In my past blog posts about atonement in Scripture, I’ve explored the role of circumcision as a controlling concept. Circumcision affects how we interpret the Passover as the cleansing of the first generation of Israelites out of Egypt, and the bronze serpent as the cleansing of the second generation from the sins of the first. Circumcision is the marker of entrance into the covenant, and circumcision of the heart marks the new (or renewed) covenant. It represents the cutting off of something unclean from the person. Hence we can say that God’s wrath is aimed not at the personhood of people, but against the corruption in our human nature.
I’ve also looked at the Day of Atonement in some depth to see how atonement is related to the two goats: one dies and is consumed by God, the other gets sent away into the wilderness, far from Israel. They seem to picture the same dynamic: God takes Israel’s sin into Himself, and removes it far from His people. God operates like a dialysis machine. Once again, the medical or surgical analogy controls the image. God wants to destroy the impurities in people, and give back His purity.
Now, I want to look at how atonement is related to the priests and the sanctuary. The tabernacle sanctuary most immediately represents Mount Sinai. The Israelites undertook different degrees of closeness to God at Mount Sinai. Those different vertical levels became represented horizontally in the sanctuary.
- The people of Israel had to stay at the perimeter of the mountain when they failed to ascend to God’s presence at the top of the mountain (Ex.19:12).
- Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and seventy elders went up the mountain and saw God, and ate in His presence, ratifying the covenant (Ex.24:1 – 11).
- Moses alone personally went up and entered the very midst of the cloud of God’s glory (Ex.24:12 – 18).
- The Israelites, at the base of the mountain, could go into the courtyard of the sanctuary, where the altar and laver were found.
- Only the priests, like the elders on the mountain, could proceed into the holy place, to be illuminated by the candlelight of God’s presence and eat the bread of His presence. Yet even they had to remain outside the veil.
- Only the high priest, like Moses on the very top of the mountain, could go beyond the veil and see the glory of God.
As stated in Ex.25:40, God revealed a pattern for Moses on Mount Sinai, but not in the sense of showing him some mystical, Platonic blueprint. I find it sufficient to assume that Moses simply looked down from the height of the mountain.
In his book, The Pentateuch as Narrative, John Sailhamer argues convincingly that the Tabernacle, priesthood, and various laws were the result of Israel’s sinful failure to meet God face to face on Mount Sinai in Exodus 19. As a result, God chooses Moses and Aaron to mediate the covenant and represent the rest of Israel.
This failure in Exodus 19 resulted in God giving laws in Exodus 20:1 – 27, and Israel trembling in fear again in Exodus 20:18 – 20. God responds by giving more laws in Exodus 20:21 – 23:19. The covenant appears to be stabilized momentarily when Moses, Aaron, and seventy elders ascend the mountain and eat with God in Exodus 23:20 – 24:11. God gives Moses the Tabernacle instructions in Exodus 24:12 – 31:11. But Israel breaks the covenant again, with Aaron’s personal participation, in the golden calf incident in Exodus 32:1 – 29. Then we reach the central point of the Pentateuch as a whole: Moses’ personal mediation for Israel to restore the covenant, in Exodus 32:30 – 33:23. The story turns around this chiastic center:
1. God’s Spirit ‘hovers’ as God creates heaven and earth; God places humanity in a garden land; origin of all nations, but in exile and with a corruption in human nature: Gen.1 – 11
2. Covenant inaugurated with Abraham, blessings and curses: Gen.12:1 – 8
3. God’s faithfulness to the chosen family: Gen.12:9 – 50:26
4. Deliverance of first generation of Israelites from Egypt, arrival at Sinai: Ex.1 – 18
5. Covenant inaugurated, broken, re-asserted: Ex.19:1 – 24:11
6. Tabernacle instructions given to house the veiled presence of God: 24:12 – 31:1
7. God commands Israel to observe the Sabbath and the Covenant is documented on stone tablets: Ex.31:12 – 18
8. Covenant broken; Israel worships Aaron’s golden calves: Ex.32:1 – 29
X. Moses mediates for Israel, restores the covenant: Ex.32:30 – 33:23
8’. Covenant affirmed: Ex.34:1 – 17
7’. God commands Israel to observe three annual feasts and the Covenant is documented on stone tablets again; Moses veils his face as a sign of judgment, hiding God’s glory from the nation: Ex.34:18 – 28
6’. Tabernacle built to instructions; presence of God comes veiled: Ex.35 – 40
5’. Covenant mediation inaugurated, covenant broken, re-asserted: Lev.1:1 – 27:34
4’. Departure from Sinai, deliverance of second generation of Israelites from the sins of the first: Num.1 – 36
3’. God’s faithfulness forms the basis for Moses’ exhortation: Dt.1 – 26
2’. Covenant offered to Israel – blessings and curses: Dt.27:1 – 29:29
1’. God must circumcise human hearts after Israel’s exile (Dt.30:6); ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’ (Dt.32:1) witness destiny of Israel and nations; God’s Spirit ‘hovers’ (Dt.32:11) over Israel as they enter garden land: Dt.30:1 – 34:12
For more detail about this structure, and more on its importance, please see my notes. I see the significance of this literary analysis as follows: The Tabernacle (and later, the Temple) was not God’s Plan A. It was Plan B. God wanted ‘a Temple people’, a people with whom He talked face to face. He did not want ‘a people with a Temple.’ God veiled His glory via the Tabernacle as a concession for abiding among the people, and a judgment on them for their refusal to approach him face to face the first time, on the mountain. The imagery here is drawn from Eden. Eden may have been a kind of mountain, since four rivers flowed out from it; rivers in nature naturally converge, not diverse. Thus, Eden must have been a supernatural source of these rivers, and/or be higher in elevation. Also, Adam and Eve walked with God and spoke with Him face to face. Thus, God’s initial invitation to Israel was to resume the life, in some sense, that Adam and Eve once had.
