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Essay donated by Gerald Ostroot

Transferring sin: Jewish day of atonement
interpreted from an Evangelical viewpoint

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Leviticus. 16:21-22: "He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goats head. He shall send the goat away into the desert in the care of a man appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place;" (NIV - )

Once again we’re confronted with a passage of Scripture that could be interpreted as the transferring of sin. The goat is to take their sins from them and disappear into the desert. It’s a passage with a wonderfully clear visual image. It is a message in keeping with the Hebrew language that relies upon painting visual images for its message. The above ritual gives the Israelites a visual way to "see" God forgiving their sins. It vividly demonstrates how God’s forgiveness takes sins away and they are remembered no more. But it is not a transfer of sins.

Before the scapegoat was sent out, the high priest had sacrificed a goat and made atonement as a sin offering for the nation of Israel.

Leviticus 16:15: He shall then slaughter the goat for the sin offering for the people and take its blood behind the curtain and do with it as he did with the bull’s blood; He shall sprinkle it on the atonement cover and in front of it. (NIV)

The reconciliation with God (atonement) has then been accomplished for the year. But the offering of blood was done behind the curtain and not witnessed by the people. The scapegoat is the symbol that makes the atonement "real" to the people.

There has been considerable criticism of the entire Jewish sacrificial system. It has been called cruel, inhumane and the slaughter of innocent animals. That is the reaction to the blood sacrifices by people using today’s standards. The picture changes when we look at the circumstances of that day. (3500 years ago) Other religions were using blood sacrifices that were far worse than those of the Israelites. They were sacrificing babies and young children; human sacrifices were common. Other Pagan rituals included sexual orgies. All of these pagan rituals were declared abominations by God. They were a defilement of the original sacrifice offered by Cain and Abel and needed to be removed from the earth.

Genesis 4:3-4: In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord.

But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. (NIV)

The Jewish sacrificial system was a vast improvement over that used by any other religion in its time. We need to recognize the giant step forward it represents. The transition was completed at the time of Christ when the temple was destroyed and the sacrifices could no longer be made. Today animal sacrifice has been abandoned. Prayer has taken the place of sacrifice.

Hosea 14:1-2: Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God. Your sins have been your downfall!

Take words with you and return to the Lord. Say to him: forgive all our sins and receive us graciously, that we may offer the fruit of our lips. (NIV)

A change in the sacrificial system has occurred over the centuries as human values have changed. We can find another example of the changes in human values in the legal system. The Old Testament requirement of "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" (Ex. 21:24) represented a giant step forward from the older vengeful custom voiced by Lamech.

Genesis 4:24: If Cain is avenged seven times, than Lamech seventy-seven times.

Vengeance was replaced by fair punishment in Exodus. In the New Testament, Jesus introduces the new covenant of love and forgiveness that should mollify punishment.

We also have to recognize the powerful symbolism that the blood sacrifices presented. Unforgiven sin carries with it a penalty of death. The life of all creatures is in the blood.

Leviticus 17:11: For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the alter; It is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life. (NIV)

The sprinkling of the blood on the altar was the surrender of that life to God and the atonement for sin. The death penalty for sin is indicated in the time of Noah when God punishes all the earth with the flood.

Genesis 6:13: So god said to Noah, "I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them." (NIV)

It is stated more clearly when God says he will blot out of his book anyone who sins against him.

Exodus 32:33: The Lord replied to Moses, "Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot him out of my book." (NIV)

The punishment for sin is the death of the sinner. But then God, in his mercy, introduces the sacrificial system and accepts the life of an animal as a substitute for the life of the man who sins. It is accomplished through the sacrificial rituals. But the animal was an imperfect substitute and the sacrifice must be repeated on a regular basis. In addition, all blood sacrifices were preceded by a ceremony of atonement that provided forgiveness. The life of the animal then paid the penalty as the substitute for the life of the sinner. The pouring out of its blood symbolized that payment for sin. It was visible evidence to a visually oriented people. It was not yet time for the perfect substitute, Jesus, to enter the world and pay our penalty once for all. For the Christian, animal sacrifices are no longer needed.

Once again we see that our sin is not transferred. Rather, it is the penalty for sin that is allowed, by God, to be borne by another. That substitution is necessary because sin requires a penalty we could never pay for ourselves. Allowing it to be paid by others is a very special gift from a just, merciful and loving God!

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Originally posted: 2007-NOV-11
Latest update: 2007-NOV-11
Gerald Ostroot, at: [email protected]

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