One of the cornerstones of Christian theology is that the
only way to achieve atonement for sins is through the
offering of a sacrifice whose blood is shed in our place.
The Greek Testament makes this very clear in Hebrews 9:22
"...without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness."
Is this idea consistent with the teachings of the Tanach, or
do the Jewish and Christian bibles diverge on this issue?
Christians generally insist that the absolute need for a
vicarious blood sacrifice is rooted in the Torah, and cite
as proof Leviticus 17:11 "For the life of the flesh is in
the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make
an atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes
an atonement for the soul."
As a Hebrew-Christian, you have probably heard many
sermons on the topic of atonement, and have undoubtedly read
many studies which support the contention that there is no
atonement without blood. Of course you are also aware that
this is a teaching which is not shared by traditional Jews.
Have you ever wondered how they could reject what to you
seems so clear? This study has been prepared to give you the
opportunity to consider a different perspective on the vital
issue of atonement.
ANOTHER LOOK AT LEVITICUS 17:11
You might remember that in junior high school, we were
often given an assignment to write the title for a story;
what is the central idea of a passage. Let's look at
Leviticus 17:11 in context:
"And whatever man of the house of Israel, or
of the strangers who sojourn among you, who consumes any
blood, I will set My face against that person who consumes
blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the
life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to
you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it
is the blood that makes an atonement for the soul.
Therefore, I say to the children of Israel, 'No one among
you shall consume blood, nor shall any stranger who sojourns
among you consume blood.'"
What should immediately be apparent is that the topic of
this passage is not how to secure atonement from sins, but
the prohibition against consuming blood. We are told
parenthetically that the reason for this prohibition is that
the blood contains the vitality of the animal (cf. Genesis
9:4, Deuteronomy 12:23) and consequently, when we bring an
animal sacrifice, its blood serves as the atoning agent, and
not another part of its body. Since Leviticus 17 doesn't
come to teach us about the principles of atonement, we will
have to look elsewhere for the Bible's most important
teaching on how to repair our relationships with G-d.
Before proceeding, let's consider another point about
what is, and what is not being said in Leviticus 17:11. The
passage does say that since blood symbolizes the life of the
animal, G-d has given it to us as a means of atoning for our
sins. But does the verse clearly teach that it is the only
means G-d has provided to make atonement? As with any other
Biblical study, we will have to examine this question in
light of the Bible as a whole. But for now, we should note
that our verse merely says that blood can serve as an
atonement. It is an effective means of atonement, but by no
means the only form of atonement.
In the Torah, blood sacrifices were not the only path to
atonement; there were other ways to achieve forgiveness. For
example, incense served to atone for the people in Numbers
16:46-47, and giving charity is described in Exodus 30:15-16
and Numbers 31:50 as 'making atonement for your souls' - the
same expression as in Leviticus 17:11. In reality, blood
sacrifices were the least effective of all the means of
atonement mentioned in the Bible. One important limitation
to the effectiveness of sacrifices is that they were only
brought for unintentional sins (ie. someone didn't know that
kindling a fire was prohibited on the Sabbath, or they were
aware of this, but thought it was Sunday when kindling the
fire). Sacrifices did not help to atone for sins that were
done intentionally (Leviticus 4, and Numbers 15:22-31).
Examining the Christian interpretation of Leviticus 17:11
generates some serious problems. What happens if someone
can't afford to purchase an animal for his sin offering? Is
it possible that G-d would institute a system of atonement
that could only be used by the wealthy? The Torah took this
into account and allowed the poor person to bring two
turtledoves or two young pigeons if he couldn't afford a
lamb (Leviticus 5:7). However, what if someone was so
destitute, that he couldn't afford even these small birds?
"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."
Since flour could be used for a sin offering, it is clear
that blood was not a prerequisite for atonement. Another
example will drive home the point. The proposition that only
blood sacrifices could secure atonement creates a dilemma.
Could it be that G-d would set up a system of atonement that
wouldn't be available to all people at all times? While the
Temple stood, sacrifices did serve as part of the atonement
process. But what is the fate of Jewish people who don't
have access to the Temple? What were the Jewish people
supposed to do after 586 BCE when the first Temple was
destroyed and they were exiled to Babylon? What did the
Jewish people do in the times of the Macabees when the
Syrian-Greeks were in control of the Temple and didn't allow
Christians erroneously claim that Rabbinic Judaism came
up with novel, non-Biblical measures to deal with atonement
after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE.
