Atonement in Scripture: The Tabernacle and the Priests


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.




12 Comments Add yours

  1. I agree with many things you propose in this but I think you are confusing the office of Aaron and Moses. God makes an everlasting covenant with Aaron and his descendants. Not even Jesus steps into that office, as he is a priest, rather, after “the order of Melchizedic” (Ps.110, Hebrews)


  2. makonagasawa says:

    Thanks David. I agree that I’m conflating the roles of Moses and Aaron, insofar as the establishment of the Sinai covenant is concerned. But I think that is what the Pentateuch itself invites us to do, along with Hebrews (priesthood, covenant mediation) and Galatians (covenant mediation). Moses involved Aaron in his role as covenant mediator from the get go, so Aaron represented Moses and shared in his office of covenant mediator, or perhaps offices (plural) of prophet and priest. And I’m puzzled by why you don’t see Jesus’ priesthood eclipsing Aaron’s priesthood. Isn’t that what Hebrews is saying? The “priesthood is changed” (Heb.7:12). There was a “setting aside of a former commandment because of its weakness and uselessness, for the [Sinai covenant] law made nothing perfect” (Heb.7:18 – 19). What was the pastoral rationale for someone to have written Hebrews at all, if there was no harm in Jewish Christians being pressured to participate in the sacrificial system of the Sinai covenant again?


  3. I think your reading of Hebrews is anachronistic, though I admit it represents the majority view. Rather, if the Aaronic priesthood was truly changed in a significant way, I don’t think the writer of Hebrews would go to such exquisite lengths to delineate the differences. He would simply state that it had been abolished. Acts 21 is clear evidence that the disciples of Jesus and the early believers saw now such paradigm problem. If you look into the original manuscript, the writer of Hebrews discusses the “protos” and the “deuteros”. The idea is the heavenly Temple, for which the earthly Temple is a “shadow”, and which is made after the “pattern”. Jesus displaces the angels as the administrator of the heavenly Temple, which offers sacrifice according to the atonement of the nashama (soul), whereas the Aaronic priesthood never officiated in that capacity, but offered sacrifices which merely sanctified the “nefesh”, or flesh, or animal soul (Jewish theology). Therefore I struggle with the whole idea that the Temple was given as a “plan B”. However, I certainly do resonate with circumcision being related to atonement. This also connects with Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which is the cleansing of corruptibility from flesh (allegorically). Certainly Paul connected Passover to the entrance of Gentiles into the family of God, and I think he would embrace your model of atonement over and above the penal substitution model, but I don’t think I can agree with your understanding of the Temple in terms of its place as a worship center.


  4. makonagasawa says:

    Thanks for elaborating, David. For the sake of my understanding your position, can you explain why the author of Hebrews felt it necessary to write his epistle? The apparent reason was that Jewish Christians were “lapsing” (perhaps a problematic term for your position) back into the Levitical animals sacrifices, along with the priesthood, and the Temple. Ostensibly, there was tremendous “peer pressure” to do so, and maybe political pressure in a sense, to prove one’s loyalty against the Romans. But if Jewish Christians could happily perform the Levitical sacrifices without any conflict at all with their faith in Jesus as Messiah, then why was it necessary for anyone to write Hebrews to them?


  5. Yes, well it is commonly assumed that the reason for the book of Hebrews was to discourage Jewish believers from “lapsing” back into Jewish practice. The destruction of the Temple in AD70 gives a convenient, though probably irrelevant, justification for this view. (The idea that the Jews had it taken from them by the hand of God via the Romans). However, again I point you to Acts 21, which describes events that occurred decades after the resurrection of Christ. I don’t think it’s sustainable to suggest that Paul was “as Jews to Jews” in his attempt to offer sacrifice at the Temple. In fact, it was James, the recognized leader of the early church, who encouraged Paul to not only fulfill his vow but also to pay for the sacrifices of several other men, as a show of solidarity with the Torah, specifically to dispel rumors that Paul had abandoned it. So, obviously, the sacrificial system at the Temple was not viewed by the apostles as pertaining to the atonement for their sin, or else they would have abandoned that practice as a visible sign of the advent of the New Covenant. Instead, we must take a step back and consider that there were other reasons why this practice continued. I contend that the letter to Hebrews was written several years before the Temple had been destroyed, say approx. AD66 or so, at or near the time that the Sadducean-led Council banned the Jewish believers from the Temple services. I believe, therefore, that the letter to the Hebrews was written as an encouragement and a consolation, to strengthen the Jewish believers against buckling to the pressure being placed upon them by the religious leaders in Jerusalem. This is akin to being excommunicated from the Roman church during much of its existence. Devastating. The Temple was the center of religious life for the Jerusalem community of Jesus-followers. In fact, many Jews of the Diaspora left their lives to make aliyah to Jerusalem in order to participate in the daily services and prayers, in eager anticipation of the Messiah’s return. This is historical fact. I think what the writer of Hebrews is certainly doing in his excellent (and very Jewish) letter, is to explain to the Jerusalem believers that they have a high priest who represents them in the eternal, heavenly Temple, and who ever makes intercession for them. The Temple service was not for the purpose of atoning for the nashama, and every Jew knew that, and still knows that today. The Jewish people believe that their place in the world to come is secured by grace through the merit of their father Abraham and his faith and the promises God made to him, just like we do, and just as Paul explains it. The Temple service is for the sanctification of flesh while in holy space, similar to God telling Moses to remove his sandals while near the burning bush. With no Temple, there is no need for sacrifice. There is no sacrificial offering prescribed in the Torah for the remission of willful sin. There is only repentance. This is evidence in the story of David, Uriah and Bathsheba. God sent Nathan the prophet to confront him and give place for repentance. There was no sacrifice David could have offered for his sin, or else he surely would have done so.


