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Atone Deaf Part One: Sacrifice in the Ancient World and the Hebrew Bible

First in a new series of posts exploring the topic of atonement, the question of theological meaning and accomplishment in the death of Jesus.

For many western Christians the death of Jesus is not only the most theologically significant event in the Bible or the church calendar, it is the most significant event in all of human history. And for conservative Protestants in general and evangelicals in particular, an understanding of Jesus’ death as an atoning substitutionary sacrifice is more essential to faith and hope than his life, his message, or even his resurrection. As kids we learned that believing in the efficacy of Jesus’ sacrificial death in our place was the only way to be reconciled to God and saved from His wrath. We learned that this view, labeled Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA), was the only true and biblical one, anticipated fully by the ancient Jewish sacrificial system and explicitly taught in the New Testament. We’ll deal with the New Testament in upcoming posts, and today we’ll focus on the Hebrew Scriptures. The major question of today’s post is whether or not the offering rituals of ancient Israel constituted substitutionary sacrifices for the satisfaction of God’s wrath. But first, a general word about sacrifice and human history.

Where Does Sacrifice Come From?

In terms of history and anthropology, sacrifice is the communal sacralization or ritualization of the killing of animals (and/or the consumption of resources in general). Most ancient cultures, not least those in and around the Near Eastern setting of the Bible, developed frameworks in which sacrifices were understood to be interactions or exchanges with gods and supernatural forces. Killing animals, burning or cooking their flesh, and using their hides and bones as raw materials is what ancient hunters and farmers were already doing long before it was codified into any kind of religious system. In its most appealing expressions, sacrifice was an appreciation of divine providence and a show of respect for the animals and plants which gave their lives so the tribe could survive. More severe systems took “blood sacrifice” to unsavory extremes and offered up human victims to purge their tribes of impurity. Being one Near Eastern culture among many, Israel reflected some of these sacrificial characteristics while emphatically rejecting others.

Blood Sacrifice and Sin in the Hebrew Scriptures

The texts of the Hebrew Bible imply the ubiquity of sacrifice in the ancient world. In the early Genesis tales, for example, figures like Cain, Abel, Noah, and Abraham perform various sacrifices centuries before there were Levitical laws or a temple in which to practice them. The ancient Hebrews also demonstrate distinctly polytheistic tendencies, such as their use of pagan names for God and their penchant for “household gods.” These stories (written down as late as the post-exilic period) indicate that Israel’s sacrificial system represents a later stage in the evolution of Hebrew religion, an evolution in which they moved further and further away from the practices of their polytheistic neighbors. Noah and his family are portrayed as the first humans to kill and eat animals. The story of Isaac’s “binding” dramatizes the Hebrews’ rejection of the common ancient practice of child sacrifice. And the Torah laws themselves reflect the specific religious and agricultural realities of Israel’s life in the “promised land,” not some generic or timeless setting. All of this suggests that sacrifice did not fall out of heaven all at once as a divine decree, but that it developed and changed over time as a human endeavor according to Israel’s religious beliefs and experiences.

For the purposes of this series, we are most interested in those sacrificial traditions in Israel which dealt with blood and/or sin, as these are the images most often invoked in Christian discussions of atonement. We will briefly examine three such traditions, with special attention to the way they worked and the problems they were intended to address. These are pesach (Passover), the korban khatta’at (sin offering), and the scapegoat of yom kippur (the Day of Atonement).

The Passover story, narrated in the book we call Exodus, features a blood sacrifice at its dramatic climax. The children of Israel, slaves and captives in Egypt for generations, must kill a lamb and wipe its blood on their doorpost so that the “angel of the LORD” will pass them by as it unleashes a deadly plague against their Egyptian overlords. The event will be commemorated in an annual festival (in fact, a festival of lambs predates the Exodus experience), and marks a decisive moment in the formation of Israel’s identity as a unified people destined to become a nation. We note that there is supernatural danger in the story, but it is temporal and local and directed against the Egyptian villains. We also note that there is no “substitutionary” element to this sacrifice. The Israelites’ problem is not that they are guilty of any sin, in fact they are innocent victims of oppression. The blood is an identity marker and a harbinger of liberation.

The Levitical law prescribed several types of sacrifices, including burnt offerings, grain offerings, and offerings of peace and thanksgiving. The sin offering (detailed in Leviticus 4) involved the sacrifice of a bull for the acknowledgement and forgiveness of sins, particularly for “unintentional” misdeeds (4:2). This sacrifice was not conceived as a substitutionary killing but rather as a gift to God of an unblemished specimen as an offering for sins. And while the aim of such a sacrifice was to seek divine forgiveness, the framework was one of covenant faithfulness and blessing, not eternal salvation, afterlife, or the appeasement of God’s wrath.

