N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Part 10 (Why Sacrifice? Part 1)


N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplishes our salvation.

Sacrifice [JFG]

We can’t discuss the crucifixion without discussing the theology of sacrifice. The Jewish system of sacrifice is very different from the pagan system. For example,

A. L. Oppenheim succinctly characterized Mesopotamian religion as “the care and feeding of the god.” We owe Israel’s priesthood for eviscerating every trace of this notion from the sacrificial system. Pagans regularly set food and drink on their god’s table, but the [Jewish] Priestly legists [experts in the law] banned all food rites inside the shrine. … Thus all food gifts brought as sacrifices are conspicuously removed from the tent, YHWH’s purported domicile, thereby erasing any suspicion that Israel’s God consumed the sacrifices (see Psalm 50).

Jacob Milgrom, A Continental Commentary: Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004), 21. (Wright mentions Milgrom as a source in his Pepperdine lectures on The Day the Revolution Began.)

If the point of animal sacrifice wasn’t to feed a hungry god, what was the point? The Christian assumption has long been that the sacrifice is a substitute for the person making the sacrifice. That is, if I offer a sheep for my sin, then I’m asking God to impose on the sheep the penalty that I deserve. This assumption underlies much atonement theology. But its just not how the sacrificial system in Leviticus worked.

According to Leviticus, the purification offering is prescribed as a response to moral impurity—defined as an unintended breach of prohibitions (4:2*)—and to severe cases of physical impurity. Physical impurity in this context applies to either gender and has to do only with ritual, not with one’s character or morality. Two examples of such physical impurity are the genital flow from a new mother and from a gonnorhean (chaps. 12 and 15).

The first question to ask is naturally: Who or what is being purified? Surprisingly, it is not the person with the moral or physical impurity. According to Leviticus, if his or her impurity is physical, only bathing is required to purify the body; if the impurity is moral (the unintended breach of a prohibition), a remorseful conscience clears the impurity. In neither case does the offering purify the person bringing the offering.

If the bringer of the sacrifice is not affected, who then is being purified? The telling clue is the destination of the blood of the sacrifice. It is not smeared on the offerer; it is smeared, rather, on the altar. The act is described by the word kippur, “purge” (as in Yom Kippur: the Day of Purgation). In commanding that the blood be daubed on the horns of the altar, the text is indicating that the altar is contaminated and must be purified. Since the offerer must bring the sacrifice, the offerer must in some way be implicated in the contamination of the altar.

Jacob Milgrom, A Continental Commentary: Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004), 30–31.

So the purpose of the sacrifice is not to cleanse the sinner but the tabernacle? Why?

Thus the third principle: God will not abide in a polluted sanctuary. To be sure, the Merciful One would tolerate a modicum of pollution. But there is a point of no return. If the pollution levels continue to rise, the end is inexorable. God abandons the sanctuary and leaves the people to their doom.

What are Israel’s priests trying to convey through this ritual? I submit it is their answer to the question of questions, as voiced by Jeremiah, “Why does the way of the wicked prosper?” No intellectual circle within ancient Israel evaded the challenge of theodicy (justifying the ways of God), but none found an adequate explanation. The prophets agonized over it but came up with no immediate solutions—they only prophesied that answers would be provided by a future messianic king. …

We know now where to find their answer—not in words but in rituals, not in legal statutes but in cultic procedure—specifically, in the rite with the blood of the purification offering. … the priestly writers would claim that sin may not blotch the face of the sinner, but it is certain to blotch the face of the sanctuary, and, unless quickly expunged, God’s presence will depart.

Thus the fourth and final principle: the priestly doctrine of collective responsibility. Sinners may go about apparently unmarred by their evil, but the sanctuary bears the wounds, and with its destruction, all the sinners will meet their doom.

What of the innocents who will suffer along with the sinners? The priestly doctrine of collective responsibility yields a corollary. The “good” people who perish with the evildoers are not innocent. For allowing brazen sinners to flourish, they share the blame. Indeed, they, the involuntary sinners, have contributed to the pollution of the sanctuary (fig. 2). 

Jacob Milgrom, A Continental Commentary: Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004), 32. (Paragraphing modified to ease reading on the Internet throughout this series.)

