A Look at the Objection “The Messiah can’t be a sacrifice for sin”
A common Jewish objection that I continue to hear is that Jewish people don’t believe that a human can be sacrificed for sins. In other words, a human can’t atone for the sins of the Jewish people. First, let me give some background to the idea of atonement in Judaism. For Jewish people Yom Kippur, which is also known as Day of Atonement, is the holiest day of the year. Its central themes are atonement and repentance. When the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D, the religious and social life changed forever for the Jewish people. The Jewish people no longer had a sacrifical system in the Temple. Therefore, the atonement structure was changed to repentance which entails prayer, fasting, and doing mitzvah (good deeds). However, when there as no Temple with a sacrifical system, an argument can also be made that a righteous individual can make atonement for the sins of the nation. But regarding the central claim that Jesus can be a sacrifice or atonement for sin generally leads to the following objections:
- God forbids (human) vicarious atonement (e.g., Exod 32:31-33; Num 35:33; Deut 24:16; II Kgs 14:6; Jer 31:29 [30 in Christian Bibles]; Ezek 18:4,20; Ps 49:7).
- And God prohibits human sacrifices (e.g., Lev 18:21, 24-25; Deut 18:10; Jer 7:31, 19:5; Ezek 23:37,39).
In response: It is true the Bible prohibits human sacrifices (the sacrifice of innocent children in connection with the worship of pagan gods). God judges that. But to say that the Hebrew Bible says there is no basis for human vicarious atonement is not doesn’t line up with the evidence. Let’s look at some of the biblical and extra biblical data:
- Numbers 35: 1-28. The context here is intentional an unintentional manslaughter. In the case of unintentional manslaughter, the innocent manslayer was banished from to the city of refuge where he would remain for life unless the high priest would die and take the place of his own.
- Numbers 25:1-13? Why does God allow Phinehas to kill them and then at the end, God says, ” He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honor of his God and made ATONEMENT for the Israelites.’” In Pslam 106: 13, it says “But Phinehas stood up and intervened, and the plague was checked.This was credited to him as righteousness for endless generations to come.”
- 2 Samuel 21:1-14: the sons from Saul’s family are put to death for the sins of committed by Saul’s household. Their death resulted in God answering prayers to relieve the land of Israel from famine, implying that their death made atonement for the land.
Next point: If the Messiah can’t be sacrificed for sin, why is it that later on in the Jewish literaure, there is a case for a Messiah who can be an atonement? Let’s take a look:
In the Zohar, which is the foundational book of Jewish mysticism, we see a text about the relationship between Isaiah 53 and atonement:
“The Messiah enters the [the Hall of the Sons of Illness] and summons all the diseases and all the diseases and all the pains of the sufferings of Israel that they should come upon him, and all of them come upon him. And would he not thus bring ease to Israel and take their sufferings on himself, no man could endure the sufferings Israel had to undergo because they neglected Torah.” –see Patai- The Messiah Texts, pg 116.
And the Zohar also says “As long as Israel dwelt in the Holy Land, the rituals and sacrifices they performed in the Temple removed all the diseases of the world; now the Messiah removes them from the children of the world” – see Patai- The Messiah Texts, pg 116.
And Orthodox Jewish Rabbi Berel Wein says regarding the sufferings of the Jews being a means of atonement:
“Another consideration tinged the Jewish response to the slaughter of its people. It was an old Jewish tradition dating back to Biblical times that the death of the righteous and innocent served as expiation for the sins the nation or the world. The stories of Isaac and of Nadav and Avihu, the prophetic description of Israel as the long-suffering servant of the Lord, the sacrificial service in the Temple – all served to reinforce this basic concept of the death of the righteous as an atonement for the sins of other men. Jews nurtured this classic idea of the death as an atonement, and this attitude towards their own tragedies was their constant companion throughout their turbulent exile. Therefore, the wholly bleak picture of unreasoning slaughter was somewhat relieved by the fact that the innocent did not die in vain and that the betterment of Israel and humankind somehow was advanced by their “stretching their neck to be slaughtered.” What is amazing is that this abstract, sophisticated, theological thought should have become so ingrained in the psyche of the people that even the least educated and most simplistic of Jews understood the lesson and acted upon it, giving up precious life in a soaring act of belief and affirmation of the better tomorrow. This spirit of the Jews is truly reflected in the historical chronicle of the time: “Would the Holy One, Blessed is he, dispense judgment without justice? But we may say that he whom God loves will be chastised. For since the day the Holy Temple was destroyed, the righteous are seized by death for the iniquities of the generation”–Berel Wein, The Triumph of Survival: The Story of the Jews in the Modern Era 1650-1990 (Brooklyn:Shaar, 1990), 14.
The Shottenstein Talmud, a comprehensive Orthodox Jewish commentary states the following about Isaiah 53:
They [namely, those sitting with Messiah] were afflicted with tzaraas- as disease whose symptoms include discolored patches on the skin (see Leviticus ch. 13). The Messiah himself is likewise afflicted, as stated in Isaiah (53:4). Indeed, it was our diseases that he bore and our pains that he endured, whereas we considered him plagued (i.e. suffering tzaraas [see 98b, note 39], smitten by God and afflicted. This verse teaches that the diseases that the people ought to have suffered because of their sins are borne instead by the Messiah [with reference to the leading Rabbinic commentaries]. – Michael Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Vol 2. (Grand Rapids MI: Baker Books. 2000),157.
