Tag Archives: atonement

Naked Bible Podcast Episode 168: Melchizedek, Part 2: Second Temple Jewish Literature

In the previous two episodes on Melchizedek (1a, 1b) we covered the Old Testament data on this enigmatic figure. Jewish writers and readers in the Second Temple Period (ca. 500 BC – 70 AD) naturally had ideas on who Melchizedek was and how to understand him as a king-priest. This episode discusses important texts from the Second Temple Period that deal with Melchizedek. Primary attention is placed on texts that case Melchizedek as more than a man, in effect the divine messianic deliverer of Israel in the last days. These texts and the thinking behind them set the stage for how New Testament writers thought about Melchizedek and how they correlated him to Jesus.

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Did Yahweh Demand Blood for a True Relationship with Him? Part 3: Bloodless Atonement and New Testament Justification

[MSH: When readers finish this essay, they will recognize its internal consistency with my argument in The Unseen Realm that salvation was the same across the board in both testaments. The issue was believing loyalty to Yahweh. Dr. Johnson raises the question of how someone outside Israel and its sacrificial system could anyone be “atoned for”? That issue, and the consistency of the basis of salvation, is the focus of this final installment.]


In the final section of this blog series I will try to show that as it was in the OT, so it is in the NT: peace with God may occur without the mention of blood (Rom 4:23­-5:5) or alongside it (Rom 5:10-11). It is interesting that blood, even Jesus’ blood, will be left out of most conversations about human salvation in the NT. In one poignant example, blood gets one mention in the book of Acts, and even here (20:28) it does not occur in an evangelistic sermon.

Jesus’ death and the Old Testament

There is no firm evidence that NT-era Jews anticipated the bloody death of the messiah, what we now think of as the bloody messianic atonement. The bystanders at the foot of the cross did not want him to die (Matt 27:39-44; Mark 15:29-32; Luke 23:35-41) simply because, to them, there would be no benefit in a dying or dead messiah. Messiah was supposed to liberate them from Rome. The Emmaus Road disciples had hoped that Jesus was “the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21), presumably without dying in the process. So while we may presume that the bloody death of the Son was God’s means of accomplishing salvation, this will best be understood in retrospect. To the observant Jew, the crucifixion of Jesus ruled him out of court for any serious consideration as the savior of Israel or of any individual in particular (“He who is hanged is accursed of God,” Deut 21:23), and there is no evidence that this view was challenged by any clear-headed Yahwist right up to and through the crucifixion. This realization needs to inform our understanding of NT atonement, and how it will be interpreted by those who lived closest to death of Jesus.

Paul is our best example of retrospective vision when dealing with Jesus’ death. He will position the cross deeply in the heart of God’s plan, of course, but he will do this while admitting that its meaning was hidden to us from the front end. I have often wondered whether Paul was familiar with Christ’s struggle with death in Gethsemane; but I have little doubt that Paul saw Jesus’ submission to the cross as evidence of full-blown obedience to the Father (Phil 2:6-11). I believe it will be in this sense that he will say that Jesus “died according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3); his was a kind of death which came through a conscious, willful submission to God’s larger will, even (for example) through the pain of having a friend turn against him (e.g., Ps 41:9). It was a death that came about because of faithfulness, and in this sense it was “according to the Scriptural” picture of what the messiah would do, and how he would live. If Jesus had died by suicide, in other words, he would not have died “according to the Scriptures” and how it presented the death of God’s ultimate servant (Isa 53).

I believe this is why Paul connected “the message of the cross” (1 Cor 1:18) with his own tellings of the “gospel” which found its framing story in the OT (cp. 1 Cor 1:17-18, 23; 2:2, 8; 2 Cor 13:4; Gal 3:1; 5:11; 6:12; Phil 2:8; 3:18; Col 1:20; 2:14-15). If the singular requirement of righteousness in the OT was faithfulness to the God of Israel (as discussed previously in parts 1 and 2 of this post), then Jesus could be identified as the primary example of what it meant to be righteous, as demonstrated through his faithfulness-unto-death loyalty to the Father. The message of the cross was the message of faithfulness, the ultimate means of attaining righteousness in either testament.

Forgiveness and Atonement in the NT

Maybe it’s just my particular background, but somewhere along the way I was taught that being forgiven of my sin is all that stood between me and heaven. It’s like (I’ll try to draw the picture in your mind) I’m standing on one cliff, there’s a cliff in the distance I want to get to (call it heaven) and there’s my sin in between. If I can only get forgiven for my sins, if there could be some kind of bridge to cross the chasm, I could go to heaven.

There are certainly problems with this view: 1) Forgiveness as an OT concept dealt mostly with situations that did not really have to do with salvation at all. Forgiveness was for the believer, the Yahwist, as he dealt with daily issues of behavior, disease, and just normal existence as a dusty human. 2) Forgiveness is notoriously absent from classic NT salvation passages like John 3:16 and Acts 16:31 (this list could be multiplied, of course). 3) Forgiveness of sin makes a person neutral, not positively righteous. And neutral people don’t go to heaven, unless they’re owed it for some other reason. These are three ideas that quickly come to mind.

So why do we gravitate toward forgiveness as the key that unlocks the salvation door? It is due, in my opinion, to starting with the solution (heaven) and then going looking for a problem. Since general sinfulness is often the talk of the Bible, many people presume that forgiveness of this problem will lead to the solution. But this whole arrangement is really a solution looking for a problem without looking at the story of Scripture as a whole. Romans 6:23 certainly doesn’t argue that sin leads to hell (instead, “the wages of sin is death”) though this is often the fall-back verse for the above view. I once had a preacher admit to me that while Romans 6:23 doesn’t say that unforgiven leads to hell (he admitted it leads to death, as Paul was saying), he wasn’t about to change his view since he couldn’t think of anything else standing between a person and heaven.

But let’s think of the bigger picture being developed in the OT. The people of Israel are chosen, they’ve become idolaters, they’re off into exile. At that point the theme of forgiveness is picked up as a future reality for the people (Jer. 33:8: “I will cleanse them from all their iniquity by which they have sinned against me, and I will pardon all their iniquities by which they have sinned against me”) as though they aren’t forgiven at the present. That would be contradictory to the numerous places where God forgives sins as they are committed (think Leviticus); but this shows there’s a bigger issue, a bigger sin if you will, that needs bigger forgiveness. And that issue is corporate idolatry. (Here is where real gods makes such a difference in one’s theology, by the way. If the gods are not real, idolatry is hardly a problem, or anything much worse than standard covetousness.)

Along with forgiveness on the grand scale comes the need for atonement. Again, the people have been being atoned through the sacrificial system for generations. But there’s a bigger atonement, or cleansing, that needs to take place for the entire story to come full circle for Israel. Daniel 9:24: “Seventy weeks are determined for your people and for your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sins, to make atonement for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness.” I take this to mean that whereas Jeremiah had predicted 70 years of captivity, Daniel multiplies this by 7 (“seventy 7’s”) to give a sense of never-endingness to Israel’s captivity—until God himself does something to bring Israel back into faithfulness.

So the two pictures combine: forgiveness and atonement need to happen in the future, on a grand scale, for the story of God’s people to have a happy ending. It’s not about getting forgiven for one sin at a time, like the medieval model of going into a priest would have us believe, but getting to a new place in life where our entire relationship to God is not considered to be “in sin.” That will happen, in the story of Israel, when they come back to God and are not idolaters any longer. This will be the opening hope of the NT, as described by Mary (Luke 1:46-55), Zacharias (1:67-79), and Simeon (Luke 2:29-32). God was about to end Israel’s exile through a newborn child.

So back to the picture of two cliffs, with our sins in the gulf between. The cross of Jesus is laid over that gulf and we walk across. It’s where we get the idea that because Jesus died we can now be forgiven. I’m recommending that the Bible writers simply never had this picture in their head, so they were never answering the questions that this picture poses.

Instead I think the question that the Bible writers have in their head is “How do I approach a holy God like Yahweh?” It’s not a question about sin, really, as much a question of how a human can even be with, and be intimate with, God. The picture they constantly appealed to was getting inside the Temple to the Holy of Holies, where God lives: Psalm 24:3-4: “Who may ascend into the hill of the LORD? Or who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lifted up his soul to an idol, nor sworn deceitfully. He shall receive blessing from the LORD, and righteousness from the God of his salvation.” So the scene isn’t two cliffs, it’s the tabernacle. I can’t go inside, I can’t be with God, if I’m dirty and (especially) idolatrous. “Blessed is the man whom you choose, and cause to approach you, that he may dwell in your courts. We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house, of your holy temple” (Psalm 65:4:).

The verses that use this word picture of getting near God, or going inside the temple, are everywhere, spanning both testaments (Ps 11:4; 23:6; 24:3-4; 26:8; 27:4; 84:4, 10; 92:13; Isa 66:20; Joel 2:13; Zech 14:21; Matt 17:4; 2 Cor 5:1-2; Eph 2:13; Heb 8:2; 9:8, 11, 24; 10:19; Rev 13:6; 15:5). Even our traditional hope of “going to heaven” is described as entering God’s new temple (Rev 21:2-3). Getting saved in the Bible therefore isn’t being forgiven, then, as much as being intimate with God. Following this picture, being right with God precedes being atoned or cleansed (Heb 2:17; 9:25, 28; 1 Pet 2:23-24; 1 John 1:6-7; 2:2-4), which only makes sense. Like Moses meeting God at the burning bush, he was already righteous before taking off his shoes—but he still had to take off his shoes.

Why is this important? The question now changes from “How can I get to heaven when I die?” to “How can I be in the presence of God?” No false advertising. This also allows atonement to have two very distinct meanings, whether the practical issue of cleansing in the OT, or the metaphorical sense of being found faithful/loyal to God. Both are “cleansings,” or coverings, because the word simply is about becoming able to commune intimately with God. The same word picture would apply to two kinds of forgiveness. We’re forgiven for individual sins as believers, and we are forgiven for our entire past life when we convert away from paganism. Both words can apply to both stories, which they often do in Scripture.

