"O L-RD, Who are my power and my strength and my refuge in the day of trouble, to You nations will come from the ends of the earth and say, 'Only lies have our fathers handed down to us, emptiness in which there is nothing of any avail! Can a man make gods for himself, and they are no gods? 'Therefore, behold I let them know; at this time I will let them know My power and My might, and they shall know that My Name is the L-RD".
Jeremiah 16:19-21

by Prof. Mordochai ben-Tziyyon, Universitah Ha’ivrit, Y’rushalayim

Scriptural references in this article refer to the Hebrew Scriptures or T’nach and use the Hebrew names of the books. Almost all of the references cited are in the five books of Torah, which are conventionally named by their opening words, i.e. בְּרֵאשִׁית B’réshitשְׁמוֹת Sh’motוַיִּקְרָא Vayikraבְּמִדְבָּר B’midbarדְּבָרִים D’varim – readers who are not yet familiar with the Hebrew names of the books are advised to learn them now before proceeding any further.

Law is an exceedingly complex subject (ask any lawyer!) and an article such as this could never be a complete statement of what the Hebrew Scriptures teach on the topic of atonement – that would fill many huge volumes. My intention here is to provide just a general summary of the basic principles, of which christian “teachings” give a totally distorted and misleading impression.

It should be appreciated that the Torah that God gave to Yisraél establishes a the basis of a legal system with a fundamental set of laws (traditionally held to include 248 mandatoryand 365 prohibitive commandments, making a total of 613). Many of the Torah‘s laws are explicitly stated to be “eternal statutes”, i.e. laws intended to remain in force for ever, and the great majority of the laws are addressed exclusively to Yisraél and to no other nation, so the claim often made by christians that they are “no longer under the Law” is absurd: in the first place christians are not part of the Yisraél nation and so were never subject to most of the Torah‘s laws anyway, and secondly, without laws to govern human behaviour and to determine which actions are acceptable and which are unacceptable, civilisation as we know it would degenerate into chaos – how is anyone to know what a “sin” is if there is no law to define it? Or do they think they are above the Law?

“It is no longer necessary to obey God’s laws,” christians tell us, “you only have to ‘love’ Him”. But they never specify how one is supposed to show this “love” for God. The Torah, however, does tell us how we are to “love” God—

“So now, Yisraél – what does Adonai your God ask of you? only this: to respect Adonai your God by following all His ways and to love and serve Adonai your God with all your heart and all your being by keeping Adonai’s commandments and laws that I am commanding you today…” (D’varim 10:12-13)

One should never lose sight of the fact that the Torah was intended to provide the framework for a practical legal system under which Yisraél was to be governed. Mosheh was even commanded to appoint שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים shoftim v’shotrim (“judges and policemen”) to enforce the law (D’varim 16:18). In any practical legal system, laws specify what each person is required to do (for example, paying his taxes) and what he is not allowed to do (murdering, stealing etc), and penalties are prescribed for those who break the law (such as paying a fine or serving a term of imprisonment). A person who has been convicted of a crime and has either paid his fine or served his term of imprisonment is deemed to have “paid his debt to society” and is no longer considered as having “guilt” for whatever crime he committed.

Torah law is no different in this respect. Several different types of punishment are prescribed for different types of offence: by far the most common is a “fine”, in the form of an offering that the guilty person was required to bring to the Temple; more serious offenders could be sentenced to flogging (D’varim 25:1-3) and the most serious crimes (such as: murder, holding a kidnapped person to ransom, adultery, public violation of Shabbat law and homosexual acts) were punished by execution. One extraordinary passage prescribes the penalty of mutilation for a woman who intervenes in a fight between her husband and another man by grabbing the second man by his genitals to stop him hurting her husband: “you shall cut off her hand, don’t show her any pity” (D’varim 25:11-12), but the Synhedrion shrank from the literal reading and substituted a financial penalty in place of such a barbaric mutilation.

There is another similarity between Torah law and modern (western) jurisprudence. In modern law, the prosecution must prove that the defendent accused of a crime had mens rea(Latin, literally “guilty mind”, that is to say it must be proved that he had the intention to commit the crime) in addition to showing that he committed the actus reus (Latin, literally “guilty act”). For example, in English law “murder” is defined as the unlawful killing of another person “with malice aforethought” – this quaint and archaic legalistic jargon means a premeditated (“thought about beforehand”) wrongful intention. If “malice aforethought” cannot be proved, the crime committed will generally be “manslaughter” (or “second degree homicide” in the USA) rather than murder (yes, I know that’s an over-simplification, but I am trying to make a point). The Torah draws precisely the same distinction between a premeditated and planned homicide and one that was not premeditated – see B’midbar 35:9-34 and D’varim 19:4-7, 19:11-13.

The issue of intention arises again and again in Torah law. As we will see in the following paragraphs, the animal-offering “fines” that had to be paid by individuals who had committed various offences were only applicable to unintentional infringements. This principle is reinforced in the Mishnah in the very last paragraph of Treatise Yoma, which deals with Yom Kippur (the “Atonement Day”)—

If a person says “I will sin and I will repent, and then I will sin and I will repent again”, his “repentance” will not have any effect.
If he says “I will sin and Yom Kippur will atone for me”, then Yom Kippur will not atone for his sin…
(Mishnah, Treatise Yoma, ch. 8, para. 9)

Important general comment about sacrifices

Since this article must of necessity deal with the topic of animal sacrifice, let me start by mentioning that whatever else may be commanded, there is one overriding provision that applies to all sacrifices, namely—

Adonai spoke to Mosheh and said: Speak to Aharon and his sons, and to all the Yisraélite people, and say “This is what Adonai has commanded: ‘If any Yisraélite man slaughters an ox, or a lamb, or a young goat [as a sacrifice] anywhere either inside the camp or outside the camp instead of bringing it to the Temple entrance to be offered before Adonai’s Shrine, that man will be held guilty of [unlawful] killing – he has shed blood [unlawfully] and he will be cut off from his nation’.” (Vayikra 17:1-4)

In other words, sacrifices may only be performed in one centralised location and, if that is impossible (as it is at the present time when no centralised location exists for performing them), then the offering of sacrifices is forbidden.

