God Was Acting Like a Dialysis Machine
In this series of posts, I’ve been exploring why God, in Israel’s sacrificial system, was not being bloodthirsty, but rather a blood donor. He was acting like what we understand to be a dialysis machine. The Israelites passed their impurities to God through the mechanism of the animal sacrifices (specifically the sin and guilt offerings) and the priesthood. The priests, when they ate the sacrifices, stored up those impurities in themselves. Simultaneously, the priests shed the blood of the animals offered, since the animals’ blood was not corrupted by sin. The innocent animal blood “covered” and “cleansed” the uncleanness of the Israelites.
Meanwhile, every year, the priests stored up the contaminants in themselves until the high priest, representing all the priests, entered into the sanctuary on the annual Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) and sent the uncleanness into God. God consumed it. In the diagram above, the scapegoat and the sin offerings represented the “used dialysate with waste” which could not circulate back into the system by being eaten. The scapegoat had to carry the sin of the people far away into the wilderness as a representation that God separated sin from the people. And the other goat and the bull similarly could not be eaten.
God Was Not Acting Like a Judge in a Western Courtroom
By contrast, many people seem to think that the sacrificial system was more analogous to a courtroom, where a bloodthirsty God needed to be appeased because of His hostility towards people per se. This is called the penal substitution view. In this lens, ultimately Jesus is seen as bearing the divine punishment to appease a God whose anger is provoked by human lawbreaking. As I’ve already explored, the implications for the penal substitution view are vastly different from what I am calling the medical substitution view.
I’ve been critiquing penal substitution advocates Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach in particular for their handling of the Old Testament texts on the sacrificial system. Their mistakes are fairly common across penal substitution advocates. They fail to explain:
(1) Why did God regard as a ‘soothing aroma’ the burning of fat, kidneys, and liver – organs that deal with waste and even toxins from the body – and not simply the death of the animal itself? (I will focus on the sin offering for the sake of brevity, and also because Jesus is specifically called a sin offering in Isa.53:10; Rom.8:3; and Heb.10:18; 13:11.)
(2) Why did non-moral objects like the altar, furniture, and tabernacle itself need atonement as cleansing?
(3) How did the slain goat offered as a sin offering relate to the second goat, the scapegoat?
(4) Why was the sin offering not eaten by the priests on the Day of Atonement? That compares 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;
(5) How did 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?
(6) What is the relation between the Day of Atonement and the rest of the narrative of the Pentateuch?
I will offer an explanation for all those elements. In so doing, I acknowledge that much about the sacrificial system remains uncertain, including the exact meaning, for instance, of the placing of the hand on the animal’s head, although I assume that the Israelite worshiper confessed sin and symbolically ‘transferred’ it to the animal because the high priest did that with the scapegoat (Lev.16:20 – 22). Elmer Martens cautions that a theology of the sacrifices ‘must in large measure be inferred.’ (Martens, God’s Design: A Focus on Old Testament Theology, p.52). Nevertheless, I believe my explanation better answers the dimensions of the text that we might reach some reasonable certainty about.
(1) Why Did God Regard as a ‘Soothing Aroma’ the Burning of Fat, Kidneys, and Liver – Organs that Deal with Waste and Toxins in the Body – and Not Simply the Death of the Animal Itself?
Penal substitution advocates believe that the main purpose of the animal sacrifices was to portray a punitive death sentence falling on the animal as a substitute for the Israelite. Their case would be strengthened if God was said to be ‘soothed’ by the death of the animal. This is not, however, how Leviticus describes the whole process in its various stages.
The Israelites divided the animal into different parts: blood, flesh, skin, fat, kidneys and liver, and sometimes legs (e.g. Lev.1:3 – 13; 3:1 – 17; etc.).
Interestingly, the kidneys, liver, and intestinal fat are the parts of the body which process waste or store toxins within the body. Very importantly, the kidneys, liver, and intestinal fat were to never be eaten (Lev.3:17; 7:22 – 25; 8:16, 25; 9:10, 19 – 20, 24; 10:15). They were reserved for God alone. When they were consumed in fire, the Lord smelled the smoke of the fat, kidney, and liver as ‘a soothing aroma’ (Lev.3:3 – 5, 9 – 11, 14 – 16).
Nothing else triggered this response from God, including the death of the animal. This strongly suggests that penal substitution advocates are making unfortunate oversimplifications about the whole process of sacrifice. For sin offerings, in particular, burning the toxin-bearing organs became ‘a soothing aroma’ to God (Lev.4:21). And this step in particular is connected to ‘making atonement.’ For example, in the sin offering,
35 Then he [the priest] shall remove all its fat, just as the fat of the lamb is removed from the sacrifice of the peace offerings, and the priest shall offer them up in smoke on the altar, on the offerings by fire to the LORD. Thus the priest shall make atonement for him in regard to his sin which he has committed, and he will be forgiven. (Lev.4:35; emphasis mine)
The partitioning of the animal indicates that God is not ‘soothed’ by simply causing death or otherwise doling out punishments. Rather, death is a means to another end, where God separates waste-related organs from the organism and consumes them. This was surely instructive for the Israelite onlooker. Atonement via the sin offering, therefore, is connected to the act of separating one thing from another.