Actually, it wasn't Talmudic innovation at all- the Bible
anticipated the possibility of the cessation of sacrifices.
When King Solomon finally laid the finishing touches on the
Holy Temple in Jerusalem, he inaugurated it with a moving
dedication speech (I Kings 8; II Chronicles 6). In this
lengthy speech of almost 50 verses, you will notice that
Solomon doesn't speak about sacrifices at all! This omission
would be strange if the most crucial part of the Temple were
the sacrifices. Actually, the central focus of the Temple
was the Holy Ark (Exodus 25) containing the Torah. The
Temple was first and foremost a symbol of G-d's presence and
revelation to the Jewish people (I Kings 8:13, Exodus 25:8).
Towards the end of his speech, Solomon deals with the
possibility of the Jewish people being denied access to the
Temple in the eventuality that they are exiled from the land
"If they return to You with all their heart
and with all their soul in the land of their enemies who
have taken them captive, and pray to You toward their land
which You have given to their fathers, the city which You
have chosen, and the house which I have built for Your name;
then hear their prayer and their supplication in heaven Your
dwelling place, and maintain their cause, and forgive Your
people who have sinned against You and all their
transgressions which they have transgressed against You..."
(I Kings 8:46-50).
This seminal passage puts the spotlight on the Christian
misunderstanding of Leviticus 17:11. The Bible is clearly
teaching that sacrifices weren't necessary in order to atone
for sins. Prayer and repentance are cited here as effective
means for securing atonement. Certainly, when the Temple
stood, and one could afford an animal, a sacrifice was
brought as part of the atonement process for unintentional
sins. Leviticus 17:11 teaches that when we bring such an
animal as a sacrifice, we aren't allowed to consume its
blood, because as the life force, it is the part of the
animal that affects our atonement.
Christian dogma holds that the crucifixion of Jesus at
Calvary served as the final atoning sacrifice for the sins
of the world. Christianity insists that this is not just a
Pauline innovation, but reflects the requirements of the
Jewish Bible, and tries to establish this by pointing to
Leviticus 17:11 as the key to atonement in the Tanach.
However, if this passage is examined, it will be clear that
Jesus could never serve as an atoning sacrifice. Obviously,
the shedding of blood by pricking my finger or killing my
cat won't fulfill the Biblical requirements for atonement.
The Torah delineates how sacrifices are to be brought.
"For the life of the flesh is in the blood,
and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an
atonement for your souls..."
Clearly, not any spilled blood is accepted by the Torah
as a sacrifice. Jesus' crucifixion may qualify as an
atonement according to the Greek Testament, but since his
blood was not offered on the altar, it is not in line with
what the Torah mandates.
There are actually several other factors which would
render the crucifixion of Jesus an unacceptable sacrifice.
According to the Biblical rules in Leviticus, all sacrifices
had to be offered by a Priest who descends from Aaron. This
was not the case in the death of Jesus, who was crucified by
Roman soldiers. Additionally, Biblical law prohibited any
sacrifice which was blemished or maimed (Leviticus
22:19-21). However, prior to his crucifixion, Jesus was
whipped and beaten (Matthew 27:26, Mark 15:19, John 19:3)
which would render him unfit. Furthermore, Jesus was
circumcised in the flesh, which according to Philippians 3:2
and Galatians 5:12 is considered mutilation.
Frequently, Christians react to this line of reasoning by
protesting that it is improper to be so literal, and that
Jesus' death was more of a symbolic or spiritual sacrifice.