This question of how to be found worthy of God’s presence also clears up the poor reasons that people may want to get saved today. I don’t think we should ask someone if they want to go to heaven when they die, but instead should say, “Do you want to be with God?” Once they say yes, then we can give the biblical picture of Jesus dying to atone them, to cleanse them, making them worthy to enter God’s presence – pictured literally as coming into the temple, even as a Gentile. The OT saint saw this Gentile inclusion only as a faint future hope (Ps 65:1-3; 66:4), but the NT carefully pictures the godly Gentile as now able to come into the temple because of Jesus’ atonement and the Holy Spirit’s cleansing on their behalf (Acts 10:4, 15; 14:27; 15:9; 26:18; Rom 15:8-9, 16; 1 Cor 6:11; Heb 7:27; 10:1, 19, 22; 12:14, 28; 13:12-13; 1 Pet 3:18). This was their picture of “getting saved.” They weren’t crossing a chasm between cliffs, they were entering the Holy of Holies. I find it interesting in this regard that when the last books written in the NT (the gospels) each have a chance to say that something “happened” when Jesus died, they each choose the same picture, the tearing of the veil. They say nothing about forgiveness or atonement.

Forgiveness before the Cross Impossible?

So was Jesus’ death necessary for God’s forgiveness to be possible? Though I have often heard this, I do not think so. There is simply too much OT theology at stake (think of the common strains of the Psalms, for example, where the writer relishes God’s forgiveness) to claim that up until the death of Jesus sin could not possibly be forgiven by God. It certainly was. The death of Jesus was necessary for other reasons. For example, with respect to the picture I have drawn above, Jesus’ death was necessary for a Gentile to approach the God of Israel, since the Gentile stood outside the original covenant begun with Abraham. The book of Hebrews picks up, in this regard, on the location of Golgotha outside the gates of Jerusalem: “Therefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the laos [‘people,’ purposely broad enough to include Gentiles] with his own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore let us go forth to him, outside the camp, bearing his reproach” (13:12-13). The Gentile can now approach God without fear of being rejected out of hand. “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off [Ephesian Gentiles] have been made near by the blood of Christ” (Eph 2:13).

A surprising number of commentators believe that Romans 3:25 teaches that God did not actually forgive sins in the OT (“in his forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed”). I find this to be an example of horrific exegesis, so let me give my understanding of the larger argument of this passage. Two themes in Romans bring us to end of chapter three: 1) God’s faithfulness/righteousness to the covenant he established with the family of Abraham (1:2, 17, 24-25; 2:2, 6-13; 3:1-4), and 2) human failure to respond to this faithfulness of God in kind (1:18-32; 2:21-24; 3:9-20). My exact wording is important here, as what I am arguing against is the common notion that the general sinfulness of mankind, or even (presumably) Adam’s imputed guilt, has incited God’s wrath against humanity. Even the most cursory read of the OT notices that it is idolatry, and not sin in general, that caused God’s anger in the OT (e.g., Deut 9:7, “in Horeb you provoked the LORD to wrath”). So too here in Romans. Paul is tightening the argument for his largely Gentile audience in Rome. Faithlessness to the covenant, with its attendant idolatry, has brought God’s wrath, whether committed by the Jew (1:18-32, describing the Red Sea/golden calf rebellion) or by the Gentile (2:6-16). Obedience to the specific laws within Torah did not trump God’s desire for the covenant faithfulness which he demanded of both the Jew and the Gentile: “But now the covenant faithfulness of God outside of Torah (but certainly predicted within it) is revealed, in the sense that Jesus’ faithfulness to God during his life, death, and resurrection is now applicable to all who place their loyalty in him—whether Jew or Gentile” (my paraphrase of 3:21-22). We all can attain to the “faith of Jesus,” or be credited with his loyalty to the Father by becoming loyal to Jesus himself. We desperately need this loyalty because of our previous disloyalty/idolatry. In doing this, in being “in Christ” as the Yahwist of the OT considered himself to be “in David” (cp. 2 Sam. 20:1), we show that the lordship/headship of Jesus Christ is for both Jew and Gentile alike (“Therefore we conclude that a man is justified apart from the deeds of the law. Or is he the God of the Jews only, and not also of the Gentiles also? Yes, of the Gentiles also,” Rom 3:28-29).

So, did God forgive sins in the OT? Let me offer a paraphrase of Rom 3:24-27: “We are all justified ‘freely’; whether by his outright favor, or through the mercy seat, we are redeemed from exile in Christ Jesus, through his faithful blood—not that of a Passover lamb. Previously God was right in forgiving sins, or passing them over [cp. Micah 7:18, ‘pardoning iniquity, and passing over the transgressions of the remnant of his heritage’], and presently he is also right in making us righteous. All to say, God is consistent, we Jews and Gentiles are being treated equally, faith has always been the key, and therefore no one can boast.”

Therefore in this age God’s covenant faithfulness is now available to everyone through Jesus Christ’s faithfulness to his Father’s will (Rom 3:21-22). He suffered for all, Paul previously told the Corinthians, even Gentiles (2 Cor 5:14-15). In the same vein Paul reminded the Romans that everyone was guilty of faithlessness (3:23). With these connections in hand, OT to NT, it is now Paul’s privilege to connect the dots only one more time: whereas Passover benefitted only those who identified with Yahweh in Egypt (Exod 12:43-47), now redemption expands its application to all those who identify with Jesus Christ (the intended force behind the “us” of 1 Cor 5:7). So while forgiveness has always been available, the specific moment of “redemption” is what took place on the cross.

A Word on Penal Substitution

How popular is the theory of penal substitution? Most of my Christian college students would say they are roughly familiar with the phrase, though they admit that they have not studied it out within its ancient Near East context. This led me to try an experiment some years ago. I asked 35 freshmen to carefully spell out the meaning of John 3:16 on paper. I was not surprised to notice that more than thirty described the gift of “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” in purely penal substitutionary terms (e.g., “he sent his son to die for the penalty of my sin”). That’s all the evidence I needed to confirm that penal substitution is quite alive and healthy even among those who have not thought much about it, especially from an OT perspective.

Many people are attracted to penal substitution for its depiction of God’s grace in action—that is, God’s making salvation available graciously through the mechanical payment of sin through the Son’s vicarious death. This hearkens back to Anselm’s assertion that God demands punishment for sin and cannot forgive sin without some kind of transaction (“God cannot forgive sin out of mercy alone, apart from any repayment of the honor stolen from him” [Cur Deus Homo (“Why God Became Man”), in Anselm of Canterbury, vol. 3 [Mellen, 1975], 68). Bringing my students back into this discussion, I have noticed that when asked if God can “just forgive” human sin, many express concern that this would demonstrate that God does not truly hate sin. It is as though God’s honor is lowered if he can actually forgive sin (apparently the intended meaning behind the just as in “just forgive sin”). But wait a second. Why is the possibility of God forgiving sin without mechanical or transactional means a bad thing? I have yet to find the answer here, though a bit of history helps frame the answer I hear most often.

Commonly, going all the way back to the Reformation, it is thought that God’s righteousness was something that was reckoned or accounted (with emphasis on the bookkeeping metaphor) to a sinful man’s standing before God. Justification, and hence salvation, was to be understood in transactional terms with our sin being exchanged for God’s righteousness at the cross. We are thus made right with God because God has accounted his righteousness to our account. And this transaction is gracious, or not deserved.

Here is my struggle: While this paragraph above may be true, it does not by itself make God’s glory greater. If anything, it feels like a return to old world paganism. Here I would recommend spending some time reading the hymns and prayers written to the gods of the ancient Near East. I believe you will notice that these deities were all about solving sin through ritualistic transactions such as prayer and sacrifice. Here is one example, taken from a Sumerian hymn entitled “Prayer to Any God”:

“Every day worship your god.
Sacrifice and benediction are the proper accompaniment of incense.
Present your free-will offering to your god,
For this is proper towards the god.
Prayer, supplication, and prostration
Offer him daily, and you will get your reward.
Then you will have full communion with your god.”
(Ancient Near Eastern Texts [Princeton, 1950], 391-2)

Gustaf Aulen expressed my concern this way: “If God can be represented as willing to accept a satisfaction for sins committed, it appears to follow necessarily that the dilemma of laxity or satisfaction really fails to guard the truth of God’s enmity against sin. The doctrine provides for the remission of the punishment due to sins, but not for the taking away of the sin itself” (Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of the Atonement [trans. A. G. Hebert, Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1931], 92). In trying to honor God’s hatred of sin, penal substitution minimizes sin. It claims that sin can have a price attached to it, even death, and that once the price is reimbursed, the person against whom the sin is committed can officially have his honor restored. He has been, quite literally, paid off. The Psalmist sees Yahweh in a very different light: “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father pities his children, so Yahweh pities those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Ps 103:11-14). I therefore think that we need to reconsider the value of penal substitution. I believe it is moving our theology of sin, and ultimately our theology of God, in a harmful direction.

Final Thoughts on Atonement

I have said previously that in the OT it was the faithful Israelite—not the neighboring Moabite or Ammonite or Egyptian—who could enjoy forgiveness by Yahweh in spite of his recurring episodes of behavioral sinfulness. In much the same way the ritual of atonement (whether bloody or non-bloody) was considered to be a privilege of the person-in-covenant, a illustrative celebration of the provision of cleansing / covering / purification offered within covenantal grace. I have also said that God should be praised not for his fine use of blood, but for his character that operates outside the need for physical manipulatives of any kind (Deut. 7:9-10; Ps 136:1-2).

Let me summarize my view of atonement through a short Q/A:

Q: What was the purpose of atonement?
A: Religions of all stripes believed that a person or thing needed to be ritualistically cleansed before he/she/it could be intimate with a deity, or be used by a deity.

Q: Who was atoned? Specific to the OT, atonement ritual was reserved for the observant Israelite, or true members of the Abrahamic covenant. Atonement was never offered to the pagan who did not first become a proselyte to the Israelite religion.

Q: What could the atoned person/thing do which they could not have done otherwise?
A: Once atoned, the individual or thing could be used by, or become intimate with, God. We think of Isaiah, for example, who was given his divine commission (Isa 6:8-13) after being atoned (‘your iniquity is taken away, and you sin atoned [kaphar], 6:7). The sin or iniquity in question here seems to have been his day-to-day relationship with the dusty ordinariness of humanity (cp. Ps 103:14, “He knows our frame, he remembers that we are dust”), as there is no hint of behavioral sin on Isaiah’s account, nor incriminating Adamic guilt to be absolved. He was a righteous man who simply needed to be cleansed before approaching his God.

