The Shuvah Project #31 — Dismantling Substitutionary Atonement

New to The Shuvah Project? Find out what it is and why it’s necessary. 

Your sins are forgiven.

-Luke 7:48b

Section One (Parsha Debrief):

This week’s Parsha (Leviticus 16:1-18:30) contained: details for the Day of Atonement, an outline of forbidden sacrifices, and details of prohibited practices.

In the Midweek Reading Guide, we asked that you think about the many contexts of atonement in Hebrew Scripture.

To start, we need to understand that atonement is not solely connected to sin. For example, the yoledet discussed in the Defiled post needs to be granted atonement (Leviticus 12). Yet, not only is giving birth not a sin, it’s actually a positive commandment. So… why does she need atonement?

One potential reason is offered by Rabbis Emu Shalev and David Block. They suggest death is our greatest spiritual teacher because it reminds us that we are not immortal. So, shortly after bringing new life into the world, the yoledet brings an atoning sacrifice as a means to witness the fragility of life. On these points, I disagree. As we’ll discuss in the epilogue to this post, I think the power of the resurrection is our greatest spiritual teacher.

Rabbi David Fohrman, on the other hand, makes the compelling case that atonement might be more about creating closeness with God. His evidence… the details for the Day of Atonement — Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Fohrman notes that the introductory sentences of Leviticus 16 are strange. They focus on Aaron and his sons, not the day itself. Then, almost the entire chapter details the procedure Aaron must follow when entering the Holy of Holies on that one permissible day — Yom Kippur. It’s actually not until Leviticus 16:29-30 that the Text mentions the statue and what it aims to achieve. Based on the order and length of content, Rabbi Fohrman suggests Yom Kippur isn’t primarily about forgiveness of sins. Instead, he says, it’s primarily a once a year re-creation of the Mt. Sinai experience when Moses entered God’s cloud. Here, on Yom Kippur, the high priest mixes mankind’s cloud with God’s cloud covering the Ark of the Covenant. To Rabbi Fohrman, the byproduct of experiencing oneness with the Creator is the statement in Leviticus 16:30.

For on this day you shall be atoned for and cleansed, that you may be clean from all your sins before the LORD.

-Leviticus 16:30

What’s more, due to its first use and it’s root being connected to the covering over the Ark of the Covenant, atonement is understood as a covering. Thus, Rabbi Fohrman inserts this translation into Leviticus 16:30 yielding the idea: For on this day you shall be covered by God — that purifies you.

It really seems like the Text is inviting us to see God’s intent is to create a moment of contact with His people every year.

Section Two (Connection to NT + haftarah):

The connected Luke Text this week (Luke 7:36-50), was actually used in a previous post to discuss forgiveness of sins. We won’t revisit it in its entirety. Instead, in summary, the woman’s sins are forgiven, not because Jesus died on a cross (that hadn’t happened yet), but because of her great acts of Checed (i.e. loving kindness).

Section Three (missing the mark):

Still, many pastors proudly recite the following leading up to the communion table… 

Hear the good news:
And while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us; and that proves God’s love toward us.

-The United Methodist Church, A SERVICE OF WORD AND TABLE

I’m not convinced this is good news. This statement clearly infers that there was a wrathful God needing appeasement and the only way to quench God the Father’s wrath toward us sinners was for Jesus (i.e. His son) to take our place on the Cross. Regardless of the reason, a father killing his son should never be discussed as good news (Footnote #1).

I’m even less convinced this was the Gospel (i.e. good news) Jesus spent ~3 years showing His disciples. In fact, chronologically, it’s impossible that the Gospel Jesus was preaching was a death that hadn’t happened.

However, this line of thinking is prevalent — even mainstream (Footnote #2). Yet, Penal Substitution or Substitutionary Atonement as it’s called, are merely theories. Unfortunately, despite little, if any, pre-Jesus evidence for the Messiah substituting for the sinner, these theories still became dogma for most of Christianity.

Marcus Borg in Christianity Divided by the Cross and Richard Rohr in The Universal Christ, detail the church history pointing to the start and evolution of these theories.

Here, we’ll engage different questions while also building the case against penal substitution or substitutionary atonement. 

The Original Day of Atonement:

If Jesus is the atoning sacrifice once and for all, shouldn’t His death look and sound like the original day of atonement, Yom Kippur?

On Yom Kippur:

  • There are two goats (Leviticus 16:7-10)
  • One goat is slaughtered (Leviticus 16:15)
  • Blood is sprinkled inside Holy of Holies (Leviticus 16:15)
  • Blood is sprinkled on horns of the altar seven times (Leviticus 16:18-19)
  • The live goat carries all of Isreal’s wrongdoings (Leviticus 16:21-22)
  • There’s fire (Leviticus 16:25)
  • There’s an altar (Leviticus 16:25)
  • The fat portions of the sacrificial goat are burned (Leviticus 16:25)
  • The remainder of the sacrificial goat is burned outside of camp (Leviticus 16:27)

Jesus is never referred to as a goat anywhere in the NT. No altar or fire or burning exist in Jesus’ death narrative. Moreover, the live goat is the one that carries all the sins of Isreal away–not the slaughtered one.

