The Atonement

The Atonement

by Dr. Michael Brown

 The notion that we Jews need a blood atonement is completely wrong. First, even the book of Leviticus indicates that at certain times flour was accepted for an atonement, while Exodus 30 refers to “atonement money” and Numbers 31 mentions jewelry being offered for atonement. The prophets indicated clearly that God did not want blood sacrifices, and the rabbis have taught that God is satisfied today with prayer, repentance, and good deeds.

Until the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., Jewish teaching emphasized the necessity of blood atonement. According to the Talmud, “There is not atonement (kapparah) without the blood” (Yoma 5a; Zebahim 6a; Menahot 93b). It is recognized by Jewish and Christian scholars alike that the New Covenant emphasis on blood atonement is based on Jewish beliefs of the day. And, although many Jews today think that it is the New Covenant writers who cited Leviticus 17:11 to prove that God required blood atonement, it is actually the rabbis of the Talmud who quoted this verse in this way! They recognized that, because “the life of a creature is in the blood,” God gave it upon the altar to make atonement for His people. “It is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life” (Lev. 17:11).

Blood sacrifices formed the main part of the ancient Israelite Temple service, and according to Leviticus 16, on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) the Holy Place itself, as well as the High Priest and all the people of Israel, were to be cleansed by the blood of a sacrificial goat. On the eve of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, it was the blood of the Passover (pesach) lamb, put upon the two doorposts and lintel of the house, that would be a sign to the destroying angel, and the Lord said, “And when I see the blood, I will pass over you” (Ex. 12:13). Even the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai was ratified with the shedding of blood (“This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words”—Ex. 24:8, and the Aramaic Targum to this verse reads: “And Moses took the blood and poured it on the altar as atonement for the people…”). 

It is with good reason that the Letter to the Hebrews says that “the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22), since the central importance of the blood, and, in particular, the blood of atonement, is clearly seen in the Tanakh. Any other system of atonement that does not include the blood is not biblical, and any other system of atonement that fails to offer substitutionary atonement, i.e., an innocent sacrificial victim dying on behalf of a guilty sinner, is not able to provide real forgiveness of sins. 

How then do we account for references to flour offerings and “atonement money” in the Torah? The answers again are simple. According to Leviticus 5:11-13, a poor Israelite who was unable to bring the required trespass offering of a lamb, goat, turtledoves or pigeons could bring instead an offering of fine flour. According to verse 12, the priest will “take a handful of it [i.e., the flour] as a memorial portion, and burn it on the altar on top of the offerings made to the Lord by fire” Then (verse 13) “the priest will make atonement for him.” In other words, the priest, in his capacity as mediator for the people, and having mingled the flour with the blood that was already upon the altar, would make atonement for his fellow Israelite. Nowhere is it written that “the flour will make atonement,” or that “the life of a creature is in the flour.” Rather, the whole basis for atonement remained in the sacrificial blood that was upon the altar.

The references to “atonement money” actually have nothing to do with atonement for sins. One example is found in Exodus 30:11-16, where every male Israelite who was to be counted in the census was to pay a kopher (“a ransom”; see Ex. 21:30—the owner of a goring ox that killed a man would have to pay a kopher, i.e., a fixed amount of ransom money). Since the taking of a census was considered to be a dangerous enterprise (according to 2 Sam. 24, when David numbered Israel, a plague broke out among the people), God told the Israelites to contribute an offering to the Tabernacle, so that no plague would break out among them.

Thus, the kopher here had to do with protection from a plague, and not forgiveness of sins or personal atonement. In fact, the expression in verse 15, “to atone for your lives,” should really be translated as “to pay a kopher (ransom) for your souls.” This is also the best way to translate Numbers 31:50, since the reference to the children of Israel offering gold jewelry to the Lord again has nothing to do with atonement. Having just counted the soldiers who had gone into battle with Midian (again, they had taken a census), the officers decided to offer some of the spoil to God and thus, to pay a kopher for their souls. What connection is there between any of these narratives and the concept of personal atonement or forgiveness of sins?

As to the belief that “the prophets indicate clearly that God doesn’t want blood sacrifices,” it is clear from reading the prophets’ own words that what they really opposed were empty sacrifices and vain offerings. If one wishes to say that the prophets wanted to abolish the sacrificial system, then one would also have to say that the prophets wanted to abolish the Sabbath! (See Is. 1:13: “Stop bringing meaningless offerings, New Moons, Sabbaths, and convocations—I cannot bear your evil assemblies.”)

The prophets taught that sacrifices without mercy and justice were vain, and that bringing an offering without a repentant and contrite heart was unacceptable. Both of these themes are constantly reiterated in the New Covenant, and one of Yeshua’s favorite texts was Hosea 6:6: “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings” (see, e.g., Matt. 12:7). In fact, when Yeshua gave the Great Commission, He said that “repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations…” (Luke 24:47). Without repentance, the sacrifice of Yeshua will do the sinner no good.

