Atonement Part 3 – The Purpose of the Sacrifices

In part 1 of this study, I mentioned my original ideas on atonement – what I had heard from the pulpit my entire life. From those pulpit teachings I had pieced together that atonement had something to do with forgiveness and could only be accomplished through sacrifice. But recently, I ran across a story in Exodus that made me think twice, and I just had to dig deeper.

Remember the story of Moses on Mt. Sinai? He was there for 40 days in YHVH’s presence as YHVH wrote the commandments on tablets of stone and gave Moses instructions for the temple and its services. During this time the children of Israel, YHVH’s chosen people, built a golden calf and worshiped it. He was furious to the point He was ready to divorce them right then and there and start the whole thing over with Moses as the father of his nation. Let’s read a bit of what happened next to get an idea of what made me question what atonement is really about.

The next day Moses said to the people, “You have sinned a great sin. And now I will go up to YHVH; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” So Moses returned to YHVH and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.” But YHVH said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me, I will blot out of my book. But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; behold, my angel shall go before you. Nevertheless, in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them.”

YHVH said to Moses, “Depart; go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your offspring I will give it.’ I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”

When the people heard this disastrous word, they mourned, and no one put on his ornaments. For YHVH had said to Moses, “Say to the people of Israel, ‘You are a stiff-necked people; if for a single moment I should go up among you, I would consume you. So now take off your ornaments, that I may know what to do with you.’” Therefore the people of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments, from Mount Horeb onward. Exodus 32:30-33:6

What did Moses tell the people he was going to do? “And now I will go up to YHVH; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” (Ex. 32:30)

The covenant that was made at Mount Sinai before Moses went up the first time was a marriage covenant. There is no doubt about that, but now YHVH is ready to send the nation away. ” Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.” (Ex 33:6).

Many times, when scripture speaks of a man sending a woman away it is speaking of divorce. We can see examples of this in the law in Deut 24:1-4 and in reading the story of how Abraham sent away Hagar and Ishmael. Just as the man who finds indecency in his bride, YHVH intends to send His bride away when He refuses to go with the children of Israel to the Promised Land.

The story continues. Moses is confused and maybe a little bit upset, but he maintains a respectful attitute as he comes before YHVH and tries to rectify the situation. He doesn’t want to see this people separated from YHVH. He wants YHVH to go with Israel into the Promised Land. He wants forgiveness for the nation and reconciliation for the marriage. Then, when you finally come to the end of the story, you realize that atonement must have been made. (Continue reading to the end of chapter 34.) That was the whole purpose of Moses going before YHVH, and YHVH agreed to forgive the people. He even renews His covenant with them. But where is the sacrifice?

If you recall, the first two parts of this study had a common thread. The atonement of the altars and temple and the half-shekel atonement both served as a restoration that brought everything back to its original purpose. Is it possible that this is also how atonement works for us humans? Could atonement be a restoration of sorts for us too? If so, how? How was Moses able to atone for the Israelites without a sacrifice? Are the sacrifices and forgiveness related?

We will finally define atonement for us humans in the final part of this study, but in this part we are going to focus on the sin offering sacrifice and its purpose. By understanding the purpose of the sacrifice that was offered in relation to atonement, we will be better able to understand why Moses was not required to offer one in chapters 32 and 33 of Exodus. The best place to learn about sacrifices that are related to atonement is in the study of the Day of Atonement.

Sacrificial Atonement

and YHVH said to Moses, “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat that is on the ark, so that he may not die. For I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat. But in this way Aaron shall come into the Holy Place: with a bull from the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. He shall put on the holy linen coat and shall have the linen undergarment on his body, and he shall tie the linen sash around his waist, and wear the linen turban; these are the holy garments. He shall bathe his body in water and then put them on….“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 a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before YHVH, and two handfuls of sweet incense beaten small, and he shall bring it inside the veil and put the incense on the fire before YHVH, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is over the testimony, so that he does not die. 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. Leviticus 16:2-4, 11-14

Every year, on the Day of Atonement, the priests atoned for their sins and the sins of the nation before YHVH. Just as Moses did when he appeared before YHVH to atone for the children of Israel, the priests were also required to go before the presence of YHVH. Now, one cannot simply go bouncing up to the throne (the ark), into the presence of the King, and act like He is a bro that would be ok with all the things you have done to make His name look bad. Can you imagine doing that with any king? No. There is an orderly arrangement, a procedure, that YHVH wants followed, and there are reasons behind it.

The first part of this ritual required that the priests were prepared to go into YHVH’s presence. Afterall, how can the priest clean somebody else if he is unclean himself? For this reason, before the sins of the people could be taken care of, the sins of the high priest had to be taken care of. (Mat 7:3-5) To come before the King, the priest had to purify himself by washing with water. This made him clean on the outside, but it also represented a washing away of any contaminates that he may have come into contact with that would make him common (unclean) – dead animals, dead people, somebody who had an issue of discharge, etc.

After washing himself, the priest would then put on his priestly garments. At this point, he would take the bull that was chosen from the herd and present it to YHVH as a sin offering.

