Does Atonement Really Require Sacrifice?

Rethinking whether prayer can replace sacrifice.

by Louis Goldberg | April 01 2005

The young Jewish man asked, “Do you really have an Orthodox Jewish background?”

When I replied in the affirmative, he looked at me incredulously and was quiet for a moment. Then he queried, “If you have such a background, then why is it that you believe that the Messiah has already come?”

I reflected, and then began: “Let me make one point as to what is the most basic underlying dynamic in my thinking as well as in my heart. Simon the Just at about 200 B. C. E. declared, according to the Pirke Avot (Sayings of the Father) that upon three things does the world rest: 1) Torah, 2) worship, (which is taken to mean the sacrifices in connection with the temple service) and 3) the showing of kindness.”1

“Now,” I continued,” after the fall of the Temple. in 70 C.E., there was a council which met at Yavneh at which Yohanan ben Zakkai presided. One of the decisions by ben Zakkai and others was to change the statement by Simon the Just to read: 1) Torah (which now is the pillar of studying and teaching Torah); 2) temple worship (they redefined it in term of prayer); and 3) the showing of kindness.”2

The Jewish man quickly responded, “What did you expect Jewish people to do after the Temple was lost? Since there was no more possibility to offer sacrifices, prayer then became the obvious substitute!”

“Ah,” I responded, “but there was a possibility that the concept of sacrifice was not changed. What did the Jewish writers of the New Covenant proclaim? Did they change the law of Moses and the substitute atonement of the Torah?”

He had no answer.

Since that encounter, the decisions which were made at the Council of Yavneh have been the object of continued study for me. Were the rabbis right in substituting the Temple service with prayer? Or, is it legitimate to insist that there is no possibility of changing what God had already revealed regarding substitute atonement?

The Four Major Principles of Atonement According to Moses

To understand properly what an atonement is according to the Torah, it is necessary that we examine closely Moses’ explanation of the sin offering. It will not be my objective to cover every verse in Leviticus chapter four which deals with the sin offering, but rather to consider the principles in connection with this most important offering.3

When the animal died, it gave its life up to the one who stood in need of it.

Regardless of who brought which offering, there was a certain procedure to be followed. Four major principles can be derived from that procedure:

  1. Substitution. God’s specific instruction to Moses was that as each Israelite came to present the offering in accordance with his station in life, he was to regard this animal as his personal substitute.
  2. Identification. The Israelite next placed his hand upon the head of the animal and confessed his sins which were then, in a symbolic sense, imputed or transferred to the animal. The animal-substitute became identified with the sin of the offerer.
  3. Death of the animal. Contrary to what many people believe, it was the task of the offerer to kill the animal under the guidance of the officiating priest who caught the blood and applied it in the appropriate place, depending on who brought the offering.  God wanted the offerer to kill the animal, so that he would be reminded that the penalty of sin is death. The prophet so aptly comments,” …The soul who sins will die” (Ezekiel 18:4). God extended His mercy by providing the substitute to die in place of the offerer.
  4. While the passages in Leviticus chapter four do not explicitly say so, I do suggest that a fourth principle is present: exchange of life. When the animal died because the sin of the offerer was upon it, its life was then transferred to him. There is the hint of an exchange, for the sins of the offerer were placed upon the animal, causing it to die; thus when the animal died, it gave its life up to the one who stood in need of it.

The Israelite’s Response

As the Israelites brought their animal substitute, they could exhibit one of three kinds of responses:

The Attitude of Indifference—There were those, certainly in the days of the First Temple period (ending in 586 B.C.E.), who did not care for the sacrificial system as outlined by the Torah. Perhaps some were more interested in the idolatrous systems of the pagans. Obviously, God’s wrath was directed at such idolatrousness (Deuteronomy 18:9-14).

The Attitude of Ritual—Most Israelites exhibited a perfunctory attitude and merely went through the motions because this is what Moses asked them to do. Such folk were more interested in the practical affairs of life, making a living and family concerns. Yet God detested the degeneration of Temple worship into a ritualistic procedure. Many times the prophets singled out this one attitude. Isaiah in particular described how “worshippers” were sure to bring their animals for sacrifice but their hearts were not repentant at all (Isaiah 1:1-18).