One cannot help but be struck by the connections to various motifs of separation that occurred before in Scripture. The fiery sword of Genesis 3:24 represented cutting/burning sinfulness away, separating something from us if ever we were to return to the garden of Eden.
Now, we observe the separating of the fat, kidneys, and liver from the rest of the animal. With the sin offering, in particular, the parts of the animal that handles waste and toxins are cut away and burned. This sheds light on why God was pleased with the sacrifice of Abel in Genesis 4:4. Abel separated the ‘fat portions’ from the animals, presumably for God to consume by fire. And this made Abel like God. God separated good things from good things in Genesis 1:1 – 2:3, and even Eve from Adam in Genesis 2:21 – 22. Human beings had to partner with God to continue in this work of separating, but with a new significance. Because of the fall into corruption, human beings had to separate sinfulness from themselves, in partnership with God. Abel was demonstrating this, through his offering, in microcosm.
The principle of separation continues. Circumcision in Genesis 17 represented the cutting of sinful attitudes of male privilege away, separating those attitudes from Abraham and Sarah so they could return to the creational ideal of Adam and Eve insofar as childbearing was concerned (as I have explained here). Circumcision was an act of separation from uncleanness for the sake of restoration to God’s original creation ideal.
Moses described salvation from sinfulness using the motif of ‘circumcision of the heart’ (Dt.10:16; 30:6). Something has to be cut away from us, from our human nature, in a partnership between each human being and God.
This principle of separation demonstrates a much closer affinity to medical substitution, not penal substitution. When Jesus died, God was not pleased by his death per se. Death was a means to another, deeper, end. Through death, God separated out from Jesus’ humanity the most sinister ‘toxin,’ the corruption which must be ‘circumcised’ from the human heart (Dt.10:16; 30:6), ‘the flesh’ (Jn.1:14; Rom.7:14 – 25), ‘the likeness of sinful flesh’ (Rom.8:3), ‘the old self’ (Rom.6:6), the ‘venom’ of the serpent (Lk.10:19). Thus in his resurrection, Jesus emerged without it.
It is potentially significant that the Hebrew word for ‘kidney’ is also used for ‘mind/s’ (6 times in the NASB: Ps.7:9; 16:7; 26:2; Jer.12:2 17:10; 20:12), ‘heart’ (1 time: Job 19:27), ‘inmost being’ (1 time: Prov.23:16), ‘inward parts’ (2 times: Ps.139:13; Lam.3:13), and ‘within’ (1 time: Ps.73:21). The association with the ‘kidney’ with the inward part of the person which needs refinement and purification is not, by itself, conclusive. But the associations do stack up.
At the same time, the sin offering has to be considered as a regular part of the whole system of sacrifice. Thus:
- The flesh of the animal, in the peace and sin/guilt offerings of Lev.3 – 7, was consumed by the priests or the common people. (In the burnt offerings of Lev.1:3 – 13, the flesh was consumed by fire and the fat was included in the entirety of the offering, again having the effect of providing God with ‘a soothing aroma’; cf. Gen.8:21.)
- The exterior of the animal and its digestive tract represented the way the animal made contact with the land, which had been cursed because of Adam and Eve’s fall into corruption, and further desecrated by the sins of others. In the burnt offering, the legs and entrails of the animal needed to be washed before being offered to God (e.g. Lev.1:9, 13).
- The blood of the animal was the cleansing agent that restores sanctity, life, and health to what it touches, as we will now examine. The Israelites were to never eat the blood.
(2) Why Do Non-Moral Objects in the Tabernacle Need Cleansing?
The Day of Atonement rite is focused just as much on renewing the physical space of the tabernacle as it is renewing the priests and the high priests who serve there. The Day of Atonement rite begins with reference to the death of Aaron’s two sons, not only to thematically link the events, but to suggest that the chronological sequence of Leviticus 11 – 15 and 16 – 17 is not the narrative sequence. ‘Now the LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they had approached the presence of the LORD and died. The LORD said to Moses: ‘Tell your brother Aaron that he shall not enter at any time into the holy place inside the veil…’ (Lev.16:1 – 2).
In other words, Leviticus 11 – 15 serves to interrupt Leviticus 1 – 10 and 16 – 17. From a simple narrative perspective, it would be more natural to read the consecration of the Aaronic priesthood (Lev.9 – 10) and then read straight on to the instructions for the Day of Atonement rite (Lev.16). The author-redactor of the Pentateuchal narrative makes this insertion (Lev.11 – 15) in order to offer a narrative explanation for why the tabernacle and its furnishings need to be cleansed annually. They had to be cleansed because of their regular contact with the unclean Israelites.