  6. makonagasawa says:

    So, you agree with me that the Pentateuch itself conflates Moses and Aaron? With regard to Hebrews, that would explain why the author blends covenant and priesthood so seamlessly.

    I am in agreement with you that, textually speaking, the sanctuary and its sacrifices did not actually cover *all* sinful actions, especially the most egregious ones. But it still seemed to serve as a point of reflection about human ontology and not just activity, as cleansing in Leviticus 11 – 15 is sandwiched between cleansing sacrifices in Leviticus 1 – 10 and 16 to make that particular point. My apologies for not making my position clearer about that before. Hence there was still a covenant-renewing role that the sacrifices and the sanctuary played in relation to cleansing what corrupted humanity is, touched, did, etc. – and this was what maintained God’s presence among the Israelites, which in turn guaranteed the Israelites’ presence and blessing in the new garden land. Hence, Malachi called for sacrifices to be renewed so the land would be fruitful, etc. There may be some specifics that we see differently, but does the broad brush on that particular point sound similar enough?

    If so, then we can move back to the specifics about Hebrews and then Acts 21. I’m not as convinced as you are that the Jerusalem Temple leaders had such enormous psychological, cultural, or economic power over the early Jewish Christian community. As evidence: (1) Qumran disdained Jerusalem as entirely corrupt, and seemed to disregard it completely for quite some time. Intriguingly, they saw their community as a Holy Spirit movement and as a counterpoint to the Temple itself, even if only temporarily. (2) The Pharisees constantly tried to influence events in Jerusalem, but they also localized practices of eating and cleanliness that only textually mattered at the sanctuary, because they too distrusted the Sadducees and rejected the Herodian family with their Hellenistic ways imposed on Jerusalem. At least some aspects of their thought developed independently of the Temple or as a criticism of it. They seem to have configured the symbolism of their lives and ritual practice as if they were sharing in the holiness of a true Temple, since the one built by Herod wasn’t true, in at least some rabbinical opinions. The Pharisees therefore seem to have had a variant Qumran view. (3) Particular local synagogue communities had already drawn the line between Jesus-followers vs. not, if we take Matthew’s Gospel to be on the earlier side and as addressing this intra-Jewish conflict, and this local tension was probably far more impactful than the more distant Jerusalem.

    Then, we would expect Jesus’ teaching about Temple and the capital to have had a major impact on his followers – so that they would sit loose to the capital. In Luke’s united narrative of Gospel – Acts alone, on more than one occasion, he prophesied the destruction of the city, the razing of the Temple, and so on. This was by no means affirming. On the flip side, he pointedly affirmed Samaritans (e.g. Luke 17:11 – 17) because Samaritans owed no loyalty to Jerusalem (cf. John 4:20 – 24). This had a minor culminating point in Stephen’s speech in Acts 7, which was a direct critique of the Temple. The major culminating point would eventually be 70 AD.

