Atonement is by reason of the life

						Lynellen Perry
						Dec. 7, 1990
						Hebrew 401

The subject of atonement involves many, many issues, and hundreds, if not thousands, of books have been written on it. To narrow the scope to the range of this paper, only a two topics will be looked at briefly; the Old Testament definition of atonement, and how atonement is achieved. This paper will also get an overview of atonement in modern Judaism.

Christianity asserts that the central purpose of Christ's incarnation was to lay down His life. He became the one-time, final, perfect sacrifice of atonement that would reconcile to God for all time any who accepted Him. Hebrews 7:26, 27 says, "For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens; who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins, and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself." Indeed, death is the only way reconciliation to God can be made. Genesis 9:5 says, "And surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man's brother I will require the life of man".

"kpr" is the Hebrew root for "atonement". The word has several meanings according to Novak. The first is "to cover over" or to overlook, or to forgive, as it is used in Psalms 78:38 "But He, being compassionate, forgave their iniquity". The second meaning is "to satisfy an offense or a fault" as exampled in Daniel 9:24, "to finish the transgression, to make an end of sin, to make atonement for iniquity". As Novak says, "a complete satisfaction shall be made to the offended." A third meaning is "to oppose or placate the person offended" as seen in Genesis 32:20, "For he said, 'I will appease him with the present that goes before me' ". Another meaning is "to cancel as one's covenant with death or agreement with hell". Isaiah 28:18 reads, "And your covenant with death shall be cancelled, And your pact with Sheol shall not stand" (Novak, 14).

According to the Old Testament, the Israelites were required to be reconciled to God (atoned) daily, weekly, on the first of each month, at all of the festivals (Numbers 28,29), on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29-34), and at the census (Exodus 30:12-16). The census atonement appears to be monetary while the rest require a life to be taken. But, as Morris points out, whether by money or by killing an animal, atonement always comes at a price (Morris, 58). Indeed, in 2 Samuel 24:24, David says to Araunah, "I will not sacrifice to the LORD my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing".

We are familiar with the verse that says that atonement is only achieved by the shedding of blood. Leviticus 17:11 says, "For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement." So why then is the collecting of money at the census said by God to make atonement for the people? Neusner answers, "The explicit explanation of the payment of the half-shekel, therefore, is that it allowed all Israelites to participate in the provision of the daily whole-offering, which accomplished atonement for sin on behalf of the holy people as a whole" (Neusner, 288). The proof of this answer rests on Exodus 30:16, "And you shall take the atonement money from the sons of Israel, and shall give it for the service of the tent of meeting, that it may be a memorial for the sons of Israel before the LORD, to make atonement for yourselves." So it is actually not the half-shekel itself that makes the atonement, but the whole-offering that the half-shekel buys, and thus we return to death as being the only way to atonement.

This concept is found in passages other than Leviticus, and thus in a part of life other than worship. In Exodus 32:30-32, Moses was asking the LORD to forgive the Israelites for the sin of making and worshiping the golden calf. "But if not, the blot me out of the book you have written" (v 32). Moses' way of "seeking atonement was to ask that he himself be blotted out. He offered his death to atone for their sin" (Morris, 58). In Numbers 25:13, the atonement for immoral conduct and the worship of idols was "the death of two of the principle sinners against God" (ibid). Deuteronomy 21:1-8 shows how atonement is made for a murder by an unknown person. "The death of the heifer atoned for any sin that might be thought to rest on the town" (ibid). Here however, there is no shedding of blood since the heifer's neck is broken, but the simple fact of the death of the innocent heifer is what makes the atonement. From 2 Samuel 21:1-9, Morris says, "both the Gibeonites and David accepted without question that the way to make atonement was to bring about death" (Morris, 59).

To the Israelites, life and blood were intimately connected (Morris, 53). In fact, the word 'blood' appears 362 times in the Old Testament; 103 of those times in reference to the blood of sacrifices and 94 of these occurrences being sacrifices in the Levitical system (Morris, 52). Hendel states that the two most important types of sacrifice in Israel were the s lamim and ola sacrifices (Hendel, 381). But the sacrifice ritual was only a part of the purification process on the most important day of the year - the Day of Atonement. On this day, the Israelites were also supposed to afflict their souls, and abstain from work. The High Priest would recite a special confessional (Leviticus 16).

In the sacrificial process, purification is achieved during a series of substitutions/transfers of the contamination of sin from the sinner to the animal (via the offerer laying hands on the animal), and then to the blood of the animal and finally to the sanctuary when the blood was applied to the altar (Zohar, 616). The death of the animal brings the atonement and then "the blood splashed on the side of the alter is a tangible, visible reminder of the performance of the sacrifice" (Hendel, 387).

When the Temple was destroyed, sacrifices ceased. This was a large problem for the Jews, and the Rabbis devised several solutions to it. "Now that we have no prophet or Kohen or sacrifice, who shall atone for us? The only thing let to us is prayer" reads Tanchuma, Vayishlach 10 (Bloch, 34). The substitutes for sacrifice created by the Rabbis include the study of the Law - especially the Talmud, your own suffering, or your own death (based on Psalms 116:15), and the giving of charity (Buksbazen, 33). Rabbinic keys to salvation focus on social aspects, but the previous sacrificial motif was God-directed (Bloch, 37). Another substitute is repentance. Repentance includes regret for the past, desisting from sinful behavior, confession before God, resolving not to sin again in the future (Eckstein, 123), reparation of wrong, prayer, fasting and charity. Finally, a substitute to fulfill the need for the shedding of blood. For Yoma 5a reads, "There is no atonement except with blood". So the sacrifice of chickens is allowed to fulfill this requirement. (Buksbazen, 33). The Day of Atonement itself is now viewed as the atonement of Israel, and there is only hope, but no assurance of atonement and forgiveness.

In conclusion, these substitutes have very little Biblical basis, and they are after all, substitutes for God's system of atonement. As we have seen, the Old Testament defines atonement as requiring the taking of a life, directly or indirectly. Death is the only way reconciliation to God can be made.


Bloch, Abraham P. The Biblical and Historical Background of the Jewish Holy Days. New York: KTAV Publishing House, Inc. 1978.

Buksbazen, Victor. The Gospel in the Feasts of Israel. Fort Washington: Chri stian Literature Crusade, 1954.

Eckstein, Rabbi Yechiel. What you should know about Jews and Judaism. Waco: Word Books Publisher, 1984.

Hendel, Ronald S. "Sacrifice as a Cultural System: the Ritual Symbolism of Ex odus 24: 3-8." Zeitschrift fur die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 101 (1989): 366-390.

Morris, Leon. The Atonement: its Meaning and Significance. Downer's Grove: In ter- Varsity Press, 1983.

Neusner, Jacob. "Money Changers in the Temple: the Mishnah's Explanation." Ne w Testament Studies 35 (1989) : 287-290.

Novak, Al. Hebrew Honey. Houston: J. Countryman Publishers, 1987.

Zohar, Noam. "Repentance and Purification: the Significance and Semantics of h t't in the Pentateuch." Journal of Biblical Literature 107 (1988): 609-618.

All Biblical quotations are from the New American Standard Bible.