When the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., the rabbis instituted what they thought were other forms of atonement, such as prayer, good deeds and charity. They found support for this in verses such as Hosea 14:2 (verse 3 in some versions) which states poetically, “That we may offer the fruit of our lips.” Yet, while the Bible sometimes describes prayer, repentance and worship with “sacrifice imagery,” it never implies that these things were to take the place of the sacrifices themselves.

Thus, in Psalm 51, after stating that “the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit” (v. 17), David says: “Then there will be righteous sacrifices, whole burnt offerings to delight you; then bulls will be offered on your altar” (v. 19). Another good example is Psalm 141 where David asks that his prayer be set before God as incense, and that the lifting up of his hands be as the evening sacrifice. Yet no one would suggest that King David, who brought the ark of God to Jerusalem, and who desired to build a permanent “house” for the Lord, wanted to abolish incense or the evening sacrifice!

The rabbis have taught us much that is beautiful regarding prayer, repentance and good deeds. Yet, as beautiful as this teaching is, it provides us with no suitable replacement for the blood of atonement. To this very day, there are still orthodox Jews who, recognizing their need for an atonement sacrifice, kill a chicken on Yom Kippur, wave it around their heads and say: “This is my substitute! This is my atonement!” What a sad testimony to our people’s lack of true forgiveness outside of God’s way through Messiah! And what clear evidence of the fact that, with the Temple destroyed, traditional Judaism offers no new covenant, ratified with blood, and acceptable in the sight of God.


 What did the Jews living in Babylonian exile, before Yeshua died and with no sacrifices to offer, do for atonement?

It is significant that the Jews who were in exile in Babylon longed for the days when the Temple would be rebuilt, and they fully recognized that it was because of their sin that the Temple had been destroyed (see Dan. 9:1-19). Interestingly enough, scholars believe that it was during this very time of exile that the teaching of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant came to prominence. The hope of the Messiah was coming alive, and the Jewish people were being directed to the One who would bring to fulfillment the system of Jewish Scriptures blood sacrifices by offering up Himself. By the time the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., He had already come and done His work.

The Jews in Babylonian captivity could look forward to the coming of the Deliverer who would be cut “off, but not for himself” (Dan. 9:26, text note). Today, our Jewish people can look back to the One who paid the ransom for our souls.

Even if we admit that we need the blood, we still can’t believe in Yeshua. God wanted the blood of a goat or a lamb, not a person.

The writer to the Hebrews stated that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb. 10:4). Obviously a just God could not accept the death of an innocent and ignorant animal for the payment of human sins. Rather, as Rashi stated in his commentary on Leviticus 17:11, there was a principle involved: “Because the life of the flesh of every creature is dependent on the blood, I have therefore given it [upon the altar] to make atonement for the life of man. Let life come and atone for life!” 

God was teaching His people that sin deserved death (see Deut. 24:16, 30:15, and Ezek. 18:4). Yet, because He was merciful and compassionate, He provided a way of escape—the life of an innocent victim would take the place of the sinner. Passages such as Isaiah 53 make it clear, however, that these sacrifices were only a great object lesson pointing forward to the coming of the One who would “do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb. 9:26). His blood alone would provide an acceptable sacrifice for the sins of the world. 

On the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, the High Priest would perform a very significant ritual. He would take two goats and present them before the Lord (Lev. 16:7). One goat was to be killed, and its blood offered to “make atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been” (verse 16). Then he would take the second goat, which was still alive, and, laying both his hands on its head, he would “confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head” (verse 21). He would then send it away into the wilderness, where the goat would “carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place” (verse 22). 

God had devised a plan whereby sin would not only be atoned for, but it would actually be removed. Justice would then be satisfied, for sin would be punished. And yet mercy would be fulfilled, for the sinner would be forgiven. Thus, in physically graphic and literal terms, the Lord was pointing forward to the death of Messiah, who, in one act, would provide the blood of atonement and remove our sins far from us. 

And it is this very concept, viz., that the suffering of the righteous could provide atonement for the sins of the world, which is so well known in Judaism. Thus, the Zohar states so clearly that, because 

the children of the world are members of one another, when the Holy One desires to give healing to the world, He smites one just man amongst them, and for his sake heals all the rest. Whence do we learn this? From the saying, “He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities,” i.e., by the letting of His blood— as when a man bleeds his arm—there was healing for us—for all the members of the body. In general a just person is only smitten in order to procure healing and atonement for a whole generation. 

Could one ask for a clearer statement of the substitutionary death of Yeshua, by whose wounds we are healed?

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