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.
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.