Atonement: Questions and Answers
Note: Elaine the correspondent is fictional, but Karol Joseph is real and serves on the staff of Jews for Jesus. She can be reached by e-mail.
I didn’t tell you everything that was on my mind in the last letter, because there’s a second area where I need some clarification.
It’s regarding the blood atonement. Jerry asked me if you had used Leviticus 11 in trying to convince me that blood atonement was needed for atonement (he really does know a lot about the arguments you guys use) and showed me several verses to demonstrate that you are wrong, and that there are numerous other means of atonement found in the Tanakh, not just shedding of blood (e.g. prayer, repentence, charity, even flour!). He also tried to make the point that the blood sacrifices were the least important of the ways of making atonement, especially since they were only for unintentional sins. I was surprised when we looked in Leviticus, to see that the sacrifices really were only for unintentional sins.
Jerry also gave me a tape by Tovia Singer on the topic, which I listened to last night. He made mostly the same points as Jerry, but one thing that was different was where he pointed out that the sacrificial system is the only thing that the prophets were constantly degrading. He said that sacrifice was prominent in the pagan world to appease the gods. The Jewish people had become obsessed with this whole blood issue, so that prophets kept saying that God wants other things rather than this. Have you ever heard of this? It didn’t seem quite right to me, and he didn’t really give any scriptures to back up what he was saying, but I thought I’d ask. Tovia Singer’s tape also raised an entirely new question for me, that you and I have never even talked about. He said that even if we needed blood atonement, we have never needed the blood of a man. I must admit that it does sound a bit strange that God would ultimately want His son, Jesus, to be sacrificed, after repeatedly commanding Israel not to do as the other nations, who sacrificed their children to the god Molech.
I hope that you’ll have time to again respond.
It was good to hear from you again. Let me begin in responding to your questions about the atonement, with some background on how the notion came about in the first place that other means of sacrifice, such as prayer, repentence, and good deeds, could replace blood sacrifice in the Jewish faith. No one, not even the great Jewish rabbi Rashi, would disagree that while the Temple was standing, blood sacrifice was essential. According to the Talmud, “there is not atonement without the blood” (Yoma 5a, Zebahim 6a, Menahot 93b). By the way, although the anti-missionaries often accuse Christians of citing Leviticus 17:11 to prove that God required blood atonement, is actually the rabbis of the Talmud who quoted this verse in this way.
Remember when we talked back in June about the two main commentaries on the Talmud, the Tosafot and Rashi? Well, in the Tosafot, the blood is actually called the “fundamental principle;” Rashi’s commentary would agree, and so would the Encyclopedia Judaica. It was foundational; the blood sacrifices were the heart and soul of biblical atonement. Read Leviticus 16 and try to imagine the Day of Atonement without blood sacrifice. It’s really quite a leap to go from the biblical requirement to the rabbinic practice today, isn’t it?
The question of what else besides blood could make atonement really didn’t became a critical issue in Judaism until after 70 C.E., when the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans. It’s interesting that in the Talmud, in Sukkah 45a, it says that as the Temple is being destroyed, one of the sages said, “stupid Romans, while the Temple was standing we could make atonement for you. Now what will you do?”
In the midst of the crisis and chaos that followed the destruction of the Temple, Yohanan ben Zakkai (remember him, the father of “Rabbinic Judaism,” who organized the schools at Yavneh?) offered a solution. He told the people that just as sin was surely followed by punishment, so repentance would surely be followed by redemption. But how could this happen without the Temple? Johanan had the answer to this, too; in fact he had an answer that changed the course of Jewish practice from that day forward. Read this legend about the great rabbi:
Once as Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai was coming out of Jerusalem, Rabbi Joshua followed after him, and beheld the Temple in ruins.
“Woe unto us!” Rabbi Joshua cried, “that this place, the place where the iniquities of Israel were atoned for, is laid waste.”