Q: Was anyone unable to be atoned?
A: An Israelite who rejected Torah and embraced idolatry could not expect atonement at the altar. He instead was subject to God’s wrath (“If you by any means forget the LORD your God, and follow other gods, and serve them and worship them, I testify against you this day that you shall surely perish,” Deut 8:19). This lack of atonement therefore also naturally extended to the idolatrous Gentile nations of the world.

Q: What if atonement was simply not available—such as during exile?
A: Here is where we leave the OT world and enter the culture of Jesus himself. When there was no atonement available because of exile (e.g., Daniel), or because of a temple system which was avoided due to corruption (e.g., John the Baptist), it appears that the ritual itself simply became unnecessary. I suspect this is why atonement language becomes so elusive in the NT; it is simply not important to the story of the gospel. It is, however, important to Gentile inclusion within the story of salvation.

Q: How did Jesus’ death atone?
A: He cleared the way for the non-righteous (the Israelite who had departed from Torah, as well as the entire Gentile world) to enter the temple and enjoy intimacy with God as a believer.

Conclusion

The scariest misuse of atonement for me is reserved for the time we say to a non-Christian, “Accept Jesus’ bloody death in your place and you will be forgiven and become a Christian.” Atonement never was used this way in the OT (i.e., Moses never offered the death of a bloodied animal to his pagan neighbor as a means of becoming a Yahwist), so we would not expect this in the NT. In fact, the entire concept of viewing atonement as a gift being offered to the non-believer has become one of the greatest miscues of modern evangelicalism. Think again through the meaning of Romans 6:22-23: “But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life. For the wages of [being a slave of] sin[fulness] is death, but God’s gift [of being a slave to righteousness] is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” This paraphrase is admittedly my own, but I think it best summarizes the point that Paul is trying to make. The gift is not Christ’s payment for sin waiting to be taken from him and applied to my own situation; it is the privilege of being made free from sin and a slave to righteousness through the act of identifying with a new/living Lord.

Paul’s conversion to Christianity was the result of his conviction that Jesus was “the son of God” (Acts 9:20), or that “Jesus was the messiah” (Acts 9:22). Paul’s eventual death came at the hands of those who rejected this belief (cp. Acts 9:23). For those who believed in Jesus, however, Paul was excited to explain how Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection fulfilled the Scriptures by God’s design. While the most important aspect of Jesus’ life was his exaltation to the place of highest authority (Phil 2:9-11), the most curious aspect of his life was his conspicuous and shameful death upon a cross (Phil 2:8). Paul was convinced that even Jesus’ death was part of God’s plan, however, and took careful aim to explain this to his Christian audiences. The bare “gospel,” or good news, always remained the same for Paul, however: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31; cp. 1 Cor 12:3). Paul concluded that humans could only be justified only by loyalty to Christ (Rom 3:26, 28; 5:1; Gal 2:16) which matches an OT model of depending upon God’s covenantal love. Jews and Gentiles were furthermore to be justified in the same way: the circumcised (Israel) on the ground of their faith toward Christ and the uncircumcised (the nations) because of their faith in that same Christ (Rom 3:30; cf. Gal 3:8). Paul could appeal to the trustworthiness of Scripture concerning Abraham, who ‘loyal-ed himself to the God who justifies the ungodly’ (Rom 4:5, 9, 11; Gal 3:6).

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Did Yahweh Demand Blood for a True Relationship with Him? Part 2

[Editor’s note: Ronn Johnson’s post will remind those who listened to the Naked Bible Podcast series on Leviticus of the discussion of kaphar, how it referred to purgation — not from moral sins, but from ritual impurity. Consequently, it’s application to the work of Christ is a bit different than is commonly supposed. –MSH].


 

My last post ended with the recommendation that ancient atonement ritual and Yahweh’s forgiveness for sins functioned as independent ideas in the OT. Though atonement and forgiveness sometimes took place together, one could happen without the other. I would now like to think about the use of blood in Israelite ritual, and what it may mean to our understanding of the character of God.

In Israelite Religions: An Archeological and Biblical Survey (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007) Richard Hess defends the idea that, among our available options, there may be no better way to determine the meaning of Israelite sacrifices than to look across Israel’s borders. We can safely presume, for example, that Israelites were intimately knowledgeable of the Egyptian cultic practices they had witnessed (and with which they likely had participated) for many years, as well as those rituals used by their Canaanite neighbors. Mesopotamian texts continue to provide us with numerous parallel patterns for sacrifice and cultic ritual. This sharing of information may be why Israelite ritual hinted toward what amounts to a pagan notion—that Yahweh, a formless being, liked food (Lev. 3:11, 16; 21:6, 17, 21-22; 22:25; Num 28:2, 24; Ezek 16:19; 44:7; Mal 1:7), and possibly enjoyed set meal times (Exod 29:38-45; Lev 6:20). And is it only coincidental that Yahweh enjoyed the “sweet aroma” of burnt flesh (cp. Gen. 8:21; Exod 29:18, 25, 41; Lev 2:12; 3:16; 8:21, 28; 23:13; 26:31, etc.) like other deities did (Ezek 6:13; 16:19; 20:28)? I would agree with Hess that these parallels are due to borrowed cultural practice, even to the point of Yahweh describing himself in terms that all cultures would expect. It is in this sense, then, that I would agree that Yahweh “liked” blood. But here is where we are expected to be careful. Yahweh was not like the pagan gods in how blood functioned within the process of ritual.

Nothing But the Blood

These similarities of ritual between Israel and the ANE also apply to the use of blood. The blood of slain animals was regularly associated with cleansing, consecration, and ritual purification in all cultures. Leviticus, we acknowledge, appeals to the use of blood with regularity: the person who had been healed from a skin disease was to be anointed with blood and oil to signal that he was ritually clean (Lev 14:6–20); the main altar and the priests were consecrated with blood (8:14–15, 23–30); during a burnt offering, blood was to be splashed all around the altar, and even upon the people (Lev 1; cp. Exod 24:6, 8); during the ordination of Aaron and priests, blood was applied to the high priest’s right ear, thumb, and big toe (Lev 3; 8:23-24); during a sin offering, blood was to be sprinkled seven times in front of the curtain of the sanctuary and put on the horns of the incense altar (Lev 4; 6:24-30); the guilt offering found blood being splashed all around the altar (7:1-10).

So what was it about blood that made it seemingly so important to Israelite worship? We are not sure. Blood obviously plays a major role in sustaining life, so its importance may have developed naturally in relation to its biological uniqueness. Unlike almost everything else, it is something to be appreciated once-per-lifetime. Keep it, or lose life. God told Noah that animal blood was special, nigh unto life itself (Gen 9:4, “its life, its blood”), and that blood also stood for the life of the human who was made to physically image the image-less God (9:6-7). So maybe blood was simply special and everyone knew it. If so, the careful manipulation of blood (do we splash it? daub it? drip it? what if it touches my second toe? etc.) may be a distraction we subconsciously bring to these texts. As a matter of emphasis, we are probably being told what to cleanse the mercy seat with—presuming that the object needed ritualistic cleansing with something—and blood was simply chosen for its peculiar, unrivaled nature. Maybe they didn’t splash water or calf’s milk on the altar because these liquids were just not special enough.

So let’s imagine the scene in Leviticus 16 as the priest sprinkled some of the blood of the sin offering upon the kapporeth (lid of the ark) for the purification of sins. It is fair to ask the obvious question: What was actually happening at the moment of “atonement” (16:16) here? Was the priest using the animal and/or its death to appease the deity’s anger toward his personal sin or that of the nation? If so, why would a deity be pacified by blood? What does it say about the deity’s character if this was the case? Was magic even at work, with the deity being manipulated by something outside of his/her control? Or, switching gears completely, was the priest using blood to celebrate that he was able to communicate with his deity in spite of the sinfulness for which he and others were already guilty? Or was it being used as a symbol of something else? Since the pervasive call of Israelite religion was to avoid issues related to witchcraft and created spiritual powers (Deut 18:9-14), I would recommend away from attributing some kind of magical power to the fluid itself. Beyond this, however, we have no answers in the text itself.

Some have believed that Leviticus 17:11 signals Yahweh’s appreciation of blood: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement” (NASB). While we may sense in this passage that God is attributing some kind of potential power or capability to blood itself, or of the requirement to use blood, we need to pull ourselves back from making this actual claim. Of interest is the verb “given,” a translation of natan. While this common word (over 2000 uses in the OT) can refer to the action of “giving” or “supplying” something (Gen 24:35, “he has given him sheep and cattle”), the word is general enough to include the passive notion of “letting” or “granting” or “yielding” or “allowing” as well (cp. Exod 10:25, “You [Pharoah] must also let us [natan] have sacrifices and burnt offerings, that we may sacrifice them to the LORD our God”). What is distinctly missing from Lev 17:11 is the command to use blood as though it is the only means of atonement. It was “given” to Israel, which need not carry the force of necessity or requirement. (The relatively common occurrence of “bloodless” atonements will be described below.) Blood may have been allowed to be used by Israel, as other nations did, in ritual practice. What cannot be argued in this passage is that Yahweh here invented, within some kind of cultural vacuum, the requirement to use blood when Israel performed atonement ritual.

