Good scholarship on the cultic sacrifices is hard to find due to how long ago they were instituted and the intra-church politics involved. If someone knows of solid scholarship on the matter, please let me know.
Note: This model is strictly one dealing with propitiation, not the much more important notion of protecting the Temple from defilement. That is to say, this model looks at how danger to the individual sinner is addressed, not the effect the sin has on the sanctuary. The purification and protection of the sanctuary is an altogether different matter. Indeed, if one looks through all the references to sin offerings, it should become clear that this was their intended purpose: to purge the Temple and make ritually clean those who would enter there. This understanding harmonizes Hebrews 9:22 with the rest of scripture. (Since, as I point out below, there were any number of ways to attain forgiveness in general without resorting to blood sacrifices.)
Quick Critique of Common Models
Before moving forward, I wanted to give some indication as to why a better model is even needed. To do this, I'll just fire off some problems with the two most common ones. (If you are only interested in the model I'm kicking around, skip down to the "New Model" heading.)
Model 1: Propitiation through Payment
One model of propitiation is that someone "pays back" God or appeases God through the "soothing aroma" of the sacrifices.
Overall, this is not such an untenable view. The sacrifices were seen originally as a type of "food and drink" for God, and there are many discussions of a "soothing aroma." Furthermore, this model at least explains all the instances where someone could gain forgiveness without sacrificing a living creature (unlike Model 2, below). However, it does have some problems:
The first problem for this viewpoint is that the details of the various sacrifices suggest the opposite. If the goal of the sacrifices were to appease God, we would expect the "sin offering" and "guilt offerings" to be the ones where the entire creature is burned up to provide a "soothing aroma" to God. In fact, it is exactly the opposite. The regulations are very strict and clear that the sin offerings and guilt offerings (as opposed to the "burnt offerings") had only a very small amount burned up to God. These offerings look to be instead payments to the priests, who were allowed to eat the meat. The offerings that were given wholly to God on the altar were the "burnt offerings" instead, which had different regulations.
Similarly, the phrase "soothing aroma" shows up time and time again with regard to the offerings of the Levites, but only 1 of the 13 examples of offering for particular sins use this phrase. This phrase was much more associated with the burnt offerings (which makes sense, for that was the offering where the animal was fully given to God.)
The second problem with this model is that it does not adequately explain why the sacrificial aspect of the ritual is the same for sin offerings made for individual sins as it is for purification offerings where there was no sin in sight...or even offerings meant to consecrate the Temple. [This gets back to the sin offerings being designed to purge the Temple, not by themselves address the guilt for specific sins.]
The third problem with this model is that the wording in Leviticus 19:20-22 [sacrifice for quasi-adultery], presents the offering as a type of fine or punishment itself. Rather than seeing the sacrifices as an effort at "paying God back," it is perhaps more reasonable to see it as a deterrent introduced by God for the good of the society.
The fourth problem with this model is that it is clear from scripture that righteous people can intercede for pardon without any sacrifice at all. As James says, the prayer of a righteous man accomplishes much [James 5:16]. Since righteous people could interceded for sinners without any sacrifice present, it is hard to understand why a sacrifice was needed by statute for forgiveness or pardon. [Once again, this is no longer a problem if we see the sacrifices as primarily intended to cleanse the Temple.]
In addition to these, there are a few passages that would look odd were this the proper model for atonement [see the "My Model" section for examples.]
Model 2: Vicarious Punishment
The second model commonly given is that the animal being sacrificed received the guilt/sin of the person who gives it. Then the animal receives the punishment for the sins it has been made forensiccally guilty of.
The biblical problems with this model are so obvious and easy to articulate that a simple bullet list suffices.
- If the animal received the guilt/sin of the person, its very presence would defile the Temple and the Altar.
- The treatment of the animal's remains shows the animal maintained its innocence throughout [sin offerings for sins made by the whole congregation had to be discarded to a clean place, the other sin offerings had to be eaten in a clean place and actually made the eaters clean...hardly possible if the animal had become guilty.]
- There is no indication whatsoever that the sins were laid on the animal. The exception to this, of course, was the scapegoat which was not sacrificed in the Temple. In the case of the scapegoat, the scriptures make clear the iniquity is put on the animal...and yet such verbiage is unseen anywhere else for those sacrifices killed in the Temple.
- The Bible specifies the priests, not the animal, bore the guilt of the people.
- Obviously, if this was the way that guilt was defused, it would not explain how grain, silver, incense, etc. could procure propitiation.
