[Editor’s note: Ronn Johnson’s post will remind those who listened to the Naked Bible Podcast series on Leviticus of the discussion of kaphar, how it referred to purgation — not from moral sins, but from ritual impurity. Consequently, it’s application to the work of Christ is a bit different than is commonly supposed. –MSH].
My last post which was republished by CAHI.org ended with the recommendation that ancient atonement ritual and Yahweh’s forgiveness for sins functioned as independent ideas in the OT. Though atonement and forgiveness sometimes took place together, one could happen without the other. I would now like to think about the use of blood in Israelite ritual, and what it may mean to our understanding of the character of God.
In Israelite Religions: An Archeological and Biblical Survey (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007) Richard Hess defends the idea that, among our available options, there may be no better way to determine the meaning of Israelite sacrifices than to look across Israel’s borders. We can safely presume, for example, that Israelites were intimately knowledgeable of the Egyptian cultic practices they had witnessed (and with which they likely had participated) for many years, as well as those rituals used by their Canaanite neighbors. Mesopotamian texts continue to provide us with numerous parallel patterns for sacrifice and cultic ritual. This sharing of information may be why Israelite ritual hinted toward what amounts to a pagan notion—that Yahweh, a formless being, liked food (Lev. 3:11, 16; 21:6, 17, 21-22; 22:25; Num 28:2, 24; Ezek 16:19; 44:7; Mal 1:7), and possibly enjoyed set meal times (Exod 29:38-45; Lev 6:20). And is it only coincidental that Yahweh enjoyed the “sweet aroma” of burnt flesh (cp. Gen. 8:21; Exod 29:18, 25, 41; Lev 2:12; 3:16; 8:21, 28; 23:13; 26:31, etc.) like other deities did (Ezek 6:13; 16:19; 20:28)? I would agree with Hess that these parallels are due to borrowed cultural practice, even to the point of Yahweh describing himself in terms that all cultures would expect. It is in this sense, then, that I would agree that Yahweh “liked” blood. But here is where we are expected to be careful. Yahweh was not like the pagan gods in how blood functioned within the process of ritual.
Nothing But the Blood
These similarities of ritual between Israel and the ANE also apply to the use of blood. The blood of slain animals was regularly associated with cleansing, consecration, and ritual purification in all cultures. Leviticus, we acknowledge, appeals to the use of blood with regularity: the person who had been healed from a skin disease was to be anointed with blood and oil to signal that he was ritually clean (Lev 14:6–20); the main altar and the priests were consecrated with blood (8:14–15, 23–30); during a burnt offering, blood was to be splashed all around the altar, and even upon the people (Lev 1; cp. Exod 24:6, 8); during the ordination of Aaron and priests, blood was applied to the high priest’s right ear, thumb, and big toe (Lev 3; 8:23-24); during a sin offering, blood was to be sprinkled seven times in front of the curtain of the sanctuary and put on the horns of the incense altar (Lev 4; 6:24-30); the guilt offering found blood being splashed all around the altar (7:1-10).
So what was it about blood that made it seemingly so important to Israelite worship? We are not sure. Blood obviously plays a major role in sustaining life, so its importance may have developed naturally in relation to its biological uniqueness. Unlike almost everything else, it is something to be appreciated once-per-lifetime. Keep it, or lose life. God told Noah that animal blood was special, nigh unto life itself (Gen 9:4, “its life, its blood”), and that blood also stood for the life of the human who was made to physically image the image-less God (9:6-7). So maybe blood was simply special and everyone knew it. If so, the careful manipulation of blood (do we splash it? daub it? drip it? what if it touches my second toe? etc.) may be a distraction we subconsciously bring to these texts. As a matter of emphasis, we are probably being told what to cleanse the mercy seat with—presuming that the object needed ritualistic cleansing with something—and blood was simply chosen for its peculiar, unrivaled nature. Maybe they didn’t splash water or calf’s milk on the altar because these liquids were just not special enough.