The larger context of Leviticus 17 may provide help in determining what was at stake, however. Moses is here explaining the prohibition against sacrificing away from the central tabernacle. Yahweh’s desire for singular worship is noted by his insistence that sacrificial blood is not taken to the wrong location: “Any man from the house of Israel, or from the aliens who sojourn among them, who offers a burnt offering or sacrifice, and does not bring it to the doorway of the tent of meeting to offer it to the LORD, that man also shall be cut off from his people” (Lev 17:8-9; cp. Deut 12:4-6). Bringing the animal and its blood to God’s house was a clear way of avoiding the problem of “offer[ing] their sacrifices to se’irim (most probably goat demons) (v.7). It therefore appears safe to interpret Yahweh’s insistence upon the presentation of blood as being subsumed within his jealousy of worship: “You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are all around you, for the LORD your God is a jealous God among you” (Deut 6:14-15). This solidarity of worship was particularly concerned with where Israel would perform its sacrifices:

“Whatever man of the house of Israel kills an ox or lamb or goat in the camp or who kills it outside the camp, and does not bring it to the door of the tabernacle of meeting, to offer an offering to the LORD before the tabernacle of the LORD, bloodguilt shall be imputed to that man. And the priest shall sprinkle the blood on the altar of the LORD at the door of the tabernacle of meeting, and burn the fat for a sweet aroma to the LORD.’” (Lev 17:3-4)

“You shall seek the place where the LORD your God chooses out of all your tribes . . . . There you shall take your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes ….” (Deut 2:5-6)

 

In review, then, Yahweh allowed (my recommended meaning for natan in Lev 17:11) Israel the use of animal blood in the exercise of their sacrificial ritual. This was because blood was already being used in neighboring cultures, as were arks and temples and priests. Other than this, there was nothing special about blood per se. It could be poured, daubed, drained, squeezed, sprinkled, or splashed on altars and ark lids because it carried symbolic value to the ancient world and to Israel. It was much like saying “this place needs to be clean before my deity can be here.” As a natural substance it bore unique significance as the literal difference between life and death. Of utmost importance, however, was where that blood was to be brought during sacrifice. And the discussion of where will now naturally give way to the question of who and to whom. My thoughts below will try to demonstrate that atonement was only to be enjoyed by the sincere Yahweh-loyalist. The mistake will be to think that atonement was a means, or an invitation, to enter into this loyalty itself.

Was Passover an example of bloody atonement?

While the association between atonement and Passover does not surface immediately in the Torah—there is only a singular mention during this week-long celebration that a goat was slain “to make atonement” for Israel (Num 28:22)—a brief word on the bloody nature of Passover is necessary since the NT develops such a close association between the death of Jesus and Passover (cp. 1 Cor 5:7, “Christ our Passover was sacrificed for us”). The question before us is straightforward: Was Passover an example of a bloody atonement? Our answer will set the stage for how we interpret Jesus’ atonement.

I propose that the long-term significance of Passover was what happened later that evening, after the sacrifice, and what followed in the years to come. To follow the path that Passover takes into the future is to look past the bloody doorpost and toward the memory of God’s redemption of Israel from slavery. Blood played an important role in the story, of course (“Now the blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you are “ [Exod 12:13]); but this blood was not shed for sin, nor to assuage God’s wrath. It was quite literally a “sign” for protection over certain houses within enemy territory (12:13, 23). The annual Passover celebration was not destined to repeat the splattering of lamb’s blood (cp. 1 Cor 5:8) particularly because this was not the crisis moment of the original event. The bloody “sign” signified that something else was about to take place. So in no sense did the Passover blood atone for Israel’s sin, nor bring Israel into fellowship with Yahweh. Passover solved, instead, the potential destruction of Israel at the hand of its own God. It provided the necessary signal to the angelic killer to move past one house and enter another. The question to ask, coming below, is whether Christ’s death was meant to announce a similar redemptive sign.

Bloodless Atonement

Blood wasn’t always to be considered a good thing. As a bodily fluid it could defile and pollute, if even symbolically. “Bloodshed pollutes the land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it” (Num 35:33; cp. Ps 106:38). Cain shed Abel’s blood, which then “cried out” to God from the ground for vengeance (Gen 4:10). Hence murder, which resulted in “bloodguilt,” would have to be settled in favor of the innocent victim: “And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man” (Gen 9:5).

It is helpful to remember, too, that atonement ritual could took place in the absence of blood. The most famous example of bloodless atonement in the OT was the yearly ritual described in Leviticus 16. Two goats were chosen on the Day of Atonement, and distinguished by lots. The high priest sent one goat into the wilderness (“to Azazel,” Lev. 16:8, 10, 26, NET) to illustrate the carrying of sins and defilement away from the Israelite camp (“to make atonement” for the camp, presumably, 16:10). The other goat was sacrificed at the altar within the camp, its blood being sprinkled in very specific ways within the tabernacle and upon its furniture.

The meaning of this ritual seems easy to grasp. In celebrative fashion the nation was supplied a picture of what the removal of sin would look like if indeed sin were able to be physically removed. The joint symbolism of a dying and living animal (literally called “the day of atonements [pl.],” yom hakkippurim) was memorable if not a little horrific. The blood of the first animal represented its loss of life (“the life of the flesh is in the blood,” Lev 17:11), and the goat-gone-missing meant much the same. In both cases an animal died, and in both cases national uncleanness was symbolically removed, if only for the calendar year. The “goat of removal” (“for Azazel,” 16:22) pictured a non-bloody version of atonement, employing two enjoyable symbols, at least for the humans: Israelite sin was symbolically transferred to the goat (“Aaron shall lay both hands on the head of the goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat,” Lev 16:21), and the goat carried these sins out of the camp (“the goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land/Azazel,” v. 22). The details of both atonement stories are not meant to distract our attention from the main point at hand: to live within Yahweh’s covenant included release from sin, even if only symbolically.

Beyond the wilderness goat story, we find numerous non-bloody atonements or cleansings in the OT that should be on our radar when trying to think our way through atonement theory. Listed here are the OT passages in which kaphar is used without the mention of blood:

Gen 32:20: Also say, “Behold, your servant Jacob is behind us.” For he said, “I will appease him with the present that goes before me, and afterward I will see his face; perhaps he will accept me.”

Exod 21:30: If there is imposed on him a sum of money, then he shall pay to redeem his life, whatever is imposed on him.

Exod 30:12: When you take the census of the children of Israel for their number, then every man shall give a ransom for himself to the LORD, when you number them, that there may be no plague among them when you number them.

Exod 30:15-16: The rich shall not give more and the poor shall not give less than half a shekel, when you give an offering to the LORD, to make atonement for yourselves. And you shall take the atonement money of the children of Israel, and shall appoint it for the service of the tabernacle of meeting, that it may be a memorial for the children of Israel before the LORD, to make atonement for yourselves.”

Lev 5:11-13: But if his means are insufficient for two turtledoves or two young pigeons, then for his offering for that which he has sinned, he shall bring the tenth of an ephah of fine flour for a sin offering; he shall not put oil on it or place incense on it, for it is a sin offering. He shall bring it to the priest, and the priest shall take his handful of it as its memorial portion and offer it up in smoke on the altar, with the offerings of the LORD by fire: it is a sin offering. So the priest shall make atonement for him concerning his sin which he has committed from one of these, and it will be forgiven him; then the rest shall become the priest’s, like the grain offering.

Lev 14:18: The rest of the oil that is in the priest’s hand he shall put on the head of him who is to be cleansed. So the priest shall make atonement for him before the LORD. Then the priest shall offer the sin offering, and make atonement for him who is to be cleansed from his uncleanness. Afterward he shall kill the burnt offering. And the priest shall offer the burnt offering and the grain offering on the altar. So the priest shall make atonement for him, and he shall be clean.

Lev 14:53: Then he shall let the living bird loose outside the city in the open field, and make atonement for the house, and it shall be clean.

Lev 16:10: But the goat on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make atonement upon it, and to let it go as the scapegoat into the wilderness.

Num 16:46-47: So Moses said to Aaron, “Take a censer and put fire in it from the altar, put incense on it, and take it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them; for wrath has gone out from the LORD. The plague has begun.” Then Aaron took it as Moses commanded, and ran into the midst of the assembly; and already the plague had begun among the people. So he put in the incense and made atonement for the people.

Num 31:50: Therefore we have brought an offering for the LORD, what every man found of ornaments of gold: armlets and bracelets and signet rings and earrings and necklaces, to make atonement for ourselves before the LORD.”

1 Sam 12:3: Here I am. Witness against me before the LORD and before His anointed: Whose ox have I taken, or whose donkey have I taken, or whom have I cheated? Whom have I oppressed, or from whose hand have I received any bribe with which to blind my eyes? I will restore it to you.”

2 Sam 21:3: Therefore David said to the Gibeonites, “What shall I do for you? And with what shall I make atonement, that you may bless the inheritance of the LORD?” (hanging! in v. 6)

Isa 6:7: And [the seraphim] touched my mouth with it, and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your iniquity is taken away, and your sin purged.”

Isa 27:9: Therefore by this the iniquity of Jacob will be covered; and this is all the fruit of taking away his sin: when he makes all the stones of the altar like chalkstones that are beaten to dust, wooden images and incense altars shall not stand.

Jer 18:23: Yet, LORD, You know all their counsel which is against me, to slay me. Provide no atonement for their iniquity, nor blot out their sin from Your sight; but let them be overthrown before You. Deal thus with them in the time of Your anger.

Ezek 16:60-63: “Nevertheless, I will remember My covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you. Then you will remember your ways and be ashamed when you receive your sisters, both your older and your younger; and I will give them to you as daughters, but not because of your covenant. Thus I will establish My covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the LORD, so that you may remember and be ashamed and never open your mouth anymore because of your humiliation, when I provide you an atonement for all that you have done,” the Lord GOD declares.

Amos 5:12: For I know your manifold transgressions and your mighty sins: afflicting the just and taking bribes; diverting the poor from justice at the gate.

Psa 49:7: None of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him.

Psa 65:3: Iniquities prevail against me; as for our transgressions, you will provide atonement for them.

Psa 78:38: But He, being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity, and did not destroy them. Yes, many a time He turned His anger away, and did not stir up all His wrath.

Psa 79:9: Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of Your name; and deliver us, and provide atonement for our sins, for Your name’s sake!

Job 33:24: Then He is gracious to him, and says, “Deliver him from going down to the Pit; I have found a ransom.”

Job 36:18: Because there is wrath, beware lest He take you away with one blow; for a large ransom would not help you avoid it.

Prov 6:35: He will accept no recompense, nor will he be appeased though you give many gifts.

Prov 13:8: The ransom of a man’s life is his riches, but the poor does not hear rebuke.

Prov 16:6: In mercy and truth atonement is provided for iniquity; and by the fear of the LORD one departs from evil.

Prov 16:14: As messengers of death is the king’s wrath, but a wise man will appease it.

Prov 21:18: The wicked shall be a ransom for the righteous, and the unfaithful for the upright.

Dan 9:24: “Seventy weeks are determined for your people and for your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sins, to make reconciliation for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy, and to anoint the Most Holy.