The Response of Belief—There were many in Israel who, upon bringing their sacrifice, became aware of the meaning of substitute atonement and what God wanted each one to learn in the process. The Torah was designed to be a schoolmaster to teach the great truth of the possibility of atonement, but the Spirit of God also worked in the hearts of unbelievers for those who became interested in spiritual matters, there came a time when the offering of the animals took on the meaning intended by God. Such a seeker then accepted by faith the four principles, internalizing them within his own heart. When he did so, he continued to bring his animals on the prescribed occasion, but he did so as a believer and therefore was part of the educational process of the Torah to teach others who did not know the Lord. Those Israelites who exhibited the response of belief were then considered a part of the remnant-believers, present in every generation, even in times of spiritual renewal when the numbers of believers were great (e.g. in the days of, 2 Chronicles chapters 29-31, and during the time of Josiah, 2 Chronicles chapters 34 and 35).

The Assurance of Forgiveness—Furthermore, believers had an assurance of the forgiveness of their sins. David could exclaim that “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12). Furthermore, as the believer watched the procedure on the Day of Atonement when the scapegoat took away the sins of the nation he could very well cry, “Hallelujah.” He realized what was transpiring when the animal removed his particular sin (Leviticus 16:10).

The Council of Yavneh Decision

Neusner cites ben Zakkai’s mention of the verse, “For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice…” (Hosea 6:6) demonstrating that it “was consistent with the contemporary hermeneutics” of the leading rabbinical figures.4

God demanded loyal adherence to His covenant.

In biblical times, hesed had meant (in part) “the mutual liability of those who are friends and relatives”, masters and servants, or any relationship of joint responsibility. In relation to God, hesed meant acts in conformity with the covenant between man and God. Thus Hosea meant that God demanded loyal adherence to His covenant, rather than sacrifice. By Yohanan’s time, however, the word had acquired a different connotation. It meant mercy or an act of compassion and lovingkindness.

As a further argument for his point, he even quotes Yeshua of Nazareth who seemingly made the same claim for the meaning of hesed, “…those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means; I desire mercy (eleon) and not sacrifice. For I came not to call the righteous but sinners” (Matthew 9:12,13).

It would appear, therefore, according to Neusner, that hesed takes on more of a “personal moral quality, rather than a specific external action, either ritual or legal.…” He goes on to say that this “is in accordance with the increasing emphasis on the inner aspects of religion which was characteristic of this period.”5

Neusner’s argument is flawed. First, did the prophets really indicate that God was much more concerned for repentance, the development of the inner and personal moral quality and acts of lovingkindness than in the offer of sacrifice in accordance with a ritual? Second, is there another atonement other than substitute atonement? We shall touch briefly on these two considerations.

The Genuine Prophetic Message

When we examine the books of the Torah of Moses and the prophetic books as to how Moses and the various prophets regarded sacrifice vis-a-vis the so-called greater emphasis of inward and spiritual experience, we find a completely different situation than the one Neusner suggests. For example, Moses summed up the first table of the Decalogue with these words, “Hear, O Israel The Lord our God, the Lord is one! And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:4-5). Such a statement is assuredly the basis for doing acts of compassion; on the other hand Moses himself, under God’s direction, specified the offering of various kinds of sacrifices at the place the Lord would choose for worship (Deut. 12:6,11,13-14,21).

But Jewish leaders will insist that this was Moses as he explained the necessity of the ritual. The prophets tell it otherwise.

Jeremiah stated that God did not speak to the fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices. Rather, he wanted Israel to listen to his voice so that he could be their God and they could be his people (Jeremiah 7:23). This might accord with ben Zakkai’s insistence that sacrifices were really not necessary.

On the other hand, Jeremiah insists that to truly worship the Lord, the people of Israel were to bring their “burnt offerings, sacrifices,…sacrifices of thanksgiving to the house of the Lord” (Jeremiah 17:24-26). Does this mean that Jeremiah was inconsistent in what was considered to be “true worship”? Or, must we recognize that the prophet had to accurately reflect what Moses had already declared.