“My son,” Rabban Johanan said to him, “be not grieved; we have another atonement as effective as this. And what is it? It is acts of lovingkindness, as it is said, For I desire mercy, not sacrifice (Hos. 6:6)… What then were the acts of lovingkindness in which he was engaged? He used to outfit the bride… accompany the dead, give a perutah [coin] to the poor and pray three times a day.1
Yohanan taught that although there could no longer be sacrifices, there could be prayer and lovingkindness, chesed, and through them, the Jews might make atonement for their sins. “Just as the Jews needed a redemptive act of compassion from God, so must they now act compassionately in order to make themselves worthy of it.” 2 In this Yohanan provided an interim ethic by which Israel could live. No longer would prayer worship be a supplement to the true cult, it was the true cult!. Over the years at Yavneh, that’s what became incorporated into the Jewish liturgy and practice. What happened at Yavneh was the recreation of Judaism without the Temple.
Notice, however, that this is not biblical teaching so much as it is rabbinic teaching, and as we’ve discussed many times before, that is a key issue–whether or not the rabbinic teaching, the Oral Torah, is authoritative or not. As you know, I totally reject the Oral Torah as authoritative, and I believe that if you were to examine it closely (we can do that together if you want), you would too. Don’t get me wrong, however; I don’t mean to say that just because it’s in the rabbinic teachings it’s automatically wrong. For that we need to look more directly at the teachings themselves, both in the Bible and in the rabbinic literature, e.g. the Talmud, and we can do that in a moment. First, however, let me challenge you to think of why the rabbis would ever believe that our God, who commanded sacrifice to make atonement, would then bring the destruction of the means of atonement as a judgment on His people, and then require less for the people to make atonement? Could it be that the rabbis got it wrong? I think so.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the specific biblical citations that I’m sure Jerry gave you to argue that there were other means of atonement than blood in the Hebrew Bible. But, first let me tackle an easy issue you raised, because Jerry actually didn’t tell you the truth when he said that the biblical sacrifices were only for unintentional sins. In all of the verses he did show you, I’m certain you must have skipped over the following from Leviticus Chapter 6:
Leviticus 6:2-7 “If anyone sins and is unfaithful to the LORD by deceiving his neighbor about something entrusted to him or left in his care or stolen, or if he cheats him, or if he finds lost property and lies about it, or if he swears falsely, or if he commits any such sin that people may do–when he thus sins and becomes guilty, he must return what he has stolen or taken by extortion, or what was entrusted to him, or the lost property he found, or whatever it was he swore falsely about. He must make restitution in full, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the owner on the day he presents his guilt offering. And as a penalty he must bring to the priest, that is, to the LORD, his guilt offering, a ram from the flock, one without defect and of the proper value. In this way the priest will make atonement for him before the LORD, and he will be forgiven for any of these things he did that made him guilty.”
So, blood sacrifice was needed for all guilt, intentional and unintentional. Again, go back and read about the Day of Atonement in the Hebrew Bible and see if the scapegoat carried only the unintentional sins of the people away; you’ll find it was both.
As to the verses regarding the use of other means of atonement, let me start with the easiest to see: the use of flour as an atonement for sin. The answer becomes immediately obvious simply by looking at the verse itelf from Leviticus 5:
Leviticus 5:11-13 “‘If, however, he cannot afford two doves or two young pigeons, he is to bring as an offering for his sin a tenth of an ephah of fine flour for a sin offering. He must not put oil or incense on it, because it is a sin offering. He is to bring it to the priest, who shall take a handful of it as a memorial portion and burn it on the altar on top of the offerings made to the LORD by fire. It is a sin offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for him for any of these sins he has committed, and he will be forgiven. The rest of the offering will belong to the priest, as in the case of the grain offering.'”
As you can see, the use of flour alone wouldn’t have made atonement for sin; it was only effectual when mixed in with the blood sacrifices of the entire community. The blood sacrifice was what was necessary, the flour offering allowed the poor person to join in on the communal sacrifice.
As to the other verses that speak of making “atonement” in ways other than blood, I think in looking at them you’ll see that they generally fall into one of two categories. The first relate to those where the verse wasn’t actually referring to “atonement” in the sense of forgiveness of sin. Let me explain. The Hebrew word lekapper, that is often translated as “atone” in many English Bibles, doesn’t always mean that sin is forgiven. It may mean just “remove” or “wiped away” as in Isaiah 28:18, Your covenant with death will be annulled (lekapper), your agreement with the grave will not stand. When the overwhelming scourge sweeps by, you will be beaten down by it.