This would be fine if the Bible provided for such ethereal
offerings, but such is not the case. The Greek Testament,
however, does insist that Jesus was a real sacrifice,
literally fulfilling the Biblical requirements of such:
"But coming to Jesus, when they saw that he
was already dead, they did not break his legs...in order
that the Scripture might be fulfilled: 'Not a bone of him
shall be broken.'" (John 19:33-36)
The Gospel of John portrays Jesus as the Paschal lamb
which was not supposed to have any of its bones broken
(Exodus 12:46, Numbers 9:12). Since the author of John
insists that Jesus was a real sacrifice to the extent that
the Biblical rules of the Passover were fulfilled in him, we
can't dismiss the problems cited above as legalistic
One wonders why the Greek Testament chose to type Jesus
as a Paschal lamb rather than the sacrifice for the Day of
Atonement. We know from Exodus 12 that the Passover
sacrifice did not serve as an atonement for sins, it
commemorates the exodus from Egypt. (Even when the lamb was
slaughtered in Egypt and its blood smeared on the doorposts,
it did not serve to atone for the sins of anyone. It was a
sign for the angel of death to pass over Jewish homes during
the plague of the first born. The only people in danger were
first born males, the blood wasn't a help to other people in
the family, and didn't serve as an atonement for the first
born). A more fitting prototype for Jesus would have been
the Yom Kippur sacrifice, which was an atonement for the
sins of all the people. It is interesting that according to
Leviticus 16:10,21-22, the animal which effectuated the
atonement for the sins of the nation was not killed, but
sent live out into the desert. Again, the shedding of blood
is not a sine qua non for atonement.
The Greek Testament went to some great lengths to
demonstrate that the atoning death of Jesus was predicated
upon the Jewish Bible. In the book of Hebrews, a verse from
the book of Psalms is quoted as evidence that the sacrifice
of Jesus was part of G-d's original plan for the world.
"Sacrifice and offering You have not desired,
but a body You have prepared for me" (Hebrews 10:5 referring
to Psalms 40:6).
In verse 10 of our passage from Hebrews, we are told that
the body spoken of refers to the body of Jesus. However, the
Greek Testament took some great liberties in quoting from
the book of Psalms, which never mentions a body being
"Sacrifice and meal offering You have not
desired; my ears You have opened; Burnt offerings and sin
offerings You have not required" (Psalm 40:6).
The author of Romans asserts that the Jewish scriptures
spoke about the Messiah coming in order to eradicate sin
"And so all Israel will be saved, as it is
written,'The deliverer will come from Zion and remove
ungodliness from Jacob'." (Romans 11:26 citing Isaiah 59:20)
However, checking the original source in Isaiah reveals
the flawed foundation of the claim made in the book of
"And a redeemer will come to Zion, to those
in Jacob who turn from transgression, says the L-rd."
Isaiah didn't teach that the Messiah's purpose is to
remove sin; rather, he will come to the Jewish people when
they show themselves worthy by turning away from sin.
WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY ABOUT VICARIOUS ATONEMENT?
One wonders why throughout the four Gospels, Jesus never
speaks about his death serving as a sacrifice to atone for
the sins of the world. Is the idea that an innocent person
can be killed instead of those who are guilty consistent
with what the Bible teaches? After the sin of the Golden
Calf, G-d expressed His intention to destroy the Jewish
people. Moses intercedes, and offers to die in their place.
In response, G-d says "Whoever has sinned against Me, I will
blot him out of My book!" (Exodus 32:32-33). Throughout the
Bible, G-d says that one person cannot die for the sins of
"Fathers shall not be put to death for their
sons, nor shall sons be put to death for their fathers;
everyone shall be put to death for his own sin" (Deuteronomy
24:16, II Kings 14:6).
"But everyone will die for his own sin; each man who eats
sour grapes, his teeth will be set on edge" (Jeremiah
"The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the
punishment for the father's iniquity, nor will the father
bear the punishment for the son's iniquity; the
righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the
wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself" (Ezekiel
"No man can by any means redeem his brother, or give to
G-d a ransom for him" (Psalms 49:7).
"So you shall not pollute the land in which you are; for
blood pollutes the land and no expiation can be made for the
land for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood
of him who has shed it!" (Numbers 35:33).
Although Romans 4:5 says that Jesus justifies the
ungodly, the Tanach teaches that "He who justifies the
wicked, and he who condemns the righteous, both of them are
an abomination to theL-rd" (Proverbs 17:15).
If indeed, Jesus came as the final sacrifice to atone for
the sins of the world, why does the Tanach predict that the
Temple will be rebuilt and sacrifices resumed?