So let’s imagine the scene in Leviticus 16 as the priest sprinkled some of the blood of the sin offering upon the kapporeth (lid of the ark) for the purification of sins. It is fair to ask the obvious question: What was actually happening at the moment of “atonement” (16:16) here? Was the priest using the animal and/or its death to appease the deity’s anger toward his personal sin or that of the nation? If so, why would a deity be pacified by blood? What does it say about the deity’s character if this was the case? Was magic even at work, with the deity being manipulated by something outside of his/her control? Or, switching gears completely, was the priest using blood to celebrate that he was able to communicate with his deity in spite of the sinfulness for which he and others were already guilty? Or was it being used as a symbol of something else? Since the pervasive call of Israelite religion was to avoid issues related to witchcraft and created spiritual powers (Deut 18:9-14), I would recommend away from attributing some kind of magical power to the fluid itself. Beyond this, however, we have no answers in the text itself.
Some have believed that Leviticus 17:11 signals Yahweh’s appreciation of blood: “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” (NASB). While we may sense in this passage that God is attributing some kind of potential power or capability to blood itself, or of the requirement to use blood, we need to pull ourselves back from making this actual claim. Of interest is the verb “given,” a translation of natan. While this common word (over 2000 uses in the OT) can refer to the action of “giving” or “supplying” something (Gen 24:35, “he has given him sheep and cattle”), the word is general enough to include the passive notion of “letting” or “granting” or “yielding” or “allowing” as well (cp. Exod 10:25, “You [Pharoah] must also let us [natan] have sacrifices and burnt offerings, that we may sacrifice them to the LORD our God”). What is distinctly missing from Lev 17:11 is the command to use blood as though it is the only means of atonement. It was “given” to Israel, which need not carry the force of necessity or requirement. (The relatively common occurrence of “bloodless” atonements will be described below.) Blood may have been allowed to be used by Israel, as other nations did, in ritual practice. What cannot be argued in this passage is that Yahweh here invented, within some kind of cultural vacuum, the requirement to use blood when Israel performed atonement ritual.
The larger context of Leviticus 17 may provide help in determining what was at stake, however. Moses is here explaining the prohibition against sacrificing away from the central tabernacle. Yahweh’s desire for singular worship is noted by his insistence that sacrificial blood is not taken to the wrong location: “Any man from the house of Israel, or from the aliens who sojourn among them, who offers a burnt offering or sacrifice, and does not bring it to the doorway of the tent of meeting to offer it to the LORD, that man also shall be cut off from his people” (Lev 17:8-9; cp. Deut 12:4-6). Bringing the animal and its blood to God’s house was a clear way of avoiding the problem of “offer[ing] their sacrifices to se’irim (most probably goat demons) (v.7). It therefore appears safe to interpret Yahweh’s insistence upon the presentation of blood as being subsumed within his jealousy of worship: “You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are all around you, for the LORD your God is a jealous God among you” (Deut 6:14-15). This solidarity of worship was particularly concerned with where Israel would perform its sacrifices:
“Whatever man of the house of Israel kills an ox or lamb or goat in the camp or who kills it outside the camp, and does not bring it to the door of the tabernacle of meeting, to offer an offering to the LORD before the tabernacle of the LORD, bloodguilt shall be imputed to that man. And the priest shall sprinkle the blood on the altar of the LORD at the door of the tabernacle of meeting, and burn the fat for a sweet aroma to the LORD.’” (Lev 17:3-4)
“You shall seek the place where the LORD your God chooses out of all your tribes . . . . There you shall take your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes ….” (Deut 2:5-6)
In review, then, Yahweh allowed (my recommended meaning for natan in Lev 17:11) Israel the use of animal blood in the exercise of their sacrificial ritual. This was because blood was already being used in neighboring cultures, as were arks and temples and priests. Other than this, there was nothing special about blood per se. It could be poured, daubed, drained, squeezed, sprinkled, or splashed on altars and ark lids because it carried symbolic value to the ancient world and to Israel. It was much like saying “this place needs to be clean before my deity can be here.” As a natural substance it bore unique significance as the literal difference between life and death. Of utmost importance, however, was where that blood was to be brought during sacrifice. And the discussion of where will now naturally give way to the question of who and to whom. My thoughts below will try to demonstrate that atonement was only to be enjoyed by the sincere Yahweh-loyalist. The mistake will be to think that atonement was a means, or an invitation, to enter into this loyalty itself.
Was Passover an example of bloody atonement?
While the association between atonement and Passover does not surface immediately in the Torah—there is only a singular mention during this week-long celebration that a goat was slain “to make atonement” for Israel (Num 28:22)—a brief word on the bloody nature of Passover is necessary since the NT develops such a close association between the death of Jesus and Passover (cp. 1 Cor 5:7, “Christ our Passover was sacrificed for us”). The question before us is straightforward: Was Passover an example of a bloody atonement? Our answer will set the stage for how we interpret Jesus’ atonement.
