By Rabbi Michael Skobac
One of the cornerstones of Christian theology is that the only way to achieve atonement for sins is through the offering of a sacrifice whose blood is shed in our place. The Greek Testament makes this very clear in Hebrews 9:22 "...without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness." Is this idea consistent with the teachings of the Tanach, or do the Jewish and Christian bibles diverge on this issue? Christians generally insist that the absolute need for a vicarious blood sacrifice is rooted in the Torah, and cite as proof Leviticus 17:11 "For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes an atonement for the soul."
If you are a Christian, or are a Jew who has been approached by Christian missionaries, you have probably heard many sermons on the topic of atonement, and have undoubtedly read many studies which support the contention that there is no atonement without blood. Of course you are also aware that this is a teaching which is not shared by traditional Jews. Have you ever wondered how they could reject what to others seems so clear? This study has been prepared to give you the opportunity to consider a different perspective on the vital issue of atonement.
ANOTHER LOOK AT LEVITICUS 17:11
You might remember that in junior high school, we were often given an assignment to write the title for a story; what is the central idea of a passage. Let's look at Leviticus 17:11 in context:
"And whatever man of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who sojourn among you, who consumes any blood, I will set My face against that person who consumes blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes an atonement for the soul. Therefore, I say to the children of Israel, `No one among you shall consume blood, nor shall any stranger who sojourns among you consume blood.'"
What should immediately be apparent is that the topic of this passage is not how to secure atonement from sins, but the prohibition against consuming blood. We are told parenthetically that the reason for this prohibition is that the blood contains the vitality of the animal (cf. Genesis 9:4, Deuteronomy 12:23) and consequently, when we bring an animal sacrifice, its blood serves as the atoning agent, and not another part of its body. Since Leviticus 17 doesn't come to teach us about the principles of atonement, we will have to look elsewhere for the Bible's most important teaching on how to repair our relationships with G-d.
Before proceeding, let's consider another point about what is, and what is not being said in Leviticus 17:11. The passage does say that since blood symbolizes the life of the animal, G-d has given it to us as a means of atoning for our sins. But does the verse clearly teach that it is the only means G-d has provided to make atonement? As with any other Biblical study, we will have to examine this question in light of the Bible as a whole. But for now, we should note that our verse merely says that blood can serve as an atonement. It is an effective means of atonement, but by no means the only form of atonement.
In the Torah, blood sacrifices were not the only path to atonement; there were other ways to achieve forgiveness. For example, incense served to atone for the people in Numbers 16:46-47, and giving charity is described in Exodus 30:15-16 and Numbers 31:50 as `making atonement for your souls' - the same expression as in Leviticus 17:11. In reality, blood sacrifices were the least effective of all the means of atonement mentioned in the Bible. One important limitation to the effectiveness of sacrifices is that they were only brought for unintentional sins (ie. someone didn't know that kindling a fire was prohibited on the Sabbath, or they were aware of this, but thought it was Sunday when kindling the fire). Sacrifices did not help to atone for sins that were done intentionally (Leviticus 4, and Numbers 15:22-31).
Examining the Christian interpretation of Leviticus 17:11 generates some serious problems. What happens if someone can't afford to purchase an animal for his sin offering? Is it possible that G-d would institute a system of atonement that could only be used by the wealthy? The Torah took this into account and allowed the poor person to bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons if he couldn't afford a lamb (Leviticus 5:7). However, what if someone was so destitute, that he couldn't afford even these small birds?
"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." (Leviticus 5:11)
Since flour could be used for a sin offering, it is clear that blood was not a prerequisite for atonement. Another example will drive home the point. The proposition that only blood sacrifices could secure atonement creates a dilemma. Could it be that G-d would set up a system of atonement that wouldn't be available to all people at all times? While the Temple stood, sacrifices did serve as part of the atonement process. But what is the fate of Jewish people who don't have access to the Temple? What were the Jewish people supposed to do after 586 BCE when the first Temple was destroyed and they were exiled to Babylon? What did the Jewish people do in the times of the Macabees when the Syrian-Greeks were in control of the Temple and didn't allow sacrifices?
