Atonement in Scripture: Temple Sacrifices and a Bloodthirsty God? Part 2


As I noted in Part 1 of this series, in Scripture, God wants to meet with human beings, but the human beings want to avoid the encounter because of the purification and cleansing it would entail.

Strangely, penal substitution advocates maintain the very opposite.  For example, Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach read in a permanent reluctance on God’s part to have people near Him.  In their view, people want to meet with God, but God wants to avoid them.  Unfortunately, this mistake consistently affects their understanding of the sacrifices:

‘The book of Leviticus teaches that the relationship between a holy God and a sinful people (or in terminology more characteristic of Leviticus, an unclean people) can be maintained by sacrifice.’[1]

Once again, I agree that there is a clear tension between God’s presence and Israel’s ontological human state, which has not changed from the time God diagnosed the human heart in Gen.6:5 – 6 and 8:21.  However, the tension as I understand it is not the way they interpret it.  God wants to meet with people and cleanse them.  People want to avoid the encounter because they do not want to be cleansed.

Jeffery et. al. explore the meaning of the Hebrew verb kippur, which is translated ‘to make atonement.’  The word appears sixteen times in Leviticus 16 alone.  Based on their observations and research, they say:  ‘There are four possible meanings for kippur, none of which necessarily exclude the others.’[2]  The verb kippur means:  (1) to forgive, where God is the subject; (2) to cleanse, both people and physical objects like the altar and the tabernacle itself (Lev.16:16, 19); (3) to ransom, in conjunction with money (Ex.30:15 – 16; Num.31:50) or the life of an animal (Lev.17:11); and (4) to turn aside God’s wrath, as when Phineas turned God’s anger away from the Israelites (Num.25:10) and ‘made atonement [kippur]’ for the Israelites’ (Num.25:13).  After surveying these usages of kippur, the three authors ask, ‘Which of these meanings are in view in Leviticus 16?’  Later, I will make some important qualifications to these four aspects of the word kippur, but for now I will accept that all four meanings are present and must be integrated together.

Jeffery et. al. critique John Goldingay, and rightly so in my opinion, for asserting that the fourth meaning is not present in the basic meaning of the word kippur.  Goldingay claims ‘the question of propitiating God’s wrath…has little place in Leviticus itself.  The word anger hardly appears.  The languages of atonement-propitiation-expiation and of anger do not come together…Sacrifice does not directly relate to anger.’[3]  Not only is the word ‘hardly’ appropriate for Goldingay to sweepingly discount the connection between sacrifice and God’s wrath, but the legislation of the sanctuary is precisely what prevents more incidences of God’s wrath.  I agree with the three authors that the incidents cited in Leviticus 16:1 serve as context-setting for the rest of the Yom Kippur legislation.

Leviticus 16:1 refers to the deaths of Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10:1 – 2 because they offered ‘strange fire’ to God, occasioning His wrath and requiring Aaron’s other sons Eleazar and Ithamar to take up priestly duties properly lest God be angry with the whole congregation (Lev.10:6).  The fact that this incident is recalled at the start of the procedural specifics for how to conduct the Day of Atonement rites means that turning aside God’s wrath is part of the overall definition of why the rites are important.  The penal substitution advocates also aptly point out that inappropriately eating sacrificial offerings led to excommunication from the people (Lev.7:20 – 21), which is a severe consequence.  Despite the fact that the terms for anger and wrath are not present there, the nature of the consequence strongly suggests that God’s wrath is behind the practice of being ‘cut off from the people.’  Hence, Goldingay’s attempt to distance the fourth meaning – to turn aside God’s wrath – from the cluster of meanings connected to kippur is inappropriate.  Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach are correct in maintaining, contra Goldingay, that all four meanings must be held together.

However, the three authors then commit the very same mistake they deplore in Goldingay.  They neglect the second meaning – to cleanse – and fail to find a place for it in their definition of the overall picture of atonement.  Instead, they make three assertions that draw our attention to the usage of the fourth meaning.  First, they argue that the goat that dies in the atonement rite dies the death of a penal substitute in the presence of God, instead of the high priest.  I affirm that substitution is in view because the high priest would otherwise die and the goat would otherwise live.  But whether the goat represents the person of the high priest, or the corruption within the humanity of the high priest, and/or those categories for Israel as a whole represented by the high priest, must be examined very carefully.  This impacts what we say dies in the wrath of God, and whether penal substitution or medical-ontological substitution is the appropriate framework for understanding the work of Christ.

Second, they argue that the scapegoat that is sent out into ‘a solitary place,’ which is also called, as they note, ‘a land of cutting off.’  The goat is surely sent there to die, cut off from the people and from God.  This type of exclusion, exile, banishment, and death is connected to God’s punishment for sin (e.g. Lev.7:20 – 27; 17:4, 9 – 14; 19:8; 20:3, 5 – 6, 17 – 18; 22:3; 23:29).  But once again, I argue that this is a type of substitution that is not penal.