    Furthermore, in the background of the minds of all Jews, we also have an intra-canonical “disagreement,” in some sense, between Old Testament prophets about the future of the “Temple” as an actual institution. Jeremiah’s anti-Temple stance is fairly well understood, along with at least Moses, Samuel, Isaiah, and Daniel. To that I would add Jonah. Jeremiah seems to be deliberately replacing God’s writing on the broken tablets of stone with God writing on the human heart, to indicate the dwelling of God shifting from the Temple building to the Temple people, and to indicate the fulfillment and closure of the Sinai covenant and the inauguration of the “new covenant.” I think it’s quite significant that the author of Hebrews brought up not just the sacrifices and the priesthood, but the *covenant*, specifically citing Jeremiah 31:31 – 34 in Hebrews 8. And the “pro-Temple” imagery of Ezekiel, Zechariah, and others has to be understood canonically, I believe. Which means this: Because they are connected to the greatest of all biblical literature, the Pentateuch, which sees the sanctuary as neither permanent nor wholly desirable, the Pentateuch governs the interpretation of Ezekiel, Zechariah, etc. on the question of the Temple. Because the Pentateuch was envisioning God’s foremost desire to meet face to face with His people, and not behind a veil with only a select representative of the people, it would be inappropriate to suggest that God is eternally committed to the physical sanctuary. One could add the significance of 2 Samuel 7: the shift from tabernacle to Temple proposed by King David was ignored by God and the prophet Nathan. So the Sinai covenant (Pentateuch) and the refocusing of that covenant in the Davidic covenant (Samuel) take a negative stance towards the physical sanctuary. Isaiah foresaw it removed and at least relativized henceforth. Jeremiah was happy to see it would be destroyed. Daniel got very specific about its destruction, and never returned to the topic. Jonah poetically mocked it in satirical terms: Jonah loved enclosures and God loved taking him out of them. So Ezekiel 40 – 48 and Zechariah 9 – 14 and so on need to be interpreted canonically: When they speak of a “Temple,” by virtue of their canonical placement subordinate to the Pentateuch, they must be interpreted as referring to God’s truest desire for a Temple: a Temple people. Jesus’ own deployment of Ezekiel and Zechariah, e.g. “rivers of living water” in John 7:37 – 38 (drawing on Zech.14:8 and Ezk.47) and throughout John’s Gospel, indicates that Jesus used the “new Temple” language of those prophets and applied it to a Temple people. Other themes in the Nevi’im and Ketuvim are also to be handled this way, given the canonical placement after the Torah; if you would like, I can demonstrate others.

    Given those three factors above – that is: (1) divided contemporary Jewish opinion about the importance of Jerusalem and its Temple; (2) very strong negative opinion from Jesus about Jerusalem and the Temple; (3) canonical evaluation of Jerusalem and the Temple from the Hebrew Scriptures – my question for you is: What power – cultural, economic, ideological, or otherwise – do you think the Temple leaders had over the Jewish Christian community? And why? Once again, the language, depth, and themes of the letter to the Hebrews doesn’t seem to me to fit your suggestion. Discussion of *replacing* not only the priesthood but also the covenant is fairly strong language. For it’s one thing to say that Jesus gives another point of access to something more inspiring and important. It’s quite another to say that Jesus sets aside what came before. The citation of Jeremiah 31 in Hebrews 8 in support of the new covenant simultaneously involves Jeremiah’s anti-Temple stance, and not surprisingly Hebrews says the first (that is, Sinai) covenant (with the Aaronic priesthood) was made obsolete and is ready to disappear (Heb.8:13). And final encouragement to hope for a different city and go outside the current one (Heb.11:10; 13:13 – 14) is quite remarkable in its strength. Not simply another option for another city, but an opposition between the two. What makes priesthood, covenant, Temple, and city unified is their historical, and especially their literary-theological, intertwining in the Hebrew Scriptures. The strength of this contrast seems to go beyond your proposal.

    I’m not sure Acts 21 proves your case about Christian consistency or not towards the Temple and its sacrifices. Several uncertainties exist about this episode, but more likely it reflected Paul’s attitude of honoring Jewish culture as a culture (a value he states in Romans 14 – 15 and 1 Corinthians 9:19 – 22, which seems to have been given by Jesus himself in Matthew 23:3), when it did not have theological import. For the same reason of cultural sensitivity that Paul circumcised Timothy in Acts 15, he prepares himself through some kind of purification that lasted apparently seven days (Acts 21:26 – 27), which probably meant fasting given the time period and not a blood-related sacrifice per se, and at some point during that time, he pays for these four men to go to the Temple to complete their Nazirite vow. If that meant the four men gave sin and peace offerings as in Num.6:13 – 20, perhaps it had to do with the Nazirite vow in particular which seems possible to take culturally as a one-off event, until Jerusalem and the Temple fell as Jesus prophesied. By extension, I’m guessing Paul probably would have honored the Jewish traditions around childbirth as well (Lev.12) and some other customs, like traveling to Jerusalem for the feasts as cultural events.

    That’s my current understanding. Thoughts?