When we turn to the Psalms, David states, “For Thou dost not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; Thou art not pleased with burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise” (Psalm 51:16-17). And yet, David later declared, “Thou wilt delight in righteous sacrifices, in burnt offering and whole burnt offering; then young bulls will be offered on Thine altar” (Psalm 51:19). Once more we can only reflect that neither a prophet nor any other person in the Writings could contradict Moses.

We can only insist again that the Messiah himself would not set aside what Moses indicated was true worship.

Neusner referred to a passage in Matthew where Jesus desired mercy and not sacrifice, but on another occasion Jesus recommended that “if therefore you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering” (Matthew 5:23-24). We can only insist again that the Messiah himself would not set aside what Moses indicated was true worship.

Within the past hundred years, the liberals of Christendom concocted a somewhat similar argument, stating that the prophets felt it to be more important for the people of Israel to do acts of love out of a heart of concern for humanity than to offer sacrifices. Young notes a few of these statements:

Grey, (George B., The Prophecy of Isaiah, Edinburg, 1926), for example, says that the rejection of sacrifice is that which distinguished the religion of Israel. Marti (Karl, Das Buch Jesaja, Tubingen, 1900) claims that the Lord demanded justice and righteousness, not sacrifice. According to Marti, this section (Isaiah 1:10-31) shows that Torah should not be confined to cultic prescription and that the ethical requirement stood in the foreground for Isaiah.6

Young’s comment concerning the liberal position is that “This position…fails to understand the true character of the prophetic teaching. What Isaiah opposes is not sacrifice in itself, but the misuse thereof.”7

One cannot create a dichotomy between the cultic expression of offering sacrifices and the call for a repentant heart.

These attempts by ben Zakkai and others at the Council of Yavneh and in recent times by Jacob Neusner, fail to grapple with the real meaning of what Moses and the prophets conveyed. One cannot create a dichotomy between the cultic expression of offering sacrifices and the call for a repentant heart. It was always presumed that penitents would make sacrifice as the outward sign of their repentance. What the prophets emphasized was for the Jewish persons to first have a true heart experience and then to offer their sacrifices. There is no contradiction between sacrifices on the one hand and the genuine heart experience out of which acts of kindness were to be performed; both were necessary if we take Moses and the prophets seriously.

After the Second Temple

With the direction provided by the men of the Council of Yavneh, Judaism became a religion with no substitute atonement. Neusner sums up this decision, declaring that “the new age would endure on the foundation of studying the Torah, doing the commandments and, especially, performing acts of compassion.”8

Succeeding leaders built upon this new direction. Rabbi Simeon said, “The words of the Torah are more precious to me than burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Abot de Rabbi Nathan VIII). But that was his opinion.

Prayer also became important. Prayer was an important dimension during the Mosaic ritual of substitutionary sacrifice, but now, with the Temple gone, prayer became one of the means for atonement. According to Rabbi Eliezer, prayer ranks higher than sacrifices and even good deeds (Berahot 26b). Prayer is also regarded as true worship of the heart, apart from sacrifice (Taanit 2b). The one who puts on phylacteries (tefillin), recites the Shema, and offers prayer to God is regarded as having sacrificed upon the great altar (Berahot 15a). Once again the opinion of man is taken more seriously than Torah.

Repentance is also included as one of the means of atonement. Moore points out:

The important thing is that while the temple was still standing the principle had been established that the efficacy of every species of expiation was morally conditioned without repentance, no rites availed. With the cessation of the sacrifice, repentance itself was left as the sole (italics mine) condition of the remission of sins.9

Moore also indicates that by the second revolt (132-135 C.E.) Jewish people in the land of Judah had become so accustomed to a religion without a sacrifice that repentance was regarded as having taken the place of substitute atonement.

When it was all said and done, the rabbinical leaders had redirected Judaism to an atonement based on self effort by 500 C.E. when the Talmud was completed. They had taken the dimensions of prayer, confession, sin and repentance, once associated with the substitution sacrifice, and declared that these dimensions alone were the means for atonement.

But how can we account for a Jewish religion with no substitute atonement compared to what Moses had directed in the Torah?

Some can say, as did the Jewish young man I conversed with, that there was nothing else left to do and that the rabbis had a “legitimate reason” for changing the means for an atonement. But this answer has serious consequences for all eternity.