I propose that the long-term significance of Passover was what happened later that evening, after the sacrifice, and what followed in the years to come. To follow the path that Passover takes into the future is to look past the bloody doorpost and toward the memory of God’s redemption of Israel from slavery. Blood played an important role in the story, of course (“Now the blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you are “ [Exod 12:13]); but this blood was not shed for sin, nor to assuage God’s wrath. It was quite literally a “sign” for protection over certain houses within enemy territory (12:13, 23). The annual Passover celebration was not destined to repeat the splattering of lamb’s blood (cp. 1 Cor 5:8) particularly because this was not the crisis moment of the original event. The bloody “sign” signified that something else was about to take place. So in no sense did the Passover blood atone for Israel’s sin, nor bring Israel into fellowship with Yahweh. Passover solved, instead, the potential destruction of Israel at the hand of its own God. It provided the necessary signal to the angelic killer to move past one house and enter another. The question to ask, coming below, is whether Christ’s death was meant to announce a similar redemptive sign.
Blood wasn’t always to be considered a good thing. As a bodily fluid it could defile and pollute, if even symbolically. “Bloodshed pollutes the land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it” (Num 35:33; cp. Ps 106:38). Cain shed Abel’s blood, which then “cried out” to God from the ground for vengeance (Gen 4:10). Hence murder, which resulted in “bloodguilt,” would have to be settled in favor of the innocent victim: “And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man” (Gen 9:5).
It is helpful to remember, too, that atonement ritual could took place in the absence of blood. The most famous example of bloodless atonement in the OT was the yearly ritual described in Leviticus 16. Two goats were chosen on the Day of Atonement, and distinguished by lots. The high priest sent one goat into the wilderness (“to Azazel,” Lev. 16:8, 10, 26, NET) to illustrate the carrying of sins and defilement away from the Israelite camp (“to make atonement” for the camp, presumably, 16:10). The other goat was sacrificed at the altar within the camp, its blood being sprinkled in very specific ways within the tabernacle and upon its furniture.
The meaning of this ritual seems easy to grasp. In celebrative fashion the nation was supplied a picture of what the removal of sin would look like if indeed sin were able to be physically removed. The joint symbolism of a dying and living animal (literally called “the day of atonements [pl.],” yom hakkippurim) was memorable if not a little horrific. The blood of the first animal represented its loss of life (“the life of the flesh is in the blood,” Lev 17:11), and the goat-gone-missing meant much the same. In both cases an animal died, and in both cases national uncleanness was symbolically removed, if only for the calendar year. The “goat of removal” (“for Azazel,” 16:22) pictured a non-bloody version of atonement, employing two enjoyable symbols, at least for the humans: Israelite sin was symbolically transferred to the goat (“Aaron shall lay both hands on the head of the goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat,” Lev 16:21), and the goat carried these sins out of the camp (“the goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land/Azazel,” v. 22). The details of both atonement stories are not meant to distract our attention from the main point at hand: to live within Yahweh’s covenant included release from sin, even if only symbolically.
Beyond the wilderness goat story, we find numerous non-bloody atonements or cleansings in the OT that should be on our radar when trying to think our way through atonement theory. Listed here are the OT passages in which kaphar is used without the mention of blood:
Gen 32:20: Also say, “Behold, your servant Jacob is behind us.” For he said, “I will appease him with the present that goes before me, and afterward I will see his face; perhaps he will accept me.”
Exod 21:30: If there is imposed on him a sum of money, then he shall pay to redeem his life, whatever is imposed on him.
Exod 30:12: When you take the census of the children of Israel for their number, then every man shall give a ransom for himself to the LORD, when you number them, that there may be no plague among them when you number them.
Exod 30:15-16: The rich shall not give more and the poor shall not give less than half a shekel, when you give an offering to the LORD, to make atonement for yourselves. And you shall take the atonement money of the children of Israel, and shall appoint it for the service of the tabernacle of meeting, that it may be a memorial for the children of Israel before the LORD, to make atonement for yourselves.”