  7. I wouldn’t really use the word “conflate” concerning Moses and Aaron. I do believe that there are many levels of distinction and particularity in their roles which elude the typical Christian theologian who comes from the assumed position of supersessionism. Only two of the five major sacrificial categories at the Temple had to do with sin at all. One was to cover unintentional sins and the other was a legal ceremony which atoned for profaning items or elements within the Temple, lying under oath to the Council, and a few other distinctions, all of which were legal and few Jews would have ever had occasion to offer them. The vast majority of the sacrifices offered by the people (through the priests) were voluntary and pertained to worship and thanksgiving. Certainly not a good model to picture atonement for the soul. Passover is the picture that both Christ and his apostles used to picture our atonement and redemption. Christ’s vicarious atonement has very little to do with the Temple worship system, though you make a valid point that there is certainly some significant overlap in regards to symbolism. I think that the ability to make allegory to Christ and the Temple service confuses the issue until one truly understands the Temple service, which I have found that very few Christians do, regardless of denomination.

    I would agree that the entire panorama of early church faith practice is extremely nuanced and covers a variety of sub-sects which were often at tension with one another, however I would disagree, for instance, that the Qumran community saw themselves as “counterpoint to the Temple”, but rather “counterpoint to the Sanhedrin”. I think in each case we could cite (Qumran, Essene, Samaritans) the issue was chiefly with the Jewish Leadership, and not with the Temple whatsoever. That’s like saying that because I don’t like the teams playing in the Super Bowl that the game itself has lost all purpose and meaning. (Pardon my sports analogy, but I’m a Patriots fan!).

    I think you make an astute observation about the Pharisees using the hyper-emphasis on ritual purity in relation to the Temple and applying it on a meta-level, establishing a particular halacha which generally went beyond the rulings of the sages. This element is challenged by Jesus in the recorded exchanges in the gospels, however, again, we must be careful not to assume, therefore, that this means Jesus was dismissive of Oral Traditions. On the contrary, the fact that he engaged them on these subjects serves the position that he was deeply concerned about their practice and interpretation. Also, as another contention with a statement you made, that Herod built the second Temple…in fact he merely made renovations to it. It was never his project, but was built by the remnant which returned from Babylon. This is important to remember in the context of your argument. The Temple service took on significantly more structure and consistency under Ezra. Many, if not most, of the prayers of the siddur date back to those days, and were certainly well-established in Jesus’ day. He certainly participated in the Temple services while he was alive. Consider that this also means he would have offered animal sacrifices as well. Yet, you make a valid assumption (I think) that there must have been significant tensions between the Jesus-following Jews and the rest of the synagogue communities. I will add, though, that there was ample room in Jewish theology for a suffering Messiah. There were those who claimed to be messiah before Jesus, and there were those who came after. So this, in itself, would not have upset the apple cart, as much as the notion that the eschatological destiny of Israel was “at hand” (the core message of the gospel), even though Rome was still clearly in charge and the “King” was dead. This created great problems for the early assembly, I’m sure.

    I don’t think you’re reading the prophets correctly. The message of Jeremiah is not “anti-Temple” but rather was a message of impending exile. Exile and redemption are the constant themes of the prophets, Jeremiah particularly. In fact, Jesus took on the role of the “weeping prophet”, in the manner of Jeremiah, yet he also championed the message of Isaiah. I don’t think it’s good theology to assume the abolishment of the Temple, when the scriptures declare that the Temple made on earth is constructed as an exact replica of the Temple in heaven, which comes down to earth in the World to Come (Revelation). So i don’t see a conflict in the scriptures concerning this issue, though I will certainly concede that there is disagreement about the eschatological destiny of the Temple among Jewish scholarship.

    I don’t agree with treating Romans 14-15 as Paul merely being “sensitive to Jewish culture”, especially in light of the fact that these chapters represent the application in practice of all which had been stated previously in the epistle, and also the fact that when pressed by a jury of his peers in Acts, Paul declaritively states that he is a practicing Pharisee (in the present tense) and no one steps forward to deny his claim, a claim which would have been easy to deny had he been failing to be strictly Torah-observant according to the rigors of his sect. This is not to say that Paul did not utilized the rabbinic “light to heavy” argumentation in regards to his latitude of commandment towards his mixed communities, because it appears clear that he deals with the Gentiles in a much different manner than with other Jews, particularly those who should know better. This is at the very core of Paul’s gospel and has unfortunately led to much misinterpretation of the great apostle through the centuries due to the unfortunate split between Judaism and Christianity, as it became known. I think it was an honor for Jews of the Diaspora to make aliyah to Jerusalem to participate in the various Feasts and holidays, and also to commence fulfillment of vows, such as we see in Acts 21. I think you’re glossing that chapter significantly because it is perhaps inconvenient to consider it contextually on its own merits. It’s far too easy to suggest that Paul is “being a Jew while with Jews”. This is an easy out and lacks intellectual veracity. We must consider the very real possibility (I would say probability) that Acts 21 does in fact represent common faith practice among devout Jesus-following Jews. This SHOULD give all Christian theologians pause, and should cause a reevaluation of some of our assumptions about how the atonement works, why the Messiah had to die, and what the early disciples thought of their faith in terms of the traditions which caused them to embrace it to begin with. All of these questions are exactly why I think your series is so excellent, because you are wrestling with the topic with fresh eyes and you make many excellent observations, my objections notwithstanding.