- Other examples where God's wrath is clearly in view show that this wrath is not turned away by its execution. For example, God's wrath was upon all of Israel in Numbers 25:7-8, and is turned away by Phinehas by killing the guilty party. This is clearly not Phinehas being the agent of God's wrath, for God's wrath was "turned away" and had been upon all of Israel, not just one person. Phinehas turned away God's wrath through showing the same jealousy for righteousness that God has [see Numbers 25:11], not by simply being the hatchet-man for God.
- An extention of the last: God does not need a priest to execute God's wrath. God has shown God is perfectly capable of executing wrath Godself. Hence, when a priest does a sacrifice, he is not executing God's wrath.
- Once again Leviticus 19:20-22 provides a problem. The text goes out of its way to specify that some punishment is required, but not the full punishment of adultery [which would be death]. However, the "propitiation by vicarious punishment" view would suggest that death was, in fact, the fitting punishment for the sin involved. This is not an isolated incident, for there were other sins where the punishment was specified as something less than death [for example, barrenness of womb in Leviticus 20:20], yet those who claim the creature recieves the punishment for someone's sin have to say that all sins have death as the only punishment. Indeed, the penal substitution interpretation gets everything backwards because the sins requiring a sacrifice were less offensive than those that were punished by barrenness of womb, yet the vicarious punishment interpretation would indicate the opposite. [Of course, if we see the sacrifices as a fine, this all makes sense...for losing a lamb is less a punishment than dying childless, and the offences specified for loss of a lamb are less than the offense specified for dying without children.]
In my model, all propitiation is through intercession by a righteous party. Sometimes that intercession includes components that speak to the righteousness involved [for example, Phineas' killing of the rebel (Numbers 25:11) or Moses' command to light the censers in Numbers 16:46.]
This is the model:
The priests are chosen by God to be linked to Israel as a whole [just as the Temple is linked to the nation as a whole, so that sins by the people can bring impurity to the Temple]. This means that the priests share the burden of iniquity [Leviticus 10:17] when the people sin. But this link goes both ways, so that the sin of the high priest brings guilt upon the entire nation [Leviticus 4:3]. (Compare that to the sin by the political leader which does not bring guilt upon the entire nation: Leviticus 4:22-26.)
This notion of sharing the burden of guilt (without actually the sin itself) in an effort to turn away wrath is seen in Moses' own intercession (which required no sacrifice) before God. "But now, if You will, forive their sin - and if not, please blot me out from Your book which You have written" (Exodus 32:32).
The priests are charged with continually offering up prayers for the community and "making intercessions" (as Jesus is said to do as the High Priest of the new covenant in Hebrews 7:25). Paul's wording in 1st Timothy 2:5 probably gets at this as well... indicating that the earthly priests are no longer the mediator between God and man. Samuel's remarks in 1st Samuel 12:23 suggest something similar.
So, the priests share in the burden of iniquity, and by their righteousness and purity turn the wrath of God away [as Moses did]. This situation creates two problems:
i) Obviously, if the priests are intercessing before God, they are not earning their own bread...which means both they and their families are without food.
ii) While the priests are sharing in the guilt, they are also tending to the Temple, which requires cleanliness and purity from sin.
The Sin, Guilt and Grain offerings appear to serve both these goals!
The sin, guilt, and grain offering regulations specify:
i) The meat could be eaten by any priest. This provides a payment "in return for bearing the iniquity of Israel" (Leviticus 10:17)
ii) Eating the meat and the grain actually cleanses the priests who eat it. (Leviticus 6:18, 27) We see an interesting demarcation here. The grain, sin, and guilt offerings in Leviticus 6:14-7:7 (and reiterated in Numbers 18:9-10) can only be eaten by male descendants of Aaron and they make pure those who eat them, whereas the other offerings [peace, votive, etc.] can be eaten by anyone in the priest's family who is clean.
This idea that the eating of the sacrifice contributes to the priest's cleanliness might seem bizarre to us, but there are other places where holiness or cleanliness is conferred in such a way [obviously it goes the other way...no one has a problem with the notion of uncleanliness being communicative]. Isaiah 6:7 shows such an example, Matthew 9:21 is a NT example. Indeed, the consecration of the Temple itself shows this, the blood of clean animals confers holiness to the Temple.
There is one event in the Old Testament that, I believe, gives very strong credibility to this setup. After Phinehas' righteous deeds in Numbers 25:7-8, God makes a covenant with him that his descendants would serve him forever. We see a declaration that this covenant has become nullified by Eli's sin in the prophecy recounted in 1st Samuel 2:28-36.
This is shown again in God's words to Samuel in 1st Samuel 3:12-14, where God tells Samuel to tell Eli "On that day I will carry out against Eli everything that I spoke about his house --- from start to finish" and this is summaried in a single phrase "Therefore I swore an oath on the house of Eli, 'The sin of the house of Eli can never be forgiven by sacrifice or grain offerings.'"