“Atonement” by sacrifice

Specific details concerning the laws of sacrificing are contained in the first few chapters of the book Vayikra. Chapter 1 deals with the law of the olah or “burnt offering” (called a “holocaust” in some some very old books), a type of animal offering that was burned in its entirety on the Great Altar (the meat of the majority of animal offerings was eaten by thekohanim or “priests”, and only small parts of their offals were actually burned on the Altar). Three different types of olah sacrifice are described in this chapter: cattle (verses 1-9), smaller animals, i.e. sheep and goats (verses 10-13), and fowls (verses 14-17).

Offering an olah sacrifice had the effect of obtaining “forgiveness” for a person who had “sinned” in certain circumstances (Vayikra 1:4), but this did not apply to all offences – theTorah prescribes specific penalties for many types of offence in the places where they are detailed. Thus, for example, a thief who stole farmyard livestock and slaughtered or sold it was required to repay five equivalent animals for every beef and four for every sheep or goat that he stole (Sh’mot 21:37), and was “forgiven” for committing the theft after paying his “fine” – he was not required to offer any animal sacrifice at all. This is exactly the sentence passed by King David on the fictitious “man” in Natan‘s parable (see Sh’muél Beit 12:1-6, and note that David does not actually sentence the “man” to death in verse 5, because the crime of stealing livestock does not carry the death-penalty – he merely remarks indignantly that the “man” deserved to die because of his heartlessness). Incidentally, David did suffer the “sentence” that he unwittingly passed on himself – he “lost” four of his own children (one of them in an allegoric sense): the baby that he conceived with BatSheva while she was still technically married to Uriyyah died (Sh’muél Beit 12:18), his daughter Tamar was raped by her half-brother Amnon (13:14), Amnon himself was subsequently killed (13:29), and so was Avshalom (18:15).

It is important to understand that even in those cases where no specific penalty is prescribed and an olah was appropriate, it was the penitent’s act of bringing the offering (equivalent to paying his “fine”) that resulted in him being “forgiven” for the offence he had committed, and not the animal’s death or its “blood”. It is common for christians to cite just part ofVayikra 17:11 and claim that this verse “says” that blood-sacrifice is the only way “atonement” can be accomplished; however, Vayikra 17:11 is a continuation of the previous verse which deals with the absolute prohibition against eating blood and merely adds

“….for an animal’s life is in its blood and so I have reserved it for you to be applied to the Altar to make atonement for your souls, because [an animal’s] blood can make atonement for a person”

from which it is apparent that an animal’s blood only “makes atonement” when it is “applied to the Altar”.

Chapter 2 of Vayikra is one that christians studiously ignore because it doesn’t fit into their ideology at all – it deals with bloodless flour (or “meal”) offerings. Four types of flour-offering are mentioned:

  • min’ḥah, uncooked flour to which oil and l’vonah (“frankincense”, an aromatic gum-resin used in making incense) have been added (verses 1-3);
  • min’ḥah ma’afeh tannur, oven-baked bread or “wafers” (verse 4);
  • min’ḥah al hamaḥavat, pan-baked pastry (verses 5-6); and
  • min’ḥat marḥeshet, deep-pan pastry (verses 7-10).

These are followed by some general regulations applicable to all flour-offerings, namely that no flour-offering may be “leavened” or mixed with fruit-juice (verse 11) – although verse 12 provides that such things may be offered as bikkurim (the first part of a harvest that the farmer was required to bring to the Temple as an offering) – and that every flour-offering had to be accompanied by salt (verse 13) – and the chapter ends with with some specific provisions relating to the first omer of barley (a dry measure equal to about 2.8 litres, 4.9 imperial pints or 5.9 US pints) that Yisraél was commanded to cut at the conclusion of the first festival day of Pesaḥ, to be presented to God the following morning as a t’nufah (a type of offering that the kohén would “wave” over the Altar) – see Vayikra 23:15, D’varim 16:9.

Chapter 3 deals with voluntary sh’lamim offerings (sometimes called “peace-offerings”): these offerings have no conection at all with atonement for sins, so we need not discuss them in any detail here, except to mention that the blood of these sacrificial animals, too, had to be applied to the Altar, even though they had nothing to do with atonement.

Chapters 4 & 5 deal with two different types of offering that are connected with atonement: ḥata’t or “sin sacrifice” (ch.4) and asham or “guilt sacrifice” (ch.5). Both are appropriate only in respect of violations committed unintentionally; the defiant and wilful sinner has no possibility of atonement available to him and must “carry his guilt”—

…any man – whether a citizen or a [naturalised] foreigner – who intentionally does [anything unlawful] taunts Adonai and that person will be cut off from his nation because he has treated Adonai’s words contemptuously and deliberately violated one of His commandments; that person will be cut off for sure – his guilt [will remain] with him” (B’midbar 15:30-31).

—that is, his guilt remains with him for the rest of his life; only by sincere and contrite repentance and devoting himself to selfless, charitable acts can he hope to “redeem” himself (see below).

The ḥata’t (“sin sacrifice”) provisions of chapter 4 are the “fines” that a Court is to impose upon a person convicted of unintentionally violating a prohibitive commandment, i.e. a person who has been found guilty of doing something “that may not be done”…

Adonai spoke to Mosheh and said: Speak to the Yisraélite people and say “If any person unintentionally violates one of Adonai’s commandments [about things] that may not be done and he does one of them…” (Vayikra 4:1-2).

Four cases of ḥata’t sacrifice are dealt with: the first three relate to situations where the nation’s judicial leaders – that is to say, the Chief Kohén (verses 3-12), the “Assembly”, i.e. theSynhedrion or Supreme Court (verses 13-21) or the King (verses 22-26) – have made a flawed legal decision and has thereby caused many of the common people to violate one of theTorah‘s prohibitions. In those circumstances, the common people who dutifully followed their ruling are not held responsible (after all, the Torah itself commands us in D’varim 17:12-13 to do exactly as they say), and those rulers (who are subject to Torah Law just as the rest of us are) are “fined” for causing the nation to sin: the Chief Kohén is “fined” an ox, as are the Synhedrion, and the King is fined a male goat. The fourth case of ḥata’t sacrifice detailed in chapter 4 (verses 27-35) relates to a private individual who unintentionally does something that the Torah forbids. The “fine” in this case is either a female goat (verses 27-31) or a female lamb (verses 32-35).