Lev 5:11-13: But if his means are insufficient for two turtledoves or two young pigeons, then for his offering for that which he has sinned, he shall bring the tenth of an ephah of fine flour for a sin offering; he shall not put oil on it or place incense on it, for it is a sin offering. He shall bring it to the priest, and the priest shall take his handful of it as its memorial portion and offer it up in smoke on the altar, with the offerings of the LORD by fire: it is a sin offering. 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 14:18: The rest of the oil that is in the priest’s hand he shall put on the head of him who is to be cleansed. So the priest shall make atonement for him before the LORD. Then the priest shall offer the sin offering, and make atonement for him who is to be cleansed from his uncleanness. Afterward he shall kill the burnt offering. And the priest shall offer the burnt offering and the grain offering on the altar. So the priest shall make atonement for him, and he shall be clean.
Lev 14:53: Then he shall let the living bird loose outside the city in the open field, and make atonement for the house, and it shall be clean.
Lev 16:10: But the goat on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make atonement upon it, and to let it go as the scapegoat into the wilderness.
Num 16:46-47: So Moses said to Aaron, “Take a censer and put fire in it from the altar, put incense on it, and take it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them; for wrath has gone out from the LORD. The plague has begun.” Then Aaron took it as Moses commanded, and ran into the midst of the assembly; and already the plague had begun among the people. So he put in the incense and made atonement for the people.
Num 31:50: Therefore we have brought an offering for the LORD, what every man found of ornaments of gold: armlets and bracelets and signet rings and earrings and necklaces, to make atonement for ourselves before the LORD.”
1 Sam 12:3: Here I am. Witness against me before the LORD and before His anointed: Whose ox have I taken, or whose donkey have I taken, or whom have I cheated? Whom have I oppressed, or from whose hand have I received any bribe with which to blind my eyes? I will restore it to you.”
2 Sam 21:3: Therefore David said to the Gibeonites, “What shall I do for you? And with what shall I make atonement, that you may bless the inheritance of the LORD?” (hanging! in v. 6)
Isa 6:7: And [the seraphim] touched my mouth with it, and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your iniquity is taken away, and your sin purged.”
Isa 27:9: Therefore by this the iniquity of Jacob will be covered; and this is all the fruit of taking away his sin: when he makes all the stones of the altar like chalkstones that are beaten to dust, wooden images and incense altars shall not stand.
Jer 18:23: Yet, LORD, You know all their counsel which is against me, to slay me. Provide no atonement for their iniquity, nor blot out their sin from Your sight; but let them be overthrown before You. Deal thus with them in the time of Your anger.
Ezek 16:60-63: “Nevertheless, I will remember My covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you. Then you will remember your ways and be ashamed when you receive your sisters, both your older and your younger; and I will give them to you as daughters, but not because of your covenant. Thus I will establish My covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the LORD, so that you may remember and be ashamed and never open your mouth anymore because of your humiliation, when I provide you an atonement for all that you have done,” the Lord GOD declares.
Amos 5:12: For I know your manifold transgressions and your mighty sins: afflicting the just and taking bribes; diverting the poor from justice at the gate.
Psa 49:7: None of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him.
Psa 65:3: Iniquities prevail against me; as for our transgressions, you will provide atonement for them.
Psa 78:38: But He, being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity, and did not destroy them. Yes, many a time He turned His anger away, and did not stir up all His wrath.
Psa 79:9: Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of Your name; and deliver us, and provide atonement for our sins, for Your name’s sake!
Job 33:24: Then He is gracious to him, and says, “Deliver him from going down to the Pit; I have found a ransom.”
Job 36:18: Because there is wrath, beware lest He take you away with one blow; for a large ransom would not help you avoid it.
Prov 6:35: He will accept no recompense, nor will he be appeased though you give many gifts.
Prov 13:8: The ransom of a man’s life is his riches, but the poor does not hear rebuke.
Prov 16:6: In mercy and truth atonement is provided for iniquity; and by the fear of the LORD one departs from evil.
Prov 16:14: As messengers of death is the king’s wrath, but a wise man will appease it.
Prov 21:18: The wicked shall be a ransom for the righteous, and the unfaithful for the upright.
Dan 9:24: “Seventy weeks are determined for your people and for your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sins, to make reconciliation for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy, and to anoint the Most Holy.