Leviticus 11 – 15 describes how Israelites could become unclean by touching other unclean objects: unclean animals (Lev.11), dead bodies, graves, menstrual blood, etc. (Lev.12). The Israelites’ vulnerability to disease, especially diseases that were infectious skin diseases, also reflected a deeper corruption of human nature in which some biological problem contained within the human body surfaced on the skin (Lev.13 – 15). It stands to reason, therefore, on the higher order of worship, that if human beings had some kind of contamination within ourselves due to sin, that God’s sanctuary would become unclean as well because of contact with the Israelites, the priests, and the high priest. This indeed seems to be what Leviticus 12 means with its declaration that newborn babies were initially unclean, along with the mother right after childbirth. Significantly, the act of circumcising – separating, cutting away the uncleanness of the flesh from – an eight day old baby boy rendered that boy and his mother ceremonially clean in half the standard time (Lev.12:3 – 4). While every human being is an unqualified good, beloved of God, being made in the image of God, each newborn also shares in the tragic corruption of human nature disordered by Adam and Eve. Hence, the explanation of physical contamination (Lev.11 – 15) interrupts the discussion of the sacrifices performed in the sanctuary, so as to interpret it.
The Day of Atonement, as the annual capstone of the sacrificial system, sought to remedy that situation. The rite renewed the physical sanctuary for ongoing use. The ceremony begins with the high priest entering only at the appointed day (Lev.16:2), with the appropriate animals for sacrifices in the holy place (Lev.16:3), and while in the holy place, bathing and dressing appropriately in linen symbolizing cleanliness (Lev.16:4), with one bull to make atonement for himself and his household (Lev.16:6, 11), and two goats for sacrifices (Lev.16:7 – 10). The sacrificed bull, along with incense on coals, would create a smoke within the tent (Lev.16:11 – 13). This symbolized the cloud of smoke in which Moses mediated before God for Israel on the top of Mount Sinai (Ex.19). Into this cloud of smoke the high priest stepped, representing Moses and reenacting the sacred renewal of the holy covenant, the covenant which Israel kept breaking. The sacred objects and the sanctuary itself needed to be cleansed and atoned for:
14 Moreover, he shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the mercy seat on the east side; also in front of the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times. 15 Then he shall slaughter the goat of the sin offering which is for the people, and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, and sprinkle it on the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. 16 He shall make atonement for the holy place, because of the impurities of the sons of Israel and because of their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and thus he shall do for the tent of meeting which abides with them in the midst of their impurities. 17 When he goes in to make atonement in the holy place, no one shall be in the tent of meeting until he comes out, that he may make atonement for himself and for his household and for all the assembly of Israel. 18 Then he shall go out to the altar that is before the LORD and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and of the blood of the goat and put it on the horns of the altar on all sides. 19 With his finger he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it seven times and cleanse it, and from the impurities of the sons of Israel consecrate it. 20 When he finishes atoning for the holy place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall offer the live goat…32 So the priest who is anointed and ordained to serve as priest in his father’s place shall make atonement: he shall thus put on the linen garments, the holy garments, 33 and make atonement for the holy sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar. He shall also make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly. (Leviticus 16:14 – 20, 32 – 33, emphasis mine)
Leviticus is clear that the slain goat was a sin offering ‘for the people’ (Lev.16:15); the bull served that purpose ‘for the high priest and his household,’ perhaps because the bull did physical work and thus represented the high priest and his priestly work. But the very next verse clarifies that it is not merely for the sinful transgressions of the Israelites, although that awareness is certainly present, but first and foremost for their impurities (Lev.16:16). That is, their uncleanness, which the biblical author understands as coming from the corruption of the human heart from the fall (Gen.6:5 – 6; 8:21); perhaps the author intends the phrase to be synonymous with that reality. It is because God’s sanctuary ‘abides with them in the midst of their impurities’ that it must be cleansed.
(3) How Were the First and Second Goats Related?
The third gap of silence in the thesis of Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach is their lack of treatment of the first goat, the goat given to the Lord as a sin offering. This contributes to their apparent inability to integrate the cleansing aspect of the word kippur into some interaction with the wrath of God. Rather than examine the first goat presented as a sin offering, they immediately proceed to discuss the second goat, the scapegoat. This is a methodological flaw that allows them to disregard the connection between the two goats in principle, rather than see them as complementary sides of one reality.
After preparing himself to enter the sanctuary and bringing one bull and two goats (Lev.16:1 – 13), the high priest then offered the bull as a burnt offering and the first goat as a sin offering. The blood from the burnt bull offering was ‘for himself and his household,’ allowing him to enter into the sanctuary and continue the rite (Lev.16:14). The blood from the sin offering of the goat was ‘for the people’ (Lev.16:15). The high priest was to sprinkle the blood on the places where the furnishings of the sanctuary interfaced with the Israelites and God in heaven: the front of the mercy seat where God was ‘closest’ to the high priest, the priests, and the people (Lev.16:14) the horns of the altar where it was ‘closest’ to heaven (Lev.16:18), etc.