Chapter 5, the last of the five chapters on personal (as opposed to communal) offerings, is about asham (“guilt”) sacrifices. It deals with a number of different cases—

  • a. A person who is a witness in some kind of legal proceedings who either has seen something or knows about it and denies this on oath (verse 1), or
  • b. a person who has become tum’ah-contaminated by touching any of the various objects or dead animals that are “sources” of tum’ah-contamination and, not realising that he is contaminated, has then eaten consecrated food or entered the Sanctuary, thereby (unintentionally) “incurring guilt” (verse 2), or
  • c. a person who has become tum’ah-contaminated by touching a human corpse or any other person who is tum’ah-contaminated because he or she has experienced a genital discharge and, not realising that he is contaminated, has then eaten consecrated food or entered the Sanctuary, thereby (unintentionally) “incurring guilt” (verse 3), or
  • d. a person who has sworn an oath to do something either harmful or beneficial (for example, if he swore an oath to fast or to eat on a stated day) and who then unintentionally broke that oath, but later realised what he had done (verse 4)

—in each of these cases, if the offender later confesses his guilt he is “fined” an amount that depends on his personal means: either a female lamb or a female kid (verse 6); or, if he cannot afford that, a pair of doves or pigeons one of which is offered as a guilt-sacrifice and the other as an olah (verses 7-10); or, if he is so poor that he cannot even afford a pair of doves or pigeons, one-tenth of an eifah (i.e. about 2.8 litres, 4.9 imperial pints or 5.9 US pints) of flour, to which oil and l’vonah (“frankincense”, an aromatic gum-resin used in making incense) were not to be added (verses 11-13), unlike the min’hah offering specified in chapter 2 (see above). This type of “sliding-scale” guilt-offering is referred to in Rabbinic literature as korban oleh v’yoréd (a term not found in the Torah), literally “a rising and falling offering”.

The second half of chapter 5 deals with three other types of case. The first of these is unintentional violation of consecrated property – the offender must offer a male goat with a value of at least two silver shekels as an asham sacrifice and must also repay to the Temple the value of the property that he misappropriated plus an additional 20% (verses 15-16). The second case arises when a person believes that he might have violated a prohibition commandment, but is not sure about it – he too must offer a male goat with a value of at least two silver shekels as an asham offering (verses 17-19). The third case covers several different types of dishonesty: refusing to return the security in respect of a loan; robbery; fraud or stealing by retaining lost propery that he has found; and committing perjury in proceedings relating to any civil claim. In all these cases, the guilty party must offer a male goat with a value of at least two silver shekels as an asham sacrifice, and must also return or repay the value of the property involved plus an additional 20% (verses 21-26).

But what happens when there is no Temple?

All of the provisions I have been talking about so far depended on the existence of a Temple and kohanim (“priests”) to perform the “atonement” ceremonies. We have already noted that the blood of animal “fine” offerings had to be “applied to the Altar”, and even the bloodless asham offering of flour that was brought by the very poorest depended on the existence of a Temple and kohanim because the penitent was required to present it to the kohén (“priest”) who had to scoop out a handful of the flour and “make it go up in smoke on the Altar” so that he would be forgiven (Vayikra 5:12-13). So it has not been possible for an unintentional sinner to obtain forgiveness in this manner since the Second Temple was destroyed by the Roman emperor Vespasianus’s general Titus (who was also his son) just over 19 centuries ago, and it was similarly imposssible during the interval between the destruction of the First Temple in the 19th year of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II’s reign (M’lachim Beit 25:8 and Yirm’yahu 52:12), i.e. 586BCE, and the completion of the Second Temple, which occurred (according to Ezra 6:15) in Darius I’s sixth year (516BCE, i.e. exactly 70 years later).

So, having given Yisraél a system of “fines” that a person can pay and be “forgiven” for offences committed unintentionally, but which depend on the existence of the Temple, does God just abandon us and leave us without any way of obtaining forgiveness at a time when there isn’t a Temple? Is there any Scriptural basis for the christian claim that their man-god’s barbaric execution by the Romans “fulfils” Torah law and thereby renders any other provisions for atonement unnecessary?

No, of course not. In the first place, the Torah prescribes a paricular species of animal for every type of sacrificial ceremony and not one of the many different types of ceremonies ever calls for a human being to be “offered”: in fact, under the laws of tum’ah-contamination, a human cadaver is a primary source of the most severe kind of contamination, and in any case human sacrifice would be considered to be a murder. It must also be said that the accounts of the man-god’s execution given in the “gospel” narratives break every one of the very detailed regulations laid down in the opening chapters of Vayikra (which we have already considered) governing how God wants sacrifices to be performed. I have never understood where christians get the idea that God wanted us to “sacrifice” any human being, and especially a “messiah” (the title of our ancient kings) – this abhorrent concept is certainly not written in any of our Scriptures.

So what does the Torah say about periods in history when we have been exiled from Eretz Yisraél and have no Temple to perform the ceremonies in? Consider this passage, which contains a warning from the Law-bringer Mosheh himself of the times when we would be exiled from Eretz Yisraél

“Adonai will scatter you among the other races and few of you will be left among the nations where Adonai will send you; and there you will serve gods that are man’s handiwork – wood and stone – which cannot see or hear and which do not eat or breathe. But from that place you will seek out Adonai your God, and you will find Him if you seek Him out with all your heart and all your being… in the later times, when you are in distress because of all these things that will have happened to you, thenyou will return to Adonai your God and you will start listening to His Voice, because Adonai your God is a compassionate God – He will not abandon you and He will not destroy you, because He will never forget your ancestors’ covenant that He swore with them…” (D’varim 4:27-31).

There is no mention here of sacrificial ceremonies, because Mosheh knew they would not be possible when Yisraél was scattered among the nations of the World and without a Temple to perform them in. In his own words, “from that place you will seek out Adonai your God, and you will find Him if you seek Him out with all your heart and all your being” – in other words, sincere and heart-felt repentance is all that is required to “find” God and be forgiven.