2 Chr 30:18-20: For a multitude of the people, many from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar, and Zebulun, had not cleansed themselves, yet they ate the Passover contrary to what was written. But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, “May the good LORD provide atonement for everyone who prepares his heart to seek God, the LORD God of his fathers, though not according to the purification rules of the sanctuary.” So the LORD heard Hezekiah and healed the people.

 

With the above passages in mind I would like to offer these four points in conclusion:

  1. We find it difficult to translate kaphar with any real consistency, but surely this is a good thing. The connotative importance of kaphar is found in its appeal to the restored position of something which was in need of repair. Kaphar fixes things, even people. With or without blood it can deal with almost anything, including such things as mold or uncleanness (Lev 12:7; 14:18-20; 15:15, 30) or unsolved murder (Num 6:11; Deut 21:8) or inadvertent sin (Num 15:25). It can appear in scenes of physical ritual or in celebratory poetry.
  2. In noticing where atonement can occur without blood, we must conclude that the exception proves the rule: blood is not necessary for atonement. We can even sense in the verses immediately above that it is relatively easy to attain fellowship with Yahweh without the use of blood. Leviticus 5 provides the most striking example of this. Blood is used in vv. 1-10 for the trespass offering but it is not used in vv. 11-13 for the same offering. Blood is not the common denominator in this offering, then, and in one sense is not essentially a matter of requirement. In another example, kaphar is used in the death of an animal, with no mention of blood, and even implied lack of blood (Num 8:12, 19, 21). And in yet another example, kaphar is used in the death of an animal (“break the neck of the bull”) where blood is the distasteful item within the story (“Provide atonement, O LORD, for Your people Israel, whom You have redeemed, and do not lay innocent blood to the charge of Your people Israel.’ And atonement shall be provided on their behalf for the blood [of the unsolved murder victim]” Deut 21:8).
  3. Of the 123 uses of kaphar in the OT, not one example applies to a person who is considered to be living outside the Abrahamic covenant. Turning this into a positive, atonement of any kind (bloody or non-bloody) was considered to be a privilege of the person-in-covenant. Atonement “ritual” should be better understood as an atonement “celebration,” therefore, illustrating the provision of cleansing/covering already offered within covenantal grace. Even the Passover was to be celebrated without Gentiles present (Exod 12:43-47). It is also important to note that in the event of bringing a Rahab or Ruth into the Abrahamic covenant, at no time was the mechanics of atonement used for making this entrance possible. As could be expected, then, kaphar was never made available for those outside the covenant (Num 35:31; 1 Sam 3:14; Isa 22:14; Amos 5:12 [used for “bribery,” apparently referring to the Israelites’ misuse of kaphar when worshipping other deities (cp. Prov 6:35)]).
  4. Observing the OT teaching on sacrifice and atonement is to notice the theological movement which came with it. I would recommend the following picture developing over time: God’s people were taught that sacrifice was an available cultural mechanism within a larger issue of fellowship between God and man. Sacrifice (even for “atonement,” Exod. 30:15; Lev. 14:53; Num. 31:50) was not to be thought of in terms of payments made, but in terms of relationship restored and maintained through sincere repentance, faith, and fidelity as symbolized in the ritual. In this sense sacrifice was ineffective to restore fellowship when not accompanied by inward commitment, and unnecessary when this commitment was present (2 Chron. 30:18-20; Dan. 6:10). This was because God was free to love those whom he so chose to love (Exod. 33:19; Deut. 7:7-11). Any appeal to the mechanism of sacrifice without inward commitment could even be considered blasphemous (Deut. 10:17; cp. Luke 23:39-43) on the basis that it assumed that God’s character was based on purely legal (and not personal) terms. The bloodlessness of many of the Psalms (e.g., Ps 91) was intended to progressively wire faithful Israelites toward the permanent understanding that blood was not necessary for gaining and maintaining a proper relationship to Yahweh. Most vital, of course, was settling the issue of monotheism, which necessarily brought with it the necessity for faithfulness to Yahweh. We could then presume that there would be a pattern of moving from literal use of blood (Lev. 17) to the recommended non-need of blood at all (Ps 51; Isa 1; Hosea 6; Amos 5; Dan 9; Jonah 4; 2 Chron 30). In the end, the greatest themes of Yahweh’s character would purposely leave blood out of the picture. He would be praised not for his fine use of blood, but for his character that operates outside the need for physical manipulatives of any kind (Deut. 7:9-10; Ps 136:1-2).

 

Read More

Did Yahweh Demand Blood for a True Relationship with Him? Were the Other Gods More Merciful to their People?

[Editorial, MSH: Listeners to the Naked Bible podcast series on Leviticus will recall that nearly all the sacrificial language of Leviticus had to do with disinfecting or protecting sacred space from impurity – the blood was not applied to the one bringing sacrifice for any sort of moral cleansing. While the effect was God allowed people access of his presence once the rituals were performed – thereby suggesting things were “okay” between God and the offerer and the priest – a loving relationship with Yahweh was based on “believing loyalty” on the part of the Israelite and God’s own faithfulness to show mercy. It’s a good context for Dr. Johnson’s paper, so as to discern what he actually wants us to think about.]

 

This post is based on a paper written for the Evangelical Theological Society several years ago (“Bloodless Atonement in Israelite Religion and its Implications for Justification in NT Theology”). Please don’t be put off by the title. The real question I was thinking about as I wrote the paper never came out in the paper itself: So if other gods exist, how might they have compared to Yahweh with regard to blood and atonement? I hope you can enjoy the paper in this light. I have reworked it a bit, and divided it into several posts for sake of length.

The OT concept of animal sacrifice, especially bloody sacrifice, is usually considered the necessary backdrop for understanding the NT themes of justification and salvation. In this paper I will try to show that Israel’s religion did not set out to teach this on the front end, and that the larger biblical story will not defend those themes on the back end. In its place I will contend that the Yahweh/human relationship has always been primarily dependent upon fidelity (“faith”) and not upon blood sacrifice, nor even atonement (ritual purification).

I understand that those last three words are likely the most difficult to defend. It is a scary thing to challenge our modern understanding of atonement. The paradigm of Christ “dying for my sins” as a “substitute payment for my debt,” with the gospel even being described as “accepting this payment as my own” is pervasive to the point of not being considered one paradigm among other viable options. I opened a book just yesterday (which had nothing to do with the atonement) and found this sentence in the opening paragraph of the introduction: “They [my friends who will likely disagree with some points in this book] strongly affirm the complete inerrancy of the Bible, the Trinity, the full deity of Christ, the substitutionary atonement of Christ for our sins, and dozens upon dozens of other important doctrinal convictions.” There you have it, I guess. To question substitutionary atonement or the way it’s talked about is to challenge the Trinity and the deity of Christ. I believe otherwise, and hope that this paper will show why.

Let’s Make a Sacrifice

Scholars disagree about the meaning of sacrifice in the ancient world. Considering all the sacrifices and offerings mentioned in the OT, there exists no clear indication that any of them were meant to be interpreted in terms of vicarious penalty-removal (I would recommend here Bradley McLean, “The Absence of Atoning Sacrifice in Paul’s Soteriology,” NTS 38 [1992], 532-42). Our biggest problem in forming a theology of sacrifice, quite frankly, is simply lack of information—mixed with our attendant predispositions of what we think the sacrificer was thinking at the moment of sacrifice. So let’s summarize what we do not know. We have no certain evidence that Israelite religion taught that sin and its guilt could be literally transferred to an animal (I say “literally” in the sense that even the goat sent out of the camp in Leviticus 16 was himself not to be considered a morally sinful goat). Imagine how interesting a world that would be, by the way, if sin could be transferred from a person to an animal: I commit a serious sin, grab Fido from his nap under the table, head out the back door, and . . . my sin is gone. But no Israelite thought like this. Maybe pagans did. But not Israelites. Add to this the fact that poor people could sacrifice food (no blood there) in place of animals (Lev 5:11-13), and we are forced into realizing that unless we are willing to see flour inheriting sin, we probably should not do the same for an animal. Then there are the sacrifices which were explicitly for a purpose other than that of solving sin (e.g., Abraham/Isaac, Passover, the peace offering, etc.), and we are left holding an empty bag if we were presuming that all sacrifices were primarily about sin. Most were not.

So why did Israelites sacrifice? We recall numerous examples of the many patriarchs and leaders who built altars with regularity, whether Noah (Gen. 8:20), Abraham (Gen 12:6 ff.; 13:18; 22:9), Isaac (Gen 26:25), Jacob (Gen 33:20; 35:1-7), Moses (Exod 17:15), Joshua (Josh 8:30 f.; cf. Deut 27:5), Gideon (Jdg 6:24 ff.), or David (2 Sam 24:18-25). From all indications, these individuals were simply following cultural norm, whether living before or after Moses. Archaeological evidence tells of Canaanite altars within Israel from the 14th and 13th centuries B.C. forward, and we suspect this tells the story of all nations long before that time. All ancient cultures viewed the physical world as created and lorded over by deities, and everyone lived and worked under the assumption that the gods expected some sort of penitential rituals on the part of worshipping humans. Bloodletting was a common means of gaining a god’s attention. There was even the shared notion that the gods fed upon human blood and food. As Daniel Block has pointed out, most of the categories of sacrifice found in Leviticus 1-5 are attested to outside of Israel, most notably zebah (sacrifice, sacrificial meals), selamim (peace/well-being offerings), ola (whole burnt offerings), and mincha (gift, grain/cereal offerings) offerings (“Other Religions in Old Testament Theology,” in Biblical Faith and Other Religions: An Evangelical Assessment [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004] 43-78). So let’s follow through on this possibility: could Yahweh have allowed for sacrifice as a way of expressing religious devotion, as opposed to demanding it? I think yes, with some evidence to follow.

