As part of an ongoing series on different biblical metaphors for sin and salvation, I recently introduced the complicated issue of sacrifice in Christianity, focusing especially on the development of 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 to so 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).
In order to investigate these claims further, I decided to pull out the Integral Hermeneutic I developed a few years ago (dormant the past couple of years due to the impact of the pandemic on my access to a good theological library) to look at Hebrews 10.11-25, which is part of the New Testament’s longest passage explaining Jesus’ death in sacrificial language, and see what this text may say to us today.
The Integral Hermeneutic is a spiralic reading of a text that involves the personal experience of reading the text, an encounter with the text, its authors, and characters, an exploration of different perspectives on the text, including that of biblical scholarship, the challenge posed by critical questions to the text and our reading of it, and the expansion of our understanding of the text that comes from pulling these threads together.
These posts are intended to ‘show the work’ so can be very long. Please feel free to check out the summary reflection I posted based on this study.
When I approached Hebrews 10.11-25 this time around, I noticed a strong sense of familiarity. For a number of years in my late teens and early twenties, I considered Hebrews to be my ‘favorite’ book of the Bible. But because it was so familiar, I found myself slipping into the old, well-worn tracks laid down by the penal substitution interpretation of Jesus’ death that I hadn’t questioned at the time. Even before I started to address the text, those narratives immediately started filling in the blanks, as it were. Clearly, if I was going to try to understand the text on its own terms, I was going to need to be careful. This reinforced the question I needed to explore: What exactly does the sacrificial language mean here?
As for my reading of the text itself, I was struck primarily by the insistence (repeated throughout Hebrews) on the finality of what Jesus accomplished. Irrespective of what sacrifice meant, the main point for Hebrews is that it’s now over and done with, with good. This reminded me that, for the first Christians, Jesus really did change everything, to the point of shifting how they understood sacred time. I’ve previously described it as like Jesus being a large rock thrown into a stream, sending ripples out, yes into the future, but also into the past. The Apostles’ need, then, was less to understand how Jesus fit into Judaism than it was to reinterpret their Jewish faith in light of Jesus. I wondered if, perhaps, this might help me to understand the sacrificial language here. The second thing I noticed was the strongly liturgical language used, particularly the exhortations to ‘draw near’ and ‘hold fast to the confession.’ From the earliest attested instances of Christian worship, teaching was followed by a confession of faith and then communion. So this language here seems to reinforce the now nearly-universal thought that Hebrews was originally a sermon rather than a letter. It was a helpful reminder that Hebrews is not a work of systematic theology, but — even more than Paul’s letters — is a specific message to a specific church in a specific moment of time, with the goal not just to shape their faith and community life but specifically to prepare them for the Eucharist.
Moving to the text itself, who do we meet in this passage? This is an interesting question, since both the author and audience of Hebrews are unknown, and have left very few clues to their identities. The content of the book suggests a predominantly Jewish context. The author is at pains throughout to demonstrate a continuity between what God was doing through the Law and in Jesus, and assumes his audience has a familiarity with Jewish ritual practices and the then common translation of the Hebrew Scriptures known as the Septuagint. While the audience is of Jewish background, Hebrews establishes that they are Christians, and have been for some time now (see, for example, 5.12). The end of the book makes it clear that this community is experiencing some form of persecution and are struggling to stay together. The sermon was intended as an exhortation for them to persevere together in faith; whatever is said about Jesus here, and even if the immediate goal is liturgical preparation, all of this is directed to the purpose of perseverance.
We also encounter the person of Jesus, but it’s a Jesus abstracted from his earthly life. Here he is envisioned as a priest, specifically a high priest, who is ‘better’ than the priests of the Law, since he was able to complete the business of sacrifice once and for all. He did this in order to “perfect … those who are sanctified.” His work done, he now sits enthroned with God. Since Jesus was not a priest and since his death revolved around the feast of Passover, not the Day of Atonement (the primary holy day at which the high priest would officiate), this is a discussion about what Jesus means for Christians rather than about who he was as a person.
The major question I wanted to bring to the scholarly material is this: What kind of sacrifice does this text have in mind?
The reference to the High Priest’s activity once a year earlier in this section of Hebrews (9.7) makes it clear that this passage is drawing a parallel between Christ’s death and the Day of Atonement (the Jewish feast we know as Yom Kippur). So the first thing we need to do is to understand what this feast involved. As described in Leviticus (chapters 16 and 23) and Numbers (chapter 29), the Day of Atonement consisted of the following:
- a day of rest;
- the sacrifice of one young bull, one ram, and seven male yearling lambs without blemish;
- assorted grain and drink offerings;
- a sin offering of a bull (for the high priest’s sins) and one of two choice goats (for the nation’s sins);
- the confession of the nation’s sins over the other goat, which is then sent away into the wilderness (the scapegoat);
- the entry of the High Priest into the Most Holy Place of the Tabernacle or Temple, where he sprinkles the blood of the sin offerings onto the golden cover (traditionally in English, ‘Mercy Seat’) of the Ark of the Covenant, followed by the altar.
