- Offerings for Atonement for Sinners
- Aspects of Making Offerings for Sin
- The Role of the Priests
- Ceremonial Cleanness
- Epilogue: Israel’s Persistence in Sin
In the law on which his covenant with Israel was based, God made provision for atonement to be made for anyone who sinned, and so for the sinner to be forgiven. This allowed the Israelites to remain in their covenant relationship with him, providing that they did not actually give up following God and his laws, as per the terms of the covenant. Sadly Israel would fail to hold to the covenant, willfully forsaking God’s laws and persisting in sin.
The NT contains numerous references to the Mosaic Law’s provision for Israel’s sin. An understanding of what this provision involved enables us to more fully comprehend why Jesus Christ came and the significance of his work. For many of the concepts involved in Jesus Christ’s work have their origin in the law’s stipulations for making offerings for atonement for sin. These aspects of the law actually foreshadowed – and would be superseded by – what Jesus Christ would do and implement.
Note that most of the following passages involve instructions given by God to Moses for the Israelites, with either God or Moses speaking.
The law made provision for the offering of a life of an animal, to make atonement for one who had sinned
Num 15:27-28 If any person sins unintentionally, then he must bring a yearling female goat for a purification offering. 28And the priest must make atonement for the person who sins unintentionally — when he sins unintentionally before the Lord — to make atonement for him, and he will be forgiven. NET
Under the Mosaic Law, when a person sinned the person had to bring an animal for a priest to sacrifice as an offering of a life to make atonement for the person. Biblical atonement is where God accepts such an offering or sacrifice of a living being as a substitute for the life of a person who has sinned – the person’s life otherwise being required as punishment for their sin. As such, God accepts the sacrifice as payment for the person’s sin. The result is that sin is taken away – and so the sinner is forgiven, pronounced righteous and reconciled to God.
Lev 1:4, 9b He [a person who had sinned] shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him. … 9… And the priest shall burn all of it on the altar, as a burnt offering, a food offering with a pleasing aroma to the Lord. ESV
One of the main uses of a burnt offering was for making atonement for sinners, where it appears to have been used for one’s sin in general. Other kinds of uses were: as an expression of devotion to God; as an expression of thanksgiving to God; and to accompany/supplement an appeal to God. It was the only offering where the whole of the animal was burnt up on the altar; as such it expressed one’s complete devotion to God.
Lev 5:5-6 … when he realizes his guilt in any of these and confesses the sin he has committed, 6he shall bring to the Lord as his compensation for the sin that he has committed, a female from the flock, a lamb or a goat, for a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement for him for his sin. ESV
Lev 5:17-19 “If a person sins and violates any of the Lord’s commandments which must not be violated (although he did not know it at the time, but later realizes he is guilty), then he will bear his punishment for iniquity 18and must bring a flawless ram from the flock, convertible into silver shekels, for a guilt offering to the priest. So the priest will make atonement on his behalf for his error which he committed (although he himself had not known it) and he will be forgiven. 19It is a guilt offering; he was surely guilty before the Lord.” NET
The guilt offering was quite similar to the sin offering, in both the process and purpose. The main difference appears to be that it was required in matters where restitution was quantifiable and so could be made for the wrongdoing. The guilt offering was made along with the restitution and a twenty percent surcharge.
Lev 16:17, 24 Nobody is to be in the Meeting Tent when he [Aaron, the high priest] enters to make atonement in the holy place until he goes out, and he has made atonement on his behalf, on behalf of his household, and on behalf of the whole assembly of Israel. … 24Then he must bathe his body in water in a holy place, put on his clothes, and go out and make his burnt offering and the people’s burnt offering. So he is to make atonement on behalf of himself and the people. NET
Lev 16:29-30 This is to be a perpetual statute for you [the Israelites]. In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you must humble yourselves and do no work of any kind, both the native citizen and the foreigner who resides in your midst, 30for on this day atonement is to be made for you to cleanse you from all your sins; you must be clean before the Lord. NET
The Day of Atonement was to be observed once each year, for the high priest to cleanse the Israelite nation as a whole of all sin. It was the most important observance of the OT rituals, the only time the high priest could enter the Most Holy Place.
While this section looks in particular at offerings that were made because of sin, note that some aspects of the presentation of these offerings were also applicable to other offerings – such as the aspects involved in the first two subsections.
Deut 12:13-14 Make sure you do not offer burnt offerings in any place you wish, 14for you may do so only in the place the Lord chooses in one of your tribal areas – there you may do everything I am commanding you. NET
Lev 4:32 If this person [who had sinned] brings a lamb as his offering for sin, he must bring a female that has nothing wrong with it. NCV™
Ex 29:11 [God:] Kill the bull there in my holy presence at the entrance of the Tent. GNT
The various kinds of offerings were only to be made on the altar at the place of God’s presence amongst the people that was signified by the ark of the covenant. Initially this was at the Tent of Meeting (the tabernacle) and later at the temple. This was partly to ensure that the offerings were offered by the priests, God’s chosen mediators between the people and himself. Additionally, it safeguarded against inappropriate offerings and procedures – and against worship of other gods.