Christians erroneously claim that Rabbinic Judaism came up with novel, non-Biblical measures to deal with atonement after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. Actually, it wasn't Talmudic innovation at all- the Bible anticipated the possibility of the cessation of sacrifices. When King Solomon finally laid the finishing touches on the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, he inaugurated it with a moving dedication speech (I Kings 8; II Chronicles 6). In this lengthy speech of almost 50 verses, you will notice that Solomon doesn't speak about sacrifices at all! This omission would be strange if the most crucial part of the Temple were the sacrifices. Actually, the central focus of the Temple was the Holy Ark (Exodus 25) containing the Torah. The Temple was first and foremost a symbol of G-d's presence and revelation to the Jewish people (I Kings 8:13, Exodus 25:8).
Towards the end of his speech, Solomon deals with the possibility of the Jewish people being denied access to the Temple in the eventuality that they are exiled from the land of Israel.
"If they return to You with all their heart and with all their soul in the land of their enemies who have taken them captive, and pray to You toward their land which You have given to their fathers, the city which You have chosen, and the house which I have built for Your name; then hear their prayer and their supplication in heaven Your dwelling place, and maintain their cause, and forgive Your people who have sinned against You and all their transgressions which they have transgressed against You..." (I Kings 8:46-50).
This seminal passage puts the spotlight on the Christian misunderstanding of Leviticus 17:11. The Bible is clearly teaching that sacrifices weren't necessary in order to atone for sins. Prayer and repentance are cited here as effective means for securing atonement. Certainly, when the Temple stood, and one could afford an animal, a sacrifice was brought as part of the atonement process for unintentional sins. Leviticus 17:11 teaches that when we bring such an animal as a sacrifice, we aren't allowed to consume its blood, because as the life force, it is the part of the animal that affects our atonement.
Christian dogma holds that the crucifixion of Jesus at Calvary served as the final atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world. Christianity insists that this is not just a Pauline innovation, but reflects the requirements of the Jewish Bible, and tries to establish this by pointing to Leviticus 17:11 as the key to atonement in the Tanach. However, if this passage is examined, it will be clear that Jesus could never serve as an atoning sacrifice. Obviously, the shedding of blood by pricking my finger or killing my cat won't fulfill the Biblical requirements for atonement. The Torah delineates how sacrifices are to be brought.
"For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls..."
Clearly, not any spilled blood is accepted by the Torah as a sacrifice. Jesus' crucifixion may qualify as an atonement according to the Greek Testament, but since his blood was not offered on the altar, it is not in line with what the Torah mandates.
There are actually several other factors which would render the crucifixion of Jesus an unacceptable sacrifice. According to the Biblical rules in Leviticus, all sacrifices had to be offered by a Priest who descends from Aaron. This was not the case in the death of Jesus, who was crucified by Roman soldiers. Additionally, Biblical law prohibited any sacrifice which was blemished or maimed (Leviticus 22:19-21). However, prior to his crucifixion, Jesus was whipped and beaten (Matthew 27:26, Mark 15:19, John 19:3) which would render him unfit. Furthermore, Jesus was circumcised in the flesh, which according to Philippians 3:2 and Galatians 5:12 is considered mutilation.
Frequently, Christians react to this line of reasoning by protesting that it is improper to be so literal, and that Jesus' death was more of a symbolic or spiritual sacrifice. This would be fine if the Bible provided for such ethereal offerings, but such is not the case. The Greek Testament, however, does insist that Jesus was a real sacrifice, literally fulfilling the Biblical requirements of such:
"But coming to Jesus, when they saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs...in order that the Scripture might be fulfilled: `Not a bone of him shall be broken.'" (John 19:33-36)
The Gospel of John portrays Jesus as the Paschal lamb which was not supposed to have any of its bones broken (Exodus 12:46, Numbers 9:12). Since the author of John insists that Jesus was a real sacrifice to the extent that the Biblical rules of the Passover were fulfilled in him, we can't dismiss the problems cited above as legalistic nit-picking.
