[Editorial, MSH: Listeners to the Naked Bible podcast series on Leviticus will recall that nearly all the sacrificial language of Leviticus had to do with disinfecting or protecting sacred space from impurity – the blood was not applied to the one bringing sacrifice for any sort of moral cleansing. While the effect was God allowed people access of his presence once the rituals were performed – thereby suggesting things were “okay” between God and the offerer and the priest – a loving relationship with Yahweh was based on “believing loyalty” on the part of the Israelite and God’s own faithfulness to show mercy. It’s a good context for Dr. Johnson’s paper, so as to discern what he actually wants us to think about.]


This post is based on a paper written for the Evangelical Theological Society several years ago (“Bloodless Atonement in Israelite Religion and its Implications for Justification in NT Theology”). Please don’t be put off by the title. The real question I was thinking about as I wrote the paper never came out in the paper itself: So if other gods exist, how might they have compared to Yahweh with regard to blood and atonement? I hope you can enjoy the paper in this light. I have reworked it a bit, and divided it into several posts for sake of length.

The OT concept of animal sacrifice, especially bloody sacrifice, is usually considered the necessary backdrop for understanding the NT themes of justification and salvation. In this paper I will try to show that Israel’s religion did not set out to teach this on the front end, and that the larger biblical story will not defend those themes on the back end. In its place I will contend that the Yahweh/human relationship has always been primarily dependent upon fidelity (“faith”) and not upon blood sacrifice, nor even atonement (ritual purification).

I understand that those last three words are likely the most difficult to defend. It is a scary thing to challenge our modern understanding of atonement. The paradigm of Christ “dying for my sins” as a “substitute payment for my debt,” with the gospel even being described as “accepting this payment as my own” is pervasive to the point of not being considered one paradigm among other viable options. I opened a book just yesterday (which had nothing to do with the atonement) and found this sentence in the opening paragraph of the introduction: “They [my friends who will likely disagree with some points in this book] strongly affirm the complete inerrancy of the Bible, the Trinity, the full deity of Christ, the substitutionary atonement of Christ for our sins, and dozens upon dozens of other important doctrinal convictions.” There you have it, I guess. To question substitutionary atonement or the way it’s talked about is to challenge the Trinity and the deity of Christ. I believe otherwise, and hope that this paper will show why.

Let’s Make a Sacrifice

Scholars disagree about the meaning of sacrifice in the ancient world. Considering all the sacrifices and offerings mentioned in the OT, there exists no clear indication that any of them were meant to be interpreted in terms of vicarious penalty-removal (I would recommend here Bradley McLean, “The Absence of Atoning Sacrifice in Paul’s Soteriology,” NTS 38 [1992], 532-42). Our biggest problem in forming a theology of sacrifice, quite frankly, is simply lack of information—mixed with our attendant predispositions of what we think the sacrificer was thinking at the moment of sacrifice. So let’s summarize what we do not know. We have no certain evidence that Israelite religion taught that sin and its guilt could be literally transferred to an animal (I say “literally” in the sense that even the goat sent out of the camp in Leviticus 16 was himself not to be considered a morally sinful goat). Imagine how interesting a world that would be, by the way, if sin could be transferred from a person to an animal: I commit a serious sin, grab Fido from his nap under the table, head out the back door, and . . . my sin is gone. But no Israelite thought like this. Maybe pagans did. But not Israelites. Add to this the fact that poor people could sacrifice food (no blood there) in place of animals (Lev 5:11-13), and we are forced into realizing that unless we are willing to see flour inheriting sin, we probably should not do the same for an animal. Then there are the sacrifices which were explicitly for a purpose other than that of solving sin (e.g., Abraham/Isaac, Passover, the peace offering, etc.), and we are left holding an empty bag if we were presuming that all sacrifices were primarily about sin. Most were not.

So why did Israelites sacrifice? We recall numerous examples of the many patriarchs and leaders who built altars with regularity, whether Noah (Gen. 8:20), Abraham (Gen 12:6 ff.; 13:18; 22:9), Isaac (Gen 26:25), Jacob (Gen 33:20; 35:1-7), Moses (Exod 17:15), Joshua (Josh 8:30 f.; cf. Deut 27:5), Gideon (Jdg 6:24 ff.), or David (2 Sam 24:18-25). From all indications, these individuals were simply following cultural norm, whether living before or after Moses. Archaeological evidence tells of Canaanite altars within Israel from the 14th and 13th centuries B.C. forward, and we suspect this tells the story of all nations long before that time. All ancient cultures viewed the physical world as created and lorded over by deities, and everyone lived and worked under the assumption that the gods expected some sort of penitential rituals on the part of worshipping humans. Bloodletting was a common means of gaining a god’s attention. There was even the shared notion that the gods fed upon human blood and food. As Daniel Block has pointed out, most of the categories of sacrifice found in Leviticus 1-5 are attested to outside of Israel, most notably zebah (sacrifice, sacrificial meals), selamim (peace/well-being offerings), ola (whole burnt offerings), and mincha (gift, grain/cereal offerings) offerings (“Other Religions in Old Testament Theology,” in Biblical Faith and Other Religions: An Evangelical Assessment [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004] 43-78). So let’s follow through on this possibility: could Yahweh have allowed for sacrifice as a way of expressing religious devotion, as opposed to demanding it? I think yes, with some evidence to follow.