Later this prophecy is fulfilled in 1st Kings 2:27 when Solomon dismisses Abiathar as priest.
Now, the odd thing here is if the punishment upon Eli is the loss of the priesthood from his house, why is the version Samuel given simply "the sin of the house of Eli can never be forgiven by sacrifice of grain offerings"?
If we think of the sacrifices and offerings as designed to forgive the sin of everyday people in Israel, this makes little sense. However, if the forgiveness of sin through offering and sacrifices is synonymous with being a priest, it makes perfect sense. Note how the curse given in the 2nd chapter dwells so much on the house of Eli losing the position and allottment of the priests while still remaining in the temple itself. It ends with a description of how they must beg for work in the temple to receive a scrap of bread. This all makes more sense if we see the grain, sin, and guilt offerings as the payments to the priests, where the eating of the sacrifices cleansed them from the iniquity they bore for the entire society.
If we read what caused this curse in the first place, we also see why this bit about "sins will not be taken away by sacrifices or grain offerings" refers to the eating of those offerings --- that was the thing that caused the curse in the first place! Eli's sons were eating part of the offering that they were not supposed to be eating. It thus makes sense for the punishment to be that they were no longer given the privilege of doing so.
Relation to Eucharist
Seeing these sacrifices as cleansing by eating allows the eucharist to make sense in an entirely new way. A major problem with understanding the Eucharist is that it appears to create a situation where we drink the blood of a sacrifice. That was a major no-no in ancient Judaism, and it is hard to understand how anything that is remotely related to the drinking of blood could have become a ceremony in early Christianity [which was entirely Jewish]. Indeed, the proscription against drinking blood is one of the regulations agreed to in Acts 15 as being relevant to Gentiles as well as Jews.
However, if we understand the eating of the sin offering as part of the cleansing of the Temple, things become clearer.
In the Sin Offering, the blood of sacrifice was put on the horns of the altar to cleanse it and the rest was poured out at the side of the altar. The meat of the offering was given to the priests to cleanse them. Hence we see the flesh and blood as the ways in which the Temple and its denizens were cleansed. The Eucharist, then, becomes a perfect parallel to these sin offerings. The temple "drank the blood" and the priests "ate the flesh" in the old covenant, and each of these actions sanctified the item. Now we are the temple and we are the priests, and the sanctifying sacrifice is Christ.
Summary and Bigger Picture
The above model would work well in the following general understanding of what each of the sacrificial elements meant:
i) The sinner brings the sacrifice to the Temple: This represents a confession of guilt [e.g. Leviticus 5:5--keep in mind that most of these offerings were for unintentional sins or sins done unwittingly.] It also represents a loss to the person, for he will receive nothing from the offering (the priest will end up being the one who eats his ram/goat/lamb). This loss is a deterrent and memorial that sin is a serious issue with serious consequences. It is also an easement of sorts --- the priests are bearing the guilt of the community that he has contributed to. They are praying on the behalf of the community. Thus his sacrifice both subsidizes their work and is meant to undo some of the damage (for the priests that eat of the sacrifice will be sanctified.)
ii) The animal is killed and the blood is applied to the altar: This cleanses the altar (and by extension the temple) from the taint of the individuals sin. This makes the temple a more fit house for God's spirit to rest in.
iii) A very small amount of the animal is burned up (the fat, kidneys, and appendices): This represents "God's share" of the payment to the priests. The sinner has given the animal to the priests as a payment for bearing their sin. The blood and fat are God's portion. This goes back all the way to Abel [Genesis 4:4] and is part of the submission lifestyle priests had to live. It was the breaking of this regulation that caused the curse on Eli (1st Samuel 2:16 and later). Eli's sons were eating the meat before the fat had been boiled off. Note that by now the original sinner is out of the picture. The fat is given to God because the priest gives some part of everything to God, regardless of what kind of sacrifice it is [c.f. Leviticus 2:2 5:12, 6:15].
iv) The priest makes atonement for him, and he is forgiven. The priest intercedes on his behalf, praying for the wrath to be turned away. Moses said "perhaps I can make atonement for your sin" in Exodus 32:30 before going to pray for his people, when the Levitical accounts say "The priest will make atonement for him" it refers to the same.
Note that in the case where the High Priest himself sins, no such intercession is possible and there is no atonement. (Compare Leviticus 4:3-12 with the other 12 descriptions of offering in response to a particular sin.)
v) The priests eat the sacrifice. It is not only a form of sustenance, but an act of sanctification to balance the sin whose guilt they have born.