The Bible relates in Exodus 12:3-13 that when the Jewish people were preparing themselves for their momentous exodus from Egypt, God commanded them to slaughter a year-old sheep or goat on the 14th day of the first month (Nissan) and to publicly place its blood on the outside doorposts of their homes. The Torah never states or even implies that the Passover sheep or goat atones for sin.
A mindful study of the Jewish scriptures reveals that the Torah had alluded to the Paschal lamb long before the exodus from Egypt occurred. Centuries earlier, the Almighty tested Abraham’s faith when God commanded him to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. Genesis 22:7-8 relates that as the two ascended Mount Moriah together, Isaac turned to his father and asked, “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the offering?” Abraham then replied, “God will see to a lamb for an offering, my son.”
The question that immediately comes to mind is, what happened to that lamb that Abraham promised? A few verses later we find that it was a ram, not a lamb, which was sacrificed! Where was the lamb to which Abraham was prophetically referring? The answer of course is that our father Abraham was referring to the Paschal lamb. Just as God tested Abraham’s faith to show his worthiness to be the father of the chosen people, the young Jewish nation also had to have their faith tested to show their worthiness to participate in the exodus from Egypt, to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai, and to become the progenitors of the covenant people who would forever be known as “a light to the nations.”
In the Egyptian society where the Jewish people were enslaved, the lamb was considered a sacred god, similar to how the cow is deified and worshiped in India today. In ancient Egypt, molesting a lamb in any way was considered a crime punishable by death. That is why, when Egypt was overcome with the third plague of lice, Moses refused Pharaoh’s initial offer that the Jews bring their sacrifice to God while remaining in Egypt.
In Exodus 8:26, Moses explained to Pharaoh that if the Israelites were to kill these animals before the Egyptians, they would be stoned to death. The Almighty, therefore, used this to test the faithfulness of the Jewish people by commanding them to not only kill Egypt’s sacred god, but also to publicly place the lamb’s blood on their doorposts for all to see. Only those Israelites who, like Abraham, demonstrated that their fear of God exceeded their fear of the Egyptians, would be deemed worthy to have their homes passed over during the tenth and final plague.
The ancient religions promoted the same idea about atonement (e.g. Molech). They would joyfully offer a child into the fires of their sacrificial offering in order to expiate their sins and appease the gods. Why would a child sacrifice be used in this pagan ritual rather than an adult? The reason is because a child is thoroughly innocent of sin. A child, they reasoned, could not have committed iniquity and thus mirrored the animal sacrifice which also had to be unblemished. The Torah therefore admonishes the children of Israel never to offer human sacrifices, and forewarned Jewish people of terrible consequences if this commandment were violated.
This message was carefully communicated at Mt. Moriah where Abraham was prepared to offer up his beloved son Isaac as a sacrifice. At that crucial juncture in history when Abraham was ready to sacrifice Isaac, the Almighty admonished him that He did not want the human sacrifice, and directed Abraham to sacrifice the ram caught in the thicket instead.
The Almighty’s directive — that he only wanted animal sacrifices rather than human sacrifices — was immediately understood. This teaching has never departed from the mind and soul of the faithful children of Israel. Leviticus 17:11 specifically says that the blood of the sacrifice must be placed “upon the altar to make atonement for your souls.” That is to say, Leviticus 17:11 explicitly declares that blood can only effect atonement if it is placed on the altar.
The only methods of atonement in the Bible and there are three methods of atonement clearly defined in the Jewish scriptures: the sin sacrifice, repentance, and charity. Moreover, the sin sacrifice (known in the Jewish scriptures as korban chatat) did not atone for all types of sin, but rather, only for man’s most insignificant iniquity: unintentional sins. The sin sacrifice was inadequate to atone for a transgression committed intentionally. The brazen sinner was barred from the sanctuary and had to bear his own iniquity because of his rebellious intent to sin against God. The Torah teaches this fundamental principle in Numbers 15:27-31.
If a person sins unintentionally, then he shall offer a one-year-old female goat for a sin offering. The priest shall make atonement before the LORD for the person who goes astray when he sins unintentionally, making atonement for him that he may be forgiven . The person who does anything defiantly, whether he is native or an alien, that one is blaspheming the LORD; and that person shall be cut off from among his people, because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken His commandment, that person shall be completely cut off; his guilt shall be on him.
Finally, the prophets loudly declared to the Jewish people that the contrite prayer of the penitent sinner replaces the sacrificial system. Therefore, atonement for unintentional sins today is expiated through devotional supplication to the Merciful One.
In fact, in Hosea 3:4-5, the prophet foretold with divine exactness that the nation of Israel would not have a sacrificial system during the last segment of Jewish history until the messianic age. Hosea 3:4-5 reads, . . . for the children of Israel shall abide many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or sacred pillar, without ephod or teraphim. Afterward the children of Israel shall return and seek the LORD their God and David their king. They shall fear the LORD and His goodness in the latter days.
In the words of the Bible, this period of time would last for many days. The words of Hosea were meticulously fulfilled, and we are without an animal sacrificial system today. Given the spiritual magnitude of this remarkable prophecy, Hosea was compelled to reveal how the ecclesiastical Temple functions were to be replaced. In essence, if the prophet is testifying that the nation of Israel will indeed be without a sacrificial system during their long exile until the messianic age, what are we to use instead? How are the Jewish people to atone for unintentional sin without a blood sacrifice during their bitter exile? What about all the animal sacrifices prescribed in the Book of Leviticus? Can the Jewish people get along without animal offerings?
For this reason, the statement in Hosea 14:2-3 is crucial. In these two verses, Hosea reveals to his beloved nation how they are to replace the sacrificial system during their protracted exile. The prophet declares that the Almighty wants us to “render for bulls the offering of our lips.” Prayer is to replace the sacrificial system. Hosea 14:2-3 states, Take words with you, and return to the LORD. Say to Him, “Take away all iniquity; receive us graciously, for we will render for bulls the offering of our lips.”
Rather, it is the prayers of the sinner that would become as bulls of the sin offerings.
King Solomon echoes this sentiment as well. In I Kings 8:46-50, King Solomon delivers a startling prophetic message as he inaugurates the first Temple that had just been completed. In his inauguration sermon, King Solomon forewarns that one day the Jewish people would be driven out of the land of Israel, and be banished to the land of their enemies, near and far. During their exile they would fervently desire to repent of their sins. King Solomon then declares that they would face Jerusalem from their exile, confess their sins, “and God will hear their prayers in heaven, and forgive them for all their transgressions.”
Only the contrite and repentant prayer of the remorseful sinner can bring about a complete atonement. King Solomon’s timeless remains the centerpiece of the Jewish system of atonement throughout his long and bitter exile.
Rabbi Tovia Singer HaCohen
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