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Why would a powerful god need or want a blood sacrifice?

Many religions require blood sacrifice to their gods, but why?

Here's an example:

Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.”

Genesis 3:22

Now my question is not about fairness in the above case. But what would a god do with a sacrifice anyway? Eat it? Let it rot? Do they get it raw and have to cook it themselves?

If gods are so powerful, what could a human offer them that they couldn't get easily for themselves? After all, they're not going to starve if humans don't give them food.

Question

Can anyone suggest why all-powerful gods want offerings of food and in particular meat?


Considerations

  • Please assume that the god can get as much food as they want by simply snapping their fingers and creating it - if indeed they want food at all

  • Why meat and not veg? Are gods carnivores?

  • If they want impoverished people with no goods or money to show respect, why not just ask them to hit their own thumb with a hammer or similar? In fact, this would be a good test of loyalty for rich and poor alike.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Oct 2, 2020 at 22:05
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    $\begingroup$ It's flagges as "includes multiple questions in one", but I see a singular clear question, and a number of open issues that the asker has considered. This is sort of the opposite of multiple questions, this just shows the asker has done some work on the problem to forestall poor answers that don't consider these aspects; not that the asker is asking an incoherent mess of things. Voting to leave open. $\endgroup$ Oct 3, 2020 at 0:11
  • $\begingroup$ In the book, The Sorceress of Ambermere, this question is answered, for at least one fictional religion. To paraphase, "The portions of the roast pig that the god wants would be considered scraps by humans. The priests eat the rest of the meat." $\endgroup$
    – NomadMaker
    Oct 3, 2020 at 5:18
  • $\begingroup$ Not making this a proper answer since I believe you are asking for answers concerning a theoretical nonexistant deity, rather than asking specifically about the example above, but just in case you want to know I thought I should explain the Christian theological answers to your question (as best I understand them from my own limited knowledge). In the Bible people seem to offer sacrifices for 2 reasons. $\endgroup$
    – MarielS
    Oct 8, 2020 at 5:01
  • $\begingroup$ The first is as an act of worship, a thank you if you will (I'm giving up something valuable to me to show my gratitude for whatever you did for me). The fact God doesn't need whatever it is is irrelevant here, the focus is the sacrificial act on the part of the worshiper. The example with Cain and Abel from context seems to be something from this category. Cain and Abel were both offering up something to demonstrate their devotion, but while Abel offered something apparently valuable and choice, Cain evidently didn't... at least this seems to be the implication from all that goes on. $\endgroup$
    – MarielS
    Oct 8, 2020 at 5:03

13 Answers 13

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Gods just want a token of submission from their worshipers.

It's not really about the particular offer, a god could simply materialize a pizza-onigiri by snapping its tentacle, it's more about reminding the worshipers who is in charge and who is not.

And of course what's the point of asking something common to enforce submission? Ask for strawberries in January, or ask for meat to a farmer. So they will have to put real effort into searching for it.

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The god needs the blood/meat sacrifice as a DNA sample, to help them identify which of their many created universes is the source of a particular prayer request.

Imagine that you are the author of hundreds of successful stand alone books. (Hopefully for some of you that isn't just imagination.) Now imagine that one of the supporting characters in one of your earliest creations petitioned you for more pages, maybe even a whole sequel novel. What are the chances you would remember that exact supporting character and which of your many creations that petition came from. You would want that character to remind you of where they come from and since they are not privy to the title of the book they call home, their only hope of successfully reminding you would be to include a excerpt from their universe (your book) to lead you back to them.

The animal DNA is a very complex and likely unique excerpt from the worshipper's universe, rich with the writing subtleties and nuances of its author at the time of its creation.
It is therefore a perfect path back from the god's much grander existence, down to the little part of His creations which the worshipper calls home.

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    $\begingroup$ This is a great concept! $\endgroup$
    – chiggsy
    Oct 1, 2020 at 21:05
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False Gods (Or at least not all powerful)

A false god might need substance in the form of life essence to survive simply draining the life of a sacrifice might extend it's own.

In a lot of fictional worlds magic comes at a price, one that often can be paid by a life. Perhaps your god had the knowledge to cast the spell but requires life energy to cast the spells to help his people... sacrifice one virgin girl to fill his mana bar so he can cast a grow speed spell to bluntly put it.

A cruel god

Sadists come in all sizes and shapes, why would a god be different? He doesn't need the sacrifices, nor does he even want them...he just enjoys the suffering it would bring to others.

A between tier of beings (Also requires the god to not be all powerful)

Perhaps the sacrifices are not for your god, but for a tier between the humans and god (angels/vampires) who do require such sacrifices to stay alive. The sacrifice might be needed to keep them alive and able to serve god/the people. Or prevent them from taking more then they need(usurping god).

