“There I will meet with you”
When it comes to God and the death of Jesus, the second significant time of sacrifice is the Day of Atonement. When it comes to God and the death of Jesus the word “atonement” is a very important one. The word can mean “making up for wrongs” or “making amends.” People do this when they atone for their mistakes. Other understandings of the word focus more on unity or reconciliation. In that case atonement refers to whatever brings people atonement again or back into one. When the Bible talks about atonement a lot of the time it means “covering.”
The Day of Atonement was devoted to these ideas. It was like New Year’s Day in that it was a day to review, reflect, and renew commitments. Only this was not simply a day of self-renewal, but a time to renew one’s relationship with God. It was an opportunity for a fresh start when all that stood between an individual and God, a nation and God, would be removed or “covered.”
Throughout the year sacrifices and worship happened in and around something called a tabernacle. It was the dwelling place for God’s presence among the people. There was a fence with one gate for entrance and a tent where the priest could go to meet with God. There were other pieces of furniture as well, but the three that are important for us are the altars. They are the places where you see blood.
The first altar was just inside the gate. This is the place where individuals could bring their sacrifice to make amends for something that they had done that violated God’s law, unintentionally or intentionally. A priest would meet them there and the spilled blood would atone for their sins. Sacrifices would happen here throughout the year and it’s important to note that not all of the sacrifices were bloody.
The second altar was the altar of incense. It was just inside the tent. The high priest would make sure that incense burned day and night. Blood would be placed there once every year on the day of atonement. This was to make sure that it too was clean since it had been among the people who were sinful and likely a priest as well. Again, the use of blood on the Day of Atonement was to represent a fresh start.
Finally, further inside the tent was a room called the Holy of Holies. It was the most holy place and the place that God’s people believed that God showed up. It was behind a veil and the high priest is the only one who could enter it and he could only enter this room once per year. Yes, you guessed it, on the Day of Atonement. Blood would be sprinkled and dashed about here as well.
“For on this day atonement shall be made for you, to cleanse you; from all of your sins you shall be clean before the Lord. It is a Sabbath of complete rest to you, and you shall deny yourselves; it is a statute forever.” — v. 30–31
You can find a long description of the sacrifice and ritual of atonement in Leviticus. In chapter 16, there is a detailed description of what must be done so that atonement can be achieved with God. The sacrifices of atonement involved one bull and two goats. All three of them die and there is a lot of blood. The sacrifices of atonement, more than the slaughtered lamb of Passover, contribute to the view that God needs death in order to forgive. It’s understandable.
It begins with a priest and a bull. The bull is a “sin offering” for the priest and his family. It is meant to be an atonement for any sin that he may have committed over the previous year. He presents the bull, slaughters it and collects its blood. He brings the blood into the meeting tent, behind the curtain, and sprinkles it on the mercy seat (remember those words, I’ll describe this in a bit) and also before the mercy seat seven times. Some of the blood was taken outside the tent to another altar and some more was sprinkled on it as well. The sacrifice of the bull served as an atonement for Aaron and his household.
Then the priest brings forward one of the two goats. The first goat served as a “sin offering” for all the rest of the people. In the same way as the bull, the goat is slaughtered. Its blood is brought inside the tent behind the curtain. Some of it is sprinkled on the mercy seat and more is sprinkled on the ground in front of it. Doing this “makes atonement” for the sanctuary and the tent of meeting where they worship. Some of this blood is also taken to the altar outside of the tent so that it too can be clean in God’s eyes.
The second goat is called the scapegoat. You might be familiar with the term. It refers to someone or something that takes the blame even if they are innocent. Unlike the other two animals, the scapegoat is not sacrificed on an altar. Instead, the priest would place his hands on its head, confess “all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins.” (v. 21). The goat would then be shooed away far into the wilderness where it would presumably die and with it the sins of God’s people.
There’s a lot to keep straight with the different altars and the different sacrifices, so here is the basic idea. God had given his people some laws to follow. If they broke one of the laws, intentionally or unintentionally, they could atone for their sin through a sacrifice which often included blood (but not always). Over the course of the year, as the sins piled up they would stain the tabernacle and its special furniture making it unclean in God’s sight. So, once per year on the Day of Atonement, they would do a thorough cleaning of the whole thing and all the people and start fresh. Blood was the cleaning agent.
Here’s how this whole process often gets interpreted: Breaking God’s law makes someone guilty. That guilt requires some sort of punishment. That punishment can be transferred to an innocent creature which can be sacrificed on an altar before God. The shed blood shows how severe the punishment is and how serious God’s demand for justice is when it comes to sin. Basically, the innocent animal is punished in place of the guilty human. The animal dies as a substitute so that I don’t have to.
What I’m suggesting is that it’s not the death of the animal that atones for the sin of the people. It’s not the blood that gets sprinkled and dashed about or the fat of the animal that gets burned on the altar. It’s not really about sacrifice and death at all. The altar and the animal and the blood are simply outward signs and seals for an inner feeling of remorse and renewed commitment. Again, God’s true desire is not death, but life. In the same way, blood is not a sign of the death that God’s justice demands. The blood is a symbol of the life that God’s people are offering in response to God’s mercy and grace. Blood is life.
What I notice in all of the descriptions of the sacrifice is their detail. There are specific rules and regulations about who can perform the sacrifice, when, and in what way. The animal itself must be perfect in every way. All of these requirements go into making a sacrifice fitting for the Lord. One way to look at these requirements is to say that God is a demanding micro-manager. If you don’t do it just the way that God wants, then he’ll fold his arms, stomp in a huff, and refuse to forgive.
However, another way to look at this is to say that if someone is willing to make sure that all of these rules and requirements are met, then they must really mean it. They must really be acknowledging their sin. They must really feel guilty. And, they really want God to know that they feel that way because a right relationship with God is important to them. So, they are willing to do exactly as God asks in order to prove it. What God truly desires is a heart that is genuine and a life that is new.
I have a couple of reasons for suggesting this idea. The first is related to sacrifices that are called “sin offerings.” I want to show you one example where death and blood are not required to make atonement for breaking God’s law. The second is related to the Mercy Seat that is at the center of the Holy of Holies in God’s dwelling place. I want to show you a passage where God describes the purpose of that piece of furniture.
There is a longer description of sin offerings and burnt offerings in chapters four and five of Leviticus. Remember these are the type of sacrifices that play a central part in the Day of Atonement. In fact, some of them are described in very similar detail. In many cases, blood is sprinkled from bulls and goats and sheep and turtledoves. And then this basic idea is repeated, “The priest shall make atonement and they shall be forgiven.” Again, it leaves the impression that the death of the animal and the shedding of blood is a substitute for the human and makes forgiveness possible.
But then there is this in chapter five:
“But if you cannot afford two turtledoves or two pigeons, you shall bring as your offering for the sin that you have committed one-tenth of an ephah of choice flour for a sin offering.” 5:11
Notice there is no death. There isn’t any blood. No substitute. It’s just some flour. It’s choice flour, but it’s only flour. The priest will take only a handful of it and burn it on the altar. Even though no animal dies and there is no spattering of blood we still find the same words, “Thus the priest shall make atonement on your behalf for whichever of these sins you have committed, and you shall be forgiven.” 5:13
This “sacrifice” is as effective and meaningful as any other that involves an animal and blood. It’s our first hint that God doesn’t need blood in order to forgive. God is not substituting an innocent animal so that he doesn’t have to kill a guilty human being. What God is doing is looking for a way to meet with his people and lead them into life. All of this happens at the mercy seat. The mercy seat offers the second reason for suggesting that God is seeking life, not satisfied by death.
The mercy seat is found in the tabernacle in the most holy place. It is the covering on the ark that holds God’s commandments. It is meant to be a special place that is reserved for special purposes. Here’s what God himself says about it:
“There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat…I will deliver to you all my commands for the Israelites.” 25:22
What you begin to see in these words are God’s desires for his people. First, God wants to meet with them. Second, God wants them to live a life of obedience. The mercy seat, then, is not a place of death but of life. Blood is life. Every animal sacrificed was a sign of a life fully devoted to God. Every drop of blood was a seal of the commitment that God’s people were making to God.
The Day of Atonement was a day to be cleansed, to have all of the burden and guilt and pain of the previous year washed away. It was also a day of complete rest. It was a day to begin reflecting, to leave behind the old and embrace the new. It was certainly a day to “deny oneself” but the promise of cleansing and rest is hardly a day darkened by “death and unrelieved gloom.” It was a day to genuinely meet with God, to reflect on God’s commandments, and renew one’s commitment to God’s promises of life.
Rituals of worship reinforce ways that we think about and feel toward God. I hope that you’ve begun to see how the major rituals of worship were not about death, but about life. The sacrifice at the first Passover could be viewed as a bribe to stop God from killing your firstborn child. Instead, I suggest you think of it as a sign of trust in God to rescue and a seal of loyalty to the Lord over the gods of Egypt.
The sacrifices of atonement could be seen as the transfer of punishment from a guilty human to an innocent animal so that God’s justice could be satisfied with death. Instead, I suggest you think of it as a symbol of sincere acknowledgement of wrong and a genuine desire to begin again. In each case, I suggest you see the blood as a representation of the life being offered to God. It is not satisfying God with a death.
If you’re familiar with all of this already you might say that I’m assuming a lot. If you’re not familiar with these things, then you might not see any reason to question them. Either way, the next chapter is important. My main point here is to say that these physical rituals of worship are not the main point. Death is not necessary. Blood is not necessary. It is the way that God commanded his people to remember and renew their commitment, but what is important to God is the remembering and the renewing of their whole life.
When it comes to God and the death of Jesus this is important. If God doesn’t need death in order to forgive, then perhaps Jesus wasn’t being punished in our place. If the blood of Jesus is about life and not death, then perhaps Jesus helps us meet with God and delivers God’s commandments to us. If God’s true desire is for people to remember and renew their commitment, then perhaps Jesus offers us a way to do just that. If it was blood that brought that young woman back to life after her tragic car accident, then perhaps all the talk of Jesus’ blood makes the same sort of promise.