Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Sacrificial Atonement

This is a term paper that I wrote for Old Testament Introduction during my first semester in seminary. I enjoyed writing this paper thoroughly. Enjoy, but please don't plagiarize.


Patricia S. Taylor
OT520 Old Testament Introduction
May 16, 2013

            Though sacrifice was a cultural norm throughout the entire Ancient Near East (ANE), the sacrificial system in the Old Testament has become one of the most distinctive aspects of ancient Israelite culture. Sacrifice in the Ancient Israelite culture can be easily misunderstood without an understanding of the definitive difference between the sacrifices of the nation Israel and that of the rest of the ANE. All the other religious sacrifices of the ANE were centered around meeting the needs of their deities. The sacrifices of Ancient Israel centered on meeting the needs of the people.
Because of misunderstanding the purpose of Israelite sacrifice, many modern readers of Scripture view sacrificial atonement as archaic and far removed from their own cultures, and indeed, it may even seem barbaric to some. However, a complete understanding of sacrificial atonement can illuminate larger theological truths about the nature of God Himself. The Holman Bible Dictionary explains that, “Primarily in the Old Testament, atonement refers to the process God established whereby humans could make an offering to God to restore fellowship with God. Such offerings, including both live and dead animals, incense, and money, were required to remove the bad effects of human sin.”[1] To the Israelites, sacrificial atonement was a means of ensuring the continuing presence of YHWH in their community. It was a generous provision of mercy and grace that was given to them by their God to combat the effects of sin and the fallen state of their world.
            In order to understand the Old Testament theology of atonement, it is essential to first understand the concept of sin and its effects as these theological concepts appear in the Old Testament. Christopher Wright points out that “…ethical issues are at every point related to God – to his character, his will, his actions, and his purpose.”[2] It is the very identity of YHWH that determines sin as anything that deviates from His plan, purpose, and personality and causes his people to “…fall short of the glory of God.”[3] In essence, sin is rebellion against God’s very nature.
The most harmful effect of sin is separation from God. “Perfect in righteousness, God cannot tolerate that which violates His righteous character. Therefore, sin creates a barrier between God and persons.”[4] Separation from YHWH was a particularly grievous problem in ancient Israel. Because of the structured covenantal relationship between Israel and YHWH, separation from their God was doom for the people.
In Genesis 17, as God gave Abram a new name, Abraham, God told him that He would make a covenant with his descendants. That covenant came to its fullness in Exodus 6 as YHWH revealed Himself and His covenant to the nation Israel through Moses: “Then I will take you for My people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the LORD your God…”[5] At that time, Israel was a relatively small and weak people group that had been in the grip of slavery in Egypt for centuries. In order to survive and become a great nation, they had to rely solely on the protection and provision of God. It was YHWH Who would fight their battles for them, keep their enemies at bay, guide them through the harsh desert, and even quench their hunger and thirst. Without His presence, the people of Israel could not survive.  Even as they entered and inhabited the land that God promised to give them, the only way they could keep it was by maintaining the presence of the God Who fought their battles for them. Their problems came when they were separated from YHWH by sin.
            In addition to separating the people of Israel from the God Who supplied all their needs, sin also destroyed their societal structure. “Sin produces estrangement from other persons just as surely as it produces an estrangement from God.”[6] It destroyed their relationships with each other, contributed to the abuse of those most vulnerable in society, and caused the disintegration of the family unit. It even caused economic hardship, due to Israel’s failure to give the land its Sabbath rest as prescribed by YHWH. All grief and pain was a result of sin, whether it be individual sin, national sin, or the general fallen state of the world due to original sin.
            Sin and its effects remained a continuous problem with God’s people, but YHWH, in His great love and wisdom, provided a way to combat the effects of sin. “The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.”[7] After the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden, God Himself provided the first sacrifice to give humans a covering. He slayed an innocent animal to provide those garments of skin for Adam and Eve so they would no longer be naked. Because the penalty for sin is death, that innocent animal paid the death-debt that was owed by the first humans. That the first sacrificial covering and substitute for the sin penalty was provided by God Himself would have far-reaching implications throughout Israel’s history and in the redemption story of the entire world.
            The developing pattern of offering sacrifice to God continues with Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham, and others, and is strongly present within the patriarchal narratives. After God’s sacrifice for Adam, the next pivotal sacrifice was that of Noah when he emerged from the ark. His sacrifice was very significant because it aids in understanding how the ancient Israelites understood the concept of sacrificial atonement. Diffenbaugh states that “This basis for God’s covenant promise is the result of the burnt offering offered up by Noah. Thus, the Israelites saw that the burnt offering was a means of avoiding God’s wrath and of obtaining God’s favor. God’s blessing was the result of a burnt offering, not of man’s good deeds.”[8] The text of Genesis 8 shows that sin had not been wiped off the earth, because God asserts that still, “…the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth…”[9] The reason God had favor on humankind and made a covenant to never again destroy the earth with a flood was a result of Noah’s offering on behalf of humanity.
 The other key sacrifice that molded the Israelites’ concept of sacrificial atonement is that of Abraham and Isaac. Genesis 22 begins with God instructing Abraham to take “…Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains…”[10] Abraham was obedient and took Isaac to the mountain, fully intending to do as God had instructed him. Isaac was the child of promise—the fulfillment of the covenant between God and Abraham. When sin breaks the covenant that God has made, not only is there a penalty of death, but justice dictates that He should take back the blessing of that covenant. As stated in Ecclesiastes, “Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins.”[11] Not even Abraham, one of the greatest patriarchs in Israelite history, was perfect. However, instead of taking Abraham’s beloved son, Isaac, as atonement for sin, God’s mercy and grace prevailed. The son Abraham knew he had lost forever was spared and again, God Himself provided a sacrifice to take his place so a human life would not have to be taken. By this act, the Israelites understood that the sacrificial animal was standing in their stead and bearing their sins, and that God Himself was providing a way to restore their relationship with Him.
It was not until after the exodus that YHWH introduced an organized model of sacrificial atonement for the Israelite people. The institution of organized sacrifice began in Exodus 27 with the instruction for building the altar of acacia wood, but the guidelines for making sacrificial atonement are found in Leviticus 1-7. There are several different types of offerings that are described in Leviticus 1-7. The main offerings that are prescribed in Leviticus 1-7 are whole burnt offerings, grain offerings, sacrifices of well-being, sin offerings, and guilt offerings.
            Whole burnt offerings were intended to remove the effects of basic human sinfulness. The people who offered such sacrifices would place their hands on the animals, signifying ownership and transmission of sins to the animal. The offerers would assist the priest by cutting the animal in pieces and the entire animal would be burned on the altar.
The sin and guilt offerings were intended to remove the effects of personal sins. “The purpose of the [sin or guilt] offering was to remove an offerer’s guilt, which was due to either advertent or inadvertent sin or impurity.” [12] Often called expiation, or kippur, the sin and guilt offerings were used to remove sin and restore the covenantal relationship with YHWH. The purification, or sin offering was based on the status of the offerer. The fatty portions were burned, and “a portion of this offering became the priests’ and they were to eat it in a holy place…In eating it they participated in the removal of the sin…”[13] The reparation, or guilt offering, was basically the same as the sin offering, except that it included restitution or compensation for a breach of faith.
            Sacrificial atonement was meant to be a means for sinful humanity to be able to renew their relationship with God and be free from the effects of sin. Over time, however, a problem arose. “The problem…was that worshippers had come to believe that this was the only form their dedication needed to take. If they made the right sacrifices, God would be pleased with them, regardless of their conduct.”[14] YHWH explained this problem to His people through the prophet in Isaiah 10. During that speech, He said, “…I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs or goats.”[15] Sacrificial atonement was never meant to be a covering for doing whatever the people felt like doing. They were called “…to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [their] God.”[16]
            As the people of God, the Israelite nation was under a covenant obligation to reflect the nature of their deity in their everyday lives. They were called to be holy as He is holy and to reflect His love and mercy through having love and mercy for one another. However, due to the fallen nature of the world and the sinful nature of humankind, their love for YHWH failed. In His great mercy and grace, He Himself provided a means of restoring their covenant and removing the damaging effects of the sin that held them captive. He, in His wisdom, knew that they could not combat the effects of sin on their own. The magnitude of God’s redemptive plan was unknown to the ancient Israelites, but humankind has, in these last days, seen its fullness. In the greatest act of love that ever was or ever will be, God provided Himself a perfect sacrifice that would once and for all conquer sin and death. There is no need for the blood of bulls and goats any longer. “…Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”[17] Jesus, the sacrificial Lamb was slain for all the world, that all may have the opportunity to be saved from the devastating effects of sin. Glory to God!