  8. Also I should add that I enjoy these types of conversations. I respect you as a researcher. You put a lot of work into this and I don’t want you to think that I’m being at dismissive or disrespectful of it. Just hashing things with some who is equally passionate on the subject!


  9. makonagasawa says:

    Thanks David, I feel the same way! I’m grateful for the chance to dialogue with you. I think the points you raise are quite important and I’m learning some valuable things from you. I’m preparing to speak at a retreat this weekend so I’ll pick up the thread next week. Looking forward to more conversation.


  10. If it’s any encouragement to you, your work has caused me to look at the issue of circumcision much closer in regard to the teachings of Paul, and has enabled me to have some deep insights into his presentation of the gospel. Thank you!


  11. makonagasawa says:

    That is encouraging! Please do share when you get the chance! I’m hoping to make my meandering way to Paul’s use of circumcision in Romans and Colossians, after a couple of other series on this blog. So it may be a while, but in the meantime, I’d love to benefit from your thoughts as well.


  12. makonagasawa says:

    Well, our understandings of Qumran are curiously different on these points. This feels important enough to discuss because it impacts our perceptions of how the early Christian movement might have interacted with the Temple and the sacrifices. N.T. Wright, New Testament and the People of God, p.205, says, ‘The community described in the Community Rule (as opposed to that in the Damascus Document) offered no animal sacrifices.’ His citation for that is Josephus, Antiquities 18:18 – 19. Wright continues, ‘Building on this, and piecing together the ideology of the movement from hints and statements, we reach the clear conclusion that at least one branch regarded itself not just as the true Israel but as the true Temple.’ His citation is 1QS 8:5 – 11 and 1QH 6:25 – 29 for primary sources, and for secondary sources E.P. Sanders 1992, p.352 – 363. If Josephus is to be believed that the Essenes numbered around 4,000, in comparison with the Pharisees who numbered 6,000 (Apion 2:108), and even if the community reflected by the Community Rule was a subset of the Essene group and not the whole, we are still faced with an unknown but (in all likelihood) quite sizable sect within Second Temple Judaism who believed in not offering animal sacrifices at the Jerusalem Temple because they believed they were the true Temple people.

    In addition, the Community Rule believed in an inaugurated eschatology much like the early Christians did. The Community Rule notes: ‘For it is by the Spirit of the true counsel of God that are atoned the paths of man, all his iniquities, so that he can look at the light of life. And it is by the holy Spirit of the community, in its truth, that he is cleansed of all his iniquities. And by the Spirit of uprightness and of humility his sin is atoned. And by the compliance of his soul with all the laws of the God his flesh is cleansed by being sprinkled with cleansing waters and being made holy with the waters of repentance.’ (1QS 3:6 – 9). The deployment of the terms ‘holy Spirit’ or ‘Spirit’ in close connection with iniquity, cleansing, and atonement make this unmistakable: this is Temple language, applied not to a building but to a people. The language refers to the image of God’s spirit/shekinah dwelling in the midst of the people. That this sect connected this language to the eschatological restoration of exile is made certain by reference to ‘circumcision of heart’ (1QS 5:4 – 6), which is Moses’ own language in Deuteronomy 30:6. References abound to Deuteronomy 27 – 30 in this document, because they insisted that Israel as a nation lay under the curse, but they were the advance guard of God’s fulfillment of promise, the true Israel, which did in fact keep the law and upheld the covenant. They were simply waiting for the messianic age to fully begin. They did not view themselves as merely replacing the Sanhedrin, as you suggest.

    They certainly believed what their sister sect believed: the Cairo Damascus Document (CD 5:6 – 7) held that the Jerusalem Temple was still polluted despite the Maccabean ‘cleansing.’ In fact, someone from Qumran was bold enough to write 4QMMT, a deeply critical letter to someone of authority in Jerusalem, telling them to fix the aberrant behavior of the priests in Jerusalem, so that the covenant curses might be lifted from the nation. Whether this letter was actually sent or simply a representation of the views of the Essenes, we do not know. I think the question of how the communities reflected by the Community Rule and the Damascus Document related to each other need not detain us here. What matters is that a very sizable sect of Judaism was ‘supercessionist’ in the open, representational sense that I discussed before, believed in an inaugurated eschatology in which they were the true dwelling place of the holy Spirit as the prophets had foreseen, believed that the current Temple and its sacrificial system was impure and farcical, and resisted the propaganda of the existing priests.