Triangulating between Sin, Forgiveness, and Atonement

Israelite religion taught that it was a serious thing to deviate from the expressed will and desire of Yahweh. This is what it meant to sin, at least in the behavioral sense. The seriousness of sin was expressed in many ways in the OT through the use of numerous Hebrew words, many times carrying curious illustrations. Consider these word pictures:

Sin is a thick cloud cover over one’s head: Lamentations 3:44-50

Sin is having dirty lips, the gateway to one’s soul: Isaiah 6:5 (cp. Prov. 6:12-14)

Sin is being a rebellious animal: Jeremiah 31:18

Sin is a demonic animal waiting to attack: Genesis 4:7

Sin is having a heart full of illegitimate desire: Ezekiel 20:16

Sin is breaking a promise between partners: Nehemiah 1:7

Sin is walking backward and not forward: Jeremiah 7:24

Sin is wandering away from someone: Jeremiah 14:10

Sin is turning of one’s back on someone: 2 Chronicles 29:6

Sin is being left alone to fend for oneself: Lamentations 1

Sin is being a rebellious child/spouse: Nehemiah 1:8-9; 9:33; Jeremiah 3:20, 22

Sin is being dirty: Psalm 51:4

Sin is a dirty garment, or a stain on a garment: Job 14:4; Isa 1:18; 64:6; Zech 3:4

Sin is a disease: Leviticus 16:21; Psalm 41:4; Isaiah 1:6

Sin is being blind: Isaiah 59:9

Sin is being shamed: Psalm 69:5-7

Sin is being ritualistically naive: Lev 22:14; 2 Sam. 6:6-7; Ezek 45:20

Sin is an inadvertent mistake: Leviticus 4:20; Numbers 6:9-11

Sin is a natural bodily discharge: Leviticus 15:16-24

Sin is a mildew or allergen: Leviticus 14:53

Sin is expressing human weakness as opposed to divine strength: Job 40:1-10

Sin is a burden to be borne: Exod 10:17; Lev 5:1; 16:21; 24:15; Ps 103:12

Sin is breaking of a law, necessitating penalty: Psalm 25:11

Sin is missing a target: Judges 20:16; Job 5:24; Proverbs 19:2

Sin is a master who pays cruel wages: Genesis 4:12-13

Sin is a debt or an account in delinquency: Isa 40:1-2

This list demonstrates how sin and transgression could be viewed from various (even competing) angles and levels of severity in the OT. It also establishes why sacrifices in any culture would have developed such rich meaning. If the heinousness of sin could be illustrated with flair, the attending rituals needed to keep pace with corresponding solutions. Yet, as we know from many stories in the OT, sin was not necessarily solved through sacrifice alone (Exod 23:21; Deut 29:20; Josh 24:19; 2 Kgs 24:4; Isa 22:14; Jer 5:27; Lam 3:42; Hos 1:6). Yahweh always held the right to refuse forgiveness, with or without an attending sacrifice.

So how was sin to be solved, if not by sacrifice? Here is where I believe we have been nearly hypnotized by associating the words forgiveness and sacrifice together (Lev 4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:10, 13, 16, 18; 6:7; 19:22; Num 15:25-26, etc.) as though one brings the other. But—snap out of it!—there are far more examples in the OT of forgiveness being granted outside of sacrifice (e.g., Exod 10:17-18; 32:32; 34:7; Num 14:18-19; 30:5, 8; 1 Kgs 8:30, 34, 36, 39, 50; 2 Chr 6:21, 25, 27, 30, 39; 7:14; Ps 78:38; 86:5; 130:4; Isa 6:7). In the end, I believe it can be consistently argued that any necessary relationship between personal restorative forgiveness (where a person becomes “right” with God after being “wrong” with God, let’s say) and cultic sacrifice in the OT is unintentional. The text is not trying to literally tie atonement and forgiveness together as though the first causes, or necessarily results in, the second. The mature Yahwist understood that he could be on good terms with his god through loyalty alone (Exod 34:7; Num 14:18-20; Neh 9:7; Ps 130:4; Mic 7:18; Dan 9:9), an idea to be defended at length below. This included the concept of forgiveness, though we need to be careful what that means. There is no adequate Hebrew word which stands in for the English word “forgive.” This is why forgiveness as a concept is usually described by means of illustration:

Forgiveness is to remove something: Psalm 103:12; Zechariah 3:9

Forgiveness is to cast something into the sea: Micah 7:9

Forgiveness is to go away like a cloud: Isaiah 44:22

Forgiveness is to put something behind one’s back: Isaiah 38:17

Forgiveness is to cover something: Psalm 32:1

Forgiveness is to put something put out of sight: Psalm 51:9

Forgiveness is to blot out something: Jeremiah 18:23

Forgiveness is to wash something: Psalm 51:7; Isaiah 4:4

Forgiveness is to cleanse something: Leviticus 16:30; Numbers 8:21; Ps 51:2

Forgiveness is to receive a clean conscience: Psalm 51:10

Forgiveness is to remove blood: Deuteronomy 21:8

Forgiveness is to whiten something: Isaiah 1:18

Forgiveness is to send rain on parched land: 1 Kings 8:36

Forgiveness is to not remember: Jeremiah 31:34

Forgiveness is to hide one’s face from something: Psalm 51:9

Forgiveness is to heal from disease: Psalm 32:1-5; 103:3; Isaiah 53:5

Forgiveness is to freely show grace, mercy, and love: Exodus 34:6; Neh. 9:17

Forgiveness is to annul a decision: Numbers 30:12

Forgiveness is to stop something from burning: Deuteronomy 29:20

Forgiveness is to listen with approval: 1 Kings 8:30, 36

Forgiveness honors a person’s heart, or intentions: 2 Chronicles 6:30

It makes sense, then, to hear that God would at times not forgive. It’s a privilege, and not a right, to be “right” or proper with Yahweh. This teaching was intended to both remind the Israelite of the ineffectiveness of bare ritualism and the privilege of being forgiven for sins committed while living within God’s gracious covenant. The mention of the covenant, of course, reminds us of another important point: Yahweh never offered general forgiveness of sins to all people of all nations for all stock offenses. In fact, we could tighten that sentence up a bit more: Yahweh promised that the sins of the nations would be held against them provided they remained idolaters. And it is precisely here where atonement becomes important in OT theology.

There are only twelve occasions in the OT NASB which combine the words forgive and atone in the same verse (we will use English for now). Consider the audience in each, or to whom Moses is speaking:

Lev 4:20: He shall also do with the bull just as he did with the bull of the sin offering; thus he shall do with it. So the priest shall make atonement for them, and they will be forgiven.

Lev 4:26: All its fat he shall offer up in smoke on the altar as in the case of the fat of the sacrifice of peace offerings. Thus the priest shall make atonement for him in regard to his sin, and he will be forgiven.

Lev 4:31: Then he shall remove all its fat, just as the fat was removed from the sacrifice of peace offerings; and the priest shall offer it up in smoke on the altar for a soothing aroma to the LORD. Thus the priest shall make atonement for him, and he will be forgiven.

Lev 4:35: Then he shall remove all its fat, just as the fat of the lamb is removed from the sacrifice of the peace offerings, and the priest shall offer them up in smoke on the altar, on the offerings by fire to the LORD. Thus the priest shall make atonement for him in regard to his sin which he has committed, and he will be forgiven.

Lev 5:10: The second he shall then prepare as a burnt offering according to the ordinance. So the priest shall make atonement on his behalf for his sin which he has committed, and it will be forgiven him.

Lev 5:13: So the priest shall make atonement for him concerning his sin which he has committed from one of these, and it will be forgiven him; then the rest shall become the priest’s, like the grain offering.

Lev 5:16: He shall make restitution for that which he has sinned against the holy thing, and shall add to it a fifth part of it and give it to the priest. The priest shall then make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering, and it will be forgiven him.

Lev 5:18: He is then to bring to the priest a ram without defect from the flock, according to your valuation, for a guilt offering. So the priest shall make atonement for him concerning his error in which he sinned unintentionally and did not know it, and it will be forgiven him.

Lev 6:7: And the priest shall make atonement for him before the LORD, and he will be forgiven for any one of the things which he may have done to incur guilt.

Lev 19:22: The priest shall also make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering before the LORD for his sin which he has committed, and the sin which he has committed will be forgiven him.

Num 15:25: Then the priest shall make atonement for all the congregation of the sons of Israel, and they will be forgiven; for it was an error, and they have brought their offering, an offering by fire to the LORD, and their sin offering before the LORD, for their error.

Num 15:28: The priest shall make atonement before the LORD for the person who goes astray when he sins unintentionally, making atonement for him that he may be forgiven.

This list demonstrates both the cultic nature of the association between atonement and forgiveness (paired only in Leviticus and Numbers), as well as the intended audience for this association. It was the faithful Israelite—not the neighboring Moabite or Ammonite or Egyptian—who was told that he could celebrate forgiveness in spite of his recurring episodes of behavioral sinfulness. It went without much saying—though Yahweh said it repeatedly—that a pagan who worshipped other gods could not expect such merciful treatment (Exod 23:21; Deut 29:20; Josh 24:19; 2 Kgs 24:4; Isa 22:14; Jer 5:27; Lam 3:42; Hos 1:6). And the same could be said for the disloyal Israelite as well:

Exodus 34:6-7:Then Yahweh passed by in front of Moses and proclaimed, “Yahweh, Yahweh el, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives [nasa, carry, lift] iniquity [avon, guilt], transgression [peshah, offense, act of disloyalty] and sin [chatah, error, miss]; yet he will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”

Jeremiah 31:34: “They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know Yahweh,’ for they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares Yahweh, “for I will forgive [salach] their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

Nehemiah 9:17: They refused to listen, and did not remember your wondrous deeds which you had performed among them; so they became stubborn and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But you are an elohim [deity] of forgiveness [salach], gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness; and You did not forsake them.

Daniel 9:9: To Yahweh our elohim belong compassion and forgiveness [salach], but we have rebelled against him.

Psalm 86:5:

“For You, Yahweh, are good, and ready to forgive [salach],

and abundant in lovingkindness to all who call upon You.

Psalm 130:4:

“But there is forgiveness [salach] with you,

that you may be feared [yare, frighten, reverence].

Psalm 32:

“How blessed is he whose

transgression [peshah, offense, act of disloyalty]

is forgiven [nasa, carry, lift],

whose sin [chatah, error, miss, cp. Numbers 19:9]

is covered [kasah, conceal, keep from being known]

How blessed is the man to whom

Yahweh does not impute [chasav, take into account]

iniquity [avon, guilt],

and in whose spirit there is no deceit [remiyya, fraud, deception]”

When I kept silent, my body ached

through my groaning all day long.

For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;

My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer.

