Even if I accept your arguments about the centrality of blood sacrifices, it only held true while the Temple was standing. The Book of Daniel teaches us that if the Temple has been destroyed and is not functional, prayer replaces sacrifice. In fact, the Book of Ezekiel is even more explicit, telling Jews living in exile—and therefore without any access to the Temple, even if it were standing—that repentance and good works are all God requires.
You are obviously referring to Ezekiel 18 and 33, where we learn that a wicked man who repents is accepted by God—with no mention of sacrifices—along with Daniel 6:10, where it tells us that Daniel, living in exile, prayed toward the Temple (i.e., facing Jerusalem) three times a day. But the idea that prayer replaces sacrifice is simply not taught in the passages you refer to, nor is it in harmony with other important passages from the Hebrew Scriptures. I also find it interesting that the exiles couldn’t wait to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple and offer sacrifices again.
They knew how important this was. Further, it is significant that to this day many Orthodox Jews kill a rooster or chicken on the Day of Atonement and offer it as an atoning, substitutionary sacrifice on their behalf. Despite the Rabbinic teaching that prayer has replaced sacrifice, they still feel the need to offer a blood sacrifice on Yom Kippur.
Let’s look first at Daniel 6, in which we read that the prophet Daniel, living in exile and faced with a decree from the king not to pray to anyone other than the king himself, continued steadfast, “praying and asking God for help” (Dan. 6:11): “Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before” (Dan. 6:10). From this text, some traditional Jews argue that Daniel understood that prayer replaced sacrifice, pointing out that he prayed toward Jerusalem (and therefore, toward the site of the Temple) and that he did this three times daily, in place of the daily Temple sacrifices. But are these claims supported by the text? No.
Daniel 6:10 is telling us one thing and one thing alone: Daniel prayed to God three times a day facing Jerusalem. That’s it. It is not teaching some new doctrine (namely, that prayer replaced sacrifices), nor is it establishing a lasting custom for the generations to come (namely, that all Jews should pray three times daily).243 I could just as well argue that Daniel was praying for the Messiah to come (since he knew that the Messiah would come to Jerusalem), and the fact that he prayed three times a day proved that he believed in the Trinity! The verse doesn’t teach this anymore than it teaches that prayer replaces sacrifices when the Temple is not standing. Rather, Daniel 6:10 simply describes Daniel’s daily prayer habit, nothing more and nothing less. And it was quite natural for him to face Jerusalem in prayer.244 Jerusalem represented the earthly center of God’s kingdom, the place where kings from David’s line sat enthroned, the site of the holy Temple. Plus, judging from some of the recorded prayers of Daniel, he had Jerusalem on his mind. As the learned Old Testament scholar Gleason Archer asked, “To what other direction should Daniel turn than to the Holy City, the place of his heart’s desire, the focal point of his hopes and prayers for the progress of the kingdom of God?”245
According to Daniel 9:1–2, the prophet was intensely interested in the restoration of Jerusalem: “In the first year of Darius son of Xerxes (a Mede by descent), who was made ruler over the Babylonian kingdom—in the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, understood from the Scriptures, according to the word of the Lord given to Jeremiah the prophet, that the desolation of Jerusalem would last seventy years.” Therefore, he sought God in prayer and fasting:
So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes. I prayed to the Lord my God and confessed: “O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with all who love him and obey his commands, we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes and our fathers, and to all the people of the land.”
With great passion and pain, Daniel confessed to the Lord that his judgments were right, acknowledging that the exile and the destruction of Jerusalem (see especially 5:12) were deserved, pleading with God for restoration:
Now, O Lord our God, who brought your people out of Egypt with a mighty hand and who made for yourself a name that endures to this day, we have sinned, we have done wrong. O Lord, in keeping with all your righteous acts, turn away your anger and your wrath from Jerusalem, your city, your holy hill. Our sins and the iniquities of our fathers have made Jerusalem and your people an object of scorn to all those around us. Now, our God, hear the prayers and petitions of your servant. For your sake, O Lord, look with favor on your desolate sanctuary. Give ear, O God, and hear; open your eyes and see the desolation of the city that bears your Name. We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy. O Lord, listen! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, hear and act! For your sake, O my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name.