"Even those I will bring to My holy mountain,
and make them joyful in My house of prayer. Their burnt
offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My
altar; for My house will be called a house of prayer for all
the peoples." (Isaiah 56:7). "From beyond the rivers of
Ethiopia My worshipers, My dispersed ones will bring My
offerings." (Zephaniah 3:10)
"All the flocks of Kedar will be gathered together to
you, the rams of Nebaioth will minister to you; they will go
up with acceptance on My altar, and I shall glorify My
glorious house." (Isaiah 60:7)
"And I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will
be an everlasting covenant with them. And I will place them
and multiply them, and will set My sanctuary in their midst
forever." (Ezekiel 37:26)
"And He will sit as a smelter and purifier of silver, and
He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold
and silver, so that they may present to the L-rd offerings
in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem
will be pleasant to the L-rd, as in the days of old and as
in former years." (Malachi 3:3-4)
"And every cooking pot in Jerusalem and in Judah will be
holy to the L-rd of hosts; and all who sacrifice will come
and take of them and boil in them." (Zechariah 14:21) "And
it shall be the princes part to provide the burnt offerings,
the grain offerings, and the libations...to make atonement
for the house of Israel." (Ezekiel 45:17)
The Christian claim that our sins can only be forgiven if
blood is shed on our behalf also seems to limit the power of
G-d. It's ludicrous to say that G-d's ability to forgive us
is dependent on anything. One of the most basic teachings in
the Bible is that since G-d is merciful, He often forgives
us simply because He is merciful. "Who is a G-d like You,
who pardons iniquity and passes over the rebellious act of
the remnant of His possession? He does not retain His anger
forever, because He delights in unchanging love." (Micah
7:18; cf.Psalm 103:7-18). Even when we don't seek G-d
appropriately, He has the ability to reach out to us with
love and forgive us:
"Their heart was not steadfast toward Him,
nor were they faithful in His covenant. But He, being
compassionate, forgave their iniquity...remembering that
they were but flesh." (Psalms 78:36-39)
"You have not brought Me the sheep of your burnt
offerings...or the fat of your sacrifices, but you have
burdened Me with your sins...Nevertheless, I will wipe out
your transgressions for My own sake, and I will not remember
your sins." (Isaiah 43:23-25)
THE BIBLICAL VIEW OF ATONEMENT
One of the clearest indications that Christianity is off
base in its insistence on the centrality of blood sacrifices
is that none of the prophets speaks about it. There isn't
one instance in the prophetic books where the Jewish people
are told that in order to get right with G-d they need to
get covered by the blood. If that's the case, what is the
fundamental teaching of the Tanach on the issue of
atonement? What theme is reiterated time and again by the
holy prophets in the Jewish Bible?
"That every man will turn from his evil way,
then I will forgive their iniquity and their sin." (Jeremiah
"Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man
his thoughts, and let him return to the L-rd, and He will
have compassion on him; and to our G-d, for He will
abundantly pardon." (Isaiah 55:7).
"I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I did not
hide; I said, 'I will confess my transgressions to the
L-rd', and You did forgive the guilt of my sin." (Psalm
"And if My people who are called by My name humble
themselves and pray, and seek My face and turn from their
wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive
their sin, and will heal their land." (II Chronicles 7:14).
"But if the wicked man turns from all his sins which he has
committed and observes all My statutes and practices justice
and righteousness, he shall surely live; he shall not die.
All his transgressions which he has committed will not be
remembered against him; because of the righteousness which
he has practiced he shall live...When a wicked man turns
away from his wickedness which he has committed and
practices justice and righteousness, he will save his
life...Repent and turn away from all your transgressions, so
that iniquity may not become a stumbling block to you
(Ezekiel 18:21- 22,27,30).
"By lovingkindness and truth iniquity is atoned for..."
"If you return to G-d you will be restored; if you remove
unrighteousness far from your tent...then you will delight
in G-d..." (Job 22:23-27).
"Depart from evil, and do good, so you will abide
forever." (Psalm 37:27, cf. Ezekiel 33, Zechariah 1:3,
The central teaching of the Bible is that only a break
with our past and a sincere turning in repentance can
restore our relationships with G-d. If I go off the path, I
have to put myself back on track, and G-d will forgive me.
