Rethinking Sacrifice and The Practice of Biblical Atonement

A central thesis of the book The Sacrifice of Jesus: Understanding Atonement Biblically by Christian Eberhart is the idea that we, predomonatly in the Protestant west, have reduced the sacrificial system to mean and represent two things- blood and necessary death. When in fact the sacrificial system reflects a much broader liturgy that isn’t about death but life. When we take the time to understand and hear what the sacrificial liturgy is saying it becomes clear that this notion of a necessary death so inherent in protestantism is not present in the sacrificial rite and that all death that happens is incidental to the rite and happens outside of the holy space in the space of the wilderness, the same space the goat on the Day of Atonement is sent with the sins of the people.

What is the central focus of the liturgy/rite of sacrifice? The burning. The gift giving practice that sends a pleasing odor into the holy space. Here blood, where it applies, is recognized as life, not because it atones through a necessary death but because it is life itself. As such it does the cleansing/covering work of space and being that allows us to move into the space where God dwells through faithfulness to the liturgical process. This cleansing is not internal but external, ridding space and body of the polluting effects of Sin and our participation in it. Unintentional and intentional sin then become bound together in the liturgy.

Every one of the central sacrificial acts functions as a gift with the burning process at its center. This is the point of the pressed hand on the creatures forehead, is representing our ownership of this thing being offered up. Eberhart makes the case that if we are to apply sacrificial imagery to any circumstance, especially when it comes to Jesus, we can’t simply apply the blood, we have to see the whole. And if we can’t equally apply the cereal offering, for example, along with the sin or guilt offerings and still come away with the same imagery and story then something is off with our reading of the text.

Let’s consider Ephesians 5:1-2
1 Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

As Eberhart points out, the word sacrifice here connotes two general meanings in the Greek employed to capture the essence of the Hebrew word for sacrifice. In both cases it would indeed seem very odd to associate these words specifically with Jesus’ death. Rather, we must see the whole of Christ’s ministry as the sacrifice, an embodied liturgy lived out in and for the world. This flows from the emphasis of 5:1, itself the culmination of a larger section dealing with right living. To follow God’s example is to give ourselves to God and others as a pleasing odor. To walk in the way of love is to embody the sacrificial rite and liturgy as an image bearing process This has nothing to do with something needing to die in order to atone for ones sins. Nothing needs to die for the sacrificial system to operate. The sacrificial system is in fact about what it means to move into the space where God dwells by way of faithfulness (allegiance/loyalty) to God, the gift giver. The gift was the Exodus from Egypt where the whole of the enslaved was liberated from slavery.. This brings them to Sinai where ernthen find the call to live in the new reality Gods liberating act brought about in and for the world. Jesus’ ministry tells the same story. The gift of Jesus is the liberation of the whole of creation which brings us back to Sinai and the call to live in the new reality God has brought about in and through Christ.

In both cases these are considered sacrifices. When we sacrifice to God by way of the liturgy we are sacrificing our whole selves, meaning offering the elements of our life as a gift, so as to follow God’s example. In the liberating act we find God’s grace gift to the world. This is what the sacrificial liturgy is all about.

“It is a burnt offering, a food offering, an aroma pleasing to the Lord.”

  • Lev 1:9

21 The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma(A) and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground(B) because of humans, even though[a] every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood.(C) And never again will I destroy(D) all living creatures,(E) as I have done.

  • Genesis 8:21

There are a few books that, if I could choose a couple, that I wish I could put in the hands of everyone and just discuss. The Sacrifice of Jesus: Understanding Atonement Biblically by Christian A. Eberhart is one of those, Since he deals so directly with Milgrom, a seminal voice in the world, culture, and voice of Levitcus, it provides an intimate window into the sacrificial system and how it gets applied to Christ. A couple of additional points to go with the above:

  1. The book reflects on tendencies within Protestantism to go straight for the blood and to read the blood in entirely negative terms. Eberhart wants to place the blood back into the multifaceted nature of the sacrificial rite where it can be understood in the way the ancients would have seen it, as part if a story, a liturgy. Thus it becomes important to locate the appropriate narrative.
  2. It is also significant that we see metaphorical language being applied to the sacrificial rite early on as most people did not have access to the temple. Thus we see throughout the scriptures examples of people applying the liturgy at home or outside of temple space in conjunction with the spirit. This lays the groundwork as well for the destruction of the second temple and the stopping of temple sacrifice. This is why it’s crucial to see what the liturgy is doing and what the story is all about- this bringing together of heaven and earth spaces and this movement from the wilderness, the mortal space where Death and Sin abide, to the garden, the eternal space where life and love reside.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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