Triangulating between Sin, Forgiveness, and Atonement

Israelite religion taught that it was a serious thing to deviate from the expressed will and desire of Yahweh. This is what it meant to sin, at least in the behavioral sense. The seriousness of sin was expressed in many ways in the OT through the use of numerous Hebrew words, many times carrying curious illustrations. Consider these word pictures:

Sin is a thick cloud cover over one’s head: Lamentations 3:44-50

Sin is having dirty lips, the gateway to one’s soul: Isaiah 6:5 (cp. Prov. 6:12-14)

Sin is being a rebellious animal: Jeremiah 31:18

Sin is a demonic animal waiting to attack: Genesis 4:7

Sin is having a heart full of illegitimate desire: Ezekiel 20:16

Sin is breaking a promise between partners: Nehemiah 1:7

Sin is walking backward and not forward: Jeremiah 7:24

Sin is wandering away from someone: Jeremiah 14:10

Sin is turning of one’s back on someone: 2 Chronicles 29:6

Sin is being left alone to fend for oneself: Lamentations 1

Sin is being a rebellious child/spouse: Nehemiah 1:8-9; 9:33; Jeremiah 3:20, 22

Sin is being dirty: Psalm 51:4

Sin is a dirty garment, or a stain on a garment: Job 14:4; Isa 1:18; 64:6; Zech 3:4

Sin is a disease: Leviticus 16:21; Psalm 41:4; Isaiah 1:6

Sin is being blind: Isaiah 59:9

Sin is being shamed: Psalm 69:5-7

Sin is being ritualistically naive: Lev 22:14; 2 Sam. 6:6-7; Ezek 45:20

Sin is an inadvertent mistake: Leviticus 4:20; Numbers 6:9-11

Sin is a natural bodily discharge: Leviticus 15:16-24

Sin is a mildew or allergen: Leviticus 14:53

Sin is expressing human weakness as opposed to divine strength: Job 40:1-10

Sin is a burden to be borne: Exod 10:17; Lev 5:1; 16:21; 24:15; Ps 103:12

Sin is breaking of a law, necessitating penalty: Psalm 25:11

Sin is missing a target: Judges 20:16; Job 5:24; Proverbs 19:2

Sin is a master who pays cruel wages: Genesis 4:12-13

Sin is a debt or an account in delinquency: Isa 40:1-2

This list demonstrates how sin and transgression could be viewed from various (even competing) angles and levels of severity in the OT. It also establishes why sacrifices in any culture would have developed such rich meaning. If the heinousness of sin could be illustrated with flair, the attending rituals needed to keep pace with corresponding solutions. Yet, as we know from many stories in the OT, sin was not necessarily solved through sacrifice alone (Exod 23:21; Deut 29:20; Josh 24:19; 2 Kgs 24:4; Isa 22:14; Jer 5:27; Lam 3:42; Hos 1:6). Yahweh always held the right to refuse forgiveness, with or without an attending sacrifice.

So how was sin to be solved, if not by sacrifice? Here is where I believe we have been nearly hypnotized by associating the words forgiveness and sacrifice together (Lev 4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:10, 13, 16, 18; 6:7; 19:22; Num 15:25-26, etc.) as though one brings the other. But—snap out of it!—there are far more examples in the OT of forgiveness being granted outside of sacrifice (e.g., Exod 10:17-18; 32:32; 34:7; Num 14:18-19; 30:5, 8; 1 Kgs 8:30, 34, 36, 39, 50; 2 Chr 6:21, 25, 27, 30, 39; 7:14; Ps 78:38; 86:5; 130:4; Isa 6:7). In the end, I believe it can be consistently argued that any necessary relationship between personal restorative forgiveness (where a person becomes “right” with God after being “wrong” with God, let’s say) and cultic sacrifice in the OT is unintentional. The text is not trying to literally tie atonement and forgiveness together as though the first causes, or necessarily results in, the second. The mature Yahwist understood that he could be on good terms with his god through loyalty alone (Exod 34:7; Num 14:18-20; Neh 9:7; Ps 130:4; Mic 7:18; Dan 9:9), an idea to be defended at length below. This included the concept of forgiveness, though we need to be careful what that means. There is no adequate Hebrew word which stands in for the English word “forgive.” This is why forgiveness as a concept is usually described by means of illustration:

