Wednesday, July 22, 2009

6 Quick Levitical Points against Penal Substitution

I've been doing a bunch of reading as I revise the "Atonement" chapter of my book, and recently this has focused on the Levitical sacrifices.

These sacrifices are often cited as a defense of Penal Substitution. The claim is that a perfect animal has the sins transferred to it and is then killed, bearing the punishment of the sinner.

I already knew of a few problems with this effort at defending PSA, but closer reading opened up some issues quite new to me that I thought I would share. I'll start with the ones that I had already pointed out and move to the new ones.

1) The idea of sins being moved to the animal would upset the entire sacrificial system, as then the animal would no longer be blemishless and would be an unworthy sacrifice.

2) An animal that had sins transferred to it would contaminate the temple and its altar. The sanctity of the temple was so important that someone who was ritually unclean (say, from menstruation or touching of a corpse) would be killed if they even stepped foot inside. (Several examples of this, Numbers 19:13 is one).

3) Sometimes atonement was made with grain or simply money, where it is harder to understand how there was any transfer of sin. In the case of Leviticus 5:11, this is clearly a sin offering. In other cases the word 'atonement' is used even if it is not called an offering. (Exodus 30:15, Numbers 31:50)

4) The Bible clearly states that the PRIEST, not the animal, bears the iniquity of Israel. [For example, Leviticus 10:17 and Numbers 18, both of which speak about very general affairs.]

5) That the animals used in the sin offerings retained their perfection is made clear in what happened to their remains. Their blood was often taken into the more holy places of the temple, even the holiest of holies. Their flesh was EITHER burned outside in a ceremonially clean place OR actually had the affect of purifying those that ate it! (Leviticus 6:18, 27) This is the only case of a sacrifice making an unclean person clean by eating and is a presaging of the Eucharist. In other sacrifices [sacrifices that were not for sin], it was the opposite: you had to already be clean to eat it, and if you weren't, you were killed. Another example of this is the red heifer, whose ashes would consecrate someone well after it had been sacrificed.

6) This last remark actually shows again that the priests bore the iniquity, because the eating of the flesh occurred only after a sin offering was made. The priests in question were not unclean for anything they had done, but yet eating the sin offerings made them clean.


Bev said...

Hi David. I've got some issues with some of this. The sin offering of grain in Leviticus 5:11 is indeed a sin offering for those who cannot afford an animal or birds. But notice it says "he shall not put oil on it or place incense on it, for it is a sin offering."

However, the grain offering described in Leviticus 6 is not a sin offering. Leviticus 6:15 - "...a handful of the fine flour of the grain offering, with its oil and all the incense that is on the grain offering..."

Leviticus 6:18, which you reference in relation to animals used in sin offerings, is still part of the text describing the grain offering, which is not a sin offering.

David Rudel said...

Hi Bev, excellent catch here. Thanks!

This has nothing to do directly with your point, but I believe that the grain offering in 6:14-18 may well be the "other half" of the offering required in 5:11-13.

My reasoning is that there are two issues at hand, the "cleansing" need and the "forgiveness of guilt" need. These are generally combined in the offerings of animals, but they are separated in the offering of the turtle doves. One offering is for cleansing of sin [the "sin offering"] and the other is for appeasement/forgiveness [the "burnt offering"]

With one exception, the "soothing aroma" is never used for a "sin offering," which generally had different regulations than the "burnt offerings."

So, I'm wondering if the two types of grain offerings are in parallel with the two types of turtle doves and in general with the two types of livestock offerings [sin offering versus burnt offering].

On the other hand, the fact that the priests were allowed to eat the offering in 6:18 would suggest all the above is wrong. Burnt offerings were never eaten...the whole thing was offered up as a soothing aroma to appease God.

I noticed that is also some debate on verses 6:18 and 6:27...regarding whether the claim is that the people eating the meat must be holy or that they will be made holy. I don't have time to look more deeply into this [Hebrew verb conjugation always takes me a long time.]

Interesting stuff, and thanks!

Steve said...

All well and good for a proper understanding of what the biblical texts mean. But as far as modern religion, spirituality, and theology goes, how important is this? To me, not at all. These things reflect a very primitive view of God (i.e., demanding sacrifice for appeasement) that we need to do away with. Jesus showed us a very different God--not a wrathful God that needs to be appeased with sacrifices, but a loving father who needs no sacrifices, who reaches out to re-establish communion with humanity. That is what we need to preach, but unfortunately all too many Christians want to retain this primitive, obsolete view of God.

David Rudel said...

Hi Steve,
I would claim that it is merely the view of God that needs to be put in the dustbin, and not the text from which that view has been extrapolated.

It is easy to read the idea of a God that required appeasing sacrifices into the text, but is that really what the text demands? Is it possible that such things are merely the conclusions drawn out of conditioning by a certain strand of Christianity?

I would say that it is possible to read these cultic obligations in a variety of ways and draw meaningful conclusions about God that have nothing to do with the common one.

Steve said...


Good points, and I appreciate how your exegesis has broken down and critiqued the theology I refer to.