In the New Testament book of Hebrews, we find this well known Christian assertion:
Indeed according to the law almost everything was purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. (Heb 9:22 NET)
Is this actually true? This idea is often cross referenced to the following “prooftext” from the Hebrew Scriptures:
for the life of every living thing is in the blood. So I myself have assigned it to you on the altar to make atonement for your lives, for the blood makes atonement by means of the life. (Lev 17:11)
Taken out of context, you might agree with the assertion given in Hebrews 9:22, but there are a few easily overlooked problems that arise if one jumps to this conclusion.
Disclaimer: B'nei Moshe accepts neither the post-Torah writings of the Tanakh (a.k.a. Old Testament to Christians) or the New Testament. This article should not be misconstrued to lend any credence or authority to either. The use of these texts is strictly to show an orthodox Christian tenet to be mistaken.
Problem #1: Atonement is not the same as forgiveness
The verse from Leviticus indicates that blood makes atonement. This is not the same as forgiveness mentioned in the verse from Hebrews. Let’s check a dictionary for details.
Forgiveness: According to Miriam Webster, the definition of forgiveness is “the act of forgiving”, and in turn the definition of forgiving is “willing or able to forgive, allowing room for error or weakness”.
On the other hand, atonement is defined as “reparation for an offense or injury”, with reparation defined as “the act of making amends, offering expiation, or giving satisfaction for a wrong or injury”.
You can see that these are two entirely separate things. In fact, in the case of sin, they are offered by two different parties even! Forgiveness is offered by the one wronged, while atonement is offered by the wrongdoer.
I’ll forgive you (see what I did there?) for not having previously noticed this. I certainly didn’t when I took Hebrews 9:22 for granted, before I became more serious in my efforts to study the Bible.
On the one hand, the New Testament paints a picture of the wrongdoer offering the life of an animal to essentially beg for, or even demand, YHWH’s forgiveness; On the other hand, the Hebrew Scriptures paints a completely different picture, one of an animal, something of value to the wrongdoer, from his own flock or purchased from another, given up penitentially in order to mend and restore his relationship with YHWH. The contrast could not be more stark.
A modern day illustration of the difference between forgiveness and atonement would be a case where a neighborhood kid playing baseball with friends accidentally hits the ball towards a nearby home, shattering a window. The kid’s neighbor, knowing the boy wasn’t purposefully trying to cause damage, forgives him. The boy, in order to make his relationship with his neighbor right, agrees to pay for the replacement of the window, thereby atoning for his mistake.
Problem #2: Leviticus 17:11 isn’t primarily about blood atonement
Leviticus 17:11 above was quoted out of context. When we put it into context, we find that the context is not primarily about blood atonement, but about the prohibition on the consumption of blood:
“‘Any man from the house of Israel or from the foreigners who reside in their midst who eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats the blood, and I will cut him off from the midst of his people,
for the life of every living thing is in the blood. So I myself have assigned it to you on the altar to make atonement for your lives, for the blood makes atonement by means of the life. (Lev 17:10-11 NET)
Notice how the proper context changes everything. The subject of the passage isn’t atonement, but consuming blood. The reason for not consuming blood is due to its use in atonement. However, nowhere is it implied that blood is the only thing that atones.
Problem #3: Blood is not the only thing that atones
It’s not at all difficult to find that blood is not the only thing that atones:
“‘If he cannot afford two turtledoves or two young pigeons, he must bring as his offering for his sin which he has committed a tenth of an ephah of choice wheat flour for a sin offering. He must not place olive oil on it and he must not put frankincense on it, because it is a sin offering.
He must bring it to the priest and the priest must scoop out from it a handful as its memorial portion and offer it up in smoke on the altar on top of the other gifts of YHWH – it is a sin offering.
So the priest will make atonement on his behalf for his sin which he has committed by doing one of these things, and he will be forgiven. The remainder of the offering will belong to the priest like the grain offering.'” (Lev 5:11-13 NET)
In this case, the turtledoves or pigeons is an option in the case the one bringing the offering cannot afford to bring an animal from the flock (verse 7). Then, if he cannot afford even these birds, he can bring flour. This is a sin offering which atones, but blood is not required.
Everyone who crosses over to those who are numbered is to pay this: a half shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary (a shekel weighs twenty gerahs). The half shekel is to be an offering to YHWH.
Everyone who crosses over to those numbered, from twenty years old and up, is to pay an offering to YHWH.
The rich are not to increase it, and the poor are not to pay less than the half shekel when giving the offering of YHWH, to make atonement for your lives. (Exo 30:13-15 NET)
In this case, the half shekel (money) atones.
Aaron is to lay his two hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities of the Israelites and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins, and thus he is to put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man standing ready. (Lev 16:21 NET)
On the day of atonement, the transgressions of the Israelites were figuratively placed on the head of the scapegoat, and it was taken into the wilderness, rather than sacrificed.
So Aaron did as Moses commanded and ran into the middle of the assembly, where the plague was just beginning among the people. So he placed incense on the coals and made atonement for the people. (Num 16:47 NET)
In this case, incense made atonement.
Once forgiveness and atonement are understood to be two separate things, each one initiated by separate parties after a wrong, you can understand that forgiveness can still be extended without sacrifice.
This is why the author of the Judaean book of Ezekiel describes forgiveness without any mention of sacrifice:
“But if the wicked person turns from all the sin he has committed and observes all my statutes and does what is just and right, he will surely live; he will not die.
None of the sins he has committed will be held against him; because of the righteousness he has done, he will live. (Eze 18:21-22 NET)
Hosea, prophet to the northern kingdom when the northern kingdom of Israel was not permitted to venture into the southern in order to sacrifice at the temple, says:
Return, O Israel, to YHWH your God, for your sin has been your downfall!
Return to YHWH and repent! Say to him: “Completely forgive our iniquity; accept our penitential prayer, that we may offer the praise of our lips as sacrificial bulls. (Hosea 14:1-2 NET)
Here we find the concept of receiving forgiveness through repentance and prayer, rather than sacrifice.
If one studies the sacrificial system as it is described in Leviticus 1 through 5, one finds that the only sacrifices available for sin were for unintentional sins–The sins that you didn’t intend to commit and found out about later, or the sins you may have committed without ever realizing. There is no sacrifice for intentional sin. Where does that leave the sinner? Have any of us not purposefully set out to transgress YHWH’s instructions in our lifetimes? Intentional sin can only be remedied by repentance, turning back to YHWH and following His instructions.
The bottom line: Forgiveness does not require death.