That is, when an individual Jew sins, the entire nation bears the responsibility and so the continued presence of God in the tabernacle is jeopardized. To cleanse the tabernacle — and hence the nation — of the impurity of sin, the sacrifice must be offered so that the blood will cleanse the nation of its collective guilt.

In fact, Leviticus denies that God can be appeased by sacrifice —

[[Lev] 4:31*] This is the only place in all the expiatory sacrifices where the phrase “a pleasing aroma to YHWH” appears (contrast the other sacrifices, e.g., 1:9*, 13*, 17*; 2:2*, 9, 12*; 3:5*, 16*). The studied absence of this phrase from the expiatory sacrifices indicates a conscious effort to distance Israel from the notion that these expiatory sacrifices possess the inherent power to appease God.

Jacob Milgrom, A Continental Commentary: Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004), 45.


Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
This entry was posted in N. T. Wright's The Day the Revolution Began, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Part 10 (Why Sacrifice? Part 1)

  1. When confronted with “Everybody has always thought this way, but it’s really this way,” I’m naturally skeptical. Milgrom’s arguments sure sound that way to me.

    It’s interesting to me that contemporary Jewish writings teach that one purpose of sacrifice was atonement, substitutionary atonement. While their understanding isn’t necessarily that of ancient Jews and could bear the influence of Christian thinking, it still seems like a powerful witness to the traditional understanding of things. I’m inclined to listen to the voice of a community for whom the Torah is central to their identity.

    Still willing to be convinced, but this argument needs some shoring up.

  2. Dwight says:

    In Lev.30 when the Passover was completed we read “Vs.27 “Then the priests, the Levites, arose and blessed the people, and their voice was heard; and their prayer came up to His holy dwelling place, to heaven.” God senses with his hearing of praise.
    God was pleased by Abel’s sacrifice, but not Cain’s. Now while it largely had to do with their demeanor, it is possible that it didn’t have to do with quantity, but quality, the best offered or not offered. God laments this in the minor prophets where the people offer up the lame and imperfect of the crop and animals.

    To me the concept of sacrifice had and has to do with an exchange for life, not the sacrificing to in order to feed, but a sacrificing to in order to offer a life that is at risk and is impure. In Exodus a lamb is sacrificed, so that the blood can be placed on the door post so that the angel of death would pass them over.
    Couldn’t they have just hung the hyssop outside the door?
    No a sacrifice of blood was needed.
    Since human sacrifice was out of the question and a pagan practice, an animal sacrifice was the next best thing. The sacrifice, of the field or of the flock, was supposed to be the best of the best.

    Death of the representative thing signified or actualized the death that should have been exacted on the people themselves, but deferred.

    When we come to Christ we see this same thought.
    Only the perfect sacrifice could atone completely for our sins. He took on the sins of the world.

    An interesting thing we don’t talk about much is the scape goat or the goat allowed to escape. The person who let the goat go was considered unclean until he washed. The same as those who offered the sacrifices. Any contamination from those things sacrificed or let go had to be literally washed away.
    Now let’s argue that baptism isn’t any more than a sign.

  3. JohnF says:

    In Exodus 24, Moses sprinkled the blood on / over the people.
    In Lev 8:30 Aaron and his garments were sprinkled with blood.

    These indicate consecration from being unclean. Ritual uncleanness is NOT sinful (otherwise Jesus was sinful when he became unclean by touching the lepers).

    The Azazel has the sins and impurities of the people placed on him, sent into the desert, never to return. Perhaps Milgrom could give more thought to this, but I have not read his book to see how he handles this.

    Hebrews 12:22-24
    But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, 23 to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel.

  4. Dwight says:

    Being unclean meant you couldn’t come before or approach God, not that you were in sin from what I understand as you weren’t penalized. I think Hebrews 12;22-24 meets that concept “come to Mt. Zion, to city of living God, the heavenly Jerusalem….to God” by way of Jesus and the blood of His sacrifice.

  5. Dustin says:

    Timothy are you referring to the Atonement of Christ ? If so, penal sub. atonement was not the first atonement theory out there. Of course, growing up I never knew that!

  6. Mark says:

    Dustin, you don’t have to get deep into penal sub. atonement. Just plain atonement wasn’t even mentioned.