The same message was repeated again and again by all the prophets. Almost five centuries after Mosheh‘s death, wise King Sh’lomoh echoed the words of the great Law-bringer in his prayer of consecration at the the First Temple’s dedication—

“If they sin against You – for there is no man who never sins – and You become angry with them and give them over to an enemy and their captors carry them off captive to an enemy country, far or near… and they take the matter to heart in the country to which they will have been carried off captive and they repent and beg You in their captors’ country and say ‘We sinned, we acted crookedly, and we were wicked’ and they return to You with all their heart and all their being in the country of their enemies who captured them, praying to You towards their own land that You gave to their ancestors (the City that You chose and the Temple that I have built to make You famous)—
then, in Heaven, the foundation of Your abode, You will hear their prayer and their begging and you will do right by them: You will forgive Your nation for what they sinned against You and for the rebellious ways in which they rebelled against You, and You will arouse their captors’ compassion for them so that they will treat them mercifully – because they are Your nation and Your inheritance whom You took out of Egypt, out of the iron-smelting crucible! So may Your eyes be open to Your servant’s begging and to Your nation Yisraél’s begging, and may You listen to them whenever they call out to You…” (M’lachim Alef 8:46-52).

In this prayer Sh’lomoh, who was a prophet as well as a king, foretells the long exiles that Yisraél would suffer in later times, and he predicts that during those periods of exile, in the depths of despair, God’s nation would one day repent sincerely and return to His service, turning to face in the direction of our ancient homeland and the site of the ancient Temples to pray to Him (as we continue to do to this very day) – and the prophet-king assures us that our attempts to reach God in this way will be successful. The message was reiterated two and a half centuries later by another prophet, Hoshé’a ben B’éri, whose 14 chapters of writings stand first in the book T’rei Asar, “The Book of the Twelve Prophets”—

“…for Yisraél’s sons will be left for many years without a king or a prince, sacrifices or obelisks, éfod or t’rafim – but after that, Yisraél’s sons will repent and seek out Adonai their God and their Davidic king, and in those later times they will tremble for Adonai and for His goodness” (Hoshé’a 3:4-5).

Unlike his contemporaries Michah and Y’shayahu, whose prophecies concerned only the southern kingdom, Hoshé’a‘s prophecies were addressed to both southern and northern kingdoms (a feature that his writings have in common with those of Amos). Nowhere is this as clear as in the passage just quoted, with its three contrasted pairs “no king or prince, no sacrifices or obelisks, no éfod or t’rafim” – the prophet refers to the legitimate Davidic monarchs of the southern kingdom as “kings” while he describes the self-styled northern monarchs merely as “princes”, and he contrasts [a] the divinely-ordained sacrificial rituals practised in the southern kingdom with the northern kingdom’s idolatry, typified by theBa’al-“obelisk” that Aḥ’av had erected in Shomron (which was removed by his son Y’horam as recorded in M’lachim Beit 3:2), and [b] the éfod or “robe” worn by the Chief Kohén in the Y’rushalayim Temple with the t’rafim (household idols) that were common in the northern kingdom (the word t’rafim is best known from chapter 31 of B’réshit where Raḥel“stole” her father’s t’rafim).

In his final chapter, Hoshé’a gives some practical advice to those of “Yisraél‘s sons” who “in those later times” will “tremble for Adonai and for His goodness”—

“Yisraél, return to Adonai your God – your sins have caused you to stumble! Take words with you and return to Adonai: say to Him ‘Oh please, forgive our sins and accept our good [deeds]’ – we will pay with our lips in the place of [sacrificial] oxen” (Hoshé’a 14:2-3).

The “translation” of the final phrase of verse 3 that is given in christian “Per-Versions”, namely “so will we render the calves (or ‘bulls’) of our lips”, apart from being meaningless (what are “the calves or bulls of one’s lips”?), is in any case grammatically impossible because the Hebrew text reads וּנְשַׁלְּמָה פָרִים שְׂפָתֵֽינוּ u-n’shalmah parim s’fateinu – the word פָּרִיםparim does mean oxen or bulls, but it is not in s’michut (the possessive case); “the oxen (or bulls) of…” would have to be פָּרֵי parei. A more accurate (and more meaningful) rendering is as given above, corresponding to the literal reading “we will pay oxen [with] our lips”, reinforcing the prophet’s exhortation at the beginning of the sentence to approach God “with words“.

The prophets also speak frequently about a third route to “atonement”, and it is this one that they say God prefers:

“Sin is atoned through kindness and truth; one turns from evil though having respect for Adonai” (Mishlei 16:6).
“Doing charitable deeds and justice is more pleasing to Adonai than a sacrifice” (Mishlei 21:3).

“…so, Your Majesty, let my advice be acceptable to you – your sins will be removed by charitable deeds and your wrongdoings [will be removed] by showing mercy to the poor…” (Daniyel 4:24).
“…I delight in kindness rather than sacrifice and in closeness to God more than olah-offerings…” (Hoshé’a 6:6).

“…What shall I approach Adonai and bow myself before the Supreme God with? Should I approach Him with olah-sacrifices or calves in their first year? Will Adonai be pleased by thousands of rams, or tens of thousands of rivers of oil? Should I give my own first-born child [in payment] for my rebellion or the fruit of my own body [in payment] for my soul’s errors? Mankind, He has already told you what is ‘good’, what it is that Adonai wants of you – only to act justly, to love kindness, and to walk modestly with your God” (Michah 6:6-8).
So says Adonai, Yisraél’s God: “…I did not speak to your ancestors or command them about olah-offerings or sacrifices on the day that I brought them from the land of Egypt, but I commanded them only about this one thing: Obey My Voice, and I will be your God and you will be My nation; and then you will walk in all the ways that I will command you, and it will be well with you…” (Yirm’yahu 7:21-23).