Lev 1:4 He must lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted for him to make atonement on his behalf. NET
This practice appears to have signified that the animal was a substitute for the sinner. Moreover, it may also have signified the transfer of the person’s sins to the animal (cf. Lev 16:21-22).
Lev 4:16-20 Then the high priest must bring some of the blood of the bull to the Meeting Tent, 17and that priest must dip his finger in the blood and sprinkle some of the blood seven times before the Lord toward the front of the veil–canopy. 18He must put some of the blood on the horns of the altar which is before the Lord in the Meeting Tent, and all the rest of the blood he must pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering that is at the entrance of the Meeting Tent. 19“‘Then the priest must take all its fat and offer the fat up in smoke on the altar. 20He must do with the rest of the bull just as he did with the bull of the sin offering; this is what he must do with it. So the priest will make atonement on their behalf and they will be forgiven. NET
As this passage illustrates, the blood of animals sacrificed as offerings to make atonement for sinners featured prominently in the instructions given for presenting the offerings. The reason was the correlation of blood with life (as discussed in the following subsection). The blood signified the life of the animal, given as a substitute for the life of the sinner (as reflected in the previous subsection).
Lev 17:11-12 [God:] … for the life of every living thing is in the blood. So I myself have assigned it to you on the altar to make atonement for your lives, for the blood makes atonement by means of the life. 12Therefore, I have said to the Israelites: No person among you is to eat blood, and no resident foreigner who lives among you is to eat blood. NET
Blood sustains life and as such is to a large degree correlated with life. Because of this correlation the Israelites were not to eat blood – a command that NT believers continued to uphold (cf. Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25). This command was particularly pertinent in the context of making offerings. For in some kinds of animal offerings the meat was to be eaten, and so the people were required to first drain the blood from it.
Ex 28:1 [God, to Moses:] And you, bring near to you your brother Aaron and his sons with him from among the Israelites, so that they may minister as my priests – Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s sons. NET
Ex 29:8-9 [God, to Moses:] Then you shall bring his sons and put coats on them, 9and you shall gird Aaron and his sons with sashes and bind caps on them. And the priesthood shall be theirs by a statute forever. Thus you shall ordain Aaron and his sons. ESV
When God made his covenant with Israel, he instituted the Aaronic or Levitical priesthood as an integral aspect of the covenant law, in particular in regard to the regulations concerning the people’s relationship with himself.
Num 18:7a But you [Aaron] and your sons with you are responsible for your priestly duties, for everything at the altar and within the curtain. NET
Lev 21:6 They [the priests] must be holy to their God and show respect for God’s name, because they present the offerings made by fire to the Lord, which is the food of their God. So they must be holy. NCV™
Lev 10:11 You [the priests] must teach the people all the laws that the Lord gave to them through Moses. NCV™
Ex 30:7-8 Aaron must burn sweet-smelling incense on the altar every morning when he comes to take care of the oil lamps. 8He must burn incense again in the evening when he lights the lamps, so incense will burn before the Lord every day from now on. NCV™
Sweet smelling incense was regularly offered by priests to God, primarily in being burned before him, but also in being added to some other offerings. This was to honor God with such a beautiful and pleasing aroma. The fact that the incense was costly was also honoring to God, in it being offered up to him.
Lev 19:22 And the priest shall make atonement for him [a person who had sinned] with the ram of the guilt offering before the Lord for his sin that he has committed, and he shall be forgiven for the sin that he has committed. ESV
Lev 16:32-34a “The priest who is anointed and ordained to act as high priest in place of his father is to make atonement. He is to put on the linen garments, the holy garments, 33and he is to purify the Most Holy Place, he is to purify the Meeting Tent and the altar, and he is to make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly. 34This is to be a perpetual statute for you to make atonement for the Israelites for all their sins once a year.” NET
Alongside the regulations governing atonement for sin, the law had regulations for ceremonial cleanness and uncleanness – of which the latter, at least at times, like sin required atonement. These regulations regarding cleanness were based on the need for God’s people to be holy as he is holy. Holiness is essential if God’s people are to exist with him, for he does not abide with nor tolerate that which is not holy.
The stipulations as to what denoted ceremonial uncleanness were – largely at least – based on what was physically dirty or unhealthy. In contrast to such things God’s own holiness involves absolute purity and perfection – morally and otherwise. Maintaining ceremonial cleanness in God’s presence – particularly in deliberately approaching him, such as in worship – was in accordance with and an acknowledgement of God’s holiness. As such the law demanded the Israelites be ceremonially clean.
Uncleanness also makes an apt parallel to and is correlated with that which is morally unholy. As such, maintaining ceremonial cleanness reinforced the need to maintain spiritual or moral cleanness – discerning and avoiding both sin and sources of it.