The atonement rite is clear that the first goat is sacrificed and its blood sprinkled on these places in the sanctuary to ‘make atonement for the holy place, because of the impurities of the sons of Israel and because of their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and thus he shall do for the tent of meeting which abides with them in the midst of their impurities’ (Lev.16:16). Mention of Israel’s ‘impurities,’ ‘transgressions,’ ‘sins,’ and ‘impurities’ once again are found in this one rather dense verse. Apparently the contamination of the Israelites affects the physical furnishings of the sanctuary. For their blood, like the blood of all humanity, is corrupted. Thus, the contamination needs to be cleansed from the sanctuary by the innocent blood of the first goat. And, at the same time, the sinfulness of the Israelites needs to be sent away – but to where?
This brings us to the second goat, the scapegoat. I believe that this second goat is present because the complementary image had to be provided by the atonement rite:
21 Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands in readiness. 22 The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a solitary land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:21 – 22)
Jeffery et. al. are correct, I believe, in seeing that the goat sent off into the ‘solitary land’ is an image of being cut off from the presence of God in judgment. The suggestion of some, that the meaning of ‘solitary land’ (azazel) is ‘a rocky precipice’ or ‘complete destruction,’ might also affect our interpretation slightly. But I will not treat that question here, as it does not seem to be a particularly distinguishing feature for helping us decide between penal substitution and medical-ontological substitution. Jeffery et. al. rightly dismiss the idea that ‘azazel’ is a goat demon, for acknowledgement of goat demons is specifically condemned in Leviticus 17:10.
Hence, Jeffery et. al. argue that the principle of substitution is unavoidable here. I agree. But what type of substitution is being represented? Is it penal? Once again, it seems to me that the symbolism of substitution is medical. The scapegoat carries away a disease to be exterminated, symbolically, much like a virus carrier. It does not carry away the guilt of Israel, symbolically, and still less the personhood of Israel collectively, to be punished in exile. Rather, the second goat represents the sending of Israel’s sinful contamination far away. But the first goat represents the sending of Israel’s sinful contamination into God Himself. The two ideas complement each other. Margaret Barker points out that Hebrews 8 – 9 and 13:11 – 12 say that Jesus was the goat sacrificed, while Hebrews 13:13 indicates that he was also the scapegoat. The Epistle of Barnabas, chapters 5 and 7, compares Jesus to both the slain goat and the scapegoat as well. Hence, the New Testament and the early Christians did not separate the two goats. They saw them as two aspects of one ritual. The ritual of the two goats portrayed God separating uncleanness from the community. The surgical-medical act of separation, like circumcision, continued here.
Meanwhile, not just the sanctuary, but the people had to be symbolically cleansed of their sins and renewed as well. When the covenant was initially ratified, Moses took blood and sprinkled it on all the people (Ex.24:8). But it was no longer possible to do that when Israel became too numerous. Similarly, Eleazar the priest performed the red heifer ceremony providing cleansing ash-water for anyone in the congregation who handled the dead bodies of the first generation of Israelites who died in the wilderness (Num.19), lest they defile the sanctuary (Num.19:20). This red heifer ceremony only needed to be performed for a limited window of time, but anything like that later would also be logistically impossible due to Israel’s sheer size. Even the act of sprinkling all the Levites with water so they could serve at the tent of meeting (Num.8:5 – 22), which was possible in the wilderness, would quickly become unmanageable because the Levites would soon become too numerous. The second goat – the scapegoat – seems to be provided in the atonement rite with the first goat as a way to provide the same symbolism as the original covenant sprinkling of the whole congregation. The first goat died to carry the contamination of Israel into God Himself, giving back its clean lifeblood with which to cleanse the sanctuary. The second goat died in the wilderness as a symbol of God separating Israel’s sinful contamination from the people themselves. It was therefore a medical substitution. The two goats together serve to remind Israel about the renewal of the covenant.
(4) Why Was the Sin Offering of the Goat on the Day of Atonement Not Eaten?