The prophet Y’shayahu sums all of this up in eight verses of his opening chapter. He portrays God as saying that He is sick and tired of empty, insincere prayers and the endless parade of “sacrifices” offered by sanctimonious sinners just “going through the motions” but without true repentance in their hearts—

“What use to Me is the huge number of your sacrifices?” Adonai says – “I am fed up with olah-offerings of rams and the offals of fattened calves, and the blood of oxen, lambs and goats does not give Me pleasure. When you come to appear before Me – who asked this of you, to come trampling through My courtyards? Do not bring your meaningless min’ḥah-offerings any more – I find it a disgusting stench… Rosh Ḥodesh, Shabbat, even the Festival assemblies – I cannot tolerate crookedness mixed with ‘service’. My soul detests your Rosh Ḥodesh and Festival observances, they have become tedious to Me; I can no longer put up with them. When you hold up your hands I will hide My eyes from you; I will not hear you no matter how many ‘prayers’ you say – because your hands are covered with blood! Wash, purify yourselves, remove the badness of your deeds from before My eyes, stop doing wrong! Learn to do right, seek justice, protect victims, treat orphans justly, support the claims of widows.
“Come, please, let’s discuss this rationally,” Adonai says – “even if your sins are like bright crimson, I will bleach them as white as snow: even if they are as red as tola I will make them like [the colour of] wool
! (Y’shayahu 1:11-18).

Note that “When you hold up your hands” in verse 15 is a reference to the kohanim performing the ceremonial “blessing” of the congregation as prescribed in B’midbar 6:23-26, andtola in verse 18 is a bright scarlet dye.

What is “repentance” and how does one do it?

The Hebrew word for “repentance” is תְּשׁוּבָה t’shuvah (although, strangely, this word does not occur anywhere in the Scriptures). Literally, t’shuvah means “returning”, i.e. “coming back” to God; and it is in this context that the prophet Hoshé’a says “Oh Yisraélreturn to Adonai your God… return to Adonai…” (Hoshé’a 14:2-3) The concept is well represented throughout the Scriptures, though, and is nowhere depicted more clearly than in the 3rd chapter of Yonah‘s writings—

A message from Adonai came to Yonah for a second time: “Stand up, go to that great city Nin’veh, and make to it the announcement that I will tell you”. So Yonah stood up and went to Nin’veh, as Adonai had commanded him (now Nin’veh was an enormously large city – it was three days’ walk across). Yonah started to walk into the city and, when he had gone about one day’s walk, he began to call out: “Nin’veh will be overthrown in another forty days!” Now the people of Nin’veh believed in God, so they declared a Public Fast and dressed themselves in sacking, from the greatest to the least of them. When Nin’veh‘s king heard about it, even he rose from his throne, removed his royal robes, dressed himself in sacking, and sat on ashes; on the advice of his officials he ordered that a proclamation should be made throughout Nin’veh: “Neither man nor livestock – the cattle and the sheep – is to eat or drink anything; all of them – both people and livestock – must cover themselves in sacking and cry out loudly to God! All men must return from their evil ways and the violence in their hands! Who knows, perhaps God will relent and change His mind, and turn His blazing fury away from us and not destroy us?”
And when God saw their deeds – that they had returned from their evil ways – God did change His mind about the destruction He had decreed that He would bring upon them – and He did not do it. (Yonah 3:1-10)

Fundamentally, “repentance” is a state of mind: being sorry for the wrongful acts one has committed – feeling regret for having done them. Unless one genuinely feels remorse, there is not and cannot be true “repentance”. As I mentioned earlier, the prophet Hoshé’a advises us to approach God in repentance “with words”, that is to say, with prayers begging for forgiveness (Hoshé’a 14:3), but such prayers will never be effective if the penitent is not actually feeling remorse for the sins he is “repenting” from. Furthermore, a person cannot force himself to “feel sorry” – he either is, or he is not. A truly saintly person will automatically regret having done wrong, but then again, a truly saintly person would not have done wrong in the first place. In reality, however, none of us is either “truly saintly”, or “thoroughly wicked”: we are all of us somewhere in between. In the end, it comes down to learning to be honest with oneself and accepting one’s own shortcomings; it’s only when a person overcomes the arrogance of thinking he is always “in the right” that he will be able to admit (even to himself) that he did something wrong, and only then can he feel remorse for having done it.

In Hebrew culture, it has never been considered sufficient merely to say that one feels remorse for having done something wrong and that one is “sorry” for having done it. The Torahprescribes that, on Yom Kippur, when we come together as a community to “repent” and seek forgiveness for all the wrongs we have done in the preceding year, we are to “make our bodies suffer” (Vayikra 16:31, 23:27, 23:32; B’midbar 29:7), a term that means fasting (abstaining from both food and drink). Prayer is also implied, because fasting without prayer is both meaningless and pointless. In Biblical times fasting was accompanied by the symbolic act of dressing in sacking, which is coarse and uncomfortable, and also very unattractive. By making these sacrifices (using that word in a very loose and general sense) the penitent demonstrates his remorse in a very practical way, and they are far more meaningful “sacrifices” than slaughtering an ox or a goat that never did anyone any harm.

It will be seen from the passage from Yonah quoted above that the people of Nin’veh adopted all these practices: their king ordered them to abandon their wicked behaviour, to fast, and to dress in sacking, and to pray for forgiveness. He himself even went one step further, humbling himself by “rising from his throne and sitting on ashes”. Verse 9 shows that he didn’t even know for sure whether their “repentance” would “save” them (Who knows, perhaps God will relent and change His mind…), but the following verse states clearly that it did, and that it was their practical demonstration of remorse that led to them being forgiven: “And when God saw their deeds – that they had returned from their evil ways…”

Is there any Scriptural evidence that God would ever accept, or even want, a human sacrifice?

In one word: NO. As I mentioned earlier in this article, when I was discussing the Scriptural regulations governing the various sacrificial ceremonies, the Torah prescribes a specificspecies of animal for each of the different types of offering, and in no case is a human being called for. Aside from the simple fact that to “sacrifice” a human being would be murder, anyone who has studied the laws of tum’ah (ritual contamination) knows that human blood is a primary source of the most serious form of tum’ah.

Aha, christians say, but God commanded Avraham to sacrifice his own son! The passage they are referring to is chapter 22 of B’réshit, where God says to Avraham

“Please, take your son… Yitzḥak and go to Moriyyah, where you are to take him up as a sacrifice onto that one of the hills which I will indicate to you” (B’réshit 22:2).