Forgiveness is to remove something: Psalm 103:12; Zechariah 3:9

Forgiveness is to cast something into the sea: Micah 7:9

Forgiveness is to go away like a cloud: Isaiah 44:22

Forgiveness is to put something behind one’s back: Isaiah 38:17

Forgiveness is to cover something: Psalm 32:1

Forgiveness is to put something put out of sight: Psalm 51:9

Forgiveness is to blot out something: Jeremiah 18:23

Forgiveness is to wash something: Psalm 51:7; Isaiah 4:4

Forgiveness is to cleanse something: Leviticus 16:30; Numbers 8:21; Ps 51:2

Forgiveness is to receive a clean conscience: Psalm 51:10

Forgiveness is to remove blood: Deuteronomy 21:8

Forgiveness is to whiten something: Isaiah 1:18

Forgiveness is to send rain on parched land: 1 Kings 8:36

Forgiveness is to not remember: Jeremiah 31:34

Forgiveness is to hide one’s face from something: Psalm 51:9

Forgiveness is to heal from disease: Psalm 32:1-5; 103:3; Isaiah 53:5

Forgiveness is to freely show grace, mercy, and love: Exodus 34:6; Neh. 9:17

Forgiveness is to annul a decision: Numbers 30:12

Forgiveness is to stop something from burning: Deuteronomy 29:20

Forgiveness is to listen with approval: 1 Kings 8:30, 36

Forgiveness honors a person’s heart, or intentions: 2 Chronicles 6:30

It makes sense, then, to hear that God would at times not forgive. It’s a privilege, and not a right, to be “right” or proper with Yahweh. This teaching was intended to both remind the Israelite of the ineffectiveness of bare ritualism and the privilege of being forgiven for sins committed while living within God’s gracious covenant. The mention of the covenant, of course, reminds us of another important point: Yahweh never offered general forgiveness of sins to all people of all nations for all stock offenses. In fact, we could tighten that sentence up a bit more: Yahweh promised that the sins of the nations would be held against them provided they remained idolaters. And it is precisely here where atonement becomes important in OT theology.

There are only twelve occasions in the OT NASB which combine the words forgive and atone in the same verse (we will use English for now). Consider the audience in each, or to whom Moses is speaking:

Lev 4:20: He shall also do with the bull just as he did with the bull of the sin offering; thus he shall do with it. So the priest shall make atonement for them, and they will be forgiven.

Lev 4:26: All its fat he shall offer up in smoke on the altar as in the case of the fat of the sacrifice of peace offerings. Thus the priest shall make atonement for him in regard to his sin, and he will be forgiven.

Lev 4:31: Then he shall remove all its fat, just as the fat was removed from the sacrifice of peace offerings; and the priest shall offer it up in smoke on the altar for a soothing aroma to the LORD. Thus the priest shall make atonement for him, and he will be forgiven.

Lev 4:35: Then he shall remove all its fat, just as the fat of the lamb is removed from the sacrifice of the peace offerings, and the priest shall offer them up in smoke on the altar, on the offerings by fire to the LORD. Thus the priest shall make atonement for him in regard to his sin which he has committed, and he will be forgiven.

Lev 5:10: The second he shall then prepare as a burnt offering according to the ordinance. So the priest shall make atonement on his behalf for his sin which he has committed, and it will be forgiven him.

Lev 5:13: So the priest shall make atonement for him concerning his sin which he has committed from one of these, and it will be forgiven him; then the rest shall become the priest’s, like the grain offering.

Lev 5:16: He shall make restitution for that which he has sinned against the holy thing, and shall add to it a fifth part of it and give it to the priest. The priest shall then make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering, and it will be forgiven him.

Lev 5:18: He is then to bring to the priest a ram without defect from the flock, according to your valuation, for a guilt offering. So the priest shall make atonement for him concerning his error in which he sinned unintentionally and did not know it, and it will be forgiven him.

Lev 6:7: And the priest shall make atonement for him before the LORD, and he will be forgiven for any one of the things which he may have done to incur guilt.

Lev 19:22: The priest shall also make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering before the LORD for his sin which he has committed, and the sin which he has committed will be forgiven him.

Num 15:25: Then the priest shall make atonement for all the congregation of the sons of Israel, and they will be forgiven; for it was an error, and they have brought their offering, an offering by fire to the LORD, and their sin offering before the LORD, for their error.