One wonders why the Greek Testament chose to type Jesus as a Paschal lamb rather than the sacrifice for the Day of Atonement. We know from Exodus 12 that the Passover sacrifice did not serve as an atonement for sins, it commemorates the exodus from Egypt. (Even when the lamb was slaughtered in Egypt and its blood smeared on the doorposts, it did not serve to atone for the sins of anyone. It was a sign for the angel of death to pass over Jewish homes during the plague of the first born. The only people in danger were first born males, the blood wasn't a help to other people in the family, and didn't serve as an atonement for the first born). A more fitting prototype for Jesus would have been the Yom Kippur sacrifice, which was an atonement for the sins of all the people. It is interesting that according to Leviticus 16:10,21-22, the animal which effectuated the atonement for the sins of the nation was not killed, but sent live out into the desert. Again, the shedding of blood is not a sine qua non for atonement.
The Greek Testament went to some great lengths to demonstrate that the atoning death of Jesus was predicated upon the Jewish Bible. In the book of Hebrews, a verse from the book of Psalms is quoted as evidence that the sacrifice of Jesus was part of G-d's original plan for the world.
"Sacrifice and offering You have not desired, but a body You have prepared for me" (Hebrews 10:5 referring to Psalms 40:6).
In verse 10 of our passage from Hebrews, we are told that the body spoken of refers to the body of Jesus. However, the Greek Testament took some great liberties in quoting from the book of Psalms, which never mentions a body being prepared:
"Sacrifice and meal offering You have not desired; my ears You have opened; Burnt offerings and sin offerings You have not required" (Psalm 40:6).
The author of Romans asserts that the Jewish scriptures spoke about the Messiah coming in order to eradicate sin from Israel:
"And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written,`The deliverer will come from Zion and remove ungodliness from Jacob'." (Romans 11:26 citing Isaiah 59:20)
However, checking the original source in Isaiah reveals the flawed foundation of the claim made in the book of Romans.
"And a redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who turn from transgression, says the L-rd."
Isaiah didn't teach that the Messiah's purpose is to remove sin; rather, he will come to the Jewish people when they show themselves worthy by turning away from sin.
WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY ABOUT VICARIOUS ATONEMENT?
One wonders why throughout the four Gospels, Jesus never speaks about his death serving as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of the world. Is the idea that an innocent person can be killed instead of those who are guilty consistent with what the Bible teaches? After the sin of the Golden Calf, G-d expressed His intention to destroy the Jewish people. Moses intercedes, and offers to die in their place. In response, G-d says "Whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot him out of My book!" (Exodus 32:32-33). Throughout the Bible, G-d says that one person cannot die for the sins of another:
"Fathers shall not be put to death for their sons, nor shall sons be put to death for their fathers; everyone shall be put to death for his own sin" (Deuteronomy 24:16, II Kings 14:6).
"But everyone will die for his own sin; each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth will be set on edge" (Jeremiah 31:30).
"The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father's iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son's iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself" (Ezekiel 18:20).
"No man can by any means redeem his brother, or give to G-d a ransom for him" (Psalms 49:7).
"So you shall not pollute the land in which you are; for blood pollutes the land and no expiation can be made for the land for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of him who has shed it!" (Numbers 35:33).
Although Romans 4:5 says that Jesus justifies the ungodly, the Tanach teaches that "He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the righteous, both of them are an abomination to theL-rd" (Proverbs 17:15).
If indeed, Jesus came as the final sacrifice to atone for the sins of the world, why does the Tanach predict that the Temple will be rebuilt and sacrifices resumed?