Almost all christian “versions” translate that verse using the verb “to offer” or the verb “to sacrifice“. The Hebrew word used in the verse is, however, הַעֲלֵֽהוּ ha’aléhu which doesn’tactually mean to offer or to sacrifice. הַֽעַל ha’al is the imperative of the verb הַעֲלֵה ha’aléh, the hif’il (“causation”) conjugation of the verb עלה (to “ascend” or “go up”), so its literal meaning is “cause [someone or something] to ascend” or “bring up”. Mosheh uses exactly the same word in Sh’mot 33:12, but no-one ever claims that he was saying to God “You have told me to offer up this nation…”!

As always, the error made by christians in B’réshit 22:2 is that of ignoring the context. Verse 1 makes it abundantly clear that the entire incident was merely a test of faith. God didn’twant Avraham actually to slaughter Yitzḥak, His intention was only to see whether Avraham was willing to go through with it. This is proved by the narrative itself, because when the time came, God stopped him at the critical moment when his hand was raised holding the slaughtering-knife and about to deliver the death-stroke. Avraham had to think that God was asking him to sacrifice Yitzḥak or there would have been no “test”, but God never actually told him to slaughter his son, just to “take him up onto the hill prepared (i.e. trussed up)like a sacrifice”. The language used by God was deliberately ambiguous, but it didn’t fool Avraham – he had such trust in God’s intrinsic goodness that he knew his son would be coming back with him: in verse 5, he says to his two servants who had accompanied him and Yitzḥak on their journey to Moriyyah, “Stay here with the donkey while Yitzḥak and I go over there; when we have worshipped we will come back to you”.

There is one other incident that christians occasionally invoke in their desperate attempts to show that human sacrifice was “acceptable” in ancient Yisraél. Fortunately, the passage that records it is obscure and only very few christians are even aware of its existence – but it provides, for those who do know about it, one more weapon in their armoury of misrepresentations and deceptions.

In the year 1137BCE, after 18 years during which Yisraél had been dominated by the “Ammonites” and “Philistines” (Shoftim 10:7-8), the Elders approached Yiftaḥ of Gil’ad and asked him to become their “Judge” (i.e. leader) and help them gain independence from the oppressive foreign occupiers (Shoftim 11:5-6). Yiftaḥ was not keen but he eventually accepted their offer after a little coaxing. Before resorting to the military option, Yiftaḥ first tried diplomacy: he sent ambassadors to the Ammonite king, asking him

“What dispute is there between us that makes you come against me to fight in my country?” (Shoftim 11:12).

The Ammonite king’s response was

“Because Yisraél took away my land between the [Rivers] Arnon, Yabbok and Yarden when they came up from Egypt…” (Shoftim 11:13).

Hmm… “Yisraél took away my land” – now where have we heard that before? In fact, there was no more truth in the Ammonite king’s claim than there is when the same claim is made by certain parties today – as Yiftaḥ politely pointed out:

So Yiftaḥ sent his ambassadors back to the Ammonite king… “Yisraél did not take any land belonging to Mo’av or to the sons of AmmonAfter coming up from Egypt, Yisraél passed through the desert next to the Suf Sea and eventually arrived at Kadesh; from there, they sent ambassadors to the Edomite king to ask him ‘Please let us pass through your country’, but the Edomite king refused to allow this – and they made the same request to the Mo’avite king and he also would not allow them to pass through, so Yisraél remained at Kadesh. They then travelled through the desert and went around Edom and Mo’av, coming in the end to the eastern side of Mo’av where they camped on the other side of the [River] Arnon and did not cross into Mo’avite territory – for the Arnon is the Mo’avite frontier.
Then they sent ambassadors to Siḥon, the Emorite king, ruler of Ḥeshbon, asking him ‘Please let us pass through your country [so we can come] to our own place’. But Siḥon did not trust Yisraél to cross through his territory and he mustered his army, arrayed his forces for battle at Yahatz and attacked Yisraél. Adonai, Yisraél’s God, gave Siḥon and all his people into Yisraél’s power and we defeated them – Yisraél did take possession of the lands of the Emorites who had lived there beforehand: we occupied the entire territory of the Emorites, from the Arnon to the Yabbok and from the desert to the Yarden
And now that Adonai, Yisraél’s God, has dispossessed the Emorites in favour of His nation Yisraél – you try to claim it as yours? Isn’t it the case that you are entitled to claim the lands that you believe your god K’mosh gave you: we claim only those lands that Adonai, our God, has subdued before us…..
Yisraél has been living in Ḥeshbon and the little towns around it, and in Aro’ér and its little towns, and in all the cities along the Arnon, for three hundred years – why have you never tried to recover them in all that time? I, myself, have never committed any crime against you, and yet you do me wrong by attacking me – let Adonai, The Ultimate Judge, settle this dispute between the people of Yisraél and the people of Ammon
! (Shoftim 11:14-27).

The Ammonite king, however, was unmoved by Yiftaḥ‘s appeal to reason, because he was bent on territorial expansion. The disputed territories had never in fact belonged to Ammon: as Yiftaḥ had pointed out, they had originally been Emorite lands which Yisraél had taken possession of after defeating the Emorite king, Siḥon, 300 years earlier – and in all that time the Ammonites had never made any claim to them: Yiftaḥ was therefore forced to go to war (Shoftim 11:28-29) but, before attacking the Ammonite forces, he made a rash and very foolish vow:

…..then Yiftaḥ made a vow to Adonai; “If You will help me defeat the sons of Ammon, then whatever comes out of the doors of my house to welcome me when I return victorious from doing battle with the sons of Ammon – it will belong to Adonai and I will offer it to Him as an olah-sacrifice! (Shoftim 11:30-31).

The ensuing battle went well for Yiftaḥ‘s forces and, with God’s help, they were victorious over the Ammonites (Shoftim 11:32-33). But when Yiftaḥ was returning to his home atMitzpah, calamity struck:

“…as Yiftaḥ approached his home in Mitzpah, his daughter was coming out to welcome him, playing a tambourine and dancing – she was his only child: he had no other sons or daughters…” (Shoftim 11:34).