Butler, Trent C. ed. Holman Bible Dictionary. Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 1991. (Read 15 pages)
Coogan, Michael D. The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. (Read 32 pages)
Deffinbaugh, Bob. “The Law of Burnt Offerings: (Leviticus 1:1-17).” (accessed May 18, 2013). (Read 11 pages)
LaSor, William Sanford, David Allan Hubbard, and Frederic Wm. Bush. Old Testament Survey: The Message, Form, and Background of the Old Testament. (2nd ed.) Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996.
Sloane, Andrew. At Home in a Strange Land: Using the Old Testament in Christian Ethics. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008. (Read 98 pages)
Wright, Christopher J.H. Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2004. (Read 153 pages)

[1] Trent Butler, “Holman Bible Dictionary,” 128.
[2] Christopher Wright, “Old Testament Ethics,” 17.
[3] Rom. 3:23 NASB
[4] Trent Butler, “Holman Bible Dictionary,” 1283.
[5] Ex. 6:7 NASB
[6] Trent Butler, “Holman Bible Dictionary,” 1283.
[7] Gen. 3:21 NASB
[8] Bob Deffinbaugh, “The Law of Burnt Offerings.” par. 32.
[9] Gen. 8:21 NASB
[10] Gen. 22:2 NASB
[11] Eccl. 7:20 NASB
[12] Michael Coogan, The Old Testament, 141.  
[13] William LaSor, David Hubbard, & Frederic Bush, Old Testament Survey, 85.
[14] Andrew Sloane, At Home in a Strange Land, 81.
[15] Is. 10:11 NASB
[16] Micah 6:8 NASB
[17] Jn. 1:29 NASB

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