Atonement Part 1 – The Altars and Tabernacle

I have spent many, many years in church. Throughout that time, I listened to what preachers and teachers told me and accepted all of it as truth. Then I was blessed with children of my own and began to question everything for their sake. Their little lives were in my hands, and I am responsible for what I teach them, from how to care for themselves, to how to be good citizens, to who God is and how to have a relationship with Him. As I began questioning I found that I really didn’t know anything at all. All that I said I knew was just a regurgitation of the things I had heard others say. What if they were wrong? What if they didn’t know what they were talking about?

This journey started for me about 20 years ago. I am still learning, and I am still coming to new understandings about the things I thought I believed. One of the things I have found to be true through this journey is that if you cannot explain a thing; chances are you do not understand that thing.

Another thing I have found to be true through my 20 year journey is that in order to understand a New Testament concept, you must begin in the Old Testament. The Old Testament is where everything is explained. Those who wrote the New Testament were teaching from the understanding given to them through the Old Testament (The Torah, Prophets, and Writings).

Most recently, in my continued walk through the Bible, I ran across the idea of atonement. In an attempt to understand what Yeshua (Jesus) did, what his role is, and how he fulfilled it, one of the things I need to understand is atonement. What is it? How is it achieved? Am I able to explain it?

When I started this study, all I knew was that I had heard preachers say that Yeshua achieved atonement for us, and that he sacrificed himself for us. I had also heard that Yeshua died for our sins. Therefore, my conclusion – without ever studying it out myself – was that atonement equals forgiveness, and it can only be obtained through sacrifice. However, this study is not about making conclusions about what Yeshua did. It is simply a study on atonement. What is it? How is it achieved? What is its purpose?

The understanding of atonement is key to understanding the entire Bible. It is key to understanding the plan of YHVH. It is key to understanding the Messiah. Atonement is weaved in the customs of ancient middle eastern culture – both Godly and pagan – and it is weaved into the sacrificial system. For all these reasons, this is a multiple part study.

Exodus

The very first time we see the word atonement in scripture is in Exodus 29. The interesting thing here is that atonement is not made for any human, but for the altar of the tabernacle.

“Thus you shall do to Aaron and to his sons, according to all that I have commanded you. Through seven days shall you ordain them, and every day you shall offer a bull as a sin offering for atonement. Also you shall purify the altar, when you make atonement for it, and shall anoint it to consecrate it. Seven days you shall make atonement for the altar and consecrate it, and the altar shall be most holy. Whatever touches the altar shall become holy. Exodus 29:35-37

And again in Exodus 30:

“You shall make an altar on which to burn incense; you shall make it of acacia wood…Aaron shall make atonement on its horns once a year. With the blood of the sin offering of atonement he shall make atonement for it once in the year throughout your generations. It is most holy to YHVH.” Exodus 30:1, 10

But I thought atonement equals forgiveness?! What did the altar of burnt offering and the incense altar do to require forgiveness? Immediately, I found that I had been wrong.

“Aaron shall present the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. He shall kill the bull as a sin offering for himself…And he shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the mercy seat on the east side, and in front of the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times…“Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses. Leviticus 16:11,14-16

Looking at these scriptures, it seems that the condition of the altars has something to do with the condition of the children of Israel. It appears that an unclean people equals altars that need atonement.

A Look into Ancient Near Eastern Culture

At this point we need a little insight into the culture of the ancient near east. Why is it important to understand this culture? The following phrase is something I have heard from a couple of people, and it rings true. „The Bible was not written to us, but it was written for us.“ Take a minute to think about that. When these things happened – when the instructions for temple services and law were given – who was present? The people who heard these things were all members of the ancient near eastern culture. It was the ancient near eastern culture that they knew and understood. They did not understand the things we do today. They did not see things from the same perspective that we do. These people belonged to a very agricultural society – no cars, no computers, no televisions… Therefore, YHVH explained things to them in ways that they understood. When these things were recorded, they were recorded by people who also lived in that culture. Their understanding is what has been passed down to us. In order to fully understand these things ourselves, we must do our best to understand their culture.