Moreover, very unlike sin offerings on every other occasion, which were eaten by the priests (Lev.6:24 – 30; 10:16 – 20), on the Day of Atonement, the remains of the bull and the first goat were not to be eaten:
27 But the bull of the sin offering and the goat of the sin offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the holy place, shall be taken outside the camp, and they shall burn their hides, their flesh, and their refuse in the fire. 28 Then the one who burns them shall wash his clothes and bathe his body with water, then afterward he shall come into the camp. (Leviticus 16:27 – 28)
Any valid treatment of the Day of Atonement rite needs to account for this irregularity. Eating the remains of the sin offering would have normally fallen upon the priest. It was a picture of the priest internalizing Israel’s sin, storing it up within himself. Those remains were considered to be so holy that, unlike every other occasion when human contact with a dead animal was a bit circumspect, touching the flesh of the sin offering made the person ‘consecrated’ (Lev.6:27), which means, I presume, committed to the eating of the remains. This was a serious matter. Recall also that Moses was angry with Aaron’s sons on an occasion when they did not eat the remains of the sin offerings (Lev.10:24 – 26), an episode which underscores the utter seriousness of the priests’ responsibility to take into themselves the sinfulness of the community, symbolically. However, in the case of the Day of Atonement, the ritual law is very clear that absolutely no one is to eat the hides, flesh, or refuse of the bull or goat. That is, the sin is not to symbolically cycle back into the priests. The purpose and symbolism of the Day of Atonement absolutely requires that God consume all the sin (iniquity and uncleanness) of Israel, putting all of it to death by simultaneously consuming it within Himself by fire, and separating it from the people through the scapegoat.
The laying on of the high priest’s hands onto the scapegoat (Lev.16:21) appears to represent a symbolic transfer of some sort. The high priest, by slaying the first goat, was allowing the goat to ‘carry’ the sinfulness. He then appeared before God in the holy of holies so that God could symbolically put his own uncleanness to death, as well as the stored up uncleanness of the Israelites, eaten by all the priests in the sin offerings. Then the scapegoat running off into the wilderness can be said to represent God separating our sinfulness from us as far as the east is from the west, by taking it into Himself, which is the only place for it to go. If this is the case, then the two goats simultaneously represent the death of the corruption in Jesus’ human nature and his sending it far, far away from himself and us. The two goats do not represent the death of Jesus and his forsakenness from the presence of God. The Father did not forsake the Son.
(5) How Did the High Priest Come to Acquire All the Impurity of the People?
The fifth oversight Jeffery et. al. commit concerns the question of how the high priest symbolically came to acquire all the iniquities, transgressions, and sins of the people in the first place. All of Israel used the sanctuary, directly and indirectly through the mediation of the priests. But while this perhaps explains why the sanctuary needed to be cleansed and why the boundaries between earth and altar need to be sprinkled with the innocent blood of animals, it does not explain why the high priest could present the sin of his people on their behalf in the first place. Certainly in the text of Leviticus 16, atonement for the people does not rest on the scapegoat alone, but on the bull and the slain goat as well, the physical sanctuary, the entire priesthood, and the high priest. But through what conduit did all the pollution of Israel symbolically come to rest on the high priest’s shoulders?
First, as Leviticus 6:24 – 30 and 10:16 – 20 indicate, priests alone ate the sin offerings and the meat portions of the guilt offerings. The Israelite worshipers did not eat any portion of the sin offering or guilt offering. This was unusual among the sacrificial offerings, and sin and guilt offerings themselves were associated with the presence of the tabernacle sanctuary and the priesthood established to mediate the covenant. Burnt offerings, grain offerings, and peace offerings existed before the sanctuary was established. Burnt offerings were completely consumed by fire (Lev.1:2 – 3:17; 6:8 – 13), representing God completely consuming the animal. Grain offerings offered by the people, representing the blessing of God from the abundance of the land, were partly consumed in the fire (eaten by God) and partly eaten by the priests (Lev.6:14 – 18), though if a priest offered a grain offering to God on the day of his ordination, God alone consumed it (Lev.6:19 – 23). Peace offerings were a meal shared by the Israelite worshiper, God, and the priest. The fact remains, therefore, that only the priests ate the sin offerings and the meat of the guilt offerings. The priests, by eating these offerings, were then said to ‘bear away the guilt of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the LORD’ (Lev.10:17). The semantic parallels to the Day of Atonement, where the scapegoat bears away guilt, should be clear.
Then, in all the sanctuary sacrifices, what matters is not just that the animal dies, but how it is partitioned (see above), and who eats the flesh (Lev.6 – 7). Peace offerings are eaten by the Israelites with the priests (Lev.3:11, 16; 7:15 – 16), with some of the animal burned, representing God sharing in and extending a meal. Burnt offerings are eaten by God symbolically through fire (Lev.6:8 – 13) because, as I believe, the ashes of the animal would be scattered over the land, symbolically nourishing it. Sin offerings are eaten by the priests, who were symbolically taking into themselves an uncleanness from their fellow Israelites (Lev.6:24 – 30; 10:16 – 20). So the sanctuary system represents God ‘eating’ sin and consuming it in Himself – or having his mediators, the priests, do it – and extending back the meal of fellowship.
Hence, I do not agree that ‘the sin offering and guilt offering emphasize punishment or retribution for sin.’ Calvinist theologian and biblical scholar Vern Poythress, who made that statement in his 1991 work The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses, acknowledges the eating of the sacrificial meal at the sanctuary as significant for the Israelite and God, but fails to acknowledge the eating of the sin and guilt offerings by the priest as significant for the process of atonement. If the death of the animal symbolizes retribution, then there is nothing particularly special about the sin and guilt offerings, because animals die in all the offerings, excepting of course the grain offerings. Why then do only sin and guilt offerings emphasize punishment or retribution for sin? And why then did the Pentateuch differentiate between these offerings and others?