Num 15:28: The priest shall make atonement before the LORD for the person who goes astray when he sins unintentionally, making atonement for him that he may be forgiven.

This list demonstrates both the cultic nature of the association between atonement and forgiveness (paired only in Leviticus and Numbers), as well as the intended audience for this association. It was the faithful Israelite—not the neighboring Moabite or Ammonite or Egyptian—who was told that he could celebrate forgiveness in spite of his recurring episodes of behavioral sinfulness. It went without much saying—though Yahweh said it repeatedly—that a pagan who worshipped other gods could not expect such merciful treatment (Exod 23:21; Deut 29:20; Josh 24:19; 2 Kgs 24:4; Isa 22:14; Jer 5:27; Lam 3:42; Hos 1:6). And the same could be said for the disloyal Israelite as well:

Exodus 34:6-7:Then Yahweh passed by in front of Moses and proclaimed, “Yahweh, Yahweh el, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives [nasa, carry, lift] iniquity [avon, guilt], transgression [peshah, offense, act of disloyalty] and sin [chatah, error, miss]; yet he will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”

Jeremiah 31:34: “They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know Yahweh,’ for they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares Yahweh, “for I will forgive [salach] their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

Nehemiah 9:17: They refused to listen, and did not remember your wondrous deeds which you had performed among them; so they became stubborn and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But you are an elohim [deity] of forgiveness [salach], gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness; and You did not forsake them.

Daniel 9:9: To Yahweh our elohim belong compassion and forgiveness [salach], but we have rebelled against him.

Psalm 86:5:

“For You, Yahweh, are good, and ready to forgive [salach],

and abundant in lovingkindness to all who call upon You.

Psalm 130:4:

“But there is forgiveness [salach] with you,

that you may be feared [yare, frighten, reverence].

Psalm 32:

“How blessed is he whose

transgression [peshah, offense, act of disloyalty]

is forgiven [nasa, carry, lift],

whose sin [chatah, error, miss, cp. Numbers 19:9]

is covered [kasah, conceal, keep from being known]

How blessed is the man to whom

Yahweh does not impute [chasav, take into account]

iniquity [avon, guilt],

and in whose spirit there is no deceit [remiyya, fraud, deception]”

When I kept silent, my body ached

through my groaning all day long.

For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;

My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer.

I acknowledged [yada, to know, understand]

my sin [chatah, error, miss] to you,

and my iniquity [avon, guilt]

I did not hide [kasah, conceal, keep from being known]

I said, ‘I will confess [yadah, to praise]

my transgressions [peshah, offense, act of disloyalty] to Yahweh’;

and you forgave [nasa, carry, lift]

the iniquity [avon, guilt]

of my sin [chatah, error, miss]

Therefore, let everyone who is faithful [chasid cp. Ps 145:17]

pray to you in a time when you may be found;

Surely in a flood of great waters they will not reach him.

You are my hiding place; you preserve me from trouble;

You surround me with songs of deliverance.”

In the interest of space allow me to summarize my point without going into further detail. While I admit that there is a ritualistic or forensic aspect to atonement/forgiveness in the OT (think Leviticus), there is no post-Numbers 15 mention of atonement which speaks of a person becoming relationally right with Yahweh. I think that’s huge, even if talking statistics alone. Think of it this way: juridical forgiveness will account for (so go the illustrations above) a clean record in leaving the courtroom, a burden relieved from one’s back, or the cleansing of a bodily discharge. But penalty or burden or fluid will never primarily be in play when dealing with any text that describes being in a right relationship to Yahweh (e.g., “I will give them a heart to know me, for I am Yahweh; and they will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with their whole heart,” Jer 24:7; cp. 2:8; 4:22; 9:3, 6; 12:3; 22:16; 31:34). We would think that if atonement played an important role in relating to Yahweh it would get major press somewhere in the text. But the silence is deafening. And we have yet to step into the New Testament, where the word atonement is missing altogether.1 In my next post I will try to explain why the absence of atonement language in the NT makes predictable theological sense.


  1. The Greek words rendered occasionally in some English translations as “atone” or “atonement” are the verb hilaskomai and the related noun hilastērion. The former can (and often is, depending on the translation) rendered “forgive, be merciful.” It occurs twice (Luke 18:13 – “God be merciful to be a sinner”; Heb 2:17 – “to make propitiation”; “to forgive, show mercy.”) The latter noun also occurs twice (Rom 3:25 – God put forward Christ “as a propitiation” – an act of mercy or love? – Heb 9:5, a reference to the “mercy seat”).