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Sunday School: Thinking about Sacrifices

Sunday School: Thinking about Sacrifices

Credit: Adobe Stock 46272514

I’m preparing to teach tomorrow, and the main text is Hebrews 4:14-5:10. The quarterly is kind enough to stop just before the author tells his readers/hearers that the topic is difficult and they’re not very bright!

Nonetheless, the idea of priesthood brings up the idea of “sacrifice” and “sacrifices,” and these are two concepts that I don’t believe modern audiences are prepared for. We tend to get locked into one of two unhelpful modes.

On the one hand, we may believe sacrifice is critical, and its primary, or even only purpose is to atone for sin. This feeds into the penal substitutionary atonement theory (or I prefer metaphor), in which the sacrifice of Jesus is specifically as a substitutionary death taking the punishment for our sins. The reason I prefer metaphor to theory here is that a theory should be an explanation that deals with the relationship between various facts. A good theory is a singular thing because it is the best explanation of the data. A metaphor, on the other hand, is one of many ways of looking at a set of events. In this sense I reject a substitutionary atonement as a theory, but accept it as a valid metaphor.

On the other hand, because the whole idea of substitutionary atonement, sometimes even referred to as “cosmic child abuse,” is so foreign to our way of thinking about things, that we reject everything that relates to it. But there is a least one really good thing about substitutionary atonement (and I believe there are others): A person convinced that Jesus died as a substitutionary sacrifices for his or her sins will be convinced that wrath and punishment have been averted.

This is not the place to cover this in detail, but I am doing so in my video series on perspectives on Paul. I started in Paul’s Gospel vs. Another Gospel, then went on to part 2, and this coming Thursday night I will be doing part 3. I’m thinking there may be yet more parts, because I’m looking verse by verse at some defining statements about the gospel in various Pauline and disputed epistles.

I think there’s a better background against which to think about sacrifice, and that is communication within a relationship. The priesthood and sacrifices were part of the way in which ancient people carried on communion within an ongoing relationship with their god(s). The Israelites had specific ways of offering various sacrifices, ways of representing their God, and expectations.

I like to think of gifts that I give my wife. One of the traditional gifts for someone with whom we are romantically involved is roses, often a dozen, maybe two dozen. I have only done that once in our relationship. I mean the dozen. There have been a scattered number of times on which a gift has included roses, but that is much less frequent than in other relationships.

So am I neglecting my wife and being unromantic by not giving her the traditional gift? I don’t think so, and she’ll surely read this post and let you know if I’m wrong. We’ve established a different tradition that fits her personality and mine. That tradition has to do with surprise and variety. I look at various places where I can buy flowers. The grocery store even works out frequently. I look for flowers of a different color or a different type than she has had recently. I often buy enough for a couple of arrangements in vases. More importantly, I try to bring the flowers into the house when she is not expecting them.

It is true that flowers are frequently a way of expressing regret for a wrong action, but that wouldn’t work all that well in our relationship. In fact, the only thing that does work is sincere regret, directly expressed (no weasely political apologies), and a discussion of how we can improve as we move forward. Flowers as a sacrifice for sin are not functional in our relationship, yet they are given.

I’d like to suggest thinking of the reason why you might do something for another person, or have something done for you and the various reasons you might give or receive a gift. Then start looking at the sacrificial system again. There are still many things that will not connect. For example, in those cultures that practiced human sacrifice, the killing of the human victim—the ideal one being a firstborn son—was seen as giving that child to God. So also with the animal sacrifices.

If you think of the sacrifices in this way I think it will be easier to follow how sacrifice was replaced by the “mitzvah” (good deed) in Judaism, and by a combination of giving and symbolic acts in Christianity. You might even start to think about the Sunday liturgy at your church and what it says about what God would like to see happening in your relationship to him. Is it possible God might prefer a “mitzvah” of some sort?

I’m going to build on this, but I think this is a good foundational metaphor to use in looking at sacrifice. Then we can adjust for the people involved and how they viewed what was good and bad in a relationship.

Biblical Culture Shock?

Biblical Culture Shock?