Sin Offering

The Hebrew word that has been translated into “sin offering” is חַטָּאָה ḥaṭāʾâ; orחַטָאת chattaçth. This Hebrew word is actually translated as two different meanings throughout the Bible – “sin offering” and “purify.” The only difference we have in חַטָּאָה and חַטָאת is a set of vowel markings. As helpful as those vowel markings are, there is always a chance for mistranslation if we depend on the vowel markings alone. You see, Ancient Paleo Hebrew wasn’t written with vowel markings. In fact, there were no vowel markings written into the language at all until 800 AD when they were added by the Mazorites. Until that time, each word was written only as a set of consonants. So let’s go beyond the vowel markings that we have for chatta’ah and take a look at the context in which the word is used.

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 29:36-37

Look carefully at this passage. What is the purpose of the offering? A sin offering is being made, but is sin actually being forgiven? The real purpose of chatta’ah (the sin offering) is for purifying the altar. This agrees with part one of this study. Remember, the reason that the altars needed to be purified in the first place had to do with the marks left on them by the sins and impurities of the people. The reason for the sacrifice was in obtaining the blood of the animal. Without it, there could be no purification or cleansing of the altar.

Scripture teaches that this offering doesn’t cleanse us, the people, from sins, but it does clean the altars from the stains of our sins. Even though the offering that is presented here isn’t for the forgiveness of sins, it is certainly necessary for the simple fact that people sin.


Now let’s look at couple of things the sin/purification offering was used for. Leviticus 12 talks about the woman who has just given birth.

“ “And when the days of her purifying are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb a year old for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering    Leviticus 12:6

A woman who had just given birth was to bring chatta’ah. Did she commit a sin during the act of giving birth? On the contrary. Women are commanded to be fruitful and multiply, and scripture speaks of children as a reward.

Numbers 6 talks about the Nazarite who is standing next to a man when he suddenly dies.

“And if any man dies very suddenly beside him and he defiles his consecrated head, then he shall shave his head on the day of his cleansing; on the seventh day he shall shave it. On the eighth day he shall bring two turtledoves or two pigeons to the priest to the entrance of the tent of meeting, and the priest shall offer one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering, and make atonement for him, because he sinned by reason of the dead body. And he shall consecrate his head that same day     Numbers 6:9-11

Once again, chatta’ah is offered for the Nazarite, but did he sin? No. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

While these people had become unclean, there was no sin involved. This offering has nothing to do with forgiveness. So how is it that forgiveness can be found through sacrifice? It isn’t. It never was. Forgiveness is, and always has been, found through repentance.

When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.     2 Chronicles 7:13-14

Just as today, if somebody in the ancient culture of Israel was seeking forgiveness, all they had to do was simply repent – turn from their wicked way and do what is right from the heart.

The only way that a sacrifice could be related to forgiveness was in the fact that forgiveness had to be obtained before a sacrifice could be made. Consider this thought. If sin was seen as something that one needed to be cleansed or purified from, how could anybody possibly present themselves in the temple before YHVH before they had been forgiven and cleansed from their sin?

Death Substitution

There are many teachings that state that the animal sacrificed actually died in the place of a person who deserved death themselves, and this is how atonement is made. These teachings say that this served as a reminder of the death deserved. There are a couple of problems with this theory. Firstly, when you read about the sacrifices, the emphasis is never put on the animal at all. The emphasis seems to always be on the blood and the purpose for which the sacrifice was made.

“You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with anything leavened, or let the sacrifice of the Feast of the Passover remain until the morning. Exodus 34:25

But no sin offering shall be eaten from which any blood is brought into the tent of meeting to make atonement in the Holy Place; it shall be burned up with fire.  Leviticus 6:30

In fact, in the case of the Day of Atonement, the only reason the animal is killed is for its blood. Once the blood has been used, the animal is disposed of.

And the bull for the sin offering and the goat for the sin offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the Holy Place, shall be carried outside the camp. Their skin and their flesh and their dung shall be burned up with fire.   Exodus 16:27

Secondly, in all cases in which a sin deserving of death was committed, a sacrifice was never made. Offerings and sacrifices were only offered for those who did not deserve death.

But if a man willfully attacks another to kill him by cunning, you shall take him from my altar, that he may die. Exodus 21:14

But Nadab and Abihu died before YHVH when they offered unauthorized fire before YHVH in the wilderness of Sinai, and they had no children. So Eleazar and Ithamar served as priests in the lifetime of Aaron their father. Numbers 3:4

With this understanding, we can’t even say that the sacrifice of the animal reminded the one making the offering that they deserved death. If a person was deserving of death, death is what they received.

Ultimately, the only purpose of the sin offering was to purify the altars from the sins of the priests and the people. It is through this understanding that we can see that there was absolutely no need for a sacrifice in order for the children of Israel to be forgiven in the story of Exodus 32 and 33. The sin offering, which is really better undstood as the purifying offering, did not purify the people nor did it cleanse them of their sins. Its real purpose was to purify the tabernacle and the altars – both of which had not yet been built at the time of the golden calf.

Not only was it impossible to obtain forgiveness through sacrifice, forgiveness was required before a sacrifice could be made. This is proven when before there was even the ability to make a sacrifice, YHVH says that he will renew His covenant.

And he said, “Behold, I am making a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels, such as have not been created in all the earth or in any nation. And all the people among whom you are shall see the work of YHVH, for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you. Exodus 34:10

Since sacrifice is not needed for atonement, what is necessary? What does atonement mean for us as humans? That will finally be covered in the next part of this study.

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