In the Movie Van Helsing (2004) the townspeople get mad at the main character for killing a vampire, the reason given was that they only killed what they needed to survive and would now also kill for vengeance. A god might make a deal with beings he himself could not kill by handing over a tribute to preserve the peace.

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The sacrifice isn't really for God, it's for us

God gave us the universe, and our own lives.

God has asked for sacrifices in return, to permit us to feel like we're giving something back - and maybe God made some suggestions on which sacrifices could feel significant to us, to help make the relationship more meaningful.

Like how a mother will permit her toddler to sweep the kitchen floor, even though he's is not doing anything but pushing dirt around. The sweeping means something to the child, and helps him feel like he's making a real contribution to the cleaning and the meal. And eventually he may learn some useful skills from the discipline and practice.

Food is and will always be an important part of the lives of us mere mortals, who have to eat to live. We get practice giving, we get practice gathering and preparing. And, in most systems of worship, it's also people who ultimately eat (most of) the food "offered" to the deity, anyway. (Greek and Roman religious feasts were supplied from offerings; the Jewish sacrifices supplied food for the priests, etc...)

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  • $\begingroup$ I like this answer. However it doesn't explain the example I gave of Cain and Abel. I don't think a normal mother would punish a toddler for giving her a banana just because her other child gave her a lamb chop. Why was God so dismissive of the veggie gift. After all it takes a lot more effort to grow crops than to bring up sheep. Clearly this god wants meat and doesn't want his greens - why? $\endgroup$ Oct 2, 2020 at 22:47
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    $\begingroup$ @chasly-supportsMonica We seem to read the source passage differently. I don't see a suggestion that Cain's offering was sinful; just not accepted. Cain's anger at his offering not being accepted was the potential source of sin. As for why vegetables weren't accepted, I'm not sure it's clear in the passage. As a Christian, I'd read in that the blood-sacrifice prefigured Jesus's sacrifice, and God wanted to preserve the symbolism. I'm not sure of the Jewish reasoning. In any case, I tried to keep my answer more general than specific apologetics on the biblical passage. $\endgroup$
    – Jedediah
    Oct 3, 2020 at 16:15
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    $\begingroup$ @chasly-supportsMonica I think it's aslo really important in that passage to consider the way the two offerings are described. Cain's offering is typically described rather generically as some crops that he had (almost as if the offering was kinda an afterthought). The passage goes out of its way to describe Abel's offering as being the fatty portion of the meats of the firstborn of his flock. There's a lot of symbolism in that terminology because the fatty portion of the meat was considered the best part, and the firstborn of the flock is considered the most important. $\endgroup$
    – SirTain
    Oct 6, 2020 at 16:37
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Ok, so let's take from the same theological perspective as your original prompt and discuss it from the top. You ask a lot of questions (which I think might technically be against the rules of this exchange), and most of them are fairly complicated theologically, but here's some vastly oversimplified (read "therefore wrong") reasoning that could serve as the base logic for a fictional universe.

If gods are so powerful, what could a human offer them that they couldn't get easily for themselves?

A human can offer companionship and/or worship. These are things that cannot be easily handwaved away by simply saying, "They're a god, of course they can do that." How can any being, even a god, provide companionship for themself? How can any being, even a god, provide a satisfying worship of themself?

Presuming that a god desires companionship or desires to be worshiped, one of the few things that can provide that is a fully funcitoning sapient being with free will, which brings us to the next point:

Can anyone suggest why gods want offerings of food and in particular meat?

This is actually 3 questions:

  1. Why do gods want offerings?

This is an extension of the above. A god who desires to be worshiped needs to prove that your worship is sincere and not merely lip service. Actions speak louder than words is never truer than with a god. A god demands sacrifice to prove that you are willing to give up something that matters a great deal to you in service to them, in this way showing that that thing (and symbollically nothing) is more important than they are.

  1. Why do gods want food?

What else is more important to humanity than food? Air? Water? You cannot really sacrifice those without actually killing yourself, but perhaps some gods may require their followers to fast from water or hold their breath for long periods to show their devotion by depriving themselves of basic bodily needs.

Depriving yourself of food for your god through sacrifice shows that you are willing to give up something vital to the continuation of your very life to pay homage to your god.

  1. Why in particular meat?

Because meat cannot be gained without the loss of life. Now, you are not just sacrificing food, you are sacrificing life itself. Most cultures hold very different levels of importance on the type of life in an animal as opposed to the type of life in a plant. An animal can think and reason if only in its limited capacity, and now your god is asking you to take that away from something and sacrifice it to them in order to prove your devotion.

Take this a step further towards human sacrifice and it actually makes even more sense. It is typically immoral to murder a human, so asking for a human sacrifice is asking for someone to sacrifice their very morality (some might even say their soul) to prove their devotion to you. What could be more meaningful than that?