Now Yiftaḥ may have been a brilliant tactician and military commander, but he was not a learned man, and when he had made his thoughtless vow, it did not occur to him in the heat of the moment that the first thing to come out of his house might be an “unclean” animal, i.e. one unfit for sacrifice. Suppose it had been a dog, or a donkey, or a camel? Would he have offered that as a sacrifice? Of course he wouldn’t, and he couldn’t sacrifice a human being either (in any case, this incident is irrelevant to the obscene christian notion that a human being could serve as an “atonement sacrifice”, because Yiftaḥ‘s vow had nothing to do with atonement).

Yiftaḥ did not sacrifice his daughter. It would have been unthinkable to do so and Pinḥas ben El’azar, the Chief Kohén, would never have permitted such a defilement of the Temple (which at that time was at Shiloh, 30 km north of Y’rushalayim). The Scriptural narrative says only that he “treated her in accordance with the vow that he had made” (Shoftim11:39) and christians assume this means she was offered as a sacrifice – but this is neither what the text says, nor what it means.

When a person “dedicates” an animal as an offering – that is to say, if he points to it and declares, “That ox (or goat or sheep) is to be a sacrifice” – the animal becomes hekdésh(sacred property): it belongs to the Temple (i.e. to God) and may not be sold, or slaughtered for food, or used for any purpose (e.g. for carrying a load, or for ploughing, or for breeding, etc). Even if it is subsequently injured, so that it is no longer fit to be sacrificed, it remains hekdésh (sacred property) and must be “redeemed”, i.e. an equivalent animal of equal value must be substituted for it – but the original animal may still not be sold, or slaughtered for food, or used for any purpose – it must be put out to pasture for the remainder of its life until it dies, and the carcass must then be burnt or buried.

From a legal point of view, Yiftaḥ‘s daughter was in exactly the same situation. She could not be sacrificed, but she also was not a free agent: she could not work in any capacity, or marry, or be “used for breeding”, for the rest of her life. This was a unique situation that had never occurred before, and the legal authorities of the day – the torah-scholars or “Rabbis” (although this term was not used at that time) – ensured that it would never happen again by “enacting a law about her” (Shoftim 11:39) that no-one should ever again make such a foolish vow. The poor girl had to retire into seclusion; she never married and remained virgo intacta for the rest of her life, after first begging from her father (and being granted) a two-month period of grace so she could go camping in the hills with her girlfriends to express her grief over her fate. Her sad story was never forgotten: the narrative ends by recording that “Year after year, the girls of Yisraél used to go to visit Yiftaḥ’s daughter on four days” (Shoftim 11:40).

“agnus dei qui tolis peccata mundi”???

That heading is Latin for “a god’s lamb that removes the world’s sins” and is just one example of the christian obsession about lambs. It’s the first line of the sixth section of the Roman catholic “Ordinary Mess” and, according to Aaron Green, like the “Credo”, was one of the last elements to be incorporated into that idolatrous, pagan ritual – apparently by Poop “Sergius” (687-701).

It is very well-known that God provided Yisraél with an annual “Atonement Day”, Yom Kippur (the Scriptural term is actually plural, yom kippurim = day of “atonements”), on which we are to fast in order to be “forgiven for all our sins”—

“This will be an eternal statute for you – you will fast and not do any m’lachah on the 10th day of the 7th month, because on that day He will provide forgiveness for you, to purge you of all your sins: before Adonai will you be purged!” (Vayikra 16:29-30)

What is less well-known is that Yom Kippur is actually just a “safety-net”, a day when we assemble as a nation in our batei k’nésiyyot (prayer-houses) and batei midrashim (study-houses) to make a generalised confession before God of all the sins for which we have not already made “atonement” in one or more of the ways described previously in this article and to beg Him to forgive us. It is not the only vehicle for obtaining forgiveness, and we are not supposed to rely on it and on it alone – devout Hebrews pray for forgiveness in all three prayers recited every day (morning, afternoon and evening), and if a person knows that he has commited a particular offence, he is expected to perform t’shuvah (i.e. “repentance” – see above) for it, and to beg God to forgive him, immediately he realises that he has committed it. On top of that, the Rabbanim were adamant that Yom Kippur onlyprovides “atonement” in respect of offences between man and God – that is, violations of purely religious laws – it can never provide “atonement” for wrongs done against another human being unless the wrong-doer first obtains the forgiveness of the person he has wronged (the injured party does have a duty to forgive a fellow-Hebrew who comes to him showing remorse, offering to put right the wrong he has done and begging forgiveness – but that’s a whole different topic).

In the periods of Hebrew history when the Temples existed and the offering of sacrifices was permitted, sacrificial ceremonies were prescribed by the Torah for all the holy days, andYom Kippur was no exception. On that day, in addition to the regular daily olah-offerings (B’midbar 28:1-8), there were musaf (“additional”) sacrifices, just as there were on everyshabbat and holy day (B’midbar 29:7-11) and, when Yom Kippur happened to fall on shabbat, the musaf sacrifices for shabbat (B’midbar 28:9-10) were offered as well. B’midbar29:11 states specifically that the musaf sacrifices on Yom Kippur were “independent of the atonement-ḥata’t and the regular daily olah-offerings, with their accompanying meal-offerings and libations”.

The “atonement-ḥata’t” that B’midbar 29:11 refers to is described in chapter 16 of Vayikra and the details of how the procedure was performed are recorded in the Mishnah in Treatise Yoma. However, the “atonement” sacrifice was NOT a lamb. There were in fact two “atonement” offerings. First, the Chief Kohén (who had to perform this ceremony in person, unlike all other sacrificial ceremonies that could be performed by any kohén) would sacrifice an ox to make “atonement” for himself and all of the other kohanim (because their sins had to be “atoned” before they could make “atonement” for the rest of the nation), and the remainder of the ceremony called for two identical goats, one of which was offered as the nation’s “atonement” sacrifice while the other was sent away into the desert, symbolically “carrying away” the nation’s sins; the Chief Kohén would cast lots over the two goats to decide which one was to be sent away into the desert and which was to be sacrificed.