Lev 11:44-45 I am the Lord your God. Keep yourselves holy for me because I am holy. Don’t make yourselves unclean with any of these crawling animals. 45I am the Lord who brought you out of Egypt to be your God; you must be holy because I am holy. NCV™
Lev 5:2 If someone unintentionally touches anything ritually unclean, such as a dead animal, he is unclean and guilty as soon as he realizes what he has done. GNT
Lev 11:46-47 “These are the instructions about animals, birds, and every living creature that swims in the water and every creature that swarms on the ground. 47These instructions help you distinguish between clean and unclean, the animals you may eat and those you may not eat.” GW
Lev 15:31 The Lord told Moses to warn the people of Israel about their uncleanness, so that they would not defile the Tent of his presence, which was in the middle of the camp. If they did, they would be killed. GNT
Deut 23:10-11 [Moses, to the Israelites:] If someone among you becomes unclean due to nocturnal emissions, he must leave the camp and stay outside. 11As evening approaches he must wash himself with water. Then at sunset, he may return to the camp. ISV
Num 9:6a But some of the people could not celebrate the Passover on that day because they were unclean from touching a dead body. NCV™
2Chr 23:19 He [Jehoiada the priest] posted guards at the gates of the Lord’s temple, so no one who was ceremonially unclean in any way could enter. NET
Lev 17:15 If a person, either a citizen or a foreigner, eats an animal that died by itself or was killed by another animal, he must wash his clothes and bathe in water. He will be unclean until evening; then he will be clean. NCV™
Lev 14:19-20 The priest shall offer the sin offering, to make atonement for him who is to be cleansed from his uncleanness. And afterward he shall kill the burnt offering. 20And the priest shall offer the burnt offering and the grain offering on the altar. Thus the priest shall make atonement for him, and he shall be clean. ESV
Uncleanness was contrary to God’s holiness and, in accordance, also his law. As such atonement for uncleanness was required.
Prov 20:9 Who can say, “I have kept my heart clean; I am pure from my sin”? NET
Lam 1:8a Jerusalem has sinned greatly, therefore she has become unclean. ISV
Despite the Mosaic Law’s provision for Israel’s sin, the Israelites as a whole persisted in sin – rebelling against God and breaking his covenant with them. This showed that ultimately the law was not sufficient to deal with sin.
Ps 78:17, 40-41 They continued to sin against him, to rebel in the desert against the Most High. … 40How often they rebelled against him in the wilderness! How often they caused him grief in the desert! 41Again and again they tested God, and they pushed the Holy One of Israel to the limit. GW
God gave Israel his law early on in its journey from Egypt to the promised land. Despite this, Israel regularly sinned and rebelled against God throughout its desert journey.
Judg 2:18-19 When enemies made life miserable for the Israelites, the Lord would feel sorry for them. He would choose a judge and help that judge rescue Israel from its enemies. The Lord would be kind to Israel as long as that judge lived. 19But afterwards, the Israelites would become even more sinful than their ancestors had been. The Israelites were stubborn—they simply would not stop worshiping other gods or following the teachings of other religions. CEV
Note that the “judges” – from which the book of Judges takes its name – were the occasional leaders of Israel during the time following Joshua (and the settling of the promised land) until the death of Samuel, Israel’s last judge.
1Ki 11:9-13 The Lord was angry with Solomon because he had shifted his allegiance away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him on two occasions 10and had warned him about this very thing, so that he would not follow other gods. But he did not obey the Lord’s command. 11So the Lord said to Solomon, “Because you insist on doing these things and have not kept the covenantal rules I gave you, I will surely tear the kingdom away from you and give it to your servant. 12However, for your father David’s sake I will not do this while you are alive. I will tear it away from your son’s hand instead. 13But I will not tear away the entire kingdom; I will leave your son one tribe for my servant David’s sake and for the sake of my chosen city Jerusalem.” NET
Solomon followed his father David as king, David having followed Saul, Israel’s first king. Solomon’s son was Rehoboam. During Rehoboam’s reign the kingdom was divided.
2Ki 17:21-22 When he [God] tore Israel away from the family of David, the people of Israel made Jeroboam (Nebat’s son) king. Jeroboam forced Israel away from the Lord and led them to commit a serious sin. 22The Israelites followed all the sins Jeroboam committed and never turned away from them. GW
Following the division of Israel, Jeroboam was the first king of the breakaway northern kingdom, which was simply called “Israel”. Jeroboam was concerned that if his people went to worship at the temple in Jerusalem – in the southern kingdom of Judah – he would risk losing his kingdom. He thus decided to institute false gods and an alternative system of worship. The false worship that Jeroboam instituted persisted throughout the existence of the northern kingdom of Israel, until the kingdom’s demise.
2Chr 14:2-4 Asa did what the Lord his God desired and approved. 3He removed the pagan altars and the high places, smashed the sacred pillars, and cut down the Asherah poles. 4He ordered Judah to seek the Lord God of their ancestors and to observe his law and commands. NET
2Chr 19:4 Jehoshaphat lived in Jerusalem. He went out among the people from Beer Sheba to the hill country of Ephraim and encouraged them to follow the Lord God of their ancestors. NET
Jer 11:10 [God:] They have gone back to the evil ways of their ancestors of old who refused to obey what I told them. They, too, have paid allegiance to other gods and worshiped them. Both the nation of Israel and the nation of Judah have violated the covenant I made with their ancestors. NET