Even when sacrifices were offered, they in and of themselves
didn't effect atonement. The sacrifice was part of the
process, it helped bring us to the core of atonement which
is achieved by TESHUVAH, returning to G-d by forsaking our
evil ways and praying for forgiveness. One of the main
teachings of the prophets was to chide Jewish people who
thought that sacrifices were the essential element of
"What are your multiplied sacrifices to Me?
says the L-rd. I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams,
and the fat of fed cattle. And I take no pleasure in the
blood of bulls, lambs, or goats...Wash yourselves, make
yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from My
sight. Cease to do evil, Learn to do good; seek justice,
reprove the ruthless, defend the orphan, plead for the
widow. Come let us reason together says the L-rd, 'Though
your sins are as scarlet, they will be white as snow; though
they be red like crimson, they will be like wool, if you
consent and obey..." (Isaiah 1:11-18).
"The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the
L-rd." (Proverbs 15:8).
"To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to
the L-rd than sacrifice." (Proverbs 21:3). "For I delight in
loyalty rather than sacrifice, and in the knowledge of G-d
rather than burnt offerings." (Hoseah 6:6).
"Has the L-rd as great a delight in burnt offerings and
sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the L-rd? Behold, to
obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken more than the
fat of rams." (I Samuel 15:22).
"With what shall I come to the L-rd, and bow myself
before the G-d on high? Shall I come to Him with burnt
offerings, with yearling calves? Does the L-rd take delight
in thousands of rams, in ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I
present my firstborn for my rebellious acts, the fruit of my
body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man, what is
good; and what does the L-rd require of you but to do
justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your
G-d." (Micah 6:6-8,cf. Amos 5:22- 24, Jeremiah 7, Psalm
Since repentance, and not blood is the Biblical form of
atonement, we now understand how in I Kings 8, Solomon
explained that even if the Jewish people don't have access
to the Temple, they still have access to G-d. This will
illuminate a famous story found in the book of Jonah. G-d
sends Jonah to the evil city of Ninveh to warn them of their
impending destruction. Jonah doesn't come into the city and
tell the people that unless they begin offering sacrifices
they are doomed. Their response to his warnings is to
repent: they fast, pray, and turn from their evil. What is
"When G-d saw their deeds that they turned
from their wicked way, then G-d relented concerning the
calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them, and
He did not do it." (Jonah 3:10).
In similar fashion, Daniel advised king Nebuchadnezzar on
how to atone for his transgressions:
"Therefore, O king, may my advice be pleasing
to you: Redeem your sins by doing righteousness, and your
iniquities by showing mercy to the poor." (Daniel 4:27).
This principle will also help explain a passage in the
book of Hoseah. Hoseah was a prophet to the 10 northern
tribes in the kingdom of Israel during a time when there was
a civil war going on between them and the two tribes of the
kingdom of Judah in the south. Because of the strife, the
tribes up north couldn't get to the Temple in Jerusalem to
offer sacrifices. Did this leave them with no way of atoning
for their sins? The prophet advises:
"Return, O Israel, to the L-rd your G-d, For
you have stumbled because of your iniquity. Take words with
you and return to the L-rd. Say to Him, 'Take away all
iniquity, and receive us graciously, for we will render as
bullocks the offerings of our lips'." (Hoseah 14:1-2).
We are able to approach G-d directly with prayer, which
is possible at all times; and G-d assures us that sincere
prayer can achieve forgiveness for our sins:
"Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O L-rd, the
G-d of my salvation. And my tongue shall sing aloud of Your
righteousness. O L-rd, open my lips, and my mouth shall show
forth Your praise. For You do not delight in burnt
offerings. The sacrifices of G-d are a broken spirit, a
broken and contrite heart. These, O G-d, You will not
despise." (Psalms 51:14-17, re:II Samuel 12:13).
"I will praise the name of G-d with a song, and will
magnify Him with thanksgiving. This shall please the L-rd
better than an ox or bullock that has horns and hoofs."
"For You, L-rd, are good, and ready to forgive, and
abundant in lovingkindness to all who call upon You. Give
ear, O L-rd to my prayer, and give heed to the voice of my
supplications." (Psalm 86:5-6).
"And listen to the supplications of Your servant and of
Your people Israel, when they pray toward this place; hear
from heaven Your dwelling place, hear and forgive." (II
Are Christians consistent with the Jewish Bible when they
claim that atonement is only possible with a blood
sacrifice? Did the Rabbis just make up the idea that we can
restore our relationship with G-d through prayer and
repentance? YOU DECIDE!