The Tabernacle was important, but it was not Israel’s ‘ultimate meaning’ for existence. Israel’s ultimate meaning lay in its hope for another mediator who would be greater than Moses: the Messiah, who would restore Israel to Plan A and dispense with the sanctuary. For the sanctuary was not another Eden, but another representation of human exile just on the outside of Eden. Eden lay on the other side, the heavenly side, of the presence of God who dwelled between the cherubim. Only one person in Israel could even get that close; and even he could only do so once a year. Israel longed for a mediator of a new covenant as soon as the Sinai covenant was stabilized under Moses. Moses himself longed for a new mediator and a tearing of that veil.
However, Israel’s failure to meet God face to face meant that access to Eden was drawn tightly against them, as it was against Adam and Eve after the fall. The angelic cherubim guardians reappear, this time not to guard the way to the tree of life but engraved on the lid of the ‘mercy seat’ to guard the threshold of heaven and earth. And instead of all Israel being able to commune with God directly, a series of priestly mediators are instated between the people and God, with only the high priest able to walk behind the veil of the most holy place to stand in God’s presence, as He stood at the boundary between heaven and earth, trembling in fear, with smoke and incense obscuring his upward vision so that he could not look directly at God. Thus, the Tabernacle represents the conditions of the fall of humanity, on the outside of the Garden of Eden, not Eden itself. This was as close as anyone could get to God after the fall, and Israel is ‘near’ but, like everyone else, on the outside of the threshold.
Eating at the Tabernacle/Temple sanctuary in God’s presence must also be coordinated with eating in the garden of Eden in God’s presence. The two are not perfectly equivalent, of course, but eating at the Tabernacle/Temple must be interpreted within the thematic and theological paradigm set by Genesis regarding eating at the garden of Eden. Eating was therefore involved in picturing the benefits of atonement. For peace offerings, whether they be lambs or goats, the remark is made alluding to the burning of the sacrifice as a shared meal between the Israelite and God: ‘Then the priest shall offer it up in smoke on the altar as food, an offering by fire to the LORD; all the fat is the LORD’S’ (Lev.3:11, 16). When the specifications for eating the peace offering are given later (Lev.7:11 – 21), it is clear that the meal is shared between the Israelite and God, with the priests participating in the meal as well.
But the symbolism went further. Eating was involved in picturing the mechanics of atonement, not merely the benefits of atonement. Broadly speaking, the sanctuary pictured God sharing a meal with Israel that was reminiscent of how Adam and Eve might have eaten with God in Eden. But the introduction of human sinful corruption needed to be incorporated into the symbolism. Hence, the sanctuary pictured humanity as ‘eating’ God’s provision of atonement. And, as I will argue below, the sanctuary system simultaneously pictured God as ‘eating’ the corruption in human nature, taking it into Himself, and doing away with it. The reciprocal image to eating the animal, however, was the life-blood of the animal, which was symbolized as being given back by God to cleanse the worshiper.
Sin offerings were eaten by the priests (Lev.6:24 – 30). This 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. Further, to underscore the point, the Pentateuch records an incident when 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). Although Aaron offers a reason for their hesitation based on his emotional state of losing his two older sons, the fact remains that sin offerings are meant to be eaten by the priest as the mechanism of atoning for the people.
The one exception to eating the sin offering was on the Day of Atonement, when the remains of the bull and the first goat were not to be eaten (Lev.16:27 – 28). I discussed this already in the posts about 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.
Taken all together, the high priest was like Moses. Moses ascended Mount Sinai to make the covenant with God on behalf of Israel. Likewise, the high priest went through the sanctuary into the holy of holies to renew the covenant with God for all Israel. Moses entered into the divine fire which was on Mount Sinai, and God seemed to cleanse him in some sense. The high priest went past the bronze altar containing fire, which is the only object in Scripture (that I’ve noticed) which made other things holy as it touched them (Ex.29:37). Moses on the mountain saw a glassy expanse stretching out before him. The high priest in the holy place saw an infinite mirror (gold covered walls) which resembled the glassy expanse. Perhaps Moses passed the bush that once burned with fire. The high priest passed the seven-branched candelabra which probably resembled a twined bush with fire within it. Moses, at the top of the mountain, pleaded with God to bear with the sin of Israel. The high priest, in the holy of holies, bore the sin of Israel, given by the Israelites to the priests and stored up in them, into God. It was an act of covenant renewal.
But Moses died because he misrepresented God. And the priests, although they stabilized the Sinai covenant for a time, were sinful as well. The corruption in humanity would one day affect even the priestly mediators of the covenant and disrupt the covenant itself. What then? This is why the Pentateuch already looks forward to another human mediator of the covenant, an eternal mediator who will be greater than Moses.
For the time being, atonement in Israel’s sanctuary renewed the Sinai covenant. And the Sinai covenant was a microcosm of the whole creation. Mount Sinai, and then Mount Zion where the sanctuary came to rest, actually represented Mount Eden (Ezk.28:13 – 14; Gen.2:10). Israel in the garden land partially represented Adam and Eve in the garden land. Israel met with God in a way that was much more limited and restricted than Adam and Eve originally did, but it was nevertheless real. Mount Eden was the original place from which God met humanity and commissioned them. So Israel’s existence was always for the sake of the whole world.
The atonement enacted by Jesus of Nazareth was the fulfillment of the Sinai covenant. Jesus became the eternally human mediator of the new covenant, which began the renewal of all creation. This type of atonement was medical, and not penal, in nature. It was God solving a problem outside Himself, not inside. He solved the deepest problem within the original mediators of the creation: humanity. In Jesus, God took sinfulness into Himself, simultaneously carrying it far away from His people.