Likewise, the sacrifices of the annual Day of Atonement (also described in Leviticus) were offered for the sins of the people, intentional and unintentional. The Hebrew word we translate “atone” literally means to “remove” or “wipe away.” The corporate guilt of the people was to be confessed and relinquished. Among the many rituals of the day, two goats were prepared: one for slaughter as an unblemished sin offering, the other as a “scapegoat.” The scapegoat was symbolically imputed with the sin guilt of the people (the closest thing we’ve got here to a “substitutionary” animal) but it was not sacrificed. Instead it was led into the wilderness to physically remove the people’s sin from the land. (According to rabbinical tradition, in order to avoid the embarrassment of a “sin goat” accidentally wandering back into town, it was usually led off a cliff to its “accidental” demise. Still, we note that this was technically not a sacrificial death, and was not a part of the official yom kippur observances.)

In summary: The offering rituals of ancient Israel served various functions and occasions, including matters of sin and forgiveness, but substitutionary punishment, soul salvation, and appeasement of divine wrath were not their context or intention.

Prophetic Critique of the Sacrifice Traditions

A question which arises later in Israel’s religious tradition and which speaks directly to our study of atonement is whether or not these sacrifices represented the only and mandatory methods of dealing with human sin guilt. For the theology of PSA to make sense, blood sacrifice must be the only possible way for God to be fully satisfied in the face of human sin guilt. But according to Israel’s poets and prophets, this was and is not the case. For one thing, Hebrew Bible texts routinely feature individuals and groups who attain forgiveness by repentance and prayer, without the help of sacrifices or the shedding of blood (eg. David in Psalm 32 or the entire city of Nineveh in the book of Jonah). If those inferences aren’t strong enough, however, Israel’s prophets offered a more direct challenge to the notion of blood sacrifice as the path to God’s heart. Consider these well-known passages:

And Samuel said, “Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obedience to his voice? Surely, obedience is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.” (1 Samuel 15:22)

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: “Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat the meat! For when I freed your fathers from the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings or sacrifice. But this is what I commanded them: ‘Obey my voice, that I may be your God, and you may be my people. Walk in all the way that I command you, that it may go well with you.’” (Jeremiah 7:21-23)

“For I desire goodness, not sacrifice; Obedience to God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6)

According to the prophets, God is not particularly impressed with heaps of unblemished animal carcasses, and in fact (according to Jeremiah) He never asked for any blood in the first place. In light of these passages and our observations above, sacrifice looks more and more like a concession at best, like something God tolerated from humans who would rather negotiate forgiveness than walk in the light. 

But, since humans are utterly unable to obey God and walk in the light, doesn’t blood sacrifice become necessary to pay for our sins? God may not prefer it, but He has no choice! That is the logic of PSA, but it is difficult to reconcile this formula with the spirit of Jesus, who echoed these same prophetic words and revealed a God who forgives sin freely. Why would a God who rejects sacrifice in the name of mercy and love demand a blood sacrifice (a human sacrifice!) in order to forgive sin? It is inconsistent with the gospel of the kingdom and the divine character revealed in Jesus. 

Sacrifice: Human Gesture, Not Divine Demand

Some are perhaps uncomfortable with the anthropological approach to sacrifice I’ve outlined above, so consider a more “theocentric” version of the story: God calls Israel from among the tribes of the world, insists that they stop sacrificing human lives – especially children – and instructs them in the appropriate way to offer good gifts and offerings. But later God reminds them through the prophets that sacrifice is no substitute for love and obedience, and He wishes people would seek Him in the wellbeing of their neighbor instead of the spilling of animal blood. In what possible universe would this same God go on to require and even to orchestrate the human sacrifice of His own beloved Son?

The Passover lamb, the sin offering, and the scapegoat were symbols of liberation, forgiveness, and covenant, not punishment or the assuaging of divine wrath. Likewise, God is not a petulant, bloodthirsty deity in need of pacification. God’s heart and disposition are not swayed this way and that by the spilling of guilty or innocent blood. We will explore the positive and compelling ways in which the death of Jesus might be described in sacrificial terms, but substitutionary punishment is a fundamental misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Israel’s sacrificial traditions and the God they meant to honor and delight.

Next time: The Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53.

[NOTE: After writing the first couple of posts in this series, it came to my attention that the brilliant and funny blogger James McGrath has already coined the term “atone deaf.” I just want to give him full credit and link to his post.]

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