    On a historical basis, then, I don’t find it hard to believe that the early Christian movement among the Jewish people would also be deeply critical of the Temple and its sacrifices. Their reasoning for it was different, of course. But I do not see why we must hypothesize that the threat of rejection from the Jerusalem leaders was so traumatic, as you suppose. The Jews at Qumran were already enduring it, and holding up quite vigorously.

    But there is also a biblical basis for the Christian position, and not just a historical comparison point. So I want to reconstruct as best I can the history of the consolidation of all five types of sacrifices in the tabernacle/temple, and what that meant for Israel. I’m not sure we share the same understanding of the five types of sacrifices, so I’ll offer a bit more of my take on that. God sacrificed animals to clothe and cover Adam and Eve after the fall (Gen.3:21), enacting physically the root meaning of the Hebrew word for atonement, kippur, to cover. We see God as the initiator of sacrifice, immediately after the fall. Emile Nicole, in his defense of penal substitution from his exploration of the sacrificial system, says, ‘Sacrifice does not appear in OT primeval history as a divine command but rather as a human initiative. Abel, without any previous instruction, took the initiative to offer fat portions from the firstborn of his flock.’ (Emile Nicole, ‘Atonement in the Pentateuch,’ editors Charles E. Hill and Frank A. James III, The Glory of the Atonement (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), p.42) I am not suggesting that all penal substitution advocates would agree with that statement. But Nicole is probably mistaken on this point in two ways. First, implicitly, God most likely shed animal blood to make the ‘garments of skin’ for Adam and Eve (Gen.3:21). Many other scholars concur that the animal sacrifice had theological meaning and did not merely serve the practical benefit of being more durable than fig leaves, though undoubtedly that was its physical function and the physical point of departure for further conceptual reflection by Adam and Eve and their descendants. The Hebrew verb kippur, rendered in most places to atone, at its most basic level means to cover, and we see God covering Adam and Eve here. So what did these garments of skin mean? This was the first time that Adam and Eve saw that God was willing to sacrifice animal life – not simply plant life, which may have been somehow connected to the curse on the ground – from within the creation for their benefit, to cover their now dying bodies, which is the locus of their feeling of shame. Sacrifice therefore is God’s initiative. In Genesis, the slaying of animals when Adam and Eve were exiled from the land of Eden signified (1) bloodshed (the first blood being shed) and a covering for their bodies, in which now exists the corruption of their human nature by sin and death; (2) protection and nourishment during that exile being assisted by God’s personal association with the blood of innocent animals, which seems to provide an additional measure of life from which God could nourish the cursed ground, as Malachi 3:8 – 12 indicates; and (3) a foreshadowing of how God will bring humanity back to paradise one day in a full sense: innocent blood will one day be shed for God to reclothe humanity in a deeper, more profound way, that is in the new humanity of Jesus Christ, to restore humanity to Himself and the land to humanity.

    Cain and Abel knew of some kind of sacrificial offering (Gen.4:3 – 4), and I think the only explanation for that is the animal clothing from Genesis 3. Noah made a burnt offering on an altar he built immediately after leaving from the ark (Gen.8:20 – 21). Mention of altars subsequently implies sacrifices. Abraham built altars at Shechem (Gen.12:7), east of Bethel (Gen.12:8), Hebron (Gen.13:18), and on Mount Moriah (Gen.22:13). Isaac built an altar at Beersheba (Gen.26:25). Jacob built another altar at Shechem (Gen.33:20) and Bethel (Gen.35:1 – 7). Moses built an altar at Rephidim after successfully fighting the Anakim (Ex.17:15). Jethro offered burnt offerings on behalf of Israel (Ex.18:12). Moses, at the foot of Mount Sinai (Ex.24:4), offered burnt offerings and young bulls as peace offerings to God before sprinkling the altar and the people with the blood (Ex.24:6 – 8) to signify the covenant God was making with Israel. Israel was told by God to use solitary altars as the tabernacle was being constructed, in accordance with the regulations given in Exodus 20:24 – 26 (see, e.g. Dt.27:5 – 7 with Josh.8:30 – 35; Judg.6:24 – 27; 1 Sam.7:17; 2 Sam.24:18, 25; 1 Ki.18:30 – 35; 19:10, 14, etc.). Those sacrifices were later centralized at the sanctuary (Lev.17).