"Even those I will bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar; for My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples." (Isaiah 56:7). "From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia My worshipers, My dispersed ones will bring My offerings." (Zephaniah 3:10)
"All the flocks of Kedar will be gathered together to you, the rams of Nebaioth will minister to you; they will go up with acceptance on My altar, and I shall glorify My glorious house." (Isaiah 60:7)
"And I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant with them. And I will place them and multiply them, and will set My sanctuary in their midst forever." (Ezekiel 37:26)
"And He will sit as a smelter and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, so that they may present to the L-rd offerings in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasant to the L-rd, as in the days of old and as in former years." (Malachi 3:3-4)
"And every cooking pot in Jerusalem and in Judah will be holy to the L-rd of hosts; and all who sacrifice will come and take of them and boil in them." (Zechariah 14:21) "And it shall be the princes part to provide the burnt offerings, the grain offerings, and the libations...to make atonement for the house of Israel." (Ezekiel 45:17)
The Christian claim that our sins can only be forgiven if blood is shed on our behalf also seems to limit the power of G-d. It's ludicrous to say that G-d`s ability to forgive us is dependent on anything. One of the most basic teachings in the Bible is that since G-d is merciful, He often forgives us simply because He is merciful. "Who is a G-d like You, who pardons iniquity and passes over the rebellious act of the remnant of His possession? He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in unchanging love." (Micah 7:18; cf.Psalm 103:7-18). Even when we don't seek G-d appropriately, He has the ability to reach out to us with love and forgive us:
"Their heart was not steadfast toward Him, nor were they faithful in His covenant. But He, being compassionate, forgave their iniquity...remembering that they were but flesh." (Psalms 78:36-39)
"You have not brought Me the sheep of your burnt offerings...or the fat of your sacrifices, but you have burdened Me with your sins...Nevertheless, I will wipe out your transgressions for My own sake, and I will not remember your sins." (Isaiah 43:23-25)
THE BIBLICAL VIEW OF ATONEMENT
One of the clearest indications that Christianity is off base in its insistence on the centrality of blood sacrifices is that none of the prophets speaks about it. There isn't one instance in the prophetic books where the Jewish people are told that in order to get right with G-d they need to get covered by the blood. If that's the case, what is the fundamental teaching of the Tanach on the issue of atonement? What theme is reiterated time and again by the holy prophets in the Jewish Bible?
"That every man will turn from his evil way, then I will forgive their iniquity and their sin." (Jeremiah 36:3).
"Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return to the L-rd, and He will have compassion on him; and to our G-d, for He will abundantly pardon." (Isaiah 55:7).
"I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I did not hide; I said, `I will confess my transgressions to the L-rd', and You did forgive the guilt of my sin." (Psalm 32:5).
"And if My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray, and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin, and will heal their land." (II Chronicles 7:14). "But if the wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed and observes all My statutes and practices justice and righteousness, he shall surely live; he shall not die. All his transgressions which he has committed will not be remembered against him; because of the righteousness which he has practiced he shall live...When a wicked man turns away from his wickedness which he has committed and practices justice and righteousness, he will save his life...Repent and turn away from all your transgressions, so that iniquity may not become a stumbling block to you (Ezekiel 18:21- 22,27,30).
"By lovingkindness and truth iniquity is atoned for..." (Proverbs 16:6).
"If you return to G-d you will be restored; if you remove unrighteousness far from your tent...then you will delight in G-d..." (Job 22:23-27).
"Depart from evil, and do good, so you will abide forever." (Psalm 37:27, cf. Ezekiel 33, Zechariah 1:3, Jeremiah 26:13).
