It is a curious fact, but sadly significant, that modern Judaism should declare neither sacrifices nor a Levitical priesthood to belong to the essence of the Old Testament; that, in fact, they had been foreign elements imported into it — tolerated, indeed, by Moses, but against which the prophets earnestly protested and incessantly laboured. The only arguments by which this strange statement is supported are that the Book of Deuteronomy contains merely a brief summary, not a detailed repetition, of sacrificial ordinances, and that such passages as Isaiah 1:11ff; Micah 6:6ff inveigh against sacrifices offered without real repentance or changing of mind. Yet this anti-sacrificial, or, as we may call it, anti-spiritual, tendency is really of much earlier date. For the sacrifices of the Old Testament were not merely outward observances — a sort of work-righteousness which justified the offerer by the mere fact of his obedience — since “it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4).

The sacrifices of the Old Testament were symbolical and typical. An outward observance without any real inward meaning is only a ceremony. But a rite which has a present spiritual meaning is a symbol; and if, besides, it also points to a future reality, conveying at the same time, by anticipation, the blessing that is yet to appear, it is a type. Thus the Old Testament sacrifices were not only symbols, nor yet merely predictions by feet (as prophecy is a prediction by word), but they already conveyed to the believing Israelite the blessing that was to flow from the future reality to which they pointed. Hence the service of the letter and the work-righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees ran directly contrary to this hope of faith and spiritual view of sacrifices, which placed all on the level of sinners to be saved by the substitution of another, to whom they pointed.

Afterwards, when the destruction of the Temple rendered its services impossible, another and most cogent reason was added for trying to substitute other things, such as prayers, fasts, etc., in room of the sacrifices. Therefore, although none of the older Rabbis has ventured on such an assertion as that of modern Judaism, the tendency must have been increasingly in that direction. In fact, it had become a necessity — since to declare sacrifices of the essence of Judaism would have been to pronounce modern Judaism an impossibility. But thereby also the synagogue has given sentence against itself’ and by disowning sacrifices has placed itself outside the pale of the Old Testament.

Every unprejudiced reader of the Bible must feel that sacrifices constitute the center of the Old Testament. Indeed, were this the place, we might argue from their universality that, along with the acknowledgment of a Divine power, the dim remembrance of a happy past, and the hope of a happier future, sacrifices belonged to the primeval traditions which mankind inherited from Paradise. To sacrifice seems as “natural” to man as to pray; the one indicates what he feels about himself, the other what he feels about God. The one means a felt need of propitiation; the other a felt sense of dependence.

The fundamental idea of sacrifice in the Old Testament is that of substitution, which again seems to imply everything else — atonement and redemption, vicarious punishment and forgiveness. The first fruits go for the whole products; the firstlings for the flock; the redemption-money for that which cannot be offered; and the life of the sacrifice’ which is in its blood (Leviticus 17:11), for the life of the sacrificer. Hence also the strict prohibition to partake of blood. Even in the “Korban” gift (Mark 7:11) or free-will offering, it is still the gift for the giver.

This idea of substitution, as introduced, adopted, and sanctioned by God Himself, is expressed by the sacrificial term rendered in our version “atonement,” but which really means covering, the substitute in the acceptance of God taking the place of, and so covering, as it were, the person of the offerer. Hence the scriptural experience: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered . . . unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity” (Psalm 32:1-2); and perhaps also the scriptural prayer “Behold, O God, our shield, and look upon the face of Thine Anointed” (Psalm 84:9). Such sacrifices, however, necessarily pointed to a mediatorial priesthood, through whom alike they and the purified worshippers should be brought near to God, and kept in fellowship with Him. Yet these priests themselves continually changed; their own persons and services needed purification, and their sacrifices required constant renewal since, in the nature of it, such substitution could not be perfect.

In short, all this was symbolical (of man’s need, God’s mercy, and His covenant), and typical, till He should come to whom it all pointed, and who had all along given reality to it; He, whose Priesthood was perfect, and who on a perfect altar brought a perfect sacrifice, once for all — a perfect Substitute, and a perfect Mediator.

