Atonement in Scripture: Temple Sacrifices and a Bloodthirsty God? Part 1


The Lynchpin of Penal Substitution: The Sacrificial System

In a previous post about atonement in Isaiah 53, I argued that God, in the sacrificial system of Israel, was acting like a dialysis machine.  He received the people’s impurity, and gave back purity.  He was not being bloodthirsty.  He was being a blood donor.  This clears up a major misconception about the character of God.  And it helps us to see Jesus as God in actuality being a medical substitute.  In Jesus, God did for us what we could not do for ourselves:  cleanse our own humanity by condemning sin in our own flesh.  In this series, I will expand on that.

A lynchpin – perhaps the lynchpin – of the doctrine of penal substitution is the view that the Old Testament sacrificial system symbolizes a penal substitutionary sacrifice.  In this view, God knows that He will be angry with Israel’s sins, not to mention the sins of all human beings, despite having made a covenant relationship with Israel for the stated purpose of blessing the world (Gen.12:1 – 3).  God’s wrath upon Israel is seen as something of a microcosm, therefore, of His wrath towards the entire world for breaking His moral law and violating His holy nature.  But God was able to maintain His covenant faithfulness to Israel by satisfying His holy justice and wrath through the sacrifice of His own Son on the cross, who took the penalty for human sin instead of us in his crucifixion and death.  In other words, Jesus absorbed the wrath of God, either by suffering in some way not visible to the human eye in his final hours, or in his descent to hell after his death, which was also not visible to the human eye, or both.  This wrath would ordinarily have been directed at sinful human beings.  Thus, Jesus was and is the penal substitute for humanity.  Penal substitution states that Jesus’ death is the only way to reconcile God’s justice and holy wrath (demanding that sin be punished) and His mercy and love (demanding that sinners be forgiven).

How do penal substitution advocates interpret the sacrificial system?  They see it as a symbolic pointer to Jesus’ self-sacrifice.  We are told that in the interim period between Moses’ leadership and Jesus’ coming, God instructed Israel in the logic of penal substitution, and gave to Israel a symbolic way for them to remain in the covenant.  The animals sacrificed at the Tabernacle, and later, the Temple, represented Jesus.  Although the deaths of lamb, bulls, and goats did not actually take the Israelite’s guilt nor the wrath of God that was directed at the human being presenting the offering, these deaths nevertheless foreshadowed the ultimate sacrifice wherein God Himself became – through the person of His Son – the sacrificial victim to satisfy His own justice and wrath, so that God can declare human beings to be forgiven.

The recent material I have read from the penal substitution camp exploring the sacrificial system that began in the Old Testament is thoughtful in some ways.  I am speaking specifically of

  • John Stott in his 1986 book The Cross of Christ;
  • Emile Nicole in his 2004 essay ‘Atonement in the Pentateuch’ in The Glory of the Atonement;
  • Thomas Schreiner in his contribution, ‘Penal Substitution View,’ in the 2006 book The Nature of the Atonement comparing four views on the subject;
  • Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach in 2007 in Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution;
  • J.I. Packer and Mark Dever in their 2007 book In My Place Condemned He Stood.; and
  • William Barrick in his 2009 article ‘Penal Substitution in the Old Testament’ in The Master’s Seminary Journal.

For example, Emile Nicole, in arguing against the views of Jacob Milgrom, C.H. Dodd, and others, insists that the sacrifices did in fact relate to the wrath of God, and I agree with this even though I insist that God’s wrath is directed at the corruption of sin and not at the personhood of people.  And Thomas Schreiner reaches further into the Old Testament than does Greg Boyd and other collaborators in the four views of the atonement presented.  But I believe that the methodology of most interpreters shares a fundamental weakness.

The Fundamental Weakness:  Portraits of Desire

Penal substitution defenders Jeffery, Ovey, and Sachs argue that the encounter between God and Israel at Mount Sinai exemplifies God’s holy hostility to Israel.  They say:

‘The sinfulness of God’s people renders his closeness problematic, even dangerous.  Limits are to be put around Mount Sinai so that the people do not draw too close to the Lord (Exod.19:12, 23).  If they do, they will ‘perish’ (v.21), for the Lord will ‘break out against them’ (v.24).’[1]

I agree with the three authors that there is a relational and ontological problem between God and humanity, but not in the way they suggest.

The problem with Jeffery, Ovey, and Sachs’ exegesis of Exodus 19 is that they do not see God’s real command and invitation that Israel come up the mountain to meet Him there (Ex.19:13, 17).  In the narrative, God wanted to meet.  Israel, however, did not.  Israel was the party initially afraid of the encounter, just as Adam and Eve were afraid of meeting God in their fallen state (Gen.3:8 – 13):

10 The LORD also said to Moses, ‘Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments; 11 and let them be ready for the third day, for on the third day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.  12 You shall set bounds for the people all around, saying, ‘Beware that you do not go up on the mountain or touch the border of it; whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death.  13 No hand shall touch him, but he shall surely be stoned or shot through; whether beast or man, he shall not live.’ When the ram’s horn sounds a long blast, they shall come up to [literally, ‘on’] the mountain.’  14 So Moses went down from the mountain to the people and consecrated the people, and they washed their garments.  15 He said to the people, ‘Be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman.’  16 So it came about on the third day, when it was morning, that there were thunder and lightning flashes and a thick cloud upon the mountain and a very loud trumpet sound, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled.  17 And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain.  18 Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke because the LORD descended upon it in fire; and its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked violently.  19 When the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and God answered him with thunder.  20 The LORD came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain; and the LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.  (Ex.19:10 – 20)

Old Testament scholar John Sailhamer translates v.13, ‘they shall come up on the mountain.’[2]  Sailhamer acknowledges that English translations of that verse do not always reflect this thought of Israel coming up ‘on the mountain.’  But the same view is offered by Exodus 3:12 when it says ‘you shall worship God on this mountain.’  The New Jewish Publication Society translation reads ‘on’ the mountain.  Moses later said to Israel:

‘The LORD spoke to you face to face at the mountain from the midst of the fire, while I was standing between the LORD and you at that time, to declare to you the word of the LORD; for you were afraid because of the fire and did not go up the mountain.’ (Dt.5:4 – 5)

Moses shows that God expected Israel to come up Mount Sinai when the trumpet sounded (Ex.19:13).  The trumpet sounded (Ex.19:16) and the people trembled.  The sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder (Ex.19:19), and still Israel did not go up.