Or it may mean “ransom” rather than “atonement money,” as in Exodus 30:12: “When you take a census of the Israelites to count them, each one must pay the LORD a ransom (kopher)for his life at the time he is counted. Then no plague will come on them when you number them. In this instance, it wasn’t atonement money in the sense that it bought forgiveness of sin, it was rather a protection from a plague. It’s interesting that this is the verse from which Judaism today derives the notion of giving charity (money) as a means of making atonement. It is also interesting that this is the same notion as in the New Testament when it speaks of Jesus, in Mattew 20:28: “…just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” In Jesus’ death on the cross, He made the payment that prevented God’s wrath from falling on those who deserved it (namely us).
The second category of verses bring us back to Yohanan ben Zakkai, as we deal with the question of whether prayer and sacrifice can replace blood sacrifice in atonement. Now I would guess that one of the verses Jerry showed you included Psalm 51, where King David says in verses 16-17: “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. What I would guess he didn’t show you was the rest of the psalm, where David continues in verses 18-19, Psalm 51:18 “In your good pleasure make Zion prosper; build up the walls of Jerusalem. Then there will be righteous sacrifices, whole burnt offerings to delight you; then bulls will be offered on your altar.” David, like all the prophets by the way, recognized that without a right heart attitude all the sacrifices in the world were meaningless. He wasn’t saying that a right heart alone would suffice, but that sacrifices without a right heart wouldn’t either. In fact, this is the core of what the Bible teaches, that it takes both repentence and sacrifice to receive forgiveness from God, one without the other simply will not do.
Similarly, other verses that speak of prayer bringing atonement without explicitly mentioning sacrifices can do so only because the Temple was standing, and sacrifices were being made. It’s a fallacy to think that people would have to run to the Temple and make a sacrifice every time they sinned. No, the priests were offering sacrifices daily for the community; therefore on an individual basis the need would be to have a right heart. That’s why in 1 Kings 8:46-50, King Solomon can ask God to forgive the people when they turn back to Him and pray:
“When they sin against you–for there is no one who does not sin –and you become angry with them and give them over to the enemy, who takes them captive to his own land, far away or near; and if they have a change of heart in the land where they are held captive, and repent and plead with you in the land of their conquerors and say, ‘We have sinned, we have done wrong, we have acted wickedly’; and if they turn back to you with all their heart and soul in the land of their enemies who took them captive, and pray to you toward the land you gave their fathers, toward the city you have chosen and the temple I have built for your Name; then from heaven, your dwelling place, hear their prayer and their plea, and uphold their cause. And forgive your people, who have sinned against you; forgive all the offenses they have committed against you, and cause their conquerors to show them mercy;
Notice that the Temple was still standing! Solomon wasn’t praying that when the Temple would not be there, accept their prayers as atonement, but that coupled with the sacrifices being offered in the Temple, the repentent cries of the people would be heard and their sin forgiven. If you want, look up for yourself 2 Chronicles 7:19 and see that God rejected the Temple in judgment against the people, leaving them with no means of atonement. That’s why Daniel, in chapter 9, is looking toward Jerusalem and crying. He doesn’t have any assurance of the forgiveness of his sins, the national means of atonement was gone. Because the Temple is detroyed, there is either no means of atonement for Israel (or anyone else for that matter), or God has given us the ultimate means of atonement through Jesus.
Before moving on to your final atonement question regarding human sacrifice, and how that is dealt with in Christ, I simply have to comment on your saying that Tovia Singer’s tape said something to the effect that “….sacrifice was prominent in the pagan world to appease the gods. The Jewish people had become obsessed with this whole blood issue, so that prophets kept saying that God wants other things rather than this…” I was amazed to hear a Jewish rabbi speak in such a cavalier way about the system that God clearly established in the Law of Moses. I don’t know that it deserves much more attention than that.