I hope this helps. I'm going to go wash my hands and rethink my life because that took a really dark turn at the end that I wasn't expecting.

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This maybe isn't the best answer for creating a fictional world where Gods are real and actually do want blood sacrifices, but...

A lot of ancient cultures associated blood with life (which makes sense) and thus with the fertility of crops. To them blood sacrifices were the equivalent of modern day fertilizer.

As L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica pointed out, it is also about submission. It's equivalent to a gang leader making an initiate commit a crime to prove loyalty and then rewarding them with a car or something they want/need.

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    $\begingroup$ This is the basis for a good answer, but you should expand upon it. The blood (and particularly human blood) have lots of "life magic" in it. While any one sacrifice isn't enough to make that one human as powerful as a god, the gods themselves are starting with some absurd head start, and presumably receive many such sacrifices. It's basically a magic tax. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Oct 2, 2020 at 20:30
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Psychic Feedback

This applies mostly to D&D style gods that feed on the psychic emanations of their mortal followers. The congregation's faith is exactly what gives the god power.

What's tastier than belief is any strong emotions tied to the god in question. It can be good emotions (fertility cult orgies) or bad emotions (self flagellation and sacrifice). The god gobbles up both types of emanation and becomes more real.

So why does blood sacrifice fit the template? Well imagine you are a sustenance farmer (See Cain and Abel) and your fattest animal accidentally falls off a cliff. Imagine the mental turmoil $-$ perhaps it means your village will starve this year.

When the god sees how effective this was, they go to your brother and demands he sacrifice the fattest animal from his herd. The brother complies and goes through all the same turmoil, only this time the god gobbles up the turmoil.

Now imagine if your first born son accidentally fell off a cliff. Imagine how distraught you would be. That's why your god finds this sacrifice so delicious. . . .

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    $\begingroup$ I voted to re-open. I think the reasons to close are mostly a matter of phrasing. If the question was "In my world there are gods who want blood sacrifices. But why?" some of the objections would become invalid. $\endgroup$
    – Daron
    Oct 2, 2020 at 19:37
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Sacrifice requires cost

Economics teaches that a price must be considered from both directions. What it costs the producer to make something is obviously a big factor, but equally important is how valuable something is to the buyer.

In other words, a sacrifice is meaningful even if it turns out the sacrifice itself is worth nothing to the god. Because it is worth something to the one making the sacrifice:

"He sat down opposite the treasury and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents. Calling his disciples to himself, he said to them, 'Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.'

What does God need with a blood sacrifice? A true and proper God does not "need" anything from a mere mortal. The whole point of a sacrifice is the cost to the one who makes it; that's the difference between sacrifice and just another kind of worship.

To circle around to your original Biblical passage, it painstakingly emphasizes Abel offered the best parts of what he had. The firstborn was highly symbolic and important, and then he also gave of the best parts of what his flock had produced. It's unclear what exactly was the issue with Cain's, but another passage says the problem was his offering wasn't good enough.

It's not about the blood. It's about being willing to put your money where your mouth is when asking God to intercede on your behalf.

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Gods don't need stuff, they need worship

A god's power / self-worth / whatever you want to call it is based on the number of worshippers and the amount of zeal with which they worship. A sacrifice is just that - a sacrifice - not necessarily a gift as such.

To a poor farmer, a sheep might be a lot to give up. So it's a powerful expression of worship to the god, moreso than simply saying your prayers or going to Mass every Sunday. The more valuable the item sacrificed is to the sacrificer, the more it pleases - and empowers - the god.

So presumably a human sacrifice would be even better better, especially if the human was willingly being sacrificed.

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Answer: probably because animals were the only thing of real value that most people at that time would have been able to provide on a semi regular basis. And sacrifices of value were required to ensure commitment. Just the sort of thing that the jealous God (Exodus 34:14) needed to help prevent the encroachment of foreign gods, graven images and such.

The idea of such animal sacrifices (and indeed human sacrifices such as Isaac) makes little sense seen from the perspective of today after more than 2000 years of history, the reformation and enlightenment. In fact it is positively grotesque as is the case with a great deal of the content of the holy books for the 3 Abrahamic religions.

To make sense it must be viewed through the eyes of some religious shaman living more than 2000 years ago in the late iron age when the wheel barrow was the height of technology and there was a great need for the people to pull together. Making animal sacrifices was the best they could come up with at the time and by some quirks of fate the text lingers on.

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One thing I haven't seen in answers, but was in fact quite important in cultures practicing human sacrifice is communication.

People always wanted to communicate with gods. They did it through prayer, through sacrifice that may lure the god to altar through a smell of cooked or burned offerings and many other ways. But all that is indirect means. And sometimes people just want to be sure that gods heard what is needed.

