Did rabbinic Judaism substitute a non-biblical atonement?

Following the Temple destruction in 70 C.E. did rabbinic Judaism substitute a non-biblical atonement system?


Biblically, the optimum means for attaining atonement consists of both animal sacrifices and sincere confessionary repentant prayer used in conjunction with each other. Traditional Judaism looks forward to the restoration of the dual system working simultaneously--animal sacrifice and contrite prayer.

The rabbis under the leadership of Yohanan ben Zakkai did not make an unscriptural substitution when they emphasized sincere confessionary repentant prayer as a means of obtaining atonement. The Bible already mandated sincere confessionary repentant prayer, as a proper vehicle for attaining forgiveness. In the biblical period atonement prayer was used with full divine sanction, with or without animal offerings (even for non-Jews--Jonah 3:5-10).

Sincere confessionary repentant prayer is the primary biblical prescription for obtaining atonement when animal sacrifices cannot be offered concurrently. Animal sacrifices are only prescribed for unwitting or unintentional sin (shogeg)--Leviticus 4:2, 13, 22, 27; 5:5, 15 (cf. Numbers 15:30). The one exception is if an individual swore falsely to acquit himself of the accusation of having committed theft (Leviticus 5:24-26). Intentional sin can only be atoned for through repentance, unaccompanied by a blood sacrifice- Psalms 32:5, 51:16-19.

Giving charity is a material expression of this inner repentance that is articulated in the rabbinic formula: "Prayer, repentance, and charity avert the evil decree" (T.J. Ta'anit 2:1, 65b). This is based on the verse: "If My people, upon whom My name is called, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek My face, and turn from their evil ways; then will I hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin, and I will heal their land" (2 Chronicles 7:14).

Although following 70 C.E., historical conditions made it impossible to continue the sacrificial system no innovation was necessary, only a readjustment of what already existed. During the Babylonian exile the captive Israelites repented and were allowed to return to their homeland. Yet, they had no means of offering a blood sacrifice; they could only offer contrite repentant prayer. According to 1 Maccabees (cf. 1:54, 4:52) valid sacrifices in the Temple were discontinued for three years (168-165 B.C.E.). This meant those loyal to God could not offer personal atonement sacrifices in the Temple. During these periods of time, no Temple sacrifice was possible, and Jesus had not yet died to provide the supposed everlasting means of atonement. A grave problem arises: Did God leave these Jews in their sins, with no means whatsoever for atonement? Did He demand the impossible of them? The Answer was given by God Himself to the Jewish exiles in Babylonia, and its message echoes across the centuries: "And you shall call upon Me, and go, and pray to Me, and I will hearken to you. And you shall seek Me, and find Me, when you shall search for Me with all your heart" (Jeremiah 29:13).

Thus, we see that the Temple's destruction necessitated a modification of the already existing atonement process. However, this change did not include a radical alteration of its universally applied core element--sincere repentant confessionary prayer coming from the contrite heart. The direction and form of that modification was already given in the Hebrew Scriptures. The rabbis, under Yohanan ben Zakkai's leadership, did exactly what the Bible commands for such times when the full atonement service cannot be offered.

No dilemma is posed by the inability to offer animal sacrifices for atonement of sin. Emphasis is now placed on the repentant prayer component of the sacrificial ceremony. Biblically, confessionary repentant prayer can and does satisfy all the criteria necessary for attaining God's forgiveness even without the presence of a blood atonement sacrifice. What does the ability to use prayer alone show? The very existence of repentant prayer as a biblically proper vehicle for attaining atonement emphasizes, of itself, the fact that God has never left His people without the means for atoning for sin. As God had always permitted, and continues to do, one may come before Him with confession and repentance in contrite prayer.

The biblical and post-biblical evidence shows that God has never abandoned Israel. b. It is quite evident that even without the sacrificial system of the Temple service forgiveness of sin is still attainable through the biblically prescribed method of using sincere confessionary repentant prayer alone. The rabbis were absolutely correct in following the biblically prescribed method that is to be followed when no blood sacrifice offering is possible. The rabbis, in conformity with the biblical summons, bid the Jewish people to make confessionary repentant prayer as an atonement offering to God. Repentant prayer, the offering of the lips, is not a man-made alternative to offering a blood sacrifice; it is an essential biblical mainstay of God's relationship with Israel.

© Gerald Sigal