Few, if any, components of Yom Kippur show up in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death. It seems the imagery all of Isreal is familiar with is lacking in Jesus’ death scene. That’s odd to me. If Jesus wanted the Jewish people to see Him as the final atoning sacrifice for their sins He would have painted the unmistakable picture of Yom Kippur. Jesus is perfectly fine riding a donkey into town to force people to see the Zechariah 9:9-12 imagery. So, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to ask that this all-important death have some images familiar to the Hebrew Text.

Imagery in the Gospel Accounts:

Maybe the Gospel accounts do point us to imagery regarding Jesus’ death. Maybe, there are clues across the accounts that look and sound like something else in Torah.

  • There’s Hyssop (John 19:29)
  • There’s scarlet thread (Matthew 27:28)
  • There’s wood (eg. the cross; Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, and John 19)
  • There’s blood mixed with water (John 19:34)

These are components of the process by which the Metzora is reconciled back into the camps (Leviticus 14:4-9).

What if Jesus, through His death, is after reconciling people back into community?

If we recall from last week, the Metzora was set outside of camp because…

[Anti-social transgressions, like haughtiness, slander, and gossip, not only] keep a person indifferent to the needs of others, but the disparaging and belittling speech actually drives wedges between people. [These anti-social sins] unravel the cohesion of a community. [In fact, they’re often spoken of in reference] to the lying tongue, proud eyes, and a heart pondering violence. 

-Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, on The Hirsch Chumash, Metzorah

Maybe Jesus’ willingness to drink the fifth cup (Footnote #3) and willingness to climb up onto the cross was designed to bring people back together. Arguably, to bring sects of Judaism together, or even nations together, like Jew and Gentile.

Yet, this isn’t the first place in the Text we encounter hyssop, blood, and wood. On the night of the first Passover, God told the Israelite families to slaughter a lamb, dip hyssop in the blood and paint the doorway with the blood. The Passover Text not only looks and sounds like the death, but in the Matthew, Mark and Luke Texts Jesus’ death actually occurs at the time of the Passover festival in Jerusalem!!! Come on!! And, although Jesus isn’t a goat, He’s certainly referred to as a Lamb—the Passover sacrifice. Moreover, my Bible’s footnote for John 19:36 suggests that Jesus’ bones were not broken as the fulfillment of Scripture’s like Exodus 12:46–a direct link to the Passover Lamb.

While Yom Kippur imagery is absent from Jesus’ death scene the Metzora purification and Passover instructions are not.

What’s more, Rabbi David Fohrman actually makes these and more connections between the metzora text and the Exodus Passover Text.

[These are] the only times in the entire Five Books of Moses that we find this image of hyssop being dipped in blood, and it just happens to have occurred on the very same night as the nega’ (plague) – that word which is used over and over again to refer to tzara’at.

[It’s as if] the metzora needs to re-do the procedure by which all of Isreal initially joined community [and became a nation].

-Rabbi David Fohrman, Living Within The Community

Both events are about becoming and restoring community.

What if the Cross literally represents… The Way to put community back together?

Section Four (real-world applications):

So, if my King didn’t die for me… what makes following Jesus different from other peace-oriented religions?

That’s a good question. I think we begin to find the answer in the same place the church misinterpreted atonement in the first place–the sacrifices.

God wants an appropriate relationship with His people as they partner in redeeming and restoring the world under the banner of Shalom. And, Jesus painted the very real picture that God promises us companionship all along the way, even in the face of death.

We are not alone in this.

Next Week’s Readings: Leviticus 19:1-20:27; Luke 7:36-50


  1. Dr. Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary, seems to find the same issue with worshiping a God that would kill His Son. She says, “The pervasive idea of an abusive God-father who sends his own kid to the cross so God could forgive people is nuts (New York Times Interview).”
  2. Richard Rohr agrees. See his new book: The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe.
  3. At some Passover seders, a fifth cup is poured and left out. This cup is known as Elijah’s cup, because it’s said Elijah will come to settle debates in the Talmud with the pronouncement of the Messianic era. Much like Elijah’s Chutzpah, the cup is also known as the Cup of Wrath citing several Hebrew scriptures — mainly Psalm 69, Psalm 79, Jeremiah 25, and Lamentations 3. While Pastors have distorted the Cup of Wrath to refer to Jesus drinking God’s wrath for us… the Hebrew scriptures actually speak about people invoking God’s wrath be poured out on other nations. More to come in the epilogue.

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