These questions tend to go unexplained in penal substitutionary interpretations of the sacrificial system. Nor do Poythress or others discuss the matter of why the sin offering is conspicuously not eaten by the priest on the Day of Atonement itself, whereas the priests eat sin offerings on every other occasion. These omissions are typical and are shared by John Stott in his 1986 book The Cross of Christ; Brevard S. Childs in his 1992 work Biblical Theology of Old and New Testaments, which was rightly critiqued by Margaret Barker for devoting only four pages out of five hundred to the subject of atonement in the Old Testament; 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; and William Barrick in his 2009 article ‘Penal Substitution in the Old Testament’ in The Master’s Seminary Journal. This is an omission on their part, an omission that tends to be reproduced by evangelical commentators, and certainly by defenders of penal substitution. A rare exception is Gordon Hugenberger, who maintained in his class on the theology of the Pentateuch that who eats which sacrifice is significant to the overall message of the text. If what physically happened to the animal in its death is so important to atonement theory, it stands to reason that who physically ate it afterwards might also be significant.
The rites of the sin and guilt offerings emphasize the contamination of sin being passed along from the Israelite through the animal to the priest, stored up among the priests, until the high priest, representing all the priests, could take the accumulated contamination from the Israelites and send it into God on the Day of Atonement. This explains at a stroke why the sin and guilt offerings were added to the worship practices of the people of Israel when the sanctuary and the priesthood were established. Sin and guilt offerings are involved in the mediation of the priests and the mediation of the sanctuary. And that mediation is accomplished not judicially using legal-penal symbolism, but medically using physical-ontological symbolism, namely eating. Sin and guilt are passed along physically from the Israelite to the priest, symbolically speaking. The priests bore the sin away from the congregation (Lev.10:17). The sanctuary system, therefore, was God’s way of storing up the contamination of Israel’s sin. It was consumed physically by the priests, and stored up by them as covenant mediators until the high priest could bring that sin and guilt to God using the symbolism of the two goats on the Day of Atonement. God bore away Israel’s sin by eating it Himself. That is, He was acting like a dialysis machine.
Jesus as Sin Offering
How was Jesus like a sin offering? Out of the four or five offerings, Isaiah 53:10 and Romans 8:3 single out only the sin offering (including the scapegoat of the Day of Atonement) to discuss the significance of Jesus. Arguably, Hebrews 10:18 and 13:11 and Ephesians 5:2 have the same thing in mind. Here are the ways Jesus is comparable to the sin offering(s) of the sacrificial system:
- Sin offerings operated as a vehicle in both directions. In the direction from Israel through the priests to God, the sin offering carried sinfulness and guilt into God, ultimately on the Day of Atonement. God disposed of the sinfulness, separating it from Israel in principle. Similarly, Jesus, through his perfect human obedience and faithfulness to the Father, carried the corruption of sin in his humanity all the way to its death. As God and Son of God, Jesus consumed it, separating it from his humanity and sending it away.
- In the direction from God to Israel, the sin offering was the vehicle by which God gave cleansing life-blood to cleanse the stain of impurity and sin. Similarly, Jesus released his life, in the mode of his Spirit, to us to cleanse us from the stain of impurity and sin.
- The sin offering uniquely covered unintentional sins (Lev.4:1 – 5:13). The sin offering thus distinguishes between intentional vs. unintentional sinful acts. This seems to correspond with Jesus’ atoning work covering not just sins committed voluntarily, but sins committed involuntarily, like the coveting that the apostle Paul identified as not entirely within his voluntary control (Rom.7:14 – 25). Jesus’ work of atonement, if conceived along the lines of the sin offering, would address our inheriting a fallen human nature – not a matter of personal guilt per se, but something for which we must still find a solution, in partnership with God.
- The sin offering was effective in principle by partitioning the animal, using death as a means. Death was not an end in itself. After death, God claimed the toxic part: the fat. This He consumed for Himself. This corresponds with Jesus’ active, not passive, obedience. That is, he struggled victoriously over the toxic sin in his humanity from conception, through his life, and finally, his death. Thus, in both the Levitical sin offering and in Jesus, the work of atonement was centered not in death as a punishment, but death as a means to the removal and burning away of the toxic part. Purification of the human through human faithfulness is what ‘soothed’ God, not the ‘satisfaction’ of His ‘retributive justice.’ Once again, this is a medical, not penal, substitution.
(6) What is the Relationship Between the Day of Atonement and the Rest of the Narrative of the Pentateuch?