The central teaching of the Bible is that only a break with our past and a sincere turning in repentance can restore our relationships with G-d. If I go off the path, I have to put myself back on track, and G-d will forgive me. Even when sacrifices were offered, they in and of themselves didn't effect atonement. The sacrifice was part of the process, it helped bring us to the core of atonement which is achieved by TESHUVAH, returning to G-d by forsaking our evil ways and praying for forgiveness. One of the main teachings of the prophets was to chide Jewish people who thought that sacrifices were the essential element of atonement:
"What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me? says the L-rd. I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed cattle. And I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs, or goats...Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from My sight. Cease to do evil, Learn to do good; seek justice, reprove the ruthless, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Come let us reason together says the L-rd, `Though your sins are as scarlet, they will be white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they will be like wool, if you consent and obey..." (Isaiah 1:11-18).
"The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the L-rd." (Proverbs 15:8).
"To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the L-rd than sacrifice." (Proverbs 21:3). "For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, and in the knowledge of G-d rather than burnt offerings." (Hoseah 6:6).
"Has the L-rd as great a delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the L-rd? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken more than the fat of rams." (I Samuel 15:22).
"With what shall I come to the L-rd, and bow myself before the G-d on high? Shall I come to Him with burnt offerings, with yearling calves? Does the L-rd take delight in thousands of rams, in ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I present my firstborn for my rebellious acts, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the L-rd require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d." (Micah 6:6-8,cf. Amos 5:22- 24, Jeremiah 7, Psalm 69:31-32).
Since repentance, and not blood is the Biblical form of atonement, we now understand how in I Kings 8, Solomon explained that even if the Jewish people don't have access to the Temple, they still have access to G-d. This will illuminate a famous story found in the book of Jonah. G-d sends Jonah to the evil city of Ninveh to warn them of their impending destruction. Jonah doesn't come into the city and tell the people that unless they begin offering sacrifices they are doomed. Their response to his warnings is to repent: they fast, pray, and turn from their evil. What is G-d's response?
"When G-d saw their deeds that they turned from their wicked way, then G-d relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them, and He did not do it." (Jonah 3:10).
In similar fashion, Daniel advised king Nebuchadnezzar on how to atone for his transgressions:
"Therefore, O king, may my advice be pleasing to you: Redeem your sins by doing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor." (Daniel 4:27).
This principle will also help explain a passage in the book of Hoseah. Hoseah was a prophet to the 10 northern tribes in the kingdom of Israel during a time when there was a civil war going on between them and the two tribes of the kingdom of Judah in the south. Because of the strife, the tribes up north couldn't get to the Temple in Jerusalem to offer sacrifices. Did this leave them with no way of atoning for their sins? The prophet advises:
"Return, O Israel, to the L-rd your G-d, For you have stumbled because of your iniquity. Take words with you and return to the L-rd. Say to Him, `Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously, for we will render as bullocks the offerings of our lips'." (Hoseah 14:1-2).
We are able to approach G-d directly with prayer, which is possible at all times; and G-d assures us that sincere prayer can achieve forgiveness for our sins:
"Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O L-rd, the G-d of my salvation. And my tongue shall sing aloud of Your righteousness. O L-rd, open my lips, and my mouth shall show forth Your praise. For You do not delight in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of G-d are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart. These, O G-d, You will not despise." (Psalms 51:14-17, re:II Samuel 12:13).
"I will praise the name of G-d with a song, and will magnify Him with thanksgiving. This shall please the L-rd better than an ox or bullock that has horns and hoofs." (Psalm 69:30-31).
"For You, L-rd, are good, and ready to forgive, and abundant in lovingkindness to all who call upon You. Give ear, O L-rd to my prayer, and give heed to the voice of my supplications." (Psalm 86:5-6).
"And listen to the supplications of Your servant and of Your people Israel, when they pray toward this place; hear from heaven Your dwelling place, hear and forgive." (II Chronicles 6:21).
Are Christians consistent with the Jewish Bible when they claim that atonement is only possible with a blood sacrifice? Did the Rabbis just make up the idea that we can restore our relationship with G-d through prayer and repentance? YOU DECIDE!