This is one of the rare times the Old Testament explains what a sacrifice intends to do. Of the sin offering, which is the piece of the Day of Atonement ritual that Hebrews has in mind, Leviticus says, “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 ritual defilement and purification. This purification, as is typical of the sacrificial system is accomplished by the sprinkling of blood on the objects needing to be purified (16.14f). Already, just by understanding the feast Hebrews is alluding to, my major question about what kind of sacrifice is in mind has been expanded to a few more:
- What was defilement and purification all about?
- How was blood understood to accomplish purification?
- Does the idea of substitution come into play here?
1. Defilement and Purification
The main concept involved in the Day of Atonement rituals was defilement and purification. These are primarily ritual categories involving a relationship to God’s holiness, or separateness from what is common or mundane. Nothing but the best of the best is suitable for such a purpose. The High Priest must be ritually pure to be ‘holy’ in order to enter the ‘most holy place’ of the Temple, in which God’s presence resided. Holy places, people, and things could be defiled, or profaned, by coming into contact with anything that is imperfect or ‘impure’. This can be moral behaviour, but not necessarily. There is nothing wrong with contact with bodily fluids or the dead, for example, but these would also render someone ritually impure. Ritual defilement could also be conceived as a kind of decay: Just as wood or cloth will naturally break down — molder or simply decompose — without regular maintenance, so too can the sacred be profaned through such natural processes. It is thus connected to basic human notions of disgust. Defilement sticks to you, can 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 kind of impurity is primarily a ritual category, it is not surprising 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. There were two major unique components of this ritual: The sprinkling of the golden cover of the Ark of the Covenant (the precise location where God’s presence was said to reside) with the blood of one goat, and the ritual abuse and casting out of the scapegoat. These acts together purge the Temple and community of their sin (conceived of as defilement) and resanctify them, ensuring they can fulfill their sacred functions. The impurity is then cast out away from the community.
This metaphor of sin as defilement is not common in the New Testament. As we will see below, Jesus’ teachings undermine the entire logic of this metaphor. However, it is used here in Hebrews, which is a book that makes extensive use of sacrificial imagery: at the very start of the book, our salvation is called ‘a cleansing’ (1.3), and today’s passage refers to “hearts sprinkled clean” (10.22). 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 Role of Blood
In associating Jesus’ death with the Day of Atonement sacrifices, Hebrews specifically mentions the role of blood. But how exactly was blood understood to purify? To a significant degree, we simply don’t know. The only place the Bible talks about the ritual efficacy of blood reads: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and … it is the blood that makes atonement through life” (Leviticus 17.11). But even this explanation can be interpreted in different ways (see Eberhart’s Introduction in Sacrifice, Cult, and Atonement in Early Judaism and Christianity for a good overview). One major perspective understands this in terms of substitution: The human’s impurities and sin are transferred to the animal, which is then killed in place of the person. This is a logical idea, and is probably close to what most of us immediately assume about what animal sacrifice was understood to do. But, there are a couple drawbacks to this perspective that make me less inclined to think that this is what is happening in this ritual. First, the ritual offers no act in which the sins of the people are placed upon goat that is sacrificed; this stands in contrast to the scapegoat, which is not sacrificed, where this substitution is made explicit. And second, the idea doesn’t help us understand the application of the animal’s blood on ritual objects, which was the most significant part of the ritual. Because of these limitations, I find the argument of Rabbi Jacob Milgrom more compelling: He argues that the lifeforce contained within the blood acts as a kind of “ritual detergent,” which cleanses what it touches. As it happens, this interpretation is consistent with the Revelation passage mentioned above: the saints are cleaned through the action of the blood.
What we see here, then, is a suggestion that Jesus’ blood can be said to work by the offering of his life; by appropriating that offering for ourselves, ‘contact’ with his life cleanses us from the ‘stains’ of life in this world.
- Substitution and the Day of Atonement
What, then, of the idea of substitution? Is it lacking from the Day of Atonement ritual? As hinted at above, while there is no overt connection in the text with the sin sacrifice and substitution, it is very clearly at play in the scapegoat ritual. As described in Leviticus:
When [Aaron, and his high priestly descendants] has finished atoning for the holy place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task.The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness. (16.20-22)
The clear description of the transfer of the nation’s sins into this animal is in stark contrast to the complete absence of such a rite over the goat that is sacrificed.
But how do we understand the scapegoat itself? Stephen Finlan describes the ritual well:
The metaphysics of scapegoat is very primitive. Scapegoat belongs to the category of expulsion rituals, those rites in which sin, curse, or disease are dumped onto a body, which is thought to literally carry away the undesirable thing. The term “expulsion ritual” is used to denote this ritual and similar ones in neighboring cultures. … The scapegoat is a sin porter. (Sacrifice and Atonement, 90)
As Daniel Johannes Stokl notes, this process expulsion is the opposite complement of the sin sacrifice. There, the goat (by its blood) allows the holy man to enter the holiest place, even into the presence of God. Here, the goat takes on the unholiness of the people and is sent away from the holy place, into the wasteland (“The Christian Exegesis of the Scapegoat,” 208f).
Perhaps surprisingly considering of how it has come to shape Christian thought over the centuries, the scapegoat is not a major theme in the New Testament. However, it is alluded to at least thematically in Paul, for whom Christ takes on our sin and removes it from our lives (see for example, Galatians 3.13).
To summarize what we’ve learned so far from this study, Hebrews envisions Jesus as fulfilling the ritual of the Day of Atonement in which the High Priest sprinkled blood from a sacrificial goat on the cover of the Ark of the Covenant, allowing him to enter the Holy of Holies. This ritual envisions sin as a kind of stain or defilement, which must be resolved through purification by contact with blood, which contains within it life. Jesus’ death can be said to fulfill this ritual as an offering his life (which in the language of sacrifice is associated with blood), for the life of the world. Through faith, our ‘defiled’ lives are cleansed by ‘contact with’ his life. Like the high priests of old, this gives us the proper standing to enter into the presence of God. This connection of appropriating the divine life with blood makes sense in the liturgical context of Hebrews, since the function of a sermon is to help prepare the community for the Eucharist. The faithful are exhorted to approach the mystery with full confidence that they belong in God’s presence.
We now come to the part of the process where we put the emerging interpretation to the test against challenges that question its presuppositions. Often, these challenges come from the postmodern concern for power dynamics and those at the margins. What’s interesting about this particular set of questions is that there’s already a strong challenge to sacrifice in the Bible itself, in the form of the Prophets’ attack on sacrifice, and Jesus’ teaching against the whole idea of defilement and purification. And so it’s to these internal critiques we must turn, before turning to a more contemporary challenge.
- The Prophetic Attack on Sacrifice
The Hebrew prophets are known for their challenge to the sacrificial system. This was a revolutionary shift in religious consciousness. (In Integral thought, this shift marks the transition between older forms of religion and ethical monotheism.) A few select quotes can suffice to demonstrate the thrust of this attack:
I [YHWH] hate, I despise your festivals. . . Your burnt offerings and grain offerings. (Amos 5:21–22)
“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6.6-8)
Isaiah strikes a similar note to Micah:
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats. […]
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1.11, 16-17)
These texts challenge less the sacrificial system itself than the hypocrisy of those who rely on it to rid themselves of sins they are not really repentant of and which they have no interest in stopping. The point of the sacrifices is not to allow people to go on sinning! The prophetic challenge to sacrifice is, then, similar to Jesus’ attack on performative religion. Psalms 51 and 141 take this critique one step further: A godly life can replace the need for sacrifice altogether:
For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51.16-17)
Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice. (Psalm 141.2)
By the time of Jesus, the sacrificial system and its prophetic critique were largely understood to complement each other. The purpose of sacrifice was not to replace right living, but to be one way right living was enacted by the community. This can be seen in our text from Hebrews, which inserts two anti-sacrificial texts in the middle of its discussion of Jesus’ sacrificial role. Hebrews adds a different dimension to these texts by arguing that it is precisely through Jesus’ sacrificial death that the sacrificial system is destroyed. So, ultimately Hebrews agrees with the prophetic critique of sacrifice, but in doing so it blunts the force of those ancient voices.
Whatever we make of this, the point remains that the efficacy of the sacrificial system had already been long questioned by the time of Jesus. Hebrews would agree with the Prophets that sacrifice without justice is useless and that a new and better covenant is needed. For Hebrews, this new covenant was itself enacted by Jesus’ death, which parallels the function of the sacrifices of the Day of Atonement.
- Jesus and Purity
If the Prophets critiqued the sacrificial system, Jesus overturned the idea of ritual purity completely. He regularly attacked those who hypocritically kept purity codes but ignored justice, he defended, and dined with those ritually unclean, and disrupted Temple sacrifices. His general attitude towards purity culture can be summarized by his saying, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles” (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.
This is a radical teaching by Jesus. As Finlan notes, “The psychology of disgust [active in the notions of defilement and purity] is accompanied by a sociology of exclusion (excluding impure people), an attitude of contempt, and a mentality of superiority and pride” (Sacrifice and Atonement, 16). He continues: “Insofar as purity is the purpose of the sacrificial system, and purity requires exclusion, sacrificial purity works against mercy and inclusiveness” (19). Jesus, by contrast, redefines purity by including those the old system excluded.