Now lets take just a few minutes to deal with the question of human sacrifice, and of Jerry saying that God never wanted the blood of a person, only of a goat or a lamb. Without going into a whole Biblical analysis (we can do that together in the fall if you want) let me suggest that after you’ve read through Leviticus 16, about the Day of Atonement, then turn to the book of Hebrews, Chapters 9 and 10 in the New Testament, and you’ll see how the Day of Atonement was pointing to the death of Messiah, who in one act would provide the blood of atonement anad remove our sins once and for all.
In addition to the biblical analyis, you might be interested to know that the notion of “the death of the righteous” making atonement for sin is a very Jewish concept, going all the way back to the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22, and carried forth in the Law and later in the rabbinic literature. Look, for example, at Numbers 35:33+ which discusses the death of the high priest atoning for those who have been guilty of manslaughter and have run for safety to a City of Refuge. Then in a little known midrash (Jewish commentary) on this text notes that the high priest atones because he is at a high level spiritually. So the death of the righteous is very powerful. This is a concept that has continued in Judaism to this day, as a way of giving reason to the sensless deaths of “innocent” people like in the Holocaust, that their death (their blood) made atonement for sin. And the more righteous the person, like the high priest, the more powerful their death. So, imagine what the death of the Messiah would bring! That could atone for the sin of the whole world! And that’s exactly what happened when Jesus died:
1Peter 2:22-24 “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.
It’s interesting that Peter should be quoting here also from a key messianic prophecy, that you and I have reviewed many times together, Isaiah 53. Perhaps you could read that chapter again, and pay special attention to verse 10: “Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering,…” The word for “guilt offering” is the same as would be used in the Hebrew word, asham used in Leviticus. This Messiah, prophesied by Isaiah some 700 years before Jesus, would be sacrificed as a guilt offering. I don’t know that you’ll ever get a clearer statement of the substitutionary death of Jesus, whose blood coupled with our repentence, makes the way for the forgiveness of sin.
Ultimately it is the forgiveness of sin that is at issue. As a believer in Jesus, I can have the assurance that my sins are forgiven and that I will spend eternity in heaven with God. Can Judaism say the same? In the end, can the rabbis assure you that they are right, that atonement is certain through prayer, repentence and good deeds? Absolutely not! Just read the legendary account of the end of Yohanan’s life. The conclusion is obvious:
“In his last hours, rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai kept weeping out loud.
‘O master,’ his disciples exclaimed, ‘O tall pillar, light of the world, mighty hammer, why art thou weeping?’
He said to them, ‘Do I then go to appear before a king of flesh and blood, whose anger, if he should be angry with me, is but of this world? and whose chastening, if he should chastise me, is but of this world? Whom I can, moreover appease with words or bribe with money? Verily, I go rather to appear before the King of Kings of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be he, whose anger, if he should be angry with me, is of this world, and the world to come, and whom I cannot appease with words or bribe with money! Moreover I have before me two roads, one to paradise and one to Gehenna, and I know not whether he will sentence me to Gehenna or admit me into Paradise. And of this a verse says, Before him shall be sentenced all those that go down to the dust, even he that cannot keep his soul alive (Psalm 22:30) – and should I not weep?” 3
For all the efforts to maintain and preserve Jewish life, at the end of it the rabbis cannot say even that God will be pleased, let alone whether or not they will receive eternal life. To have that, you need to accept Yeshua’s sacrifice for your sins. I hope that you’ll want to do that even now.
1The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan, tr. Judah Goldin (Yale University Press, 1983), pp. 34-35. Cf. Wylen, Stephen M., Settings of Silver: An Introduction to Judaism, (Paulist Press, 1989), p. 175. 2Neusner, Jacob, First Century Judaism in Crisis, (Abingdon Press, 1975), p. 170. Emphasis in the original. 3Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 28b.
Karol Joseph is currently the Interim Team Leader in South Florida. Karol holds a master’s of arts degree in missiology with a concentration in Jewish studies from the School of World Missions at Fuller Theological Seminary. Jews for Jesus is a missions organization on the forefront of Jewish evangelism. The ministry is reaching Jewish people for their Messiah in 14 countries and 26 cities.