THE BIBLICAL VIEW OF ATONEMENT by Rabbi Michael Skobac
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 36:3).
“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 32:5).
“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…” (Proverbs 16:6).
“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, Jeremiah 26:13).
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 atonement:
“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 69:31-32).
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 G-d’s response?
“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.” (Psalm 69:30-31).
“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 Chronicles 6:21).
~Rabbi Michael Skobac