Solomon Schechter apeaks about this issue in his book Aspects of Rabbinic Theology:
The atonement of suffering and death is not limited to the suffering person. The atoning death extends to all the generation. This is especially the case with such sufferers as cannot either by reason of their righteous life or by their youth possibly have merited the afflictions which have come upon them. The death of the righteous atones just as well as certain sacrifices [with reference to b.Mo’ed Qatan 28a].‘They are caught (suffer) for their sins of the generation.’ [b Shabbat 32b]. There are also applied to Moses the Scriptural words, ‘And he bore the sins of many’ (Isaiah 53), because of his offering himself as the atonement for Israel’s sin with the golden calf, being ready to sacrifice his very soul for Israel when he said. ‘And if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of my book (that is, from the Book of the Living), which thou hast written’ (Ex. 32) [b. Sotah 14a; b Berakhoth 32a). This readiness to sacrifice oneself for Israel is characteristic of all the great men of Israel, the patriarchs, and the Prophets citing in the same way, whilst also some Rabbis would, on certain occasions, exclaim, ‘Behold I am the atonement for Israel’ [Mekhilta 2a;m. Negaim 2:1]. – Solomon Schechter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology. London: 1909. Reprint. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 1994, 310-311.
We also see a case for an atoning Messiah in the Prayer Book For Day of Atonement-The Musaf Prayer
“Messiah our righteousness is departed from us: horror hath seized us, and we have no one to justify us. He hath borne the yoke of our iniquities and our transgression, and is wounded because of our transgressions. He beareth our sins on his shoulder, that He may find pardon for our iniquities. We shall be healed by his wounds, at the time the Eternal will create him (the Messiah) as a new creature. O bring up from the circle of the earth. Raise him up from Seir, to assemble us the second time on Mount Lebanon, By the hand of Yinnon.” -Written by Rabbi Eliezer Kalir around 7th century A.D
Here are some more rabbinical sources: These are taken from Jacques Doukham, One The Way to Emmaus: Five Major Messiainc Prophecies Explained (Clarksville, MD: Lederer Books, 2012), 136-137.
Messiah of Justice [Meshiah Tsidenu], though we are Thy forebears. Thou are greater than we because Thou didst bear the burden of our children’s sins and our great opresssions have fallen upon Thee….Among the peoples of the world Thou didst bring only derision and mockery to Israel…Thy skin did shrink, and thy body did become dry as wood; Thine eyes were hollowed by fasting, and thy strength became like fragmented pottery –all that came to pass because of the sins of the children-()Pesiqta Rabbati, Pisqa 37)
The Messiah King …will offer is heart to implore mercy and longsuffering for Israel, weeping and suffering for Israel, weeping and suffering as it is written in Isaiah 53:5 “He was wounded for our transgressions,” etc: when the Israelites sin, he invokes upon them mercy,as it is written: “Upon him was that chastisement that made us whole, and likewise the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” And this is what the Holy One—let him be blessed forever!—decreed in order to save Israel and rejoice with Israel on the day of the resurrection. (Bereshit Rabbati on Genesis 24:67)
“Who are you, O great mountain?”…..This refers to the King Messiah. And why is He called “great mountain” Because He is greater than the patriarchs, as it is written in Isaiah 52:13 “Behold my Servant shall deal prudently, He shall be exalted and extolled and be very high.” He will be more “exalted” than Abraham, more “extolled” than Moses and more “high” than the ministering angels. (Tanhuma on Genesis 27:30).
Also, “The Rabbis said: His name is “the leper scholar,” as it is written, Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God, and afflicted. [Isaiah 53:4].” – Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 98b.
We must not forget Moses Maimonides;(1135-1204 A.D.) His systematic compilation of the Jewish law is known as the Mishne Torah, and is the standard legal text for Judaism to this day. Note: He didn’t think for one bit that Jesus was the Messiah. He says:
What is to be the manner of Messiah’s advent, and where will be the place of his appearance? . . . And Isaiah speaks similarly of the time when he will appear, without his father or mother of family being known, He came up as a sucker before him, and as a root out of the dry earth, etc. But the unique phenomenon attending his manifestation is, that all the kings of the earth will be thrown into terror at the fame of him — their kingdoms will be in consternation, and they themselves will be devising whether to oppose him with arms, or to adopt some different course, confessing, in fact, their inability to contend with him or ignore his presence, and so confounded at the wonders which they will see him work, that they will lay their hands upon their mouth; in the words of Isaiah, when describing the manner in which the kings will hearken to him, At him kings will shut their mouth; for that which had not been told them have they seen, and that which they had not heard they have perceived.” –The Fifty Third Chapter of Isaiah According to Jewish Interpreters (New York: Ktav Publishing House, In. 1969), 5.
John Collins talks about the case for of a pre-existing suffering Messiah:
“In the late-first century CE apocalypses of 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch the messiah dies. His death, however, does not involve suffering and has no atoning significance. In 4 Ezra 7:29-30, the death of the messiah marks the end of a four-hundred-year reign and is the prelude to seven days of primeval silence, followed by the resurrection. In 2 Bar 30:1, “when the time of the appearance of the messiah has been fulfilled” he returns in glory, and then all who sleep in hope of him rise.” Neither scenario bears any similarity to Isaiah 53.” -Collins, Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature, New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 2007, 124.
Let me close with another comment by Collins:
“The Christian belief (in a suffering Messiah) in such a figure, and the discovery of prophecies relating to him, surely arose in retrospect after the passion and death of Jesus of Nazareth. There is no evidence that any first century Judaism expected such a figure, either in fulfillment of Isaiah 53 or on any other basis. The notion of a suffering and dying messiah eventually found a place in Judaism.” pg 126.
Receive email updates when we post a new article by subscribing.
- “Who Do you Say I Am?”: Cultural Confusion and the Identity of Jesus
- Justice, Morality, and Human Significance: Conversation Starters with Protesters
- “What does it mean to say the New Testament is ‘Historically Reliable?’”
- How Can Disciples of Jesus Demonstrate He Has Inaugurated the Kingdom of God?
- Why the Resurrection of the Messiah Matters