Before I went overseas with my parents at 14 years of age we were all required to be briefed about culture shock. Sometimes people have very negative reactions to encountering cultures different than their own. We saw this happen with people who went to Guyana (where I was for three years and my parents for seven), who would come to really despise everything Guyanese. It was hard for me to comprehend, because the Guyanese people, while they did things differently than Americans, were not really all that shocking. You adjusted slightly to the local norms, and life went on.

We saw this happen with people who went to Guyana (where I was for three years and my parents for seven), who would come to really despise everything Guyanese. It was hard for me to comprehend, because the Guyanese people, while they did things differently than Americans, were not really all that shocking. You adjusted slightly to the local norms, and life went on. My parents were accused of letting me go too “native,” whatever that meant.

Since then I’ve seen this happen to people experiencing different regions of the United States. It doesn’t take huge differences to cause some shock. It really doesn’t have as much to do with the amount of difference, but rather with how one reacts to the differences. To live with those differences you don’t actually have to change your values or your personality. You just have to recognize who the other person is. You can even disapprove, if you keep it in bounds, and especially if you recognize that the person from another culture has every bit the right to their cultural norms as you have to yours. If you’re visiting, they have more!

Sometimes visiting the worlds of Bible writers can result in culture shock. The cultures of biblical writers were quite different from ours, more different than anything we’d likely experience in traveling in the modern world. I would suggest that the goal must be not to get so shocked by the differences in culture that we fail to hear the people behind these events.

In fact, I find that frequently our tendency to stand in judgment on the characters in stories and even the authors often diminishes our ability to truly experience the value of the story itself. And even many didactic passages are, in essence, story.

Since I’m talking so much about Hebrews, let me apply this to that book. I’ve been searching for metaphors to express two things: 1) The overall message and 2) The role of sacrifice in the book. Here are some ideas. I’ll refine them as I go.

For the overall message, I’ve been using the train. I recall in my first visit to Germany I was met at the Frankfort airport by my translator, who was about 20 years old and one of the few people I’ve encountered who walk faster than I do on a regular basis. We had to catch a train, and to do so we crossed numerous tracks, passed numerous trains, and finally jumped on one at the last minute, just before it started to roll.

My German is good enough to read signs and follow directions, but I couldn’t keep up. By the time we got on the train I was thoroughly lost and couldn’t have told you the destination. I was completely dependent on my translator. After we left the station, for a disturbing moment, she thought she had gotten on the wrong train, but then she determined we were head to the right place and we settled down.

I think I could translate much of the message of Hebrews into a train metaphor. It’s all about getting on the right train and staying on there until it reaches the destination. You have doubts, perhaps, along the way, but you double check (as the author of Hebrews is doing) and you realize you’re still headed in the right direction. There’s nothing more to be done. Just stay on the train. It will take you where you’re going.

I’ll apply this metaphor in a number of texts, though I will note that there are rough edges. Still, I’m finding it more helpful than not.

Second is the metaphor of sacrifice, particularly animal sacrifice. I have discussed atonement and the death of Jesus elsewhere and will doubtless do so many times more. Here I’m referring only to animal sacrifice as part of a general cultic experience. This is something that modern minds find difficult to embrace, or even to observe from a distance. What can all those slaughtered lambs, goats, rams, and bulls have to do with a positive experience?

There are two directions in which I think we fail in relating to sacrifice in scripture. The first is to reduce sacrifice to blood atonement for sin. There are sin offerings, and sacrifices did relate to sin, but blood atonement for sin was not the exclusive view. To see sacrifice as just about blood atonement is just as much a misunderstanding as to dismiss it entirely, which is the second direction in which we often fail.

My metaphor here is community, specifically mutual support and communication in community. The cultic system involves the divine in the activities of the community and the sacrifices relate to the various aspect of this set of relationships. Atonement (and I’ll discuss various words at some later time) doesn’t just involve dealing with specific sinful acts, but rather with a restoration of those relationships and those communications.

We tend to separate prayer and hearing God speak from the activities of the cult. Prophet and priest have different roles, never to meet. But the priest also had a role in communication and the cult supported community.

