Atonement: Foundations

March 29, 2010 — Leave a comment


[This post is part of the Atonement series]

In this post, I’m simply going to give a survey of the major Old Testament passages that support the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement, mostly following the formulations laid out in Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach’s book, Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution.

In a sense, this is kind of like a CliffNotes of the careful study and research they have put into the topic. This post then will look at the foundations (OT), the next will look at the fulfillment (NT), and the next will look at the synthesis of it all.

So let’s begin, shall we?

Exodus 12

One might consider the incident with Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah as the first hint of God providing an animal sacrifice in place of a human, but conceptually the issue there is different (Isaac was innocent, it was a test of Abraham’s faith, and so on). So instead we start here in Exodus with the Passover.

Exodus starts with the obvious issue of unfulfilled promise. In the Abrahamic Covenant, God had promised Abraham many blessings for his seed (Seed? cf Galatians 3), yet here they were as slaves in Egypt. By the time we get to chapter 12, God is in the process of delivering them, and there is one last plague to come upon the Egyptians as an attack against their gods.

What is interesting though, is that according to later testimony of Ezekiel (20:4-10), Israel is implicated in the Egyptians idolatry. In this sense then, Israel was just as deserving of God’s wrath that was meted out against the Egyptian firstborn in the 10th plague. For that reason, deliverance from this particular plague was conditional.

Unlike the other plagues which more or less unaffected Israel, there was a clear action item on the part of the Israelites if they wished to not partake of the death of their firstborn children. They had to take a perfectly healthy lamb, which was in a sense innocent, and kill it, and spread its blood on their door posts. Not only were they to do this on this particular occasion, but they were to do this ritual yearly from now on. In fact, Jewish people still do this to this day.

By performing this ritual at this time though, Israel was saved by God from the hostile tyranny of the Egyptians, but were also saved from His own wrath. The Exodus for the rest of the Old Testament is paradigmatic of God’s saving work, and it seems very strongly to be based on the idea of a substituted absorbing God’s wrath in their place.

If you remove the Passover Lamb and ritual from this account, there is ultimately no Exodus, and therefore no salvation for the people Israel.

Leviticus 16

Israel though proved later in the book of Exodus that they were more than prone to idolatry. Exodus also raises the question of how a holy God such as Yahweh can dwell with such a sinful people such as Israel. That question however, is answered by Leviticus.

This passage specifically, highlights that God’s wrath must be overcome in order to draw near to Him, and that only by performing the sacrifices in the correct manner is this possible. This is why it starts with recalling Nadab and Abihu who were incinerated because of offering strange fire before the Lord. It seems harsh, but it was setting the precedent that you cannot approach a holy God in just whatever way you please.

Kippur (from which we get our word “atonement”) can mean several things depending on the context it is used in. Generally there are 4 senses:

  • Forgiveness
  • Cleansing (see Leviticus 16:30)
  • Ransom (see Leviticus 17:11)
  • Aversion of wrath (Numbers 25)

The last passage is a very clear example, but space does not permit exploring it here. I would encourage you though to read through it on your own. In regards to the Day of Atonement ritual that is established here in Leviticus 16, kippur has the connotation of both cleansing of sin and guilt and aversion of God’s wrath through a substitutionary animal sacrifice.

This is also the natural reading of the scapegoat ritual.  It is by the priest laying hands on the goat and transferring the sins and guilt of the people to it, they are absolved and God’s wrath towards them is averted. The goat is then sent out into the wilderness, presumably never to be seen or heard from again.

From both of these passages, it should seem very clear that early on in the history of the people of Israel, the concept of an animal being subsitutionally sacrificed for them was certainly not a foreign concept. Further, it was what they would have understood as the necessary means of dealing with their sin before God, both necessary to avoid death, and to be able to enjoy fellowship.

Isaiah 52:13-53:12

Perhaps within the Old Testament, no passage is more explicit than this one. Interestingly, interpreters that object to substitutionary atonement on theological grounds still find themselves having to admit that it is at least present here textually. I have quoted this passage in full elsewhere in connection to the gospel, I would encourage you to read that here.

Just some preliminary observations though about the servant depicted in this passage:

  • He suffers on behalf of others (53:5)
  • His suffering brings benefit to those he suffers for (53:5)
  • He suffered willingly and deliberately (53:7)
  • He himself is sinless and righteous (53:9,11)
  • It is God himself who acts to lay the sin upon him (53:10)

It is rather interesting that in v.10 the explicit connection is made with a guilt offering as that was the offering designated for unintentional sins (and unknown ones as well). We’ll deal in the next post with how the New Testament writers handle this text, but for now, it is hard to imagine a more explicit teaching in Scripture regarding substitutionary atonement.

This passage also connects very smoothly with the previous one. The phrasing here in 53:11 (“he will bear their iniquities”) and in v. 12 (“he bore the sins of many”) is likewise used in Leviticus 16 to demonstrate that it is both guilt and punishment that are being dealt with (see 16:22 regarding the scapegoat ritual). It is also here that the connection is made between a sacrificial offering of an animal, and the future suffering of a person, not just alongside his people, but in their place. It is probably no mistake that the imagery of a sheep being slaughtered is being employed here.

Even seeing this foundation though, some may deny that Jesus in any way fulfills it, and one could grant that it would have been hard to connect these threads with other threads woven in the Old Testament about Messiah, so as to see ahead of time how they would be fulfilled.

But providentially for us, we have the New Testament to help us in our understanding of the Old, so now having laid the foundation, we can move forward to look at the fulfillment.


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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