Moses’ trust in God led to him walking up the mountain and passing through the fire and darkness in which God wrapped Himself, onto the mountain where God revealed Himself. God’s glory eventually made Moses’ face shine (Ex.34:29 – 35).
God was able to partially purify Moses through Moses’ faith and willingness to trust Him. In order to remember the covenant God made with Moses at the top of the mountain, and even re-enact and renew it, God and Moses ordered that the sanctuary be built. The entire sanctuary system recalls the ascent of Moses up Mount Sinai, because the sanctuary was modeled after the initial encounter with God at the mountain and upon it. The horizontal movement of the priests, who eventually came into the holy of holies through the representative high priest, bearing Israel’s sin into God and returning God’s purification, recalled Moses’ vertical movement up the mountain, becoming partially purified. This narrative context has enormous significance for how we interpret the sacrificial system and atonement.
I will discuss this in the next post!
 The question should be raised whether or not the Israelites at the time understood fat as a negative substance. And the answer to that question needs to be pursued from multiple angles.
The level of toxicity in the human body has been a concern since ancient times. Ancient Egyptians made associations between toxicity and stool, and ancient Greeks believed that bodily fluids like bile, phlegm, and blood carried toxins. (Chen TS, Chen PS. ‘Intestinal Autointoxication: A Medical Leitmotif,’ Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology. 1989;11(4):434–441; cited in David R. Seaman, ‘Toxins, Toxicity, and Endotoxemia: A Historical and Clinical Perspective for Chiropractors,’ Journal of Chiropr Humanit. 2016 Dec; 23(1):68–76.).
Animal-borne diseases were a concern for all people, and continues to be. Anyone partitioning an animal carcass and studying its anatomy would quickly become aware of the role of the kidneys and liver in expelling urine. And urine and excrement were certainly understood by the Israelites to be unclean, not just by biblical imagery and commandment (Dt.23:12 – 13), which it was, but by aesthetic and sanitary reasons as well. I think it is likely that the intestinal fat, by its physical contact with the kidneys and liver, were understood to be associated with waste and uncleanness. The Hebrew word heleb denotes the intestinal ‘fat’ that accumulates around the liver and kidneys, what is sometimes translated the ‘suet’ or ‘caul.’ By contrast, the ‘fat’ marbled in the muscle, which was edible according to the Torah, is denoted by a different Hebrew word, shumen. (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Book 5, The Book of Holiness, Sefer Kedushah; Treatise 2 on Forbidden Foods, Ma’achalot Assurot; Chapter 7, sec 7, pages 352M 187-188Y)
Additionally, the Levitical laws governing clean and unclean animals assume that the Israelites observe the physical appearance and behavior of animals (Lev.11; Dt.14), and make associations from there to life and death. Animals like pigs and lobsters were associated with death and uncleanness because they ate dead things; they were scavengers. An animal which has divided hoofs and chews cud was clean. That particular combination seems to reflect a respect for creational demarcations established by Genesis 1, which of course remind the Israelites of life, categorically.
The Bible relates the physical appearance, behavior, and condition of the animals to earlier literary precedents in the biblical story. So physical health is a natural and reasonable association, and is connected to biblical theology in Leviticus itself when the book speaks of human skin diseases, mold in homes, and other concerns (Lev.13) with the overall concern for the clean-unclean imagery being synonymous with life-death. In which case, we need to observe both the history of human knowledge (as above), and those earlier literary patterns in Scripture.
Curiously, ‘fat’ is used as a positive idiom, by the biblical authors, for the best of agriculture: ‘You shall eat the fat [heleb] portions of the land’ (Gen.45:18; Num.18:12; Dt.32:14; Ps.81:16; 147:47). Given this usage, would it not be more natural to view ‘fat’ as a delicacy, and God’s claim on the ‘fat’ as His claim on the best of Israel’s offering and livelihood? Can something that is negative be spoken of elsewhere as a positive?
First, this metaphorical usage of fat is not consistently positive. The metaphor of fatness has appeal presumably because of the association that fat has with abundance and leisure. However, on another occasion, fatness and the abundance associated with it are criticized in strong, negative terms: ‘But Jeshurun grew fat and kicked — You are grown fat, thick, and sleek— Then he forsook God who made him, and scorned the Rock of his salvation’ (Dt.32:15). Moreover, in the New Testament, James writes, ‘You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter’ (Jas.5:5).
Second, the Bible uses a similar literary idiom with the motif of ‘blood.’ God sharply distinguished the substance of blood from other parts of the animal (Gen.9:4), and He strictly forbade the Israelites from consuming it (Lev.3:17; 7:26). Yet, Scripture uses ‘blood’ as a metaphor for the juice of grapes, which Israel would consume (Gen.49:11; Dt.32:14).
This highlights a pattern. Are there other objects that are described by Scripture in one way but used metaphorically in another? The answer to that is yes.