* * * * * * * * *

It is deeply interesting to know that the New Testament view of sacrifices is entirely in accordance with that of the ancient Synagogue. At the threshold we here meet the principle: “There is no atonement except by blood.” (For an excellent, documented treatment of Isaiah 53 in illumination of the previous statement, see The Challenge of the Ages, Frederick Alfred Aston., published by Research Press, 73 Hampton Road, Scarsdale, N. Y. 10583, 1971. This 24-page study proves from reliable sources that the idea of atonement was linked to the Servant of Isaiah 53 from earliest times in Jewish theology, and that only in recent centuries has that chapter been alleged as having no reference to the Messiah.) In accordance with this we quote the following from Jewish interpreters. Rashi says: “The soul of every creature is bound up in its blood; therefore I gave it to atone for the soul of man — that one soul should come and atone for the ether.” Similarly Aben Ezra writes: “One soul is a substitute for the other.” And Moses hen Nachmann: “I gave the soul for you on the altar, that the soul of the animal should be an atonement for the soul of the man.” These quotations might be almost indefinitely multiplied.

Another phase of scriptural truth appears in such Rabbinical statements as that by the imposition of hands “the offerer, as it were, puts away his sins from himself, and transfers them upon the living animal,” and that “as often as any one sins with his soul, whether from haste or malice, he puts away his sin from himself, and places it upon the head of his sacrifice, and it is an atonement for him . . . .” In fact, according to Rabbinical expression, the sin-bearing animal is on that ground expressly designated as something to be rejected and abominable. The Christian reader will here be reminded of the scriptural statement: “For He has made Him to be sin for us who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.”

There is yet one other phase . . . which . . . is best expressed in the following quotation, to which many similar might be added: “Properly speaking, the blood of the sinner should have been shed, and his body burned, as those of the sacrifices. But the Holy One — blessed be He! — accepted our sacrifice from us as redemption and atonement. Behold the full grace which Jehovah — blessed be He! — has shown to man! In His compassion and in the fullness of His grace He accepted the soul of the animal instead of his soul, that through it there might be an atonement.” Hence also the principle, so important as an answer to the question whether the Israelites of old had understood the meaning of sacrifices. “He that brought a sacrifice required [sic] to come to the knowledge that the sacrifice was his redemption.”

In view of all this, the deep-felt want so often expressed by the Synagogue [of modern times] is most touching. In the liturgy for the Day of Atonement we read: “While the altar and the sanctuary were still in their places, we were atoned for by the goats, designated by lot. But now for our guilt, if Jehovah be pleased to destroy us, He takes from our hand neither burnt-offering nor sacrifice.” We add only one more out of many similar passages in the Jewish prayer-book: “We have spoken violence and rebellion; we have walked in a way that is not right…. Behold, our transgressions have increased upon us: they press upon us like a burden; they have gone over our heads we have forsaken Thy commandments, which are excellent. And wherewith shall we appear before Thee, the mighty God, to atone for our transgressions, and to put away our trespasses, and to remove sin, and to magnify Thy grace? Sacrifices and offerings are no more; sin-and trespass-offerings have ceased, the blood of sacrifices is no longer sprinkled; destroyed is Thy holy house, and fallen the gates of Thy sanctuary; Thy holy city lies desolate; Thou hast slain, sent from Thy presence; they have gone, driven forth from before Thy face, the priests who have brought Thy sacrifices!” Accordingly, also, the petition frequently recurs: “Raise up for us a right Intercessor (that it may be true), I have found a ransom (an atonement, or covering).”‘

. . . Who shall make answer to this deep lament of exiled Judah, Where shall a ransom be found to take the place of their sacrifices? In their despair some appeal to the merits of the fathers or of the pious; others to their own or to Israel’s sufferings, or to death, which is regarded as the last expiation. But the most melancholy exhibition, perhaps, is that of an attempted sacrifice by each pious Israelite on the eve of the Day of Atonement. Taking for males a white cock, and for females a hen, the head of the house prays …. Next, the head of the house swings the sacrifice round his head, saying, “This is my substitute; this is in exchange for me; this is my atonement. This cock goes into death, but may I enter into a long and happy life, and into peace!” Then he repeats this prayer three times, and lays his hands on the sacrifice which is now slain.

This offering up of an animal not sanctioned by the law, in a place, in a manner, and by hands not authorized by God is it not a terrible phantom of Israel’s dark and dreary night? And does it not seem strangely to remind us of that other terrible night, when the threefold crowing of a cock awakened Peter to the fact of his denial of “the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world?”

And still the cry of the Synagogue comes to us through these many centuries of past unbelief and ignorance: “Let one innocent come and make atonement for the guilty!” To which no other response can ever be made than that of the apostle: “Such an High-Priest became us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens!” (Hebrews 7:26)

Alfred Edersheim, The Temple, its Ministry and Services, pp. 79-82; 91-95.

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