I acknowledged [yada, to know, understand]

my sin [chatah, error, miss] to you,

and my iniquity [avon, guilt]

I did not hide [kasah, conceal, keep from being known]

I said, ‘I will confess [yadah, to praise]

my transgressions [peshah, offense, act of disloyalty] to Yahweh’;

and you forgave [nasa, carry, lift]

the iniquity [avon, guilt]

of my sin [chatah, error, miss]

Therefore, let everyone who is faithful [chasid cp. Ps 145:17]

pray to you in a time when you may be found;

Surely in a flood of great waters they will not reach him.

You are my hiding place; you preserve me from trouble;

You surround me with songs of deliverance.”

In the interest of space allow me to summarize my point without going into further detail. While I admit that there is a ritualistic or forensic aspect to atonement/forgiveness in the OT (think Leviticus), there is no post-Numbers 15 mention of atonement which speaks of a person becoming relationally right with Yahweh. I think that’s huge, even if talking statistics alone. Think of it this way: juridical forgiveness will account for (so go the illustrations above) a clean record in leaving the courtroom, a burden relieved from one’s back, or the cleansing of a bodily discharge. But penalty or burden or fluid will never primarily be in play when dealing with any text that describes being in a right relationship to Yahweh (e.g., “I will give them a heart to know me, for I am Yahweh; and they will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with their whole heart,” Jer 24:7; cp. 2:8; 4:22; 9:3, 6; 12:3; 22:16; 31:34). We would think that if atonement played an important role in relating to Yahweh it would get major press somewhere in the text. But the silence is deafening. And we have yet to step into the New Testament, where the word atonement is missing altogether.1 In my next post I will try to explain why the absence of atonement language in the NT makes predictable theological sense.

 

  1. The Greek words rendered occasionally in some English translations as “atone” or “atonement” are the verb hilaskomai and the related noun hilastērion. The former can (and often is, depending on the translation) rendered “forgive, be merciful.” It occurs twice (Luke 18:13 – “God be merciful to be a sinner”; Heb 2:17 – “to make propitiation”; “to forgive, show mercy.”) The latter noun also occurs twice (Rom 3:25 – God put forward Christ “as a propitiation” – an act of mercy or love? – Heb 9:5, a reference to the “mercy seat”).

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Did Yahweh Demand Blood for a True Relationship with Him? Were the Other Gods More Merciful to their People?

[Editorial, MSH: Listeners to the Naked Bible podcast series on Leviticus will recall that nearly all the sacrificial language of Leviticus had to do with disinfecting or protecting sacred space from impurity – the blood was not applied to the one bringing sacrifice for any sort of moral cleansing. While the effect was God allowed people access of his presence once the rituals were performed – thereby suggesting things were “okay” between God and the offerer and the priest – a loving relationship with Yahweh was based on “believing loyalty” on the part of the Israelite and God’s own faithfulness to show mercy. It’s a good context for Dr. Johnson’s paper, so as to discern what he actually wants us to think about.]

 

This post is based on a paper written for the Evangelical Theological Society several years ago (“Bloodless Atonement in Israelite Religion and its Implications for Justification in NT Theology”). Please don’t be put off by the title. The real question I was thinking about as I wrote the paper never came out in the paper itself: So if other gods exist, how might they have compared to Yahweh with regard to blood and atonement? I hope you can enjoy the paper in this light. I have reworked it a bit, and divided it into several posts for sake of length.

The OT concept of animal sacrifice, especially bloody sacrifice, is usually considered the necessary backdrop for understanding the NT themes of justification and salvation. In this paper I will try to show that Israel’s religion did not set out to teach this on the front end, and that the larger biblical story will not defend those themes on the back end. In its place I will contend that the Yahweh/human relationship has always been primarily dependent upon fidelity (“faith”) and not upon blood sacrifice, nor even atonement (ritual purification).

I understand that those last three words are likely the most difficult to defend. It is a scary thing to challenge our modern understanding of atonement. The paradigm of Christ “dying for my sins” as a “substitute payment for my debt,” with the gospel even being described as “accepting this payment as my own” is pervasive to the point of not being considered one paradigm among other viable options. I opened a book just yesterday (which had nothing to do with the atonement) and found this sentence in the opening paragraph of the introduction: “They [my friends who will likely disagree with some points in this book] strongly affirm the complete inerrancy of the Bible, the Trinity, the full deity of Christ, the substitutionary atonement of Christ for our sins, and dozens upon dozens of other important doctrinal convictions.” There you have it, I guess. To question substitutionary atonement or the way it’s talked about is to challenge the Trinity and the deity of Christ. I believe otherwise, and hope that this paper will show why.

Let’s Make a Sacrifice

Scholars disagree about the meaning of sacrifice in the ancient world. Considering all the sacrifices and offerings mentioned in the OT, there exists no clear indication that any of them were meant to be interpreted in terms of vicarious penalty-removal (I would recommend here Bradley McLean, “The Absence of Atoning Sacrifice in Paul’s Soteriology,” NTS 38 [1992], 532-42). Our biggest problem in forming a theology of sacrifice, quite frankly, is simply lack of information—mixed with our attendant predispositions of what we think the sacrificer was thinking at the moment of sacrifice. So let’s summarize what we do not know. We have no certain evidence that Israelite religion taught that sin and its guilt could be literally transferred to an animal (I say “literally” in the sense that even the goat sent out of the camp in Leviticus 16 was himself not to be considered a morally sinful goat). Imagine how interesting a world that would be, by the way, if sin could be transferred from a person to an animal: I commit a serious sin, grab Fido from his nap under the table, head out the back door, and . . . my sin is gone. But no Israelite thought like this. Maybe pagans did. But not Israelites. Add to this the fact that poor people could sacrifice food (no blood there) in place of animals (Lev 5:11-13), and we are forced into realizing that unless we are willing to see flour inheriting sin, we probably should not do the same for an animal. Then there are the sacrifices which were explicitly for a purpose other than that of solving sin (e.g., Abraham/Isaac, Passover, the peace offering, etc.), and we are left holding an empty bag if we were presuming that all sacrifices were primarily about sin. Most were not.

So why did Israelites sacrifice? We recall numerous examples of the many patriarchs and leaders who built altars with regularity, whether Noah (Gen. 8:20), Abraham (Gen 12:6 ff.; 13:18; 22:9), Isaac (Gen 26:25), Jacob (Gen 33:20; 35:1-7), Moses (Exod 17:15), Joshua (Josh 8:30 f.; cf. Deut 27:5), Gideon (Jdg 6:24 ff.), or David (2 Sam 24:18-25). From all indications, these individuals were simply following cultural norm, whether living before or after Moses. Archaeological evidence tells of Canaanite altars within Israel from the 14th and 13th centuries B.C. forward, and we suspect this tells the story of all nations long before that time. All ancient cultures viewed the physical world as created and lorded over by deities, and everyone lived and worked under the assumption that the gods expected some sort of penitential rituals on the part of worshipping humans. Bloodletting was a common means of gaining a god’s attention. There was even the shared notion that the gods fed upon human blood and food. As Daniel Block has pointed out, most of the categories of sacrifice found in Leviticus 1-5 are attested to outside of Israel, most notably zebah (sacrifice, sacrificial meals), selamim (peace/well-being offerings), ola (whole burnt offerings), and mincha (gift, grain/cereal offerings) offerings (“Other Religions in Old Testament Theology,” in Biblical Faith and Other Religions: An Evangelical Assessment [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004] 43-78). So let’s follow through on this possibility: could Yahweh have allowed for sacrifice as a way of expressing religious devotion, as opposed to demanding it? I think yes, with some evidence to follow.

Triangulating between Sin, Forgiveness, and Atonement

Israelite religion taught that it was a serious thing to deviate from the expressed will and desire of Yahweh. This is what it meant to sin, at least in the behavioral sense. The seriousness of sin was expressed in many ways in the OT through the use of numerous Hebrew words, many times carrying curious illustrations. Consider these word pictures:

Sin is a thick cloud cover over one’s head: Lamentations 3:44-50

Sin is having dirty lips, the gateway to one’s soul: Isaiah 6:5 (cp. Prov. 6:12-14)

Sin is being a rebellious animal: Jeremiah 31:18

Sin is a demonic animal waiting to attack: Genesis 4:7

Sin is having a heart full of illegitimate desire: Ezekiel 20:16

Sin is breaking a promise between partners: Nehemiah 1:7

Sin is walking backward and not forward: Jeremiah 7:24

Sin is wandering away from someone: Jeremiah 14:10

Sin is turning of one’s back on someone: 2 Chronicles 29:6

Sin is being left alone to fend for oneself: Lamentations 1

Sin is being a rebellious child/spouse: Nehemiah 1:8-9; 9:33; Jeremiah 3:20, 22

Sin is being dirty: Psalm 51:4

Sin is a dirty garment, or a stain on a garment: Job 14:4; Isa 1:18; 64:6; Zech 3:4

Sin is a disease: Leviticus 16:21; Psalm 41:4; Isaiah 1:6

Sin is being blind: Isaiah 59:9

Sin is being shamed: Psalm 69:5-7

Sin is being ritualistically naive: Lev 22:14; 2 Sam. 6:6-7; Ezek 45:20

Sin is an inadvertent mistake: Leviticus 4:20; Numbers 6:9-11

Sin is a natural bodily discharge: Leviticus 15:16-24

Sin is a mildew or allergen: Leviticus 14:53

Sin is expressing human weakness as opposed to divine strength: Job 40:1-10

Sin is a burden to be borne: Exod 10:17; Lev 5:1; 16:21; 24:15; Ps 103:12

Sin is breaking of a law, necessitating penalty: Psalm 25:11

Sin is missing a target: Judges 20:16; Job 5:24; Proverbs 19:2

Sin is a master who pays cruel wages: Genesis 4:12-13

Sin is a debt or an account in delinquency: Isa 40:1-2

This list demonstrates how sin and transgression could be viewed from various (even competing) angles and levels of severity in the OT. It also establishes why sacrifices in any culture would have developed such rich meaning. If the heinousness of sin could be illustrated with flair, the attending rituals needed to keep pace with corresponding solutions. Yet, as we know from many stories in the OT, sin was not necessarily solved through sacrifice alone (Exod 23:21; Deut 29:20; Josh 24:19; 2 Kgs 24:4; Isa 22:14; Jer 5:27; Lam 3:42; Hos 1:6). Yahweh always held the right to refuse forgiveness, with or without an attending sacrifice.