And third, the authors argue that the semantic connection with another Hebrew phrase that involves punishment (Gen.4:13; Lev.5:17; 24:14 – 16; Num.5:31; 14:34; Lam.5:7) requires us to interpret the scapegoat bearing ‘the punishment due to the people on account of their sin.  Thus the scapegoat is depicted in Leviticus as bearing the sin, guilt, and punishment of the people, and being condemned to death in their place.’[4]

The problem that Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach are overlooking throughout their discussion is the uncleanness of human beings, that is, our sinful being and not just our sinful actions.  Their oversight becomes curiously evident in the fact that they do not say that the scapegoat bears the ‘uncleanness’ of the people or the high priest.  Suddenly, the second meaning present in the verb kippur recedes from view, without any explanation.  This vanishing act occurs despite the fact that the authors have gestured towards it throughout their essay.  Their thesis statement equates sinfulness with uncleanness, because Leviticus itself requires us to do so:  ‘The book of Leviticus teaches that the relationship between a holy God and a sinful people (or in terminology more characteristic of Leviticus, an unclean people) can be maintained by sacrifice.’[5]  That is right, though not in the sense that they mean it.  How is the uncleanness – the fundamental, ontological condition of human beings who have been corrupted from the fall into self-centeredness – to be reconciled with this holy, other-centered God?  Jeffery et. al. interpret the atonement as God dealing with the legal punishment He supposedly wants to pour out on human beings, but not as cleansing the underlying root cause of our relational resistance to God in the first place.  Does God atone for past actions only?  Is He not atoning for the diseased condition, too?

Moreover, when Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach elaborate on the second meaning of the Hebrew verb kippur, they fully acknowledge this deeper problem, which is not legal-judicial but medical-ontological.  They acknowledge that physical objects like the altar and the tabernacle need to be cleansed (not forgiven, for non-moral objects cannot be forgiven) because of their proximity to fallen human beings.  They write, ‘The underlying point could be rather that uncleanness is an intrinsic problem for fallen human beings; simply as we exist, experiencing nothing more than is common to everyday human life, we find ourselves unable to approach a holy God.’[6]  Now that they are speaking in the idiom of Leviticus – uncleanness – they subtly shift to speak of the corruption within human nature.  For one cannot avoid that, especially when the text of Leviticus 16 states that the purpose of the atonement rite is to cleanse Israel:  ‘It is on this day that atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you; you will be clean from all your sins before the LORD.’  (Lev.16:30).

Most tellingly, when they need to draw upon an analogy to rebut Goldingay and explain why the sanctuary system, including the Day of Atonement rite, possesses some effectiveness at averting the wrath of God, these authors draw upon a non-legal and non-penal analogy.  Surprisingly, they use the metaphor of a water purification system.  They say:

‘Most of the time it is perfectly safe to drink, but it would be wrong to infer from this that dirty water could never be a problem.  On the contrary, our tap water is drinkable only because the purification systems are working properly.  If pranksters were to break into the treatment plant and turn off some of the crucial machinery, or perhaps fool around with some dangerous chemicals, then not only would poison be on its way to our taps, but the intruders themselves would be in great peril.  In summary, it is evident that in Leviticus 16 the Hebrew verb kippur, normally translated ‘he made atonement’, refers to the propitiation of God’s wrath through the offering of a substitutionary animal sacrifice, which cleansed the people from their sin.’[7]

I was quite happy but very puzzled to find this analogy here because nowhere do the authors explain how the sanctuary symbolism works to achieve it.  How do the authors picture God cleansing people from the fundamental internal condition we now find ourselves possessing:  the corruption of the heart (Gen.6:5 – 6; 8:21)?  How is cleansing or purifying communicated by the sacrifices?  For a death sentence punishes a criminal, but cannot be said to cure, cleanse, or purify him from the underlying inclinations that influenced his decision to commit the crime.  So focused are they at defending the idea that the sacrificial system is a punishment system, they never bother to explain how the symbolism works as a purification system.

This is one of the selective gaps in Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach’s thesis.  Not only do they fail to explain (1) why non-moral objects like the altar, furniture, and tabernacle itself need atonement as cleansing, they fail to account for (2) how the slain goat offered as a sin offering relates to the second goat, the scapegoat; especially (3) why the sin offering is not eaten by the priests on this occasion, as compared with Leviticus 6:14 – 18 when God explicitly instructs the priests to eat every sin offering, and Leviticus 10:16 – 20 when Moses becomes angry with Aaron when Aaron does not eat the sin offering as instructed; (4) how the high priest came to acquire, symbolically, all the sin of the people so as to bring it into the sanctuary in the first place; and (5) the relation between the Day of Atonement and the rest of the Pentateuchal narrative.  I will offer an explanation for all those elements.  In so doing, I believe my explanation better answers all the dimensions of the text.


[1] Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, Andrew Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions:  Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), p.43

[2] Ibid., p.44, emphasis mine; they also note David Petersen, ‘Atonement in the Old Testament, in David Petersen (editor), Where Wrath and Mercy Meet: Proclaiming the Atonement Today (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2001), p. 1 – 25 (esp. p.9 – 12) and Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (London: Tyndale, 1955), p.160 – 178

[3] Ibid., p.47, quoting John Goldingay, ‘Your Iniquities Have Made a Separation Between You and Your God’, in John Goldingay (editor), Atonement Today (London: SPCK, 1995), p.39 – 53

[4] Ibid., p.49 – 50

[5] Ibid., p.43, emphasis mine

[6] Ibid., p.44, emphasis mine

[7] Ibid., p.48


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