I think that without this fuller aspect of sacrifice we are likely to misunderstand Jesus as the perfect sacrifice. He is not just a bigger, stronger, better blood sacrifice for sin. He is the only one who can by nature perfect the lines of communication between God and humanity.

Much more on that later as well!

Isaiah 53: A Short Note on the Suffering Servant

Isaiah 53: A Short Note on the Suffering Servant

Yesterday Adrian was apparently surprised that anyone would question that the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 (or better, Isaiah 52:13-53:12) was Jesus. He said:

The answer to the first question is very straightforward if you believe the bible is without error and Jesus can be trusted. For he himself tells us who the prophet is speaking of –

Luke 22:37 For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.”

So, can we now all accept that Isaiah 53 is about Jesus? Jesus himself might not have had a theological degree, but I do think we should take his exegesis seriously!

Further, he is amazed that anyone could think that this passage was not about substitution:

Now, as far as question 2 goes, I simply cannot see how Isaiah 53 can possibly be stripped of the idea of punishment and substitution. Dave Warnock claimed in this comment section to have found commentaries that disagree. . . .

Let me look at these points in reverse. I quite agree that the ideas both of substitution (though I think it can be better expressed) and of punishment occur in Isaiah 53. There actually have been commentaries that claim that those concepts do not occur, but I am only aware of them by citation (and refutation) in Childs (Isaiah in the OTL), and Childs disposes of them pretty quickly.

My question would be, “What of it?” I have thought that the ideas of substitution and punishment were present in Isaiah 53 since I can remember, but that doesn’t make the chapter support penal substitutionary atonement as it is being argued currently. If all folks want to prove is that the ideas of “substitution” and “punishment” occur in the Bible, I can concede their point. But it seems that they want me to buy the entire doctrine based on the presence of a couple of concepts.

Since I believe that penal substitution is one valid expression of the atonement, I am scarcely surprised to find it in scripture. But thus far every person with whom I have debated this point has been unsatisfied with my calling PSA “one valid expression.” They want this one metaphor to be the sole expression. That is a narrowing of doctrine that I reject.

So let me start by saying that both the ideas of substitution and punishment can be found in Isaiah 53. There are some additional points that I think should be emphasized, but they will only broaden the picture, not eliminate the concepts.

So let me turn back to the question of whether this is Jesus. I’m going to try to abbreviate my comments, so please forgive me (and chastise me in comments) if I fail to cover all points. Traditionally there have been two extremes in the interpretation of Isaiah 53. The first is the more or less standard Christian view that this is a prophecy, or more precisely a predictive prophecy of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. I’m referring to a simple, one-to-one relationship. Isaiah was talking specifically and exclusively about Jesus and Jesus specifically and exclusively fulfilled the prediction. The other extreme views the suffering servant as Israel collectively, suffering for their sins and the sins of the world in general, yet redeemed by God and restored.

Informed readers will be able to point out difficulties with these interpretations very quickly. Isaiah 45:4 stands against the identification with Jesus by identifying the servant directly at Israel. Many interpreters see Isaiah 49:1-3 as a narrowing of this concept specifically to the prophet (or someone of whom he spoke) individually as a representative of Israel. In objection to understanding Israel as the servant one can present Isaiah 53:9 “done no violence” and “no deceit in his mouth.” It hardly seems likely that someone in the prophetic tradition would present Israel as totally innocent.

There is an intermediate position (in fact, more than one, but I don’t want to write a small book here), which sees the servant firstly as the (reformed) remnant of Israel. In this case, the exiles, who will eventually be restored to Judea become the servant, despised by the remainder of the people (Ezekiel 11:1-13). This leaves us with not precisely substitution but a form of representative suffering, in which a small group suffers for a larger group. This concept would have been easier to comprehend in the ancient world, which was less individualistic. We think of offenses and punishments as personal things. I sin, Jesus dies for me, I am saved from sin. In that formulation there is no representative suffering; there is a simple swap. But we should take seriously the words of Hebrews 2:10-15 where Jesus is said to be perfected through suffering, and to be made “of one stock” (REB) with his brothers and sisters. This intermediate position is then completed with the identification of Jesus as the ultimate representative of Israel.