What we have here is a situation where Jesus’ own teaching in the Bible conflicts with the Bible’s teaching about Jesus. What are we to make of this? I don’t think it needs to be a huge stumbling block, provided we don’t take the sacrificial language used in Hebrews and Paul 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. Moreover, if we remember that they were less concerned with making Jesus fit into what they understood about Judaism than they were about reinterpreting their ancestral faith in light of what they had experienced in Jesus, this flips the script: the ritual concern over purity becomes 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.
- The Atonement and Nonviolence
The twentieth century began with great fanfare and hope. But, after two devastating World Wars, the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and in the midst of the Cold War and its global proxy wars and grim specter of nuclear annihilation and Mutually Assured Destruction, people in and beyond the West were increasingly fed up with violence and wondered if there was a better way. And, many Christians who had only ever been exposed to the Satisfaction understandings of the cross, where our salvation is effected by a divinely sanctioned act of violence, wondered whether their faith might even be part of the problem instead of part of the solution. If God sanctions the murder of Jesus for our benefit, might that lead us to think it’s okay to harm others for whatever our idea of ‘the greater good’ might be?
What these Christians encountered when they looked at the Gospel with this set of questions, was not a kind of “liberal agenda,” or a glib, milquetoast sentimentality, but a challenging Jesus who said it is the meek, the humble, those who mourn who are blessed, who proclaimed that neither sin nor holiness are just about outward acts but rather about the disposition of heart underlying them, who commanded those who follow him not to strike back when attacked but to turn the other cheek, and if pressed to walk one mile to walk two instead. They encountered the Jesus who, when tempted in the wilderness, refused to demand what was rightfully his and refused to do the right thing the wrong way, and who, during his arrest, healed the man whom Peter had attacked; and, who forgave those who crucified him. For Jesus — for the God Jesus reveals — one wrong cannot be made right by another wrong. One unjust act cannot create justice out of injustice. Surely this vision of justice must influence how we understand what happened on the Cross.
This is, I believe, a compelling argument against the logic of substitutionary atonement. But what might it have to say to the non-substitutionary sacrificial ideas that emerged from the ‘expand’ section above? I think the key comes from the fact that Hebrews identifies Jesus not with the sacrificial goat, but with the high priest: “Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself” (7.27). The movement Hebrews cares about is not death as much as his entering into the Holy of Holies, and his sharing this access with us. And, because he offers himself, the nature of his sacrifice ceases to be an act of divine violence, but an act of divine self-giving and humility. If, as Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15.13), how much greater love is demonstrated by God laying down God’s life for the life of the world!
This ‘Challenge’ section has reminded us that even as Hebrews draws on sacrificial language in its attempt to articulate the meaning of Jesus’ death, the Scriptures, and especially Jesus’ own teaching, offer a strong internal critique of ritual sacrifice and its presuppositions. This should prevent us from turning the sacrificial language into hard and fast theories upon which we build our theology, especially in the absence of the other extensive metaphors the Bible uses for sin and salvation. Additionally, the Christian Nonviolence movement’s insights further remind us that however we might make use of sacrificial imagery, divine violence is contrary to the way and example of Jesus.
Now it’s time to bring the learnings from the different parts of this exercise together and ask whether they fit our Integral goals: to promote good fruit, to transcend by including, to increase awareness, and to expand our circle of empathy.
Hebrews 10 uses language drawn from the Day of Atonement rituals to describe the meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross. The dominant metaphor undergirding those rituals was defilement and purity. In the ancient understanding, the lifeforce present in blood acted to purify things that had been subject to defilement. Using this analogy, Jesus’ humble and self-sacrificial death cleanses us by putting us into contact with his divine life. As a result, we can be confident that we are welcome into God’s presence. At the same time, the Bible’s own critiques of sacrifice remind us not to make an idol out of this imagery, and Jesus’ own teachings remind us that ritual purity is not a legitimate category. If we want to be one with God, we do justice and mercy in the world; if we want to be pure, we must live out a purity that does not exclude others and keep us apart from the world, but rather a purity of heart that is defined by love and welcome for all.
This reading 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.
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Destro, Adrana and Mauro Pesce. “Forgiveness of Sins without a Victim: Jesus and the Levitical Jubilee,” in Sacrifice in Religious Experience, ed. Albert I. Baumgarten. Leiden: Brill, 2002.
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Zeper, Eleonora. “Blood Sacrifice and Bloodless Sacrifice in Porphyry and Iamblichus*.”* In Syzetesis– Rivista di Filosofia. Vol. 2 (new Series), 2015.