Ancient near eastern culture was steeped in honor and shame. This concept had everything to do with a person’s or family’s reputation. How rich are they? How powerful are they? Have they done brave things? These are some of the things that determined the amount of honor or shame each person/family had. Believe it or not, the amount of honor you had affected the amount of money you had, it affected how much power you had, and it affected the amount of respect you were shown. It decided the the comfort you and your family would have in this world. A person, like King David, who fought an enemy and saved a nation would be very honorable. He would be rewarded with money, power, and respect. This would affect his entire family. On the other hand, the perons who lost a battle would have money and power stripped from them. They were shamed, looked down upon and most likely treated badly, as was their entire family. In the ancient near eastern culture, honor was the most important currency.

Many cultures today still live in honor and shame cultures. We can see this in the honor killings that happen when husbands and families in the middle east feel they have been dishonored by another family member. We see it in movies – especially those depicting the honor of death in battle. We also see it in the cultures that treat their parents with utmost respect.

When we look in the Bible, we can see that honor is also important to YHVH. He expects to be treated with honor, respect, and in a way that spreads His great reputation as being a God and King deserving of love and obedience. One way that honor was shown to YHVH was through the treatment and services of His dwelling place.

The Tabernacle Connection

It is easy to see that there is a connection between YHVH and the tabernacle. It is His dwelling place afterall. A house is a type of representation of the person living in it. When you visit other people’s homes, you learn a lot about them by the way they „keep“ their house. The same is true with the dwelling place of YHVH. Just as there is only so much „uncleanness“ that we will allow in our homes, YHVH only allows so much uncleanness in His. This is why the condition of the altars – things that are part of YHVH’s dwelling place – is so important.

Not only does the tabernacle have a connection with YHVH, but it also has a connection with the children of Israel. In order to understand this second connection, we need to first understand the marriage covenant that took place in Exodus 24.

And Moses wrote down all the words of YHVH. He rose early in the morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. And he sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to YHVH. And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, “All that YHVH has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that YHVH has made with you in accordance with all these words.” Exodus 24:4-8

Blood is mentioned many times in the Bible. It is used when describing sacrifices, death, life, and covenants. In this case, the covenant that was made between YHVH and the children of Israel was made complete with blood. Why blood? In ancient near eastern culture, in terms of a covenant, blood is the thing that ties and binds two things or people together.

Growing up, I remember watching children declaring themselves “blood brothers.” When they did this, each child would cut themselves and rub his blood into the wound of the other. Today, in Africa, men will also exchange blood to form a bond. They believe that this blood exchange is what actually binds them together in covenant. As we look at the marriage covenant in Exodus 24, we can see the same thing happening. The blood of animals is used to bind the children of Israel not only to YHVH, but also to the tabernacle.

And he sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to YHVH. And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, “All that YHVH has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that YHVH has made with you in accordance with all these words.” Exodus 24:5-8

First the blood was put on the furniture of the tabernacle – the basins and the altar – then it was thrown on the people of Israel. This tied the tabernacle to the people. It is because of this binding of blood that the condition of the people is now reflected onto the tabernacle. If the people sinned or were unclean, the condition of the altars and tabernacle were altered.

“Aaron shall present the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. He shall kill the bull as a sin offering for himself…And he shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the mercy seat on the east side, and in front of the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times.

“Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses. Leviticus 16:11,14-16

Can you see how the tabernacle is the link between YHVH and man? Because YHVH’s presence dwells there, it is a type of representation of YHVH as His dwelling place, and because of the binding of blood, the things the people of Israel did was reflected onto the tabernacle. The actions of the people brought the tabernacle, and ultimately YHVH, honor or shame. YHVH is happy to dwell in a place that honors Him, but when He is shamed…

Altar Atonement

Consider this analogy. Imagine that you are visiting somebody’s home, and you track mud onto their brand new carpet. In doing this, you have left a shameful mark in that person’s house. What would be the appropriate response to this problem? Wouldn’t you want to do your best to clean that stain up? You are a guest in that person’s home. You are only there because you were invited. Shouldn’t you treat them and their home with respect? The same was true with the dwelling place of YHVH. The people that are allowed into His presence are only there by invitation, yet due to their sins and uncleannesses, they were constantly staining His altars.

The prophet Jeremiah understood this concept very well. (Did you know he was a priest?) He alluded to the affects of sin on the tabernacle in chapter 17 of his book.

The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron; with a point of diamond it is engraved on the tablet of their heart, and on the horns of their altars, while their children remember their altars and their Asherim, beside every green tree and on the high hills, on the mountains in the open country. Jeremiah 17:1-3a

This section of scripture speaks of how the sins of the people (their worship of other gods) left its mark on the horns of the altars of the temple. Now imagine that you invite somebody to your house, and they leave a nasty stain on the floor. They do not clean it up. Instead they come back the next day and track mud in, rubbing it into your carpet. Each day they return leaving another stain someplace in your home refusing to clean up their mess before they leave. All of those stains would add up pretty quickly. Before very long at all – maybe even after the first stain – you would be embarrassed to have other guests in your house. A year passes with daily visits from the same guest. At this point, not only is the inside of your house in shambles, but the outside is looking terrible too. Now you don’t even want people to know that you live in this house anymore! Are you ready to move out yet? How do you think YHVH would feel in the same situation? He tells us in Ezekiel.

Then he said to me, “Son of man, lift up your eyes now toward the north.” So I lifted up my eyes toward the north, and behold, north of the altar gate, in the entrance, was this image of jealousy. And he said to me, “Son of man, do you see what they are doing, the great abominations that the house of Israel are committing here, to drive me far from my sanctuary? Ezekiel 8:5

So what must the children of Israel do to be the respectful loving guest that cleans up after themselves? Thankfully, we serve a merciful God who knew that there will be sin and times when we are unclean, accidentally leaving stains in His dwelling place. In His mercy and grace, YHVH gave a way to clean up the mess.

The Detergent

Then he brought the bull of the sin offering, and Aaron and his sons laid their hands on the head of the bull of the sin offering. And he killed it, and Moses took the blood, and with his finger put it on the horns of the altar around it and purified the altar and poured out the blood at the base of the altar and consecrated it to make atonement for it. Leviticus 8:14-15

When covenants were made, it was the blood that tied two people together. However blood was also seen as a type of purifying agent – kind of like a detergent. When sins and uncleanness left stains on the tabernacle or altars, it was the blood of sacrifices that actually washed away or purified the stains from them. The priests would take the blood from the sacrifices brought by each person, and sometimes the nation as a whole, and would clean off the stains that had been left by YHVH’s guests. In this way, His dwelling place remained clean and habitable.

And you shall take some of its blood and put it on the four horns of the altar and on the four corners of the edge and upon the rim all around. Thus you shall purify the altar and make atonement for it. Ezekiel 43:20

When the altars are stained, they are unusable. When the tabernacle is stained, it is uninhabitable. But, when the blood (detergent) was used on the altars they were purified and atonement was made. This brings us to the atonement made for altars and tabernacle.

How is atonement made and what does it mean? Once the stains have been removed from YHVH’s dwelling place and its furniture, the altars and the tabernacle are transformed from something that is no longer fit for use into something that can be used by a most holy God. They can once again be used to bring honor to YHVH. They are restored to the original purpose they were created for. This restoration of the altars and the tabernacle is how atonement was made. Atonement, as related to the altars and the tabernacle, can then be defined as taking something that has lost its purpose or usefulness and restoring it to its original purpose.

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