When you want to be sure someone got your message, you send it through messenger. Some, like ancient Greeks, placed prayers inside fresh graves hoping the soul will carry them on the way, just like you can ask a person to carry a letter to a city they are going anyway. Others wanted more direct approach so they arranged death of desired messenger. In this case, those often would not be forced through violence, on the contrary. As if you want to petition someone important, you send as prestigious messenger as possible. And for the sacrificed person it was a great honor and usually promise of bypassing the most terrifying aspects of travel through Underworld or ending in best possible variant if many Underworlds existed.

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He doesn't care about blood, humans just think he does

There are actually three differences between Cain and Abel's sacrifices, not one.

... Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.

~Genesis 4:2-5

  1. Cain offered his sacrifice "in the course of time" whereas Abel offered "the firstborn of his flock". The God in this story wants humans to trust in him. While he has the power to manifest anything he wants, humans have freewill; so, trust is one of the few things a human can give that holds value. When you sacrifice that bounty that God has given you BEFORE you know how much he will give you, you are expressing your faith in how much he will give. But if you collect your full harvest, and then sacrifice out of what you already own, then you've not actually put in trust in your God. You've only calculated how much you can live without.
  2. Cain sacrificed "an offering" whereas Abel sacrificed "of their fat portions". In addition to trust, God wants to be honored. Again, this is a matter of freewill. He can not (or does not) just MAKE us honor him. So, when we choose too, it makes him feel good. While he does not care about the differences between the quality of one thing and another, he knows that we do. When we sacrifice that which we find best, he knows that we are showing him respect which makes his works feel appreciated.
  3. Cain scarified the fruit of the ground and Able of his flock. This is actually the one thing Cain got right. He knew that he was SUPPOSED to sacrifice out of the gifts God had given him, but he did not do it out of a place of trusting and respect. This is like the differences between the child who obeys, but complains about it the whole time and when a one does it to make you happy. Just because a child obeys does not mean that his actions will make his parents happy or proud. Likewise, just because you sacrifice to God "because you have to" does not mean that God will be moved by your obedience.

How this could work in your setting

If the people in your setting base thier understanding of God on the Bible or a similar story, then their belief of a need for blood sacrifices would be a matter of not understanding thier God. The thing is, they know that every time they go out and sacrifice the fatted parts of thier first born calf that it pleases thier God because whether they understand all of the differences or not, a shepherd can not make that sacrifice without showing trust and honor; so, it usually works out pretty well.

However, if your people were to sacrifice the first fruits of thier land, they could get the same outcome. It does not even have to be a physical thing either. A professional who schedules his service to the church first, and then his paid work around that, is equally likely to earn thier God's favor... but everyone says the fatted calf thing works; so, most people just want to stick with the "sure thing".

This forms the superstition that is has to be a blood sacrifice. And when that does not work... well clearly it was not ENOUGH blood; so, they sacrifice more and more blood until they get what they want. This however is not getting what they want because they have made thier God happy with them. This is more equivalent to begging until thier God shows pity on them. Not nearly as wise of a strategy long term, but it works too.

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God doesn't want your sacrifice, it is teaching you to mourn.

Life is made of good and bad moments, if there's a good God in your universe, I assume there's a bad God. The good God is trying to make humanity strong, by having them run through loops and mazes to appease him, because that's just how the world works, bad things happen on really quickly, and we have to be prepared, what's best having no food, or having no food due to a pandemic ? That teaches humans to save a little sun for rainy days.

Also, I'm pretty sure they would do that, just to understand how much people were willing to give up for them, how grateful they are for what you do for them. You're an infinite being that has lived through all there is to live, you get bored and create a new shiny toy for yourself, will you not indulge in playing with it even if for a bit ? In the bible, GOD required sacrifices up until he sacrificed his own son, as the ultimate sacrifice to eliminate all future ones. Why ? I never got it to be honest (he is infinite, so he could divide himself infinitely to create us, and sacrifices are like giving back pieces of him, and I do get the contradiction, but maybe it is more to do with His ego)

Now, if you want a different god from what reality has to offer, here's my input :

Your god is subject to entropy, which means that he requires energy, and the only way for him to capture that energy is through belief, and what makes you pray harder than having your son die, or your main source of food gone ? Cain was punished because his belief was weak, he could not devote more than a couple seconds to his God, and gave him rooting fruit that was on the ground. That doesn't show belief, and the best way to instill belief is to instill fear. How can people not believe in something that killed X person for not doing what he said?

We already remember bad things way longer and better than good things, maybe that's why god choose to scare us and keep us submissive because maybe any other way we would have lost faith. This pairs really well with the belief that we create and manipulate things into existence, IE: We all think lava is moderately warm, so we use it to clean ourselves. Yes, people do believe that.

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