Let me quote Wolf (Interpreting Isaiah: The Suffering and Glory of the Messiah, p. 215):

The suffering and salvation of the nation led Isaiah to his fullest disclosure of the suffering and exaltation of the Servant, who is “Israel” par excellence. The fourth Servant Song describes the meaning of the death of Christ and its significance for a sinful world. . . .

Now I’m not quoting Wolf in support of every element of my interpretation, but specifically in connecting the servant of the early songs, clearly identified as Israel, with the servant of Isaiah 53, with characteristics that are not as applicable.

Here I would like to note my problems with Adrian’s approach of simply telling us that Jesus said it and we should respect Jesus’ exegesis. First, this approach is fairly weak if one is going to ever dialog with a non-Christian. Acts 8:26ff tells the story of the Ethiopian eunuch, which Adrian also references. Imagine if Philip used that approach. “You’re reading Isaiah 53? Well, there’s this guy who lived in Judea, and he said this applied to him.” I’m suspecting Philip’s approach was slightly more complex than that. If Jesus provided a good exegesis, one would hope a good exegete could provide an explanation.

But second, I think that approach rips Isaiah 53 out of its context in Isaiah and loses us part of the understanding. If we start with the idea of Israel as God’s servant–a role to which they were called–we can then take the single step to the remnant who suffer, but not merely for their own transgressions. Many of them were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Yet even a quick read of Isaiah 53 will leave you dissatisfied with that solution. Perhaps we’re talking about one heroic figure, contemporary with the prophet if one sees this as an exilic 2nd Isaiah (40-55), or someone amongst the exiles, to which most of the passages are primarily addressed. That is a useful idea, but nonetheless I don’t think it fully fulfills the promise of the passage.

Both of those concepts, however, provide some context for the type of suffering which befell the ultimate servant. Just as the exiles receive God’s punishment from a foreign power that is God’s agent, so Jesus is crucified by the Romans. Just as the exiles were despised by those not taken, so Jesus is handed over for that punishment by his own people. The redemption is accomplished by God’s action exalting his servant and redeeming the many.

I feel quite a lot like someone who has attacked a several acre field with a small garden hoe, but I’ll leave it at that. Let me commend to you both of the books (Wolf and Childs) that I have quoted in their comments on the servant songs. They provide a good survey and basis for further research.

Hebrews 2:5-9: Lower than the Angels

Hebrews 2:5-9: Lower than the Angels

I’m finally getting back to my series on Hebrews. I apologize for the delay. I will also be posting new entries soon in the series on Isaiah 24-27 and Genesis, where we will be going to chapter 6. In the meantime . . .

I’m taking a very short piece of a passage for this entry to try to keep things at a workable length. I will tie this into the larger message of chapter 2, which deals with Jesus as an appropriate savior because he is like us as humans. We’ve already looked at part of this in discussing the human and divine aspects of the priesthood of Jesus.

5Now it was not to angels that he {God} subjected the world to come, which we are discussing. 6Rather, somewhere it is affirmed:

“What is man that you remember him,
or the son of man that you are concerned with him?
7You made him lower than the angels for a little while;
You crowned him with glory and honor.
8You placed everything in subjection under his feet.”
[Psalm 8:5-7 LXX]

Now in subjecting everything to him, he leaves nothing that is not subject. Yet now we do not yet see everything subject to him. 9But in the phrase “a little while less than the angels” we see Jesus, through the suffering of death, “crowned with glory and honor,” in order that by the grace of God he might taste death on behalf of everyone. — Hebrews 2:5-9 (TFBV)

Let me outline the message first, and then discuss a couple of interesting problems. Having established in chapter 1 that Jesus is greater than the angels, our author is about to tell us that Jesus is (or was) lower than the angels. You could do worse than to take as your outline Philippians 2:5-11. Jesus is first greater than the angels, then God made him lower “for a little while” and then after that he is crowned with glory and honor. While the sequence is not established here, in both cases “crowned with glory and honor” is inextricably linked with being temporarily made lower than the angels, i.e. a human in all ways.

