While Moses was tending to the Lord's business on Mt. Sinai, his brother Aaron was down below tending to his own. Moses had been gone a long time, and Aaron may have recognized an opportunity. The Hebrew people had grown accustomed to strange gods during their layover in Egypt, and now they wanted one of their own. Aaron gave them one, melting down their gold jewelry to make a calf suitable for worship. (Since they had been slaves, the jewelry may have been the stuff they filched from the Egyptians on their way out of town.) Aaron built an altar and made burnt offerings. When the Lord got wind of it, he was furious. He was a jealous God and no doubt was miffed that he had been jilted in favor of a farm animal. He was all set to consume this "stiff-necked" people then and there, but Moses talked him out of it. Moses was sent back down to straighten things out. He threw a fit, made a burnt offering of the golden calf and forced the Hebrews to eat the leftovers. Aaron had family connections and escaped retribution; in fact, he wound up as chief priest under the new regime.
The interplay between Moses and Aaron set the pattern for much of what followed in the Bible as prophets and priests jockeyed for position. The prophets claimed to speak for God and occasionally argued with him. They were a wild and woolly bunch, often picking fights with Israel's kings -- never a good career move. The prophets called attention to themselves in all sorts of outlandish ways, like calling down fire from heaven and baking barley cakes over human dung. The priests, on the other hand, generally kept their heads down and tended to business; after all, they had a temple to run. It was their job to collect the tithes and preside over elaborate ritual sacrifices, after which they were allowed to eat the leftovers. Given the respective temperaments and political savvy of prophets and priests, it was not hard to guess who would win out in the long run.
The word "sacrifice" comes from a Latin verb meaning "to make sacred." Sacrificial rites to atone for sin were central to religious practice among the ancient Israelites and later among Christians, although animal sacrifices were replaced by purely symbolic acts. In the Christian Eucharist, Jesus is offered up as a "full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world," as it says in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. What kind of a sacrifice is sufficient for such a monumental task? Only a human sacrifice will do, and not just any human: only he who is without sin can atone for the sins of the whole world.
And so the man who came into the world to proclaim the coming of God's kingdom was served up on a platter to satisfy the blood lust -- of whom? Of God? It is a truly monstrous notion that God would sacrifice his son to satisfy his own demand that sin be atoned for by the shedding of blood. No, this was an inside job. Jesus shared the fate of every prophet who dared to deliver a message that people did not want to hear. The kingdom of God is at hand, he told them. There are no temples in God's kingdom; hence, no need for priests. There are no gods, either, at least not the kind you bow down to. You are gods, he told them. For this he was sacrificed and then, in an act of supreme irony, worshipped as God himself.