So how was sin to be solved, if not by sacrifice? Here is where I believe we have been nearly hypnotized by associating the words forgiveness and sacrifice together (Lev 4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:10, 13, 16, 18; 6:7; 19:22; Num 15:25-26, etc.) as though one brings the other. But—snap out of it!—there are far more examples in the OT of forgiveness being granted outside of sacrifice (e.g., Exod 10:17-18; 32:32; 34:7; Num 14:18-19; 30:5, 8; 1 Kgs 8:30, 34, 36, 39, 50; 2 Chr 6:21, 25, 27, 30, 39; 7:14; Ps 78:38; 86:5; 130:4; Isa 6:7). In the end, I believe it can be consistently argued that any necessary relationship between personal restorative forgiveness (where a person becomes “right” with God after being “wrong” with God, let’s say) and cultic sacrifice in the OT is unintentional. The text is not trying to literally tie atonement and forgiveness together as though the first causes, or necessarily results in, the second. The mature Yahwist understood that he could be on good terms with his god through loyalty alone (Exod 34:7; Num 14:18-20; Neh 9:7; Ps 130:4; Mic 7:18; Dan 9:9), an idea to be defended at length below. This included the concept of forgiveness, though we need to be careful what that means. There is no adequate Hebrew word which stands in for the English word “forgive.” This is why forgiveness as a concept is usually described by means of illustration:

Forgiveness is to remove something: Psalm 103:12; Zechariah 3:9

Forgiveness is to cast something into the sea: Micah 7:9

Forgiveness is to go away like a cloud: Isaiah 44:22

Forgiveness is to put something behind one’s back: Isaiah 38:17

Forgiveness is to cover something: Psalm 32:1

Forgiveness is to put something put out of sight: Psalm 51:9

Forgiveness is to blot out something: Jeremiah 18:23

Forgiveness is to wash something: Psalm 51:7; Isaiah 4:4

Forgiveness is to cleanse something: Leviticus 16:30; Numbers 8:21; Ps 51:2

Forgiveness is to receive a clean conscience: Psalm 51:10

Forgiveness is to remove blood: Deuteronomy 21:8

Forgiveness is to whiten something: Isaiah 1:18

Forgiveness is to send rain on parched land: 1 Kings 8:36

Forgiveness is to not remember: Jeremiah 31:34

Forgiveness is to hide one’s face from something: Psalm 51:9

Forgiveness is to heal from disease: Psalm 32:1-5; 103:3; Isaiah 53:5

Forgiveness is to freely show grace, mercy, and love: Exodus 34:6; Neh. 9:17

Forgiveness is to annul a decision: Numbers 30:12

Forgiveness is to stop something from burning: Deuteronomy 29:20

Forgiveness is to listen with approval: 1 Kings 8:30, 36

Forgiveness honors a person’s heart, or intentions: 2 Chronicles 6:30

It makes sense, then, to hear that God would at times not forgive. It’s a privilege, and not a right, to be “right” or proper with Yahweh. This teaching was intended to both remind the Israelite of the ineffectiveness of bare ritualism and the privilege of being forgiven for sins committed while living within God’s gracious covenant. The mention of the covenant, of course, reminds us of another important point: Yahweh never offered general forgiveness of sins to all people of all nations for all stock offenses. In fact, we could tighten that sentence up a bit more: Yahweh promised that the sins of the nations would be held against them provided they remained idolaters. And it is precisely here where atonement becomes important in OT theology.

There are only twelve occasions in the OT NASB which combine the words forgive and atone in the same verse (we will use English for now). Consider the audience in each, or to whom Moses is speaking:

Lev 4:20: He shall also do with the bull just as he did with the bull of the sin offering; thus he shall do with it. So the priest shall make atonement for them, and they will be forgiven.

Lev 4:26: All its fat he shall offer up in smoke on the altar as in the case of the fat of the sacrifice of peace offerings. Thus the priest shall make atonement for him in regard to his sin, and he will be forgiven.

Lev 4:31: Then he shall remove all its fat, just as the fat was removed from the sacrifice of peace offerings; and the priest shall offer it up in smoke on the altar for a soothing aroma to the LORD. Thus the priest shall make atonement for him, and he will be forgiven.

Lev 4:35: Then he shall remove all its fat, just as the fat of the lamb is removed from the sacrifice of the peace offerings, and the priest shall offer them up in smoke on the altar, on the offerings by fire to the LORD. Thus the priest shall make atonement for him in regard to his sin which he has committed, and he will be forgiven.

Lev 5:10: The second he shall then prepare as a burnt offering according to the ordinance. So the priest shall make atonement on his behalf for his sin which he has committed, and it will be forgiven him.

Lev 5:13: So the priest shall make atonement for him concerning his sin which he has committed from one of these, and it will be forgiven him; then the rest shall become the priest’s, like the grain offering.

Lev 5:16: He shall make restitution for that which he has sinned against the holy thing, and shall add to it a fifth part of it and give it to the priest. The priest shall then make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering, and it will be forgiven him.

Lev 5:18: He is then to bring to the priest a ram without defect from the flock, according to your valuation, for a guilt offering. So the priest shall make atonement for him concerning his error in which he sinned unintentionally and did not know it, and it will be forgiven him.

Lev 6:7: And the priest shall make atonement for him before the LORD, and he will be forgiven for any one of the things which he may have done to incur guilt.

Lev 19:22: The priest shall also make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering before the LORD for his sin which he has committed, and the sin which he has committed will be forgiven him.

Num 15:25: Then the priest shall make atonement for all the congregation of the sons of Israel, and they will be forgiven; for it was an error, and they have brought their offering, an offering by fire to the LORD, and their sin offering before the LORD, for their error.

Num 15:28: The priest shall make atonement before the LORD for the person who goes astray when he sins unintentionally, making atonement for him that he may be forgiven.

This list demonstrates both the cultic nature of the association between atonement and forgiveness (paired only in Leviticus and Numbers), as well as the intended audience for this association. It was the faithful Israelite—not the neighboring Moabite or Ammonite or Egyptian—who was told that he could celebrate forgiveness in spite of his recurring episodes of behavioral sinfulness. It went without much saying—though Yahweh said it repeatedly—that a pagan who worshipped other gods could not expect such merciful treatment (Exod 23:21; Deut 29:20; Josh 24:19; 2 Kgs 24:4; Isa 22:14; Jer 5:27; Lam 3:42; Hos 1:6). And the same could be said for the disloyal Israelite as well:

Exodus 34:6-7:Then Yahweh passed by in front of Moses and proclaimed, “Yahweh, Yahweh el, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives [nasa, carry, lift] iniquity [avon, guilt], transgression [peshah, offense, act of disloyalty] and sin [chatah, error, miss]; yet he will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”

Jeremiah 31:34: “They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know Yahweh,’ for they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares Yahweh, “for I will forgive [salach] their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

Nehemiah 9:17: They refused to listen, and did not remember your wondrous deeds which you had performed among them; so they became stubborn and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But you are an elohim [deity] of forgiveness [salach], gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness; and You did not forsake them.

Daniel 9:9: To Yahweh our elohim belong compassion and forgiveness [salach], but we have rebelled against him.

Psalm 86:5:

“For You, Yahweh, are good, and ready to forgive [salach],

and abundant in lovingkindness to all who call upon You.

Psalm 130:4:

“But there is forgiveness [salach] with you,

that you may be feared [yare, frighten, reverence].

Psalm 32:

“How blessed is he whose

transgression [peshah, offense, act of disloyalty]

is forgiven [nasa, carry, lift],

whose sin [chatah, error, miss, cp. Numbers 19:9]

is covered [kasah, conceal, keep from being known]

How blessed is the man to whom

Yahweh does not impute [chasav, take into account]

iniquity [avon, guilt],

and in whose spirit there is no deceit [remiyya, fraud, deception]”

When I kept silent, my body ached

through my groaning all day long.

For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;

My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer.

I acknowledged [yada, to know, understand]

my sin [chatah, error, miss] to you,

and my iniquity [avon, guilt]

I did not hide [kasah, conceal, keep from being known]

I said, ‘I will confess [yadah, to praise]

my transgressions [peshah, offense, act of disloyalty] to Yahweh’;

and you forgave [nasa, carry, lift]

the iniquity [avon, guilt]

of my sin [chatah, error, miss]

Therefore, let everyone who is faithful [chasid cp. Ps 145:17]

pray to you in a time when you may be found;

Surely in a flood of great waters they will not reach him.

You are my hiding place; you preserve me from trouble;

You surround me with songs of deliverance.”

In the interest of space allow me to summarize my point without going into further detail. While I admit that there is a ritualistic or forensic aspect to atonement/forgiveness in the OT (think Leviticus), there is no post-Numbers 15 mention of atonement which speaks of a person becoming relationally right with Yahweh. I think that’s huge, even if talking statistics alone. Think of it this way: juridical forgiveness will account for (so go the illustrations above) a clean record in leaving the courtroom, a burden relieved from one’s back, or the cleansing of a bodily discharge. But penalty or burden or fluid will never primarily be in play when dealing with any text that describes being in a right relationship to Yahweh (e.g., “I will give them a heart to know me, for I am Yahweh; and they will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with their whole heart,” Jer 24:7; cp. 2:8; 4:22; 9:3, 6; 12:3; 22:16; 31:34). We would think that if atonement played an important role in relating to Yahweh it would get major press somewhere in the text. But the silence is deafening. And we have yet to step into the New Testament, where the word atonement is missing altogether.1 In my next post I will try to explain why the absence of atonement language in the NT makes predictable theological sense.

 

  1. The Greek words rendered occasionally in some English translations as “atone” or “atonement” are the verb hilaskomai and the related noun hilastērion. The former can (and often is, depending on the translation) rendered “forgive, be merciful.” It occurs twice (Luke 18:13 – “God be merciful to be a sinner”; Heb 2:17 – “to make propitiation”; “to forgive, show mercy.”) The latter noun also occurs twice (Rom 3:25 – God put forward Christ “as a propitiation” – an act of mercy or love? – Heb 9:5, a reference to the “mercy seat”).

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