Our author gets the words for this from Psalm 8. Now if you have a couple of different translations, or if you know both Greek and Hebrew, you may encounter an interesting problem. The NASB, for example, reads “a little lower than God” in Psalm 8:5. Obviously this wording is not in agreement with our author’s use of the passage. While the NIV uses “heavenly beings,” which will work with “angels” as quoted in our passage, but they still translate “a little lower.”

In order to make his point, our author needs the reading of the LXX, which is the Bible he’s using. There the Greek word bracu, which can mean “for a little while.” Only in the particular translation that he is using is does this passage mean what he needs it to mean. Indeed, though there may be an alternate reading in some undiscovered Hebrew manuscript, this is not a probable translation of the Hebrew text as we have it.

There are two elements of difference. First, does the verse mean “a little” or “for a little while.” Does this speak of someone who, for a period of time, became lower than the angels, or does it speak of someone who is, by nature, a little bit lower. Second, is it “angels” or “God”?

The Hebrew word here is “elohim” which is plural in form, but may be singular of plural in meaning. I think that it is rarely correct to translate this as “divine beings” or angels. It refers to the gods of various nations in many cases, and one could use “divine beings” in that case, but that is to conceal the normal intent of the authors which is to specify that they were thought of as gods by their worshippers, but were not so regarded by the Israelites. Thus I prefer the NASB and NRSV translation of this passage.

As for “a little while” as opposed to “a little bit” the only evidence in favor of this reading for the Hebrew passage is the translation from the LXX. This does not mean that it is impossible, simply that we seem to have no good evidence for it. In addition, in the context of Psalm 8, time does not seem to be in view. The subject is humanity and its place in creation. God made human beings a little bit lower than himself, and crowned them with glory and honor, subjecting all of creation (on earth) to them.

For translators, this presents a problem. Do you harmonize the passages? Do you present a footnote informing people in the two places? Some people do call for harmonization, but most translators would not consider that ethical. It would be a lie–concealing the actual statements of scripture in order to protect people from knowledge of a scriptural difficulty.

Personally, I don’t regard the author of Hebrews as presenting us with an exegesis of Psalm 8, but is rather using the wording and epanding it into his own point. It’s a different look at the words. If the passage depends on an exegesis of the Psalm, then we would truly be in trouble, but the wording itself works wonderfully with his subject.

But is there a further theological connection? I think that there is. Human beings were originally created a little lower than God, and in becoming our redeemer Jesus became our representative. This is one of the aspects of our extended discussion of the priesthood. As such we see a tie here between the creation and the incarnation. God emptied himself into his own creation, making himself in some sense subject to the laws of the physical universe, and even to the choices made by the creatures he created. As I go back to Genesis 6, we will see that God can be grieved by his creation.

In the same way that he created humanity in the first place, God placed himself in the same state as humanity, with the final result that both Jesus, our priest, and all of humanity might be crowned with glory and honor.

Jesus as King and Priest

Jesus as King and Priest

With the reference to Melchizedek (chapter 7), the author of Hebrews ties Jesus as King to his argument, though he doesn’t dwell on that. There is a key thought here that I would like to look at briefly. Often we find people disagreeing over just what type of person Jesus is. Is he the gentle, forgiving Jesus, or the ruler who rules with a rod of iron?

That answer is that he is both. I’d like to illustrate this briefly from Revelation 5, which combines the two sets of imagery in one short passage:

5Then on eof the elders said to me, “Stop crying! Look here! The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, has won the right to open the book and to break its seven seals.”

6And I a lamb standing among the four creatures around the throne and among the elders, looking as though it had been sacrificed. It had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God who are sent out into all the earth. 7And he came and took the book out of the right hand of the one who was sitting on the throne.

–Revelation 5:5-7 (from the TFBV project)

The issue in this passage is the one who can open the seals, i.e. the one who has the sovereignty over history and who is able to open the seals and reveal what is to take place. One feels one is on the right track with the “lion of the tribe of Judah.” That sounds like a sovereign, one who can take charge. But when John turns to look, it’s a lamb, and it looks as though it has been sacrificed. It’s not even a healthy lamb!!

