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If God forbids human sacrifice in the Old Testament, how does the sacrifice of Jesus make sense?

By Eric Chabot, CJFM Midwest Representative  

There is no doubt that Christians affirm the central claim that Jesus is a sacrifice for the sins of humanity. In the New Testament, Jesus seen as a Passover sacrifice (e.g, Jn. 19:14;1 Cor. 5:7-8); an unblemished sacrifice (1 Pet.1:19; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 7: 26-28; 9:14; 1 Pet. 2:21-25); a sin offering (Rom 8:3; 2 Cor. 5:21) and a covenant sacrifice (e.g., Mk. 14:24; 1 Cor. 11:25). As Eph. 5: 2 (a proof text) says, “And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

Even in their book The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently, the authors state the following:

“In the New Testament, the ancient sacrifices all bleed into one: Jesus is the lamb of God, associated with the paschal offering, which becomes a sin offering. And once Jesus becomes the prime sacrifice, no other offerings were needed. At the beginning of this chapter, we cited Romans 3:25, where Paul speaks of the Christ as “put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” The Greek term the NRSV translates as “sacrifice of atonement” is hilastērion. Paul is referring to Leviticus 16:13–15:

Leviticus 16:30: “For on this day atonement shall be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins you shall be clean before the LORD.”   

Several subsequent verses in Leviticus clarify the atoning nature of the blood:

Leviticus 16:33: “He shall make atonement for the sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar, and he shall make atonement for the priests and all the people of the assembly.”

As these verses testify, atonement according to Leviticus is not accomplished through prayer, contrition, and fasting but through precisely following rituals of blood manipulation. “- pgs 230.

But with this issue comes some questions:

The Bible makes it quite clear that God hates human sacrifice. Thus, 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). Thus, human sacrifice is associated in the Old Testament with evil practices such as sorcery and divination, which are also detestable to God.

 So, if God hates human sacrifice, why did He sacrifice Jesus?

In response, God didn’t sacrifice Jesus. Rather, Jesus gave up his own life.  No one forced Him. He laid down His life willingly, as He made clear speaking about His life: “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again” (John 10:18).

Also, Jesus wasn’t just a human. We don’t believe that one human life could possibly cover the sins of the multitudes who ever existed. The only viable sacrifice must be an infinite one, which means only God Himself could atone for the sins of mankind.

Does the Old Testament teach anywhere that a human can atone for sins? In response, when I try to make sense of the relationship between both Testaments I am reminded of the continuity and discontinuity of the Testaments. Obviously, with the New Testament, some things are brand new (discontinuity with the Old Testament) and other things are the culmination or are continuous of what had been there all along in the Old Testament (continuity).

As Levine and Brettler say:

“We are not saying that human sacrifice was widely or even typically practiced in ancient Israel. But the textual evidence suggests that some believed it to be effective either in atoning for sins (Mic 6:7) or in diverting a great disaster (2 Kgs 3:27). None of the Hebrew Bible texts that depict human sacrifice, however, suggests that the blood in particular of the human sacrificial victim has any special role in atoning. In the Hebrew Bible, only the blood of the animal chata’t offering, not human blood, atones.”

But something else Levine and Brettler mention is the following:

“ In other classical rabbinic texts, fasting or the study of the Torah makes atonement. And in still other texts, “The death of the righteous atones for sin.” In Leviticus Rabbah 20:12, the rabbis backdate this idea to ancient Israel: “Just as the Day of Atonement atones, so does the death of the righteous atone. And where is it shown that . . . the death of the righteous atones? Where it is stated, ‘And they buried the bones of Saul.’ . . . And God responded to the plea of the land thereafter” (the citation is to 2 Sam 21:14). Here we may see a response to Christian proclamation.” – pgs 246-247.

Note they say the death of the righteous can serve as an atonement for sin. Building on that theme, we now jump to the Maccabean literature which is the backdrop for Hanukkah.

 Note: this info is adapted from J. J. William’s book, Maccabean Martyr Traditions in Paul’s Theology of Atonement: Did Martyr Theology Shape Paul’s Conception of Jesus’s Death?

The books of 2 and 4 Maccabees record that God judged the Jews through Antiochus Epiphanes IV because of the nation’s religious apostasy (cf. 1 Maccabees 1; 2 Macc 7:32).

God poured out his wrath against Israel through the invasion of Antiochus because of its disobedience to the Torah before 4 Macc 17:21–22 (1 Macc 1:1–63; 2 Macc 5:1–7:38; 4 Macc 4:15–6:29).

4 Macc 6:28–29 states that Eleazar offers his “blood” to be a “ransom” so that God would “be satisfied.” A passage in 4 Macc 17:21–22 states that the Jewish martyrs die a propitiatory death for the nation.

The martyrs die as penal sacrifices of atonement for the nation’s sins because the fundamental reason behind their deaths was Israel’s disobedience to Torah, and they died to end God’s judgment against the nation’s sin and to save the nation from his wrath (2 Macc 7:32–38; 4 Macc 6:28–29; 17:21–22).

2 Maccabees 7:37-38: “I [the youngest of the seven sons martyred one by one in front of their mother], like my brothers, give up body and life for the laws of our ancestors, appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nation and by trials and plagues to make you confess that he alone is God, and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation.”

4 Maccabees 6:27-29: [Eleazar prays] “You know, O God, that though I might be saved myself, I am dying in burning torments for the sake of the law. Be merciful to your people, and let our punishment suffice for them. Make my blood their purification, and take my life in exchange for theirs.”

4 Macc. 6:27–29: Eleazar (one of the Jewish martyrs who died for the nation) asked God to use his blood to be a ransom so that he would be the means by which he purified, provided mercy for, and to be the means by which he would satisfy his wrath against the nation. The author interprets the significance of the martyrs’ deaths in 4 Macc. 17:21–22 by stating that they purified the homeland, that they served as a ransom for the nation, and that their propitiatory deaths saved the nation.

4 Maccabees 17:22: “And through the blood of those devout ones and their deaths an atoning sacrifice divine Providence preserved Israel that previously had been mistreated.”

4 Maccabees 18:4: “Because of them [those who gave their bodies in suffering for the sake of religion; 18:3] the nation gained peace.”

To summarize: 

1.The martyrs suffered and died because of sin (2 Macc 7:18, 32; 12:39–42; 4 Macc 4:21; 17:21–22; cf. Lev 1:1–7:6; 8:18–21; 16:3–24).

2. The martyrs’ blood was the required price for the nation’s salvation (2 Macc 7:32–38; 4 Macc 6:28–29; 7:8; 17:21–22).

3.The martyrs’ deaths ended God’s wrath against the nation (1 Macc 1:1–64; 2 Macc 7:32–38; 8:5; 4 Macc 17:21–22).

4. The martyrs’ deaths provided purification and cleansing for the nation (4 Macc 6:28–29; 17:22; cf. Lev 16:16, 30; Isa 53:10).

5. The martyrs’ deaths spared the nation from suffering the penalty for their own sin in the eschaton (2 Macc 5:1–8:5; cf. 2 Macc 7:1–14).

6. The martyrs died  vicariously for the nation (2 Macc 7:18, 32; 4 Macc 4:21; 17:21–22).

Solomon Schechter speaks 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 generations. 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.

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 of 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.

Interesting stuff indeed!


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