The Biblical Alternative

The Jewish believers who penned the Brit Hadasha (New Testament) did not dare to alter Moses’ words on the matter of atonement. What is interesting is that the very same four principles in connection with the sin offering of Leviticus chapter four are taken over into the New Covenant and now, instead of being connected with a sacrificial animal, they are attached to the ministry of the Messiah himself.

He indeed is our substitute: the “Lamb unblemished and spotless…foreknown before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for the sake of you…” (1 Peter 1:19-20). He identified with our sins so that when we receive him: “He himself bore our sins in his body” (1 Peter 2:24). Because he has become sin, he therefore died as our sin offering: “For Messiah also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust” (2 Peter 3:18). But in his death, we who believe in him receive his life. Some of the saddest words the Messiah had to declare of some of his generation were: “You are unwilling to come to me, that you may have life” (John 5:40), but he who will come to him receives eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life” (John 5:24).

Atonement = repentance + the atoning sacrifice

No, these Jewish writers of the New Covenant did not change the message of Moses; they took the four principles in connection with the substitute atonement of the sacrificial system and applied them to the Messiah of Israel, thereby propounding a scriptural equation: atonement = repentance + the atoning sacrifice. Both are necessary and if people take only one and attempt to use it as the means for atonement, no atonement will be forthcoming.

When the Second Temple was destroyed, the people were in a crisis. What could be their approach to God? God foresaw, however, what would occur and had made provision through the sacrifice of the Messiah, but not contrary to what Moses had already declared in the Torah. Yet the leadership of that day actually turned away from what Moses had declared to be the only possibility for an atonement for sin.

Two covenant peoples now remained in the land after the loss of the Temple: 1) Jewish believers, to which later were also added gentile believers, all brought under the cover of the New Covenant; and 2) the people of Israel, guided by its religious leaders, who remained a covenant people under the Abrahamic Covenant as well as whatever other religious system was structured for the people to observe.

What kind of hope is possible for those who came under the cover of the New Covenant and for those who chose to develop their own worship system? The best way to consider the consequences of the hopes of each group is to examine what they themselves have said as they approached the day when they were to depart from this world. Neusner cites a number of sources concerning the account of the last words of Yohanan ben Zakkai:

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?…I go to appear before the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be he…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.10

To hear such words from a man who felt that atonement could come because of acts of lovingkindness is sobering indeed. He fears the Holy One because there just might be a sin which he had not confessed.

We turn to consider the words of one of the Jewish believers, a leader in the community who had found atonement under the cover of the New Covenant, Rav Shaul or Paul. It is possible that both Paul and ben Zakkai had studied together and had been co-workers at one time since they were both about the same age. But Paul’s faith was in the atonement wrought by the Messiah, and now, in the possession of his life, declared. “But I am hard pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Messiah, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake” (Philippians 1:23-24). Likewise, Paul stated, “We…prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). The differences in the hopes of the two covenant peoples are astounding.

Because of a sure atonement which the Jewish believers held to, there was no question in their minds, that when they would leave this world, they would immediately be in the presence of the Lord. Are you as sure?


1. R. Travers Hereford, ed., The Ethics of the Talmud Sayings of the Fathers (New York Schocken, 1962), 22-24.

2. J. Goldin, “The Three Pillars of Simeon the Righteous” from the American Academy for Jewish Research Vol. XXVII, 50-51.

3. Louis Goldberg, Bible Study Commentary: Leviticus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980), 16-20. The reader is encouraged to ” dig further” in the study of Leviticus by consulting this book.

4. Jacob Neusner, Development of a Legend. Studies on the Traditions Concerning Yohanan ben Zakkai. (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1970) 142. The former further explains 142, 143.

5. Ibid., 144.

6. Edward J. Young, The Book of Isaiah, Vol. I (Grand Rapids Eerdmans) 61.

7. Ibid.

8. Op. Cit., 145.

9. G E. Moore, Judaism, I (Cambridge Harvard, 1955), 505.

10. p. Cit., 172, citing Avot de Rabbi Nathan chapter 35, Schechter 40a.