden scene, sacrifice has always been a part of God’s rescue mission. After Noah climbs out of the ark, he serves burnt meats as an offering and the Lord receives them as a “pleasing aroma.” God inhales and promises never to flood the earth again. Those scents ascend from the temple whenever the priests sacrifice animals to atone for Israel’s sins. With our modern sensibilities, we struggle to wrap our heads and hearts around such activities, but in some beautiful, mysterious way those burnt offerings create a pleasant smell to the nostrils of God. That scent indicates repentance and represents the offer of life, reconciliation with God, and the covering of sin.
Long after Noah arrives ashore, God will ask another father, Abraham, to make a sacrifice, but this time it won’t come from among his flock. God tells Abraham to do the unthinkable, to sacrifice his one and only miracle child. The thought makes us scream, “Nooooo! Stop, you crazy old geezer.”
Yet the father leads his one and only son on a three-day journey of obedience. As they near the crest of one of the hills in Moriah, Abraham stacks wood on Isaac’s back. Atop the mountain, Abraham straps his much-promised and miraculously conceived child to a cross section of lumber.
As Isaac’s father reaches toward his son’s arteries with the sharpened blade, Heaven intervenes with a double shout of Abraham’s name. The knife drops to the ground, and Isaac’s life is spared. Nearby amid the rustling of a thicket of thorns, a male sheep bleats in distress. Abraham takes the ram and sacrifices it; the scent arises once again to the nostrils of God. Abraham names the place, “The Lord Will Provide.”
Sometimes it’s hard to fathom how far Abraham was willing to go. Yet this father was ready to offer God the one thing most precious to him. In the nick of time, God rescues Isaac, and in many ways, Abraham too.
A few thousand years later, another sacrifice takes place. A different Father leads His one and only Son on a three-day journey of sacrifice to the same hills of Moriah. Like Isaac, Jesus makes a long, painful journey carrying death on His back. Unlike Isaac, no voice intervenes from Heaven and no bushes rustle with the sounds of a scapegoat.
This time the Child dies. The Lord provides Himself as the sacrifice. Jesus’s body hangs from beams, a thicket of thorns punctures His skull, and a sharp blade severs His side. Blood seeps into the soil and darkness descends. The unthinkable has happened and makes us want to lurch forward and yell, “Nooooo! Stop!” as if God were the crazy old geezer.
More than the death of a holy man, this is the massacre of all that is good and true and beautiful. Yet what appears like a lost cause turns out to be a rescue mission. Three days later, Jesus returns to life and flips evil upside down. The once-and-for-all cleansing of sin that is accomplished through Jesus’s death and resurrection renders the sacrificial system obsolete. No more goats or sheep or bulls or sons.
Through the bloody mess of Jesus’s death, the divine Son knows what it’s like to be betrayed by friends, crushed by powers that be, and feel searing pain. The divine Father knows what it’s like to watch a Son be misunderstood, mocked, and deserted by His friends, and worse, to lose a precious Child.
God could have sent His Son in a variety of forms, yet He chose a fragile human body with arteries that bleed, flesh that bruises, and nerve pathways that set the brain afire. In doing so, God experienced what we all experience living on this broken ball of dirt — pain, rejection, betrayal, loss, and grief. As a result, He became the type of God that no other religion claims to believe in: One who can offer His children not just sympathy but empathy.
God doesn’t say He feels sorry for us but that He knows how we feel. And He really does.
When you’re crushed by the weight of a child who died before his or her time, God whispers, “I understand.”
When you’re overwhelmed by chronic pain that befuddles the best doctors, God whispers, “I know how you feel.”
When the person you love most fails to come to your defense, God whispers, “I feel your pain.”
By becoming flesh and offering Himself as a sacrifice for humanity, God crossed the great divide from feeling sorry for our pain to being present in our pain. He became, truly, God with us.
This good news gets better. The sacrificial Lamb wasn’t content only to feel our pain, He chose to rescue us from the source of our pain — sin. Through His perfect sacrifice, the sting of death is plucked away and the grave no longer has the final say.
The death of Jesus Christ revolutionized history because it ushers in one of the “sweeping historical revolution(s) in the world, namely, the emergence of empathy for victims.” With a definitive word, God declared that He would always stand beside and work on behalf of the diseased and dying, the hurting and suffering. And this revolutionizes how we understand the call to be Christlike.
God’s ultimate rescue plan is one that He instituted for us and one He wants to institute through us. Just as Christ’s sacrifice exhibited both empathy and action, so too Christ calls us to lay down our lives for others in empathy and action. To enter into the pain of others and begin addressing it and alleviating it.
Excerpted with permission from Taste and See by Margaret Feinberg, copyright Margaret Feinberg.
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From Margaret: What’s the greatest place of pain and trauma for which you’ve experienced rescue and healing? If you’ve lost a child, what would it look like to minister to other grieving parents? If you’ve wrestled with illness or chronic health issues, who is someone you can encourage? If you’ve felt the pinch of loneliness, rejection, or betrayal, who is an outsider you can include and embrace? Come share with us on our blog!
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