My midweek post this week introduced the complicated issue of sacrifice in Christianity, focusing especially on the substitutionary models of Christ’s death that have dominated Western Christian theology for the past millennium. These models assume that Jesus was punished for our sins, in order to assuage God’s anger and thereby fulfill the Jewish sacrificial system. But in recent decades, all three of these claims have been challenged as misunderstanding the meaning of Jesus’ death and misrepresenting sacrifice (and Judaism as a whole). As it happens, today’s Epistle reading, from the book of Hebrews, is a part of the New Testament’s longest text explaining Jesus’ death in sacrificial terms. And so today I’d like to reflect on this passage and what it has to say about sin and salvation and the conception of sacrifice within them.
(The reflection below is based on an Integral reading I did on this text this week. If you want to ‘see my work’ in pulling these thoughts together, please read the full post at the link above. What follows here is a summary of conclusions only.)
The passage begins by repeating Hebrews’ customary insistence on the finality of what Jesus accomplished:
And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, “he sat down at the right hand of God,” and since then has been waiting “until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.” For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.
Irrespective of what sacrifice meant, the main point for Hebrews is that it’s now over and done with, with good, and that this will have consequences for the lives of the faithful.
The text describes Jesus as a priest, or more specifically a high priest presiding over the true and final Day of Atonement. As described in Leviticus (chapters 16 and 23) and Numbers (chapter 29), the Day of Atonement consisted of several rituals. But the most important two involved two goats. One is killed and its blood used to purify the altar, and more importantly, the golden cover of the Ark of the Covenant, traditionally known in English as the ‘mercy seat’; the other has the nation’s sins imparted into it and is abused and cast off into the wilderness.
Most of the time, the Hebrew Bible is not clear about the motivations behind rituals, but Leviticus 16.16 is one of the rare exceptions. Of the sin offering, which is the piece of the Day of Atonement ritual that Hebrews has in mind, it reads: “Thus [the high priest] shall make atonement for the sanctuary, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel, and because of their transgressions, all their sins” (16.16). The governing signification for this ritual, then, is not satisfaction of God’s wrath at sin as we might assume from popular Christian theology, but rather ritual defilement and purification. And so we have a new entry in our list of Biblical metaphors for sin and salvation.
Defilement and purification are primarily ritual categories involving a relationship to God’s holiness, or separateness from what is common or mundane. Due either to natural processes or ethical violations (i.e., sins), Holy places, people, and things could be defiled by coming into contact with anything imperfect or ‘impure’. The concept of defilement was connected to ideas of disgust and decay: it’s something that could stick to you, grow, and spread to others. Being ‘unclean’ not only rendered you unable to enter the Temple grounds, but if you did, you could defile the Temple by your presence.
Because this is primarily a ritual category, it is not surprising that it had ritual solutions. While there were all kinds of daily rituals, washings and sacrifices to deal with the minor defilements of everyday life, the main ritual of purification was the Day of Atonement. The movements of the two goats — one into the holiest place in the Temple and the other away from the community — together purge the Temple and community of their sin (conceived of as defilement) and resanctify them, ensuring they can fulfill their sacred functions.
This metaphor of sin as defilement is not common in the New Testament, and Jesus’ teachings undermine the entire logic of this metaphor. However, it can be found at the start of Hebrews, which calls salvation a ‘cleansing’ (1.3), and of course in today’s passage. The language of purity is also used in the Epistles in exhortations to live in ways befitting God’s Kingdom (see for example, Philippians 1.10, 1 Timothy 1.5 and 5.22), and in Revelation to describe the state of the faithful, who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7.14). The logic of blood as a kind of sacred detergent isn’t entirely clear, but Leviticus 17.11 connects it to blood containing an animal’s lifeforce. What we see here, then, is a suggestion that Jesus’ blood can be said to ‘work’ salvation by representing the offering of his life; by appropriating that offering for ourselves, ‘contact’ with his divine life cleanses us from the ‘stains’ of life in this world. It’s important to note for the purposes of this series that while substitution is clearly at play in the scapegoat ritual, it would seem to be lacking from the blood cleansing ritual Hebrews is referencing.
To summarize all this, Hebrews 10 envisions Jesus as fulfilling the ritual of the Day of Atonement, and specifically the sprinkling of blood that allowed the High Priest to enter the Holy of Holies. Just as this ritual understood itself to remove defilement through cleaning or purification by contact with blood, which contains within it life, so does Jesus’ offering his life (which in the language of sacrifice is associated with blood), for the life of the world, cleanse us by contact with our ‘defiled’ life. This gives us the proper standing to enter into the presence of God.
All this is well and good, but is it really necessary? The Prophets had already challenged the efficacy of sacrifice when it isn’t accompanied by just living (see for example, Amos 5.21f, Micah 6.6-8, and Isaiah 1.11-17). Psalm 51 goes so far as to say that “the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit … and contrite heart.” And Jesus’ teaching undermined the entire category of ritual defilement and purity (see for example, Matthew 15.11). In Jesus’ vision, there is no ritual defilement at all, only the ways we defile ourselves and our relationships through our speech and actions. He doesn’t deny the category of holiness, but instead of being a holiness apart from the world, it is a holiness within and for the the world. These are important considerations for any interpretation of Hebrews, but I don’t think it needs to be a stumbling block, provided we don’t take the sacrificial language too literally. (It’s a situation similar to the recurring refrain the series on knowing God about having to unsay everything we say about God in order to avoid idolatry.) Jesus demonstrated in his teaching that ritual impurity is not a genuine category for dealing with God. But the first Christians had still inherited a long history of sacrifice that provided them with a wealth of images they could use, including purity. In light of this, Hebrews is less a theological treatise about how the saving work of Jesus functioned, but an assertion that the ritual concern over purity was a symbol that pointed to, in a shadowy way, the meaning of Jesus’ death, which is to give us new life through contact with his divine life.
Interpreting Hebrews 10 in this way promotes good fruit by reminding us that true religion does not rely on ritual, but is lived out in the form of transformed lives, relationships, and communities. It can be said to ‘transcend and include’ because it does not reject the stirring language of sacrifice even as it insists that language only points to a bigger and more important whole. It increases awareness by not resting on established cultural assumptions about the nature of sacrifice. And, it expands our circle of empathy by insisting, with Jesus, that purity does not mean rejecting or marginalizing others, but including and welcoming everyone.