So why are christians so obsessed by lambs? Why do they call their idol-man “the lamb”? Where does the concept that “God’s lamb” can “remove the World’s sins” come from? The answer to all these questions is simple: they are the result of the amalgamation of two completely unrelated concepts that have been hijacked from Hebrew culture and totally distorted and misrepresented. The mythological pagan narratives that christianity is based on place the execution of its idol-man in the spring, at the time of Pesaḥ, a week-long festival that celebrates Yisraél‘s liberation from slavery in Egypt and the birth of our nation. In the year that the events being commemorated occurred, and only in that year, our ancestors were required by God to organise themselves into family groups and each such group had to provide a young animal that was just sufficient to feed the group, and no more. The Hebrew word used in Sh’mot 12:3 is שֶׂה seh, which christians invariably translate as a “lamb”, but it is obvious from verse 5 that it doesn’t actually mean a lamb because that verse adds “you can take [the seh] either from the lambs or from the goats. This, then, is the first misrepresentation: the so-called “paschal lamb” didn’t actually have to be a lamb at all: either a lamb (young sheep) or a kid (young goat) was acceptable.

The second misrepresentation is that the “seh” was not actually a sacrifice. God commanded that each family group was to obtain its seh on the 10th of the month (Sh’mot 12:3) and keep it until the 14th of the month, when the entire community was to slaughter the animals at the end of the afternoon (12:6); this obviously meant keeping the animals tied up for four days so they didn’t run away. The people were then to paint the blood of the animals onto the door-frames of their homes, roast the animals and eat them. However, common Hebrews were not allowed to eat the meat of a sacrifice – “holy meat” could only be eaten by kohanim. These animals were therefore not “sacrifices”. There were also no requirements for the animals’ offals to be burned on an altar or for their blood to be applied to an altar, which had to be done with all sacrifices.

So what did the so-called “paschal lamb” actually represent? Refering back to one of Mosheh‘s earlier conversations with the Pharaoh provides a clue: after the first four of God’s ten attacks against Egypt (Blood, Frogs, Lice and Wild Animals), the Pharaoh had started to give way… but he still refused to allow the Hebrews to leave the country in order to sacrifice to our God in the desert, as Mosheh was demanding. “You can hold your festival right here in Egypt,” he said (Sh’mot 8:21 – 8:25 in christian “bibles”). Mosheh‘s response to this suggestion was quite reasonable:

“We can’t possibly do that,” he said, “because we are going to sacrifice the Egyptians’ god to Adonai our God! If we were to sacrifice their god right in front of them, wouldn’t they pelt us with rocks?” (Sh’mot 8:22 – 8:26 in christian “bibles”).

The verse just quoted is virtually incomprehensible in christian “bibles” – for example, the translation given in King James’s Per-Version reads: “It is not meet so to do; for we shall sacrifice the abomination of the Egyptians to Adonai our God: lo, shall we sacrifice the abomination of the Egyptians before their eyes, and will they not stone us?” The problem with this translation is that it’s too literal: Mosheh was a Hebrew and idolatry disgusted him, so he called the Egyptians’ “god” to’évah, a disgusting thing (or in the vernacular of the 17th century, an “abomination”).

Now the purpose of the seh should be starting to become clear: it was the Egyptians’ “god”. It is known from modern archæology that the ancient Egyptians worshipped various types of animal, but is there any other support in the Scriptures for this hypothesis? Well, not directly, but there is indirect support for it: when Yosef entertained his brothers for luncheon (B’réshit 43:16), it is reported that

“They had laid [one table] for Yosef by himself, and [another table] for his brothers by themselves, and [a third] for the Egyptians who were eating with him by themselves, because Egyptians would not [sit at the same table to] eat together with Hebrews – that was disgusting to Egyptians” (B’réshit 43:32).

Why should it have been “disgusting” to Egyptians to sit down at the same table with Hebrews to eat? Did they really hate them that much? The narrative doesn’t indicate that they hated Yosef, and it must have been well-known that he was a Hebrew. This, however, had nothing to do with racial prejudice – the text doesn’t say that the Egyptians hated Hebrews, merely that they found it “disgusting” to sit at the same table with them to eat.

Everything falls into place, though, if you read this in the context of our conclusion that the Egyptians worshipped lambs. The Hebrews were sheep-keepers by occupation, a fact thatYosef later warned his brothers not to disclose to the Pharaoh, advising them to lie and tell him they were cattle-keepers “because the Egyptians found anyone who kept sheep disgusting” (B’réshit 46:34). The Hebrews’ normal diet would therefore have been lamb (or mutton) and it is not at all surprising that the Egyptians should have found it “disgusting” to sit at the same table with people who were eating their “god” (or one of its “parents”)!

Returning to the events leading up to the Exodus, we now see that what the Hebrews were actually commanded to do was to take the Egyptians’ god, to humiliate it by keeping it tied up for four days, and then to slaughter it, paint its blood onto their door-frames, roast it and eat it. In other words, they had to thumb their noses at the Egyptians and insult them in the worst possible way, by showing utter contempt for the latters’ “god”. This is the third misrepresentation, and probably the worst of all: the so-called “paschal lamb” had nothing whatever to do with “atonement” – there is absolutely no mention of “atonement”, or of “sins”, anywhere in the narrative account of the Exodus events. The “paschal lamb” was about one thing and nothing more: it was about the Hebrews demonstrating that they were sufficiently worthy to merit being “redeemed” personally by God, that is, to have Him to come Himself in all His Glory and Majesty to liberate them from slavery (see Sh’mot 12:12, I will pass through the land of Egypt tonight, and I will kill every firstborn in the land of Egypt − both man and livestock − and I will execute justice against all the Egyptians’ gods, I – Adonai!), by showing that they trusted Him to protect them from the fury of their former Egyptian masters when they committed what those Egyptians would have seen as the most appalling sacrilege and blasphemy, openly, right in front of their faces!

The ceremonial eating of roast lamb on Pesaḥ-Eve, which we Hebrews continued to practise for as long as the Temples existed, was merely a commemoration of what we were commanded to do in the year that we left Egypt – it never was about “atonement” or “sin” originally, and it never became about them either.


Want to share or print this? Choose how below:
  • Print
  • email
  • Add to favorites
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • del.icio.us

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: