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Jewish Perspectives

The Jewish People and Atonement

Now the LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they offered profane fire before the LORD, and died; and the LORD said to Moses: "Tell Aaron your brother not to come at just any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat which is on the ark, lest he die; for I will appear in the cloud above the mercy seat. "Thus Aaron shall come into the Holy Place: with the blood of a young bull as a sin offering, and of a ram as a burnt offering. "He shall put the holy linen tunic and the linen trousers on his body; he shall be girded with a linen sash, and with the linen turban he shall be attired. These are holy garments.

Therefore he shall wash his body in water, and put them on. "And he shall take from the congregation of the children of Israel two kids of the goats as a sin offering, and one ram as a burnt offering. Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering, which is for himself, and make atonement for himself and for his house. "He shall take the two goats and present them before the LORD at the door of the tabernacle of meeting. "Then Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats: one lot for the LORD and the other lot for the scapegoat. "And Aaron shall bring the goat on which the LORD’s lot fell, and offer it as a sin offering. "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. (Leviticus 16:1-10)

The question of how one deals with sin in order to find acceptance with God lies at the very heart of Judaism and first of all I want to consider the thinking that lies behind the Jewish approach to God on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Secondly, I want to focus on the positive direction given to us in Scripture, particularly in Leviticus 16.

Not so Bad

The yearly procedure of the Day of Atonement makes abundantly clear, as do the rabbinic writings which lie at the back of this procedure, that man is a sinner in need of atonement for sins. The Talmud tells us, for instance, that for two and a half years the schools of Hillel and Shammai divided on the question of whether or not man would have been better off not to have been created. The root of the discussion was the agreed opinion that man is essentially sinful. The rabbis acknowledge that the sin of Adam had repercussions on all subsequent generations and they speak of man as being born with a Yetzer Ha Ra, an evil inclination which, as the puritan theologian Dr. John Owen observed, is a far better expression than our Original Sin. But they do contend most strongly against the doctrine of original sin, as Christians understand it. They further say that man also has a Yetzer Ha Tov, a good inclination. I almost said that they contend he is born with it, but they don’t all say that. Some suggest that the Yetzer Ha Tov is given when a boy is thirteen years old.

In the Middle Ages there was a movement which developed called the Musar movement the aim of which was to study what they called "heart religion" rather than "limb religion". They gathered all the writings they could of heart religion and advocated an intensely emotional form of study and meditation, encouraging their students to read aloud and be moved emotionally by what they read. For instance, if one found that an expression from their writings or the Word of God moved one to tears, one should read the passage again and again in order to repeat the emotional experience. As you will appreciate, it was difficult to carry on meditation or study in the presence of other people and so the Musars had their own little conventicles separate from the synagogue. But the heart of their teaching was that by such a process one could actually overcome the Yetzer Ha Ra, the evil inclination. Orthodox Jews are still very much influenced by the Musar movement. It is still operative in the great rabbinical colleges and is at the heart of zealous Judaism.

No Temple? No Problem!

Rabbinic teaching acknowledges that man must find atonement for his sin but the question is, by what means? After the destruction of the temple and with it the cessation of the sacrificial offerings, the primary concern of the Talmudic writers was to assure the Jew that he could still obtain forgiveness and acceptance, that there was still atonement for sin even though the sacrificial system had been removed. A modern writer, Rabbi Cohen, says on this very question: "The greatest accomplishment which the teaching of the Talmud achieved for the Jewish people was to make them feel that the end of the temple did not imply an end to religion. Severe as the loss was, the way to God was kept open. In addition to charity, justice, the Torah, study, there was also prayer which was declared to be even greater than sacrifices."

Again, he says, "With the fall of the temple and the cessation of the atonement offerings the importance of repentance as a means of expiation became inevitably enhanced. This is also true of the efficacy of the Day of Atonement itself. When the sacrifices could no longer be offered the people needed to be reminded that their hope for atonement was not in the least affected so they were told [in a quote from Talmud], ‘Whence is it derived that if one repents it is imputed to him as if he had gone up to Jerusalem, built the temple, erected an altar and offered upon it all the sacrifices enumerated in the Torah?’ from the text, ‘The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit’."

Law, Prophets and Writings

In those two statements a number of means of atonement are suggested. An important passage in the Talmud interestingly considers the question, "What is the penalty of a sinner?" and the question is put to each section of the Tanakh (the Old Testament) - Torah, the Law, Nevi’im, the Prophets, and Ketuvim, the Writings - and, finally, the question, "What is the penalty of the sinner?" is put to God himself.

The Writings answer, "Evil pursueth sinners" from Proverbs 13:21. The concept that evil, or suffering, is a means by which sin can be cleansed is a point developed in the Talmud. For instance: "There are chastenings which purge all the iniquities of man" or, again, "Just as sacrifices secured acceptance, so do sufferings secure acceptance. Nay sufferings bring even greater acceptance since sacrifices entail money only while sufferings affect the body".

The Prophets are made to answer, "The soul that sinneth it shall die" (Ezekiel 18:4). In other words, death is a medium of atonement for sin. A passage in the Talmud states concerning the sin of profaning the name of God, that repentance in this case has no power to atone, the Day of Atonement has no power to atone, sufferings have no power to atone, all which would normally be effective remain in suspension and death purges him from his sin.

The Torah, gives the answer, "Let him bring a trespass offering and he will be forgiven", from Leviticus 6 and 7. With the sacrifices taken away, in their place, says Rabbi Cohen, the synagogue ritual of the Day of Atonement itself became in the popular mind the supreme path to purification for sin. Its power to effect purification from sin is a tenet of rabbinic Judaism. One very important part of the Day of Atonement service, is the act of fasting. The Talmud tells of a certain rabbi who "used to say this prayer on a fast day. ‘Lord of the Universe, it is revealed before Thee that when the sanctuary was in existence a man sinned and brought an offering of which they sacrifice only the fat and the blood and atonement was made for him but now I observe a fast and my fat and my blood are diminished. May it be Thy will that my fat and blood which have been diminished may be accounted as though I had offered them before Thee on the altar and do Thou favour me’."

What's the Difference?

The question is ultimately put to God himself and God answers, "Let him repent and he will be forgiven. As it is written, ‘Good and upright is the Lord therefore will he teach sinners the way’." Repentance is seen, therefore, as the ultimate means of the cleansing from sin. I once asked a young Orthodox Jew, how he understood atonement and he replied that he had recently been studying the subject with his rabbi and had come to the conclusion that there was no difference between atonement and repentance. I pressed him further and asked how he understood the place and the purpose of sacrifice in the Tanakh, the Old Testament. The most important thing about sacrifice as he understood it, he said, was that it had to be accompanied by sincere repentance. Without sincere repentance the sacrifice would not be accepted. Therefore, he said, when Jews can no longer sacrifice, as long as they exhibit sincere repentance they will find acceptance.

These rabbinic concepts are written into the warp and woof of Jewish thinking on this crucial matter of acceptance with God. Prayers, fasting, tears, suffering, death, the Day of Atonement and repentance in particular are all means of atonement.

Death in the Temple

Now, as I indicated at the beginning, I to bring to bear upon these opinions, the positive direction of the word of God in Leviticus 16 and to four basic truths that stand out in that passage which we must draw to the attention of the Jewish people. The most obvious lesson in the passage is the great offence that sin is to God because we have violated his law. The chapter opens with the words, "Now the LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron when they offered profane fire before the Lord and died..." The incident referred to is recorded at the beginning of chapter 10. The altar had been set up and prayers were offered, Aaron and Moses had completed their duties and the blessing of God had fallen in a unique manner: "and fire came out from before the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the fat on the altar. When all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces." (Leviticus 9:24).

Immediately after we read:

Then Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered profane fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. So fire went out from the LORD and devoured them, and they died before the LORD. And Moses said to Aaron, "This is what the LORD spoke, saying: ‘By those who come near me I must be regarded as holy; and before all the people I must be glorified.’" So Aaron held his peace. (Leviticus 10:1-3)

It is an awful scene: the bodies of the two sons of the High Priest, Moses reminding his brother that this was what God warned them concerning their approach to him and poor Aaron the grief-stricken father with nothing to say. Now that is what we’re reminded of when we think of the matter of approaching almighty God: the seriousness of sin which runs through the chapter. We see it being worked out in a number of ways; in the approach of the priest as he goes into the tabernacle and the Holy of Holies; the kind of dress that he must wear; the kind of sacrifice he must make; described in verses 12 and 13; "Then he shall take a censer full of burning coals of fire from the altar before the LORD, with his hands full of sweet incense beaten fine, and bring it inside the veil. "And he shall put the incense on the fire before the LORD, that the cloud of incense may cover the mercy seat that is on the Testimony, lest he die.

Sin is Serious

Though Aaron has done everything as commanded and everything is in order, he still cannot demand an entrance into the presence room of God. He must still approach as a humble suppliant before God pleading mercy. The whole idea of incense is to emphasise symbolically prayer rising up to God.

Throughout the chapter the seriousness of sin is brought to our attention. One cannot help but notice how everything is contaminated by sin and has to be atoned for. Every part of the day’s proceedings speaks of the complete and utter alienation between God and man that sin has caused. Only by toning down that disturbing truth can man ever imagine he can find a way of acceptance with God other than that which God has provided in sacrifice. But that is exactly what’s happened in Judaism. I look with concern and compassion upon that Day of Atonement service when I see that the rabbis have played down this disturbing truth of God’s awful holiness against the seriousness of sin and the estrangement that is caused because of it.

A Priest's got to do what a Priest's got to do

The second thing we notice in the chapter is the necessity of an acceptable mediator. I find it amazing, and I’m sure my colleagues have found it amazing too, that Jewish people will frequently say to us, "We do not need a mediator". Maybe it is because of their consciousness of being in a peculiar position as the chosen people that they don’t see their need of a mediator. But how can they say that as they read their own Scriptures where the concept of the mediator is revealed in the Law, the Prophets and particularly in the priesthood. And nowhere do we see the need for a mediator more clearly than on this great Day of Atonement. It must have been an impressive and awesome sight to see the solitary figure of Aaron dressed in white, engaged in his mediatorial duties all as Israel stood back. No other man was allowed in the tabernacle, the tent of God, at that time. In Job we find the expression, "Nor is there any mediator between us, who may lay his hand on us both" (Job 9:33) but in Christ we have a mediator who is able to lay his hand upon the throne of God and lay his hand upon us; One who has taken our flesh and come among us - the one great Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.

The third point is even more important, and that is the requirement of an acceptable means to remove that offence and obstacle of sin. Here we are at the very heart of the matter: the atonement itself. The word "atonement" comes from an old English word meaning simply "at-one-ment", to make to be "at one" persons who were previously at variance. But the Hebrew word kaphar means "to cover", sometimes "to obliterate" or "to purge", but basically, "to cover". What is interesting and important to notice is the way that kaphar is used biblically, especially with regard to the estrangement between God and man. It is important to notice the difference between the everyday use of that word and the purely religious use.

Cover His Face

On the occasion when Jacob was returning to his land with his family and goods it was reported to him that his brother Esau was approaching with his army and Jacob was afraid. We read in Genesis 32:20 that Jacob therefore sent gifts ahead of him to "appease" his brother but the literal Hebrew expression would be that he sent gifts to "cover his brother’s face". To "cover the face" was a Hebrew idiom in everyday use. Now such an action may be possible between two men who are equal parties but the situation is very different when we come to the matter of the relationship between God and man. They are not equal parties and to suggest in the light of what we are taught about God in Scripture that we can ever "cover His face" is to deny surely what God is. And that is exactly what pagan thought expressed when the Greeks spoke of "smoothing the gods". And when I read the rabbinic commentaries with their critical comments on the Christian doctrine of atonement I suspect that they have not risen very much above the pagan concept of "smoothing the gods". Dr. Hertz, for instance, in his commentary on a passage that refers to the blood being shed to make atonement and the life being in the blood, says that there is no sense of a bribe to an angry God "as the Christians teach". Of course the truth of the atonement unfolded to us in the Hebrew Scriptures is not to be confused with that low pagan concept but is, rather, the blessed provision from the hand of a merciful God for the dire need of his own children - those he will save.

And what is that provision of mercy? In Leviticus 16 it is centred in a sacrifice, the peculiar sacrifice of two animals so that two truths can be taught. Now the critic says, with regard to this sacrifice (and I find the Jew saying very much the same kind of thing) that this sacrifice was really only a symbolical portrayal of the sinner yielding his life back to God in repentance and faith. Thus the sin was removed and atonement was made. What the critic says further is that the actual sacrifice, therefore, was not important. The important thing was that one had the right disposition one approached God and the sacrifice was a focus that one might be brought to the sense of the seriousness of sin. It was a picture of the offerer, reminding him that he ought to die like that. And so our young Jewish friend could say that sincere repentance was the important thing and that when Jews can no longer sacrifice, as long as they are genuinely repentant they don’t need the sacrificial offerings. But, to me, looking at this very passage of Scripture such an argument fails on a number of points.

Who does What to Whom?

First of all, the theory fails to see that man’s primary problem is not his attitude toward God but the offence to God that sin has produced. It is a failure, in other words, to appreciate the measure of the estrangement brought about by the violation of God’s law. God’s justice has decreed that there shall be nothing less than death for sin. And the hindrance to our acceptance with God lies in the character of God. Therefore it does not matter how sincere we may be or how zealous our efforts, we cannot remove the barrier.

It is a failure, secondly, to deal adequately with the language of this passage. Taking the passage as a whole one is left in no doubt that the sacrifice was absolutely indispensable. Take the sacrifice out of the day’s proceeding and forgiveness cannot be attained. What is taught in this chapter of Leviticus is that atonement is not so much something done by the sinner as something done for the sinner. It is important also to take notice of the implications of the two actions that we peculiarly associate with animal sacrifices. First, the laying on of hands and, secondly, the shedding of blood as the means of expiation. In Biblical usage the laying on of hands appears to symbolise the transference of something from one person to another. For instance, when Israel the father put his hand upon the grandchild Ephraim in Genesis 48 he was communicating a real blessing to the child. Or, again, when Israel put their hands upon the heads of the Levites something was being transferred from one to another. In no sense, therefore, did the sacrifice ever symbolise the offerer himself. That truth of the transferral that we see symbolically in the Old Testament, is most clearly set before us in the Gospel as sin is imputed to the Victim so the satisfaction made by his death is imputed to the sinner. Prof. John Murray puts it beautifully when he says, "God so loved the objects of his wrath that he gave his own Son to the end that he by his blood should make provision for the removal of this wrath."

Without the Shedding of Blood…

The truth of the atonement is further seen in the shedding of blood. That is something we ought to look at very carefully and for those who wish to study it I would recommend the excellent little treatise by the Revd. Alan Stibbs, The Meaning of the Word Blood in Scripture. In the High Priest’s presentation of blood in the presence of God we see the blood as the evidence of death. Aaron was to enter the Holy of Holies with blood as the evidence of the death that had been executed according to God’s decree and to sprinkle the blood at the mercy seat. In the Holy of Holies was the Ark of the Covenant, covered with a solid slab of gold - the rabbis tell us it was a handbreadth thick - wrought into the ends of which were the two cherubim, their wings outstretched across the mercy seat, and between them the Shekinah glory. In the Ark of the Covenant were the two tables of the law which ever condemn us as we come to the throne of God. But as the High Priest sprinkles the blood on the mercy seat God, we could say, in a sense no longer sees His law and the violation of his law, which is an offence to him but, instead, sees that which is a pleasure to him. He sees the evidence of that life that was given and on that ground and on that ground alone is His justice satisfied and He is able to deal in mercy with his people.


Hoping in Vain

If you ever have the opportunity to ask Jewish people at the conclusion of the Day of Atonement services how they feel about the matter of the forgiveness of sin after all they’ve done throughout that day and I think that you will find that most Jewish people can only say, "We hope..." And yet, in this chapter there is a wonderful picture of the provision of God for the complete removal of the estrangement between God and his people. There is the moving scene at the end of it all when the High Priest, having been into the holy presence of God and pleaded for Israel, places his hands upon the head of the live goat and confesses over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, placing them symbolically upon the scapegoat. Having laid Israel’s sins publicly on the scapegoat Israel sees the animal taken away until it is completely lost from view. This passage with its symbolic portrayal of the wonderful provision of God in the Lord Jesus Christ becomes of utmost importance to us, therefore, as we witness to Jewish people.

Let us pray that we might be enabled by God to explain that truth and see it blessed by the Spirit of God. We need the veil to be removed by the Spirit of God. Only then will they see the wondrous truths in which we rejoice.


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