God uses human beings metaphorically in various positive comparisons for Himself, but also negatively. For instance, God says, ‘I am not a man’ because men would lie or be unfaithful to their word, and God would not do that (Num.23:19), and because men would punish without compassion, and God would not do that either (Hos.11:9). Human beings are both created in God’s image, and yet also fallen. So the moral background which informs the metaphorical use is shown even with newly conceived babies: They are said to be the ‘fruit of the womb’ (Gen.30:2), yet also considered ‘unclean’ (Lev.12), ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ (Ps.139:14), and yet ‘conceived in sin’ (Ps.51:5), and so forth. Human beings are created in the image of God (Gen.1:26 – 28) and yet, even when we are faithful, we fall short of perfection, and have corrupted hearts. In the genealogy of Genesis 5:1 – 6:8, even people in the faithful lineage of Seth do not live to be a thousand years old, where the number one thousand seems to be a symbolic number for perfection. And outside the family of faith, people’s hearts are eventually diagnosed as fully wicked (Gen.6:5 – 6). It seems to me that all things originally good yet touched by human sin are discussed in both positive and negative ways, and used metaphorically for both positive and negative purposes.
Also, the land and its produce are said to be originally good from creation, but ‘cursed’ because of the sin of Adam and Eve (Gen.3:17), and any bloodshed (Gen.4:11). The land can even be ‘polluted’ or ‘defiled’ beyond possibility of cleansing or expiation (Num.35:33 – 34). Yet, God nevertheless gave, called for, and accepted the ‘fruit’ of the land (Ex.23:19; 34:26). Scripture also continues to use the metaphor of ‘fruit,’ along with sowing and reaping, for both positive (Prov.12:13 – 14; Gal.5:22 – 23) and negative referents (Dt.29:18; Prov.1:31; Hos.8:7; 10:13; Mic.7:13; Rom.7:5).
So Scripture is comfortable prohibiting humans from eating the fat and blood from animals, and yet also using those words idiomatically in positive comparisons. I note, moreover, that the metaphorical associations of fat with abundance and leisure include at least two very negative criticisms of people.
Blood and fat, when offered in the ritual context (along with kidneys and liver, lest we forget the association with waste) seem to be associated with the category of ‘dedicated and reserved gift.’ But direction and destination mattered. As Israel rendered gifts to God which they reserved for Him, God returned gifts to Israel which He reserved for them.
 Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, Andrew Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), p.49 – 50
 Margaret Barker, ‘Atonement: The Rite of Healing’, Scottish Journal of Theology 49.1.1994, footnote 30. Barker offers a very compelling, integrated interpretation of the Day of Atonement. However, one problem with her proposal is that she seems to be open to the scapegoat representing both Jesus and a demon named Azazel/Asael. She interprets the goat being offered ‘as Azazel’ as if God would place human sins on a demon and send it far away. While this is an attractive ‘christus victor’ atonement theory, ultimately, I doubt that ultimately the scapegoat represents both Jesus and a demon. Too, the New Testament does not suggest that God laid human sin on the devil or some other demonic being, meaning that the New Testament does not confirm Barker’s thesis, but goes in a different direction. Thus, her critique of L.L. Grabbe in footnote 33, that he did not draw ‘the obvious conclusion,’ is premature. While the textual support she marshals for this view has some significance, Barker does not consider the role of the sanctuary as a whole as a ‘plan B’ from God’s perspective, which Sailhamer does, and on which I build my understanding of the sanctuary, sin and guilt offerings, and the Day of Atonement rite. This leads Barker to elevate rabbinical positive opinion about the sanctuary overmuch (Barker, p.4, 6), seeing the high priest as God Himself and not as the human mediator between God and Israel. She does not consider the biblical writers’ qualified and reluctant endorsement of the sanctuary and the priests, with substantial critique, especially the critique given by the Pentateuch itself. Methodologically, Barker rests her case on a substantial amount of extrabiblical literature, especially 1 Enoch, whose value might be illustrative but not determinative, in my mind. Jewish extrabiblical writing tends to be pro-Temple and give unqualified approval to Israel’s major institutions, unlike the biblical writings. Thus, I suspect that ‘as Azazel’ is better understood to not refer to a demon but to sinfulness itself, ‘as sin,’ although that would need to be proven elsewhere. Moreover, I can accept Barker’s suggestion that the slain goat is not merely ‘for the Lord’ but ‘as the Lord.’ If this is the proper understanding, then the two goats represent the division wrought by the high priest between Israel and Israel’s sin through a divine self-sacrifice (which is admittedly easier for a Christian to argue for, given a commitment to the New Testament). It is the human mediator between God and Israel, in the presence of God, who brings about a separation between Israel’s sinfulness and Israel itself, through the double imagery of the goats: one dies ‘as the Lord’ and the other dies taking Israel’s sin far away.
 Vern Poythress, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses (P&R Publishing, 1991), ch.3.
 Margaret Barker, ‘Atonement: The Rite of Healing’, Scottish Journal of Theology 49.1.1994, p.2