    Documentary Hypothesis advocates argued that there was a contradiction between the simple stone altars starting from Noah (Gen.8:20 – 21) and Abraham (Gen.12:4 – 9) all the way up to the law of the simple stone altar given with the Ten Commandments (Ex.20:24 – 26), as compared with the centralized animals sacrifices at the Tabernacle sanctuary altar (Ex.35 – 40; Lev.1 – 17), and that the text of the Pentateuch reflects a political compromise in the formation of the biblical canon between supporters of both sides. However, the father of biblical theology, Geerhardus Vos, a Dutch Reformed theologian who taught at Princeton Seminary and defended the unity of the Pentateuch against scholars who saw the final text as a political compromise between competing factions in Israel. Vos argued that we can dispense with the search for supposed communities and texts in conflict representing these Israelite camps, simply accept the story as a story, and view the process of centralizing the animal sacrifices at the sanctuary as a divinely initiated process.

    What can we make of the various types of offerings? Reformed theologian and Orthodox Presbyterian Church minister Peter Leithart further suggests that the burnt offering detailed in Leviticus 1:3 – 17 represents a reenactment of the Passover deliverance from Egypt. (Peter J. Leithart, Covenant by Sacrifice, Leviticus 1:1 – 17, accessed April 3, 2013) He argues that ‘ascension offering’ is a better translation of the Hebrew word ‘olah’ that is used for this offering. The word ‘olah’ comes from a verb that means ‘to go up, to ascend.’ I concur with this way of translating the term. However, Leithart appears to take the sanctuary itself as the starting point for understanding the burnt/ascension offering, whereas I believe that the chronological starting point of Genesis 4 needs to be taken as the starting point. Leithart notes that the sequence of the offering resembles Israel’s deliverance from Egypt to its covenant making moment at Mount Sinai. The Israelite would bring the animal to the door of the sanctuary (Lev.1:3) and place one’s hand on the head of the animal (Lev.1:4), which is like the consecration of the Passover lamb (Ex.12:3 – 6). The Israelite would slay the animal (Lev.1:5), as the Passover lamb would have been slain (Ex.12:6). The priest would take the animal’s blood and splash it on the bronze altar, which corresponds to putting the blood of the Passover lamb onto the doorposts of the house (Ex.12:7). The priest then would stir the fires of the altar (Lev.1:7), making the altar resemble and represent in miniature Mount Sinai wreathed with a flaming cloud (Ex.19:16). The Israelite would wash portions of the animal (Lev.1:9), corresponding to Israel’s baptismal-deliverance through the Red Sea (Ex.14). The priest would then put the washed portions of the animal onto the altar fire, turning the animal to smoke (Lev.1:9), corresponding to Moses ascending into the cloud on Mount Sinai as Israel’s covenant representative. Leithart argues that these offerings recapitulate Israel’s exodus and covenant-making at Mount Sinai, or to be more precise, Moses’ covenant mediation at Sinai.

    I think that Leithart’s suggestion is extremely valuable but takes the wrong starting point as its foundation. The first biblical mention of any kind of offering – presumably a burnt/ascension offering – is not at Israel’s sanctuary but east of Eden, in the story of Cain and Abel (Gen.4:4). The very next sacrificial offering, that of Noah, was specifically called a burnt/ascension offering (Gen.8:20 – 21). Thus, because the sacrificial offerings predate Israel’s covenant at Sinai and the tabernacle constructed there, we are invited to consider why Israel’s Sinai covenant centralized the offerings. By centralizing them, the Sinai covenant reoriented the symbolism towards Sinai in an immediate sense, but behind Sinai, and always behind the burnt offerings, was Eden.

    The basic picture we glean of burnt, grain, and peace offerings is of a meal shared between God and the worshiper. An offering, in general, was ‘the food of their God’ (Lev.21:6), ‘the food of your God’ (Lev.21:8), and ‘the food of his God’ (Lev.21:17, 21). The primitive altar was a table of fellowship. Let me be quick to add that the Israelites did not think of God as literally ‘eating’ the animal sacrifice (Ps.50:12 – 13). The fire consumed the meat and the smoke ascended to the heavens as a symbol of God sharing in the meal, perhaps because Eden remained veiled beyond the reach of the worshiper. This seems to have overtures to the Edenic motif of humanity eating with God in the Garden. Eating in God’s presence at an altar recaptured something of the mystery and the glory of days long past, but, needless to say, at a far distance.