Sailhamer gives a thorough explanation and discussion of this issue, extensively citing both Jewish and Christian scholars.  For example, literary symmetry and symbolism matters here.  If Eden was a mountain of sorts, which is suggested by the fact that the spring of water separated into four major rivers (Gen.2:10), thus requiring either elevation or supernatural division or both (since rivers naturally converge, not diverge), then God’s desire with Israel was to repeat a pattern that He had set before, with Adam and Eve.  For the reader of the Pentateuch, Eden is recalled by the water flowing from the rock (Ex.17:1 – 7).  This sets the stage for the encounter at Sinai itself.

God Met With Moses, Joshua, Leaders

The narrative development, and as I perceive it, the chiastic structure of the Pentateuch as a whole, adds even more weight to this.  For Moses undoubtedly went up ‘on’ the mountain to meet with God face to face.  If the chasm between God’s holiness and human sinfulness is so great and so constant, then why did God not destroy Moses, here in Exodus 19 or in Exodus 34 for being so close to Him?  Why did God permit Moses, and then Aaron (Ex.19:24), and then Nadab and Abihu and seventy of the elders of Israel (Ex.24:1), to approach Him on the mountain?  Then, Joshua as Moses’ assistant stayed in the tent of meeting with God and Moses; in fact, he ‘would not depart from the tent’ (Ex.33:11).  It is more logical to see the fault being Israel’s, collectively, for lacking the faith, courage, and desire to meet with God when the ram’s horn sounded like a trumpet and called them forward on the third day.

Only after the people fail to go up on the mountain does God warn them not to ‘break through to gaze’ lest they ‘perish’ (Ex.19:21).  Something about their initial negative response to God determined their ability to go any further with God or not, much like their initial negative response to God’s command to enter the Promised Land (Num.13:1 – 14:45).

Prior to Exodus 19:21, however, I question whether we should see God as hostile to being approached.  God had wanted to be approached; Moses alone had faith; the rest of the people did not.  God then veiled Himself in the Tabernacle, prompting Moses to veil his face.  The symmetry is again significant.  Later, when Moses’ face shone with glory because of his face-to-face encounters with God, he veiled his face in judgment so Israel would understand that they missed an opportunity to do as he had done (2 Cor.3:13; cf. Ex.34:29 – 36).  God hid His glory from the people, even though God clearly wanted a deeper relationship with each of them (e.g. Num.11:24 – 29).  For the fact still remains that God seemed pleased to meet with certain key Israelite leaders, that Moses seemed to speak for God when he wished that God’s Spirit rest on every Israelite (Num.11:29), and that Moses also seemed to speak for God when he refused to let God send His people off without God Himself going with them personally.

The Misrepresentation of God and Humanity: Who Wants to Meet?

The problem with Jeffery, Ovey, and Sachs’ theology in general, and not just their exegesis of Exodus 19 in particular, is that they imply Israel was (and by extension, humanity is) ever and always eager to meet God, but God was (and by extension, is) ever and always wrathful by the idea of such a meeting.  On the contrary, God always seems initially more willing than his humans partners to meet, say with Adam and Eve (Gen.3:8 – 14), Cain (Gen.4:13 – 16), and Jacob (Gen.28:10 – 22; 32:24 – 32).  Or, at the very least, on other occasions when the human partner was not particularly skittish, God clearly initiated such a meeting, say with Abraham (Gen.18), Moses (Ex.3:1 – 6), and Israel as a whole (Ex.3:7 – 8), without expressing any reservation about human corruption and sinfulness.

The portrayal of God being eager to meet while humans show resistance comes about at crucial junctures in each human being’s story.  God wanted to meet with people just after they sinned:  after Adam and Eve fell (Gen.3:8 – 13), after Cain murdered Abel (Gen.4:9 – 12), after Abram lied about Sarai (Gen.13:1 – 4), after Jacob deceived his father and his brother (Gen.28:10 – 22), after Jacob succumbed to his carnal, sexual appetite for Rachel and then grossly favored her over her unloved sister Leah (Gen.31:11 – 13), after Moses committed murder (Ex.3:1ff.), and after Israel complained in the wilderness, which as we learn later, was in the midst of their habitual idol-worship (Ex.16 – 19).  What justifies the implication of Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach that God is the one who is ever provoked to wrath, and humans are the ones who ever want to meet with God and gain His acceptance?  The books of Genesis and Exodus contain more narrative material to imply the very opposite.  And of course, the question of who wants to meet and when is quite important to our understanding of the biblical story.

God Purifies Us Through Contact, But Respects Self-Imposed Human Distancing

What we will see as God sets up the sacrificial system in Israel is the following:  God wants to purify people through contact.  God is able to do something profound within us.  But when human being distance themselves from Him, something negative happens within us.  We further damage ourselves.  God respects human choice.  And in this particular instance, as He drew Israel closer to Himself and they resisted, He had to develop a way of staying in their midst.




[1] Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, Andrew Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions:  Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), p.42

[2] John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative: A Biblical-Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), p.51 – 59


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