But nonetheless, he is the one who has the sovereignty and proceeds to open the seals. This is the same theology as expressed by Philippians 2:1-11, only expressed symbolically. Consider this type of royal imagery “read into” Hebrews through the reference to Melchizedek, combined with the statement that Jesus, who must have something to offer as a priest, offers himself (Hebrews 8:3 and 9:12).

The Lion is the Lamb.

Was Jesus a Lawful Priest and Sacrifice?

Was Jesus a Lawful Priest and Sacrifice?

I’m going to post next on the nature of the priesthood of Jesus, by looking at the major passages in the book of Hebrews. These especially chapter 2, 4:14-16, and 7. Obviously that list is not exhaustive, as priesthood is fundamental to most of the book, but those passages will get us started. First, however, I want to address the question in the title: Was Jesus lawful as either a priest or a sacrifice? I’ve seen this discussion between Jews and Christians, and a great deal of confusion was generated.

The short answer is no. Jesus was not of the tribe of Levi, much less of the family of Aaron. He was not qualified according to the Torah to be a priest. Neither was he qualified to be a sacrifice. Humans are not kosher animals, and they are nowhere specifically authorized as sacrifices. Indeed human sacrifice is specifically forbidden.

But none of this should be a surprise to a Christian Bible student, though unfortunately it seems to be for some. Indeed, the author of Hebrews is not only aware of this point; it’s a key element of his argument. Recall that he has been establishing Jesus, and the witness to Jesus, as superior to the Torah as a revelation. I have noted how this is completely contrary to the Jewish approach to scripture and its interpretation. (Note that I am in no way trying to tell Jews how to approach scripture; I’m addressing this to Christians, but the difference needs to be understood for interfaith discussions.) Having made such an argument he continues by establishing Jesus as a new kind of priest, on which he spends almost all of chapter 7, and then chapter 8 introduces the concept of a new covenant. If Jesus were here, he would not be a priest. There already are priests, but more importantly, Jesus comes from the tribe of Judah, and there is no privision in Torah for such a priest (Hebrews 7:14).

Rather than trying to argue against this obvious fact, the author of Hebrews bases his argument for the superior priesthood of Jesus on that fact. He was not a priest like the old, Levitical priests. He was a priest of a new order, based on a new covenant, and new regulations. (We’ll discuss the priestly order of Melchisedek in a later entry.) He argues this superior priesthood on the same basis as he has argued the superiority of the revelation that comes through Jesus–he maintains that in all ways Jesus’ ministry is superior. Note that he does not start by establishing the ministry of Jesus from the Old Testament scriptures. (Those who recall how much Old Testament he quotes, hold your exclamations and questions.) Rather, he starts with the superiority of the established testimony of Jesus (2:1-4) and of his priesthood and sacrifice (7-10 passim), and then looks for pointers to something superior that is to come in the Old Testament scriptures.

Thus the correct answer to the title question is, again, no. Under the Torah, Jesus was neither lawful as a priest nor as a sacrifice. Further, he was not offered according to the law. Does this mean that Jesus is not a priest or a sacrifice? Well, according to the book of Hebrews, he is. He is lawful because he inaugurated a new law.

I would two other points. The first is the nature of metaphor. Jesus was not killed as a sacrifice from the point of view of those who did it, or from the point of view of those who watched. The Romans crucified Jesus as a routine act of political intimidation. The observers were, well, intimidated. One of the ways in which we can understand this is as a sacrifice–and indeed it was. But we will neither understand everything about it by this means, nor will we be able to connect it to a sacrifice at every point.

The second is the idea of type and antitype. This is expressed in Hebrews 8:5. The earthly things are a sketch and shadow of heavenly things. Those who understand this passage as indicating that there is a building in heaven proportional to the tabernacle or the temple, and that in the most holy compartment of that temple there is an ark of the covenant miss the point. The ark of the covenant was the shadow, the representation, the physical expression of God’s presence. The heavenly reality is God’s actual presence. To read about the antitypical most holy place, read Revelation 4, and the experience of worship around the throne of God.

Beware of getting two little or two much out of these types of parallels.