I read the chapter entitled "African Religions" in Ari Goldman's The Search for God at Harvard. I'd like to quote what Goldman says on page 223 about how reading and learning about the Nuer tribe (which is located in the Sudan) helped him to "better...understand [animal] sacrifice in the Jewish tradition" (page 223):
"The Nuer helped me understand. By learning about
their sacrificial rites, I was better able to understand sacrifice in
the Jewish tradition. For the Nuer, sacrifice is a way of substituting
one life for another----the life of the animal for the life of a man who
is in danger of death because of either illness or mortal sin. In the
ritual, the animal is killed, the blood is poured and some prime
portions of meat are given to the priest. Then the family that brought
the offering sits down for a festive meal...In ancient Israel and among
the Nuer, they kill for forgiveness----and then they eat."
to Goldman, the Nuer regard animal sacrifices to be substitutionary, in
that the animal dies in place of the person bringing the offering.
As a result, the person is forgiven. That's essentially the concept of
sacrifice with which I was raised: that the animal died in place of the
sinner. I one time heard preacher Ron Dart say in a sermon that animal
sacrifices graphically got their point across, for, when a person saw
the neck of the animal get sliced, he realized that he should have been
the one who died, not the animal.
But there are other
ideas that I have heard about animal sacrifices: that animal sacrifices
were not substitutionary, but rather the life that was in the blood
(Leviticus 17:11) put life into the cosmos (resulting in fertility), or
that blood was a decontaminant that cleansed the defiled altar with
life. On a similar note, the belief that Jesus atoned for our
sins in a substitutionary manner is only one Christian view on the
atonement, for there is also the model that believers die with Jesus and
rise again as righteous people, and other models, such as Christus
Who is right? I don't know. Could the Nuer have been
influenced in their conception of sacrifice by a substitutionary
Christian model of the atonement? On page 220, Goldman talks about how
African religion has been influenced by Christian missionaries. In
Malawi, people adored an ancestor named Mbona. When European Christian
missionaries came there in the 1800's, Goldman narrates, people in
Malawi altered their conception of Mbona, saying that he was born of a
virgin, and portraying him as a man on a cross rather than as a warrior.
Goldman's professor, Lamin Sanneh, said that "Missionaries did not
disrupt [African religions, but t]hey added another layer" (Sanneh's
words, except for what I add in the brackets).
But, according to
Goldman, the Nuer were different, for they were "an isolated tribe of
the southern Sudan" and did not come under Christianity's influence,
"Despite the broad swath that Christianity cut across Africa" (page
222). And yet, while I am far from being an expert on African
religions, I'm uncomfortable with saying that Christianity could have
had no influence at all on the Nuer.
But I wouldn't be surprised
if the Nuer arrived at the conception that animal sacrifice was
substitutionary on their own. It's not that much of a stretch to arrive
at that conception of animal sacrifice: the Nuer (like others) could
have believed that sin resulted in death, and that the way for them to
be forgiven was through an animal dying in their place.