  7. Eric Thomas says:

    I’m working through some thoughts on atonement. I wonder in light of this information since the sanctuary is what is affected by our sin if that doesn’t imply that our relationship is what is affected. The place where we meet with God is being polluted by our sin. Maybe the sacrifices are our recognition that we are the problem and we repent so that God forgives us and the relationship goes forward.

  8. Dwight says:

    Eric, I think it is notable that one sacrifice wasn’t done for Israel, but that the people themselves were required to bring their own sacrifice. They were required to give up something of themselves to God, but then what was sanctified by God was given back to them for sustenance.

  9. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    John F,

    Milgrom’s views on the sacrificial system have attracted a great deal of scholarly support but also criticism. The Anchor Yale Dictionary discusses Milgrom’s theory, agreeing in part and disagreeing in part.

    c. Purification Offering (ḥaṭṭāʾt). Lev 4:1–5:13, Num 15:22–31, et passim refer to this offering. The traditional translation of this term has been “sin offering.” This translation, followed by the LXX, is based on etymological considerations. The Hebrew root ḥṭʾ means “to miss the mark, to sin.” Yet as Milgrom (1983a: 67) and others have noted, the term would better be understood as referring to the process of purification. This seems clear from the verb used in conjunction with ḥaṭṭāʾt, lĕ-ḥaṭṭēʾ. This verbal form is best understood as a Piʿel privative which conveys the sense of “cleansing, purging,” or purifying an object. Even more important is the fact that the ḥaṭṭāʾt offering oftentimes is used in situations that have no relation to sin. For example, consider the cases of the parturient (Leviticus 12), the person suffering from a discharge (Leviticus 15), the Nazirite who completes a vow of abstinence (Numbers 6), or the installation of a new altar (Leviticus 8). In each of these cases, the act of sacrifice serves to purge or purify something rather than to remove sin. This is not only logically reasonable, but the biblical text explicitly says this is the function of the sacrifice. For example, in the case of the parturient instead of the ritual closing with a formula of forgiveness we read: “and the priest shall perform purgation for her (kippēr) and she shall be clean” (Lev 12:8). The rabbis also noted this: “The sacrifices [the parturient] brought, are nevertheless, for the purpose of permitting her to partake of consecrated food and are not expiatory” (Ker. 26a).

    Gary A. Anderson, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 1992, 5, 879.

    We American Christians tend to assume that all sacrifice is for atonement, but this is often not the case under anyone’s theory. The text often requires a sacrifice merely to become ritually clean, for example. Therefore, we cannot thoughtlessly take “sacrifice” to mean “atoning sacrifice.” Clearly it’s not always the case.

    (1) Purification and atonement. The purificatory function of the ḥaṭṭāʾt challenges us to reconsider the role of the ḥaṭṭāʾt in rituals that seem to have an atoning function. Can these rituals also be understood in a purificatory sense? Milgrom has argued the affirmative on the basis of the atonement rituals found in Leviticus 4:1–5:13 and Leviticus 16. Milgrom pays particular attention to the role of blood manipulation in each of the rituals described here, for it is the blood itself which acts as the purging agent. In light of this fact, it is significant to note that the blood is never placed upon the individual. If the individual himself was being cleansed, one would expect the blood to be placed on him or her. Instead, the blood is placed on various cultic appurtenances. Even more telling is the variability of this blood ritual with respect to the status of the sinner. Leviticus 4 makes very careful distinctions between the status of various classes of people. The inadvertent sins of the priest and community as a whole are more serious than the sins of the individual, be he a commoner or a ruler. Most serious of all are the advertent offenses of any kind. In each of these cases, as the seriousness of the sin becomes more pronounced, the blood is brought closer to the very inner sanctum of the holy of holies. Thus the blood used for the commoner is placed on the altar of the burnt offering outside the sanctuary per se (Lev 4:30). The blood used for the sin of the priest or of the community as a whole is placed within the sanctuary itself, sprinkled on the veil separating the holy of holies from the outer chamber and placed on the incense altar. Finally, the blood of the purification offering on Yom Kippur, which atones for advertent sins (so would seem the sense of pešaʿ in Lev 16:16), is sprinkled “in front of the mercy seat” within the holy of holies itself (Lev 16:14).