    Jesus replaced this practice with his own practice of table fellowship. Significantly, in his Gospel, Luke structures his narrative around ten table fellowship or eating scenes: Lk.5:27 – 35; 7:36 – 50; 9:10 – 17; 10:38 – 42; 11:37 – 54; 14:1 – 24; 15:1 – 32; 19:1 – 10; 22:14 – 30; 24:13 – 49. The number ten is significant; as it marks establishment: ten words of creation in Genesis 1; ten generations in Genesis 5; ten generations in Genesis 11; ten genealogies in the book of Genesis as a whole; ten words of uncreation in Egypt in Exodus 7 – 11; ten commandments at Sinai in Exodus 20. By doing this, Jesus established both continuity and discontinuity with the ‘eating with God’ symbolism at the Temple. He affirmed its basic symbolism and Edenic meaning. But he relocated the practice from the Temple to his presence, because he claimed he was the new Temple. So he invited ‘sinners and tax-collectors’ from among the Jews, which would lead to the early church’s practice of including Gentiles qua Gentiles in the table fellowship (Acts 9 – 10; Gal.2). This again established a point of discontinuity with the Temple’s requirements for ritual purity, which particularly angered the Pharisees, who sought to reproduce some semblance of the ritual purity requirements in decentralized form, outside the Temple, whenever they ate a meal. Jesus was going in the opposite direction. Eating with God was now expressed by eating with Jesus. This is another reason why the Temple in Jerusalem was obsolete.

    What were sin and guilt offerings? The sin and guilt offerings were added to the sanctuary system specifically because of the need to maintain the purity and holiness of the tabernacle, its furniture, its vessels, its gifts and offerings, and to promote purity and holiness in the community at large while they lived on the promised land.’ (R.E. Averbeck, ‘Sacrifices and Offerings,’ in T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker (editors), Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), p.706, italics mine; see also Christian A. Eberhart, The Sacrifice of Jesus: Understanding Atonement Biblically (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2011), p.60 – 89 and Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, Andrew Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), p.44; Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1 – 16 (Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries) (New York: Doubleday, 1991) p.49 – 50, 254 – 258, 339 – 378 demonstrates that guilt offerings were to make atonement for the desecration of objects, and sin offerings were to atone for their contamination.) The connection between blood and land was maintained. Sin offerings were unique because of the blood application rite attached to them. The innocent animal blood cleansed the things on which they were sprinkled. It was therefore an act of reconsecrating something for service after a human sin had been committed. A priest who sinned had to reconsecrate the sanctuary objects that he regularly touched (Lev.4:5 – 7). If the whole congregation committed error, the sanctuary needed to be reconsecrated with innocent animal blood, too (Lev.4:13 – 18). If a leader of Israel unintentionally committed error, the sanctuary needed to be reconsecrated with innocent animal blood as well (Lev.4:22 – 25). If anyone of the common people unintentionally sinned and became aware of it, he or she needed to do the same (Lev.4:27 – 35). A person who was under court order to tell the truth as a witness but did not (Lev.5:1), or a person who touched something or someone unclean (Lev.5:2 – 3), or a person who swore thoughtlessly and then became aware of it (Lev.5:4 – 5) had to bring a guilt offering and a sin offering to cleanse the sanctuary with innocent animal blood (Lev.5:6 – 9). The only case in which blood was not demanded in the sin offering category was when the person was exceptionally poor and had to use fine flour (Lev.5:10 – 13).

    But in the cases of sin and guilt offerings, the priests stored up the symbolic corruption passed onto them from all Israel. This happened by eating (Lev.6 – 7). The high priest passed it all into God on Yom Kippur in a representation of Moses ascending Mount Sinai (Lev.16). God symbolically absorbed Israel’s impurity and did away with it. Simultaneously, God gave uncorrupted blood back to Israel so their life on the land in God’s presence could continue. But the argument of Hebrews, at least in my reading of it, is that the blood (life) of Jesus actually cleanses us from sinfulness. And in the book of Revelation, Jesus’ shed blood also provides humanity at large (not just Israel) with the ability to live on the eschatological garden land in the renewal of heaven and earth. This means there will be no more temple other than the Lord God revealing Himself in and through the Lamb (Rev.21:22). That is, Jesus is the Temple person. So when we look along the lines of the sin and guilt offerings, we find a different but intertwined reason for why the Temple in Jerusalem was made obsolete by Jesus. I disagree with your use of Temple language for what comes down from heaven at the end of Revelation. What comes down is a city, not a Temple. And the city has its own thematic meaning in Scripture as that the project of humanity.

    If what you are saying about the Prophets and about Paul is true, strictly speaking, then wouldn’t it be incumbent on Christians – and Jewish Christians in particular – to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem and re-initiate the animal sacrifices? After 70 AD, that is a position that Christians could have considered. Yet we have no knowledge of any opinion like that.


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