2 Chr 30:18-20: For a multitude of the people, many from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar, and Zebulun, had not cleansed themselves, yet they ate the Passover contrary to what was written. But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, “May the good LORD provide atonement for everyone who prepares his heart to seek God, the LORD God of his fathers, though not according to the purification rules of the sanctuary.” So the LORD heard Hezekiah and healed the people.
With the above passages in mind I would like to offer these four points in conclusion:
- We find it difficult to translate kaphar with any real consistency, but surely this is a good thing. The connotative importance of kaphar is found in its appeal to the restored position of something which was in need of repair. Kaphar fixes things, even people. With or without blood it can deal with almost anything, including such things as mold or uncleanness (Lev 12:7; 14:18-20; 15:15, 30) or unsolved murder (Num 6:11; Deut 21:8) or inadvertent sin (Num 15:25). It can appear in scenes of physical ritual or in celebratory poetry.
- In noticing where atonement can occur without blood, we must conclude that the exception proves the rule: blood is not necessary for atonement. We can even sense in the verses immediately above that it is relatively easy to attain fellowship with Yahweh without the use of blood. Leviticus 5 provides the most striking example of this. Blood is used in vv. 1-10 for the trespass offering but it is not used in vv. 11-13 for the same offering. Blood is not the common denominator in this offering, then, and in one sense is not essentially a matter of requirement. In another example, kaphar is used in the death of an animal, with no mention of blood, and even implied lack of blood (Num 8:12, 19, 21). And in yet another example, kaphar is used in the death of an animal (“break the neck of the bull”) where blood is the distasteful item within the story (“Provide atonement, O LORD, for Your people Israel, whom You have redeemed, and do not lay innocent blood to the charge of Your people Israel.’ And atonement shall be provided on their behalf for the blood [of the unsolved murder victim]” Deut 21:8).
- Of the 123 uses of kaphar in the OT, not one example applies to a person who is considered to be living outside the Abrahamic covenant. Turning this into a positive, atonement of any kind (bloody or non-bloody) was considered to be a privilege of the person-in-covenant. Atonement “ritual” should be better understood as an atonement “celebration,” therefore, illustrating the provision of cleansing/covering already offered within covenantal grace. Even the Passover was to be celebrated without Gentiles present (Exod 12:43-47). It is also important to note that in the event of bringing a Rahab or Ruth into the Abrahamic covenant, at no time was the mechanics of atonement used for making this entrance possible. As could be expected, then, kaphar was never made available for those outside the covenant (Num 35:31; 1 Sam 3:14; Isa 22:14; Amos 5:12 [used for “bribery,” apparently referring to the Israelites’ misuse of kaphar when worshipping other deities (cp. Prov 6:35)]).
- Observing the OT teaching on sacrifice and atonement is to notice the theological movement which came with it. I would recommend the following picture developing over time: God’s people were taught that sacrifice was an available cultural mechanism within a larger issue of fellowship between God and man. Sacrifice (even for “atonement,” Exod. 30:15; Lev. 14:53; Num. 31:50) was not to be thought of in terms of payments made, but in terms of relationship restored and maintained through sincere repentance, faith, and fidelity as symbolized in the ritual. In this sense sacrifice was ineffective to restore fellowship when not accompanied by inward commitment, and unnecessary when this commitment was present (2 Chron. 30:18-20; Dan. 6:10). This was because God was free to love those whom he so chose to love (Exod. 33:19; Deut. 7:7-11). Any appeal to the mechanism of sacrifice without inward commitment could even be considered blasphemous (Deut. 10:17; cp. Luke 23:39-43) on the basis that it assumed that God’s character was based on purely legal (and not personal) terms. The bloodlessness of many of the Psalms (e.g., Ps 91) was intended to progressively wire faithful Israelites toward the permanent understanding that blood was not necessary for gaining and maintaining a proper relationship to Yahweh. Most vital, of course, was settling the issue of monotheism, which necessarily brought with it the necessity for faithfulness to Yahweh. We could then presume that there would be a pattern of moving from literal use of blood (Lev. 17) to the recommended non-need of blood at all (Ps 51; Isa 1; Hosea 6; Amos 5; Dan 9; Jonah 4; 2 Chron 30). In the end, the greatest themes of Yahweh’s character would purposely leave blood out of the picture. He would be praised not for his fine use of blood, but for his character that operates outside the need for physical manipulatives of any kind (Deut. 7:9-10; Ps 136:1-2).