(Heb. 9:22) Was blood sacrifice really necessary?

CLAIM: Orthodox Jewish interpreters often argue that the NT authors often overemphasize the importance of blood sacrifices in the OT. In particular, the author of Hebrews writes, “Without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22). Is this true, or does the OT offer other means of forgiveness besides blood sacrifice?

RESPONSE: Blood sacrifices were central to religious worship in the book of Genesis (e.g. Abel, Noah, Abraham, Jacob). In the book of Exodus, the center of the Passover was a blood sacrifice (Ex. 12:13), and Moses later ratified the covenant by sprinkling blood on the people (Ex. 24:5-8). Moreover, the first reference to annual atonement in the Bible mentions the necessity of blood—not prayer or repentance or good deeds (Ex. 30:10).

Later in the book of Leviticus, God promised to reveal himself in the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle (Lev. 16:2), because of blood atonement. Brown writes, “Throughout the Book of Leviticus, which is the book in the Scriptures dealing with sacrifice and atonement, whenever atonement is mentioned (forty-nine times in all), it is always in conjunction with blood sacrifices.”[1] Leviticus 17:11 explains clearly, “The life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement.” After the exile, the Jews immediately rebuilt their Temple and began offering blood sacrifices again (Neh. 10:32-33). And in the future third Temple, blood sacrifices will still be central to atonement (Ezek. 43:19-20; 45:15-17). The OT doesn’t focus on the hair, sweat, or saliva of the animal; it focuses on the blood.

Because the Temple has been destroyed for over 1,900 years, it’s easy to see why Orthodox rabbis would want to believe that blood sacrifices have been abrogated in some way. From a Christian perspective, the Temple was destroyed because the ultimate Lamb of God was slain in AD 33, and these Old Covenant sacrifices are no longer necessary. However, Jewish theologians will often make a series of arguments that blood sacrifice is not currently necessary for atonement:

ARGUMENT #1: The prophets state that GOOD DEEDS and REPENTANCE replace blood sacrifices (Ezek. 18:30-32; Is. 55:6-7).

RESPONSE: Both repentance and blood sacrifices were needed to have atonement. Similarly, in the NT, we need both Jesus’ death on the Cross and repentance in order to have forgiveness (c.f. Acts 2:38; 17:30). Therefore, we shouldn’t create a false dilemma here.

However, good deeds and repentance alone were not sufficient for forgiveness. Imagine if we applied this thinking to Sabbath observance. Do these passages in the prophets likewise eliminate a modern Jewish believer’s need to take the Sabbath? What about belief in God? According to this orthodox Jewish perspective, could a modern day atheist be forgiven by simply performing good deeds? Clearly, these passages are not abrogating previous teaching on blood sacrifice (or any other essential element to biblical faith). Instead, they are merely focusing or emphasizing the characteristics of a righteous person (c.f. Isa. 1:11). In addition, while some prophets emphasize repentance, the later prophets focus back on the Temple and blood sacrifices (e.g. Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Ezra). This shows that these later prophets did not think that the blood sacrifices of the Temple were abrogated by repentance and good deeds.

ARGUMENT #2: Proverbs 16:6 states that GOOD DEEDS replace sacrifices.

RESPONSE: Context controls how we understand the Hebrew word for atonement (kippur). Here, as the context makes clear, kippur refers to purging or removing the effects of sin. The context refers to dealing with the effects of our sin on others, which is accomplished through good deeds. Proverbs is a practical book of wisdom in relationships—not a theological treatise on atonement. So this verse shouldn’t be pressed too far.

ARGUMENT #3: Psalm 141:2 states that PRAYER replaces blood sacrifices.

RESPONSE: David writes, “May my prayer be counted as incense before You; the lifting up of my hands as the evening offering” (Ps. 141:2). However, this statement does not replace blood atonement. David is merely making an analogy regarding his prayer life—not a complete overhaul of blood atonement sacrifices. The original meaning had nothing to do with replacing blood sacrifice with prayer.

ARGUMENT #4: Leviticus 5:11-13 states that FLOUR replaces blood sacrifices.

RESPONSE: Verse 12 explains that the flour was added to the blood already on the altar. Moreover Brown writes, “Nowhere is it written that ‘the flour will make atonement’ or that ‘the life of a creature is in the flour.’ Rather, the whole basis for atonement was in the sacrificial blood on the altar, and through a flour offering, even poor Israelites could participate in the atoning power of the altar.”[2]

ARGUMENT #5: Exodus 30:12-16 states that MONEY replaces blood sacrifices (c.f. Num. 31:48-50).

RESPONSE: These passages come in the context of taking a census and being protected from the wrath of God (c.f. 2 Sam. 24). This is what Exodus 30:12 states explicitly. This didn’t have to do with atonement for sin, but atonement from a plague. The distinction here is between the Hebrew word kopher (“ransom”), rather than kippur (“atonement”). Remember, context always determines how we translate kippur, which is etymologically close to kopherKopher connotes a ransom payment (c.f. Ex. 21:30; Is. 43:3). Brown writes, “Overall, kopher is used fourteen times in the Hebrew Scriptures, meaning ransom… Never once, however, does it have anything to do with atonement of sin.”[3] Since the context refers to ransom, this “atonement money” (Hebrew keseph kippurim) should be better translated as “ransom money.” Moreover, the Hebrew Bible never states that atonement is in the money, as it does affirm with blood atonement (compare with Lev. 17:11).

ARGUMENT #6: Numbers 16:46-48 states that INCENSE replaces blood sacrifices.

RESPONSE: Here the word kippur again refers to “make appeasement,” as the context makes clear. The context is God’s wrath in the plague, and this was what had been at stake—not forgiveness from sin.

ARGUMENT #7: 1 Kings 8:46-49 states that PRAYING TOWARD THE TEMPLE replaces blood sacrifices (c.f. Dan. 6:10).

RESPONSE: The parallel passage is 2 Chronicles 6. In context, this is while the Temple was still standing. Solomon’s prayer refers to the future exile—not a destroyed Temple. Likewise, in Daniel 9, Daniel prayed (and knew) that he was under the judgment of God, because the Temple was still destroyed.

ARGUMENT #8: The Ninevites were forgiven through Jonah’s ministry without a blood sacrifice.

RESPONSE: While the Ninevites did not bring their own sacrifice to the Jewish Temple, God made a provision for the Gentile nations in the book of Exodus. God told his people that they were to be a kingdom of priests for all of the nations (Ex. 19:5-6). Thus they were to offer sacrifices for their non-believing neighbors.

ARGUMENT #9: Blood sacrifices atoned for unintentional sins only—not intentional sins

Leviticus makes clear that the blood sacrifices also included intentional sins (Lev. 5:20-26; 6:1-7). Moreover, the high priest was to confess “all” of the wickedness of the people on Yom Kippur (Lev. 16:20-22), and God promised to forgive the people because of the sacrifices in the Temple when Solomon prayed for the future people (2 Chron. 7:12-16). This included all kinds of sin and wickedness.

[1] Brown, Michael L. Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus: Theological Objections. Vol. 2. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003. 107.

[2] Brown, Michael L. Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus: Theological Objections. Vol. 2. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003. 113.

[3] Brown, Michael L. Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus: Theological Objections. Vol. 2. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003. 114-115.