    Sacrifice and Sacrificial Offerings (Old Testament) Volume 5, Pages 879–880

    Milgrom has argued that this sequence of the graded usage of blood in respect to the grid of the sacred shrine shows that what is being purged is not the sin from the sinner, but the effects of sin, i.e. cultic impurity, from the sanctums within the sanctuary. Since the blood is understood to be a purging agent, one would expect the sinner to receive this material if the primary intention of the ritual were to eliminate his/her sinful condition. Such an understanding would accord well with what is said about the purificatory role of the ḥaṭṭāʾt blood in the case of those suffering from discharge: “Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst” (Lev 15:31, cf. Num 19:13). Impurity, conceived in this fashion, becomes “a physical substance, an aerial miasma which possessed magnetic attraction for the realm of the sacred” (Milgrom 1983a: 77). The purification offering is designed to remove this maleficent material from the sanctuary itself. If the impurity is allowed to accumulate, the deity will be forced to leave the sanctuary. This understanding of the process of atonement is quite distinct from previous theories (Gese 1981; Janowski 1982) which hold that the process is primarily concerned with removing sin from the sinner. Whereas the latter stress the role of substitutionary death in the atoning process, Milgrom stresses the role of purification.

    Gary A. Anderson, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 1992, 5, 879–880.

    Stated in this general way, Milgrom’s argument is very persuasive. Things become more difficult when Milgrom attempts to argue that the purification offering has no role whatsoever in removing human sin. Indeed scripture itself says that the purification rite is performed so that the sinner may be forgiven (Lev 4:20, 26, 31). Yet Milgrom contends that the forgiveness is not for the sinful act per se but rather for the consequence of the act, the contamination of the sanctuary. How then is the actual act of the individual sinner forgiven? Milgrom argues that the forgiveness of the original sin itself is accomplished by a feeling of remorse. This feeling is indicated in the biblical text by the use of the verb ʾāšēm (Lev 4:13, 22, 27), which Milgrom translates “to feel guilty.” But there are problems. If such an important atoning function is present in the act of feeling remorse, why is this term absent in Num 15:22–31? Or why is it absent in the case of the priest (Lev 4:1–12)? This situation is complex and does not offer any easy solution. Certainly Milgrom’s work is an important contribution, but loose ends still abound.

    Gary A. Anderson, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 1992, 5, 880.

    d. Sins and the Day of Atonement. Both inadvertent and intentional sins pollute the sanctuary as is clear from the requirement of a ḥaṭṭāʾt sacrifice (Lev 4:1–5:13; 16:3–20; Num 15:22–31). While the offerings of offenders purify impurity from unintentional sins throughout the year, extensive ḥaṭṭāʾt rites efface impurity from deliberate sins (and certainly that from any other unremedied sin or impurity) on the annual Day of Atonement. The ḥaṭṭāʾt rites together with the dispatch of the scapegoat, alleviate the effect of the people’s sin and thus in a sense purify the people themselves (Lev 16:30). Deliberate sins of which offenders repent appear to become equivalent to inadvertent sins. Sacrificial expiation at the time of admission and confession would rectify these (5:1, 5–13; Num 5:6–8; see Milgrom 1976: 108–21; 1983a: 249, 252). On other aspects of the ḥaṭṭāʾt, see above on cultic impurities and below on purification procedures.

    David P. Wright, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 1992, 6, 733–734.

    And so we should not reflexively reject Milgrom’s conclusions just because we aren’t familiar with the Torah’s words. Very often, it is very clear that the point of the sacrifice is to purify the tabernacle or its furnishings. Sometimes the sacrifice clearly is about ritual purity and not sin. But there are times when the sacrifice is closely tied to forgiveness.

    Therefore, when the NT refers to Jesus as a “sacrifice” and draws theological conclusions, we have to ask, “What kind of sacrifice?” And then go look at the Torah to see whether this is even arguably a sin-atoning sacrifice. For example, the Passover lamb has nothing to do with forgiving sin. Many sacrifices were thanks offerings for blessings already received. And the sacrificial system was going on daily during the same time most of the NT was being written. We cannot take a simplistic, uninformed view of “sacrifice” and build our understanding of the gospel on it. We have to do our homework.

Leave a Reply