It is important to notice two things in Daniel’s prayer. First, his central focus was Jerusalem. Just look at how he appeals to God on behalf of this city, calling it your city, your holy hill, the city that bears your name, the place of your desolate sanctuary. Second, he recognized fully that the Temple was destroyed because of Israel’s sins, therefore, “we and our kings, our princes and our fathers are covered with shame because we have sinned against you” (Dan. 9:8):
All Israel has transgressed your law and turned away, refusing to obey you. Therefore the curses and sworn judgments written in the Law of Moses, the servant of God, have been poured out on us, because we have sinned against you. You have fulfilled the words spoken against us and against our rulers by bringing upon us great disaster. Under the whole heaven nothing has ever been done like what has been done to Jerusalem. Just as it is written in the Law of Moses, all this disaster has come upon us, yet we have not sought the favor of the Lord our God by turning from our sins and giving attention to your truth. The Lord did not hesitate to bring the disaster upon us, for the Lord our God is righteous in everything he does; yet we have not obeyed him.
These passages are indisputably clear: Jerusalem’s destruction was an act of divine judgment, “just as it is written in the Law of Moses,” and just as the Lord promised Solomon:
If you turn away and forsake the decrees and commands I have given you and go off to serve other gods and worship them, then I will uproot Israel from my land, which I have given them, and will reject this temple I have consecrated for my Name. I will make it a byword and an object of ridicule among all peoples. And though this temple is now so imposing, all who pass by will be appalled and say, “Why has the Lord done such a thing to this land and to this temple?” People will answer, “Because they have forsaken the Lord, the God of their fathers, who brought them out of Egypt, and have embraced other gods, worshiping and serving them—that is why he brought all this disaster on them.”
2 Chronicles 7:19–22246
These verses declare in no uncertain terms how terrible a judgment the destruction of the Temple would be and how greatly that destruction would convey the depth of the Lord’s displeasure with his people. Daniel felt that deeply, and he was stung and embarrassed by his people’s rebellion and sin. The Temple had been sacked, the holy city demolished! God was angry with his people, cutting them off from the very place of sacrifice and atonement and exiling them from their city and their land. How shameful this was for the people of the Lord. He did exactly what he told Solomon he would do if Israel’s sins became intolerable, rejecting the very Temple—his own Temple—that was built for his fame and renown.
With this in mind, and remembering that Daniel 9 records one of Daniel’s own prayers, we see that Daniel 6:10 does not teach that prayer replaces sacrifice when the Temple is not standing. On the contrary, for Daniel the destruction of the Temple meant that as a nation we were under divine judgment, devoid of a place for sacrifices and worship, devoid of a system of atonement. At best, he could hope for mercy from God as an individual, while on a national scale only the restoration of his people to the land coupled with the rebuilding of the Temple would be a sign of divine favor.247
This is underscored by Jeremiah 29, a divinely inspired letter written by Jeremiah, who was living in Judah, to the exiles living in Babylon:
This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”
God was saying to his people, “After you have paid for your sins in exile, I will have mercy on you and bring you back to this land. Then I will show you my favor.”
How shocked Daniel would have been if a fellow Jew came up to him in exile and said, “Don’t worry about a thing, Daniel. Your prayers take the place of sacrifices. Who needs a Temple anyway? Prayer is much more spiritual.” What a contradiction of everything Daniel expressed in prayer and confession as recorded in the Scriptures. And what a contradiction of the actions of the exiles upon their return to Jerusalem. Reinstituting sacrifices was their central concern.
Of course, we know that Solomon asked the Lord to hear the prayers of his exiled people when directed toward Jerusalem. But as we saw in our careful treatment of his prayer (2 Chronicles 6; 1 Kings 8), Solomon’s petition was offered to the Lord at the dedication of the Temple, at which time the Lord said he would answer Israel’s prayers because of the Temple sacrifices (2 Chron. 7:12; see above 3.9). But if their sins became too grievous, he would destroy the Temple as a sign of his fierce judgment, exiling his people (2 Chron. 7:19–22, quoted above).248 And no Temple meant no national atonement. This was a frightful thought.
We can understand, then, why Ezra and his contemporaries had one central goal in returning to Jerusalem from exile: They wanted to rebuild the Temple and offer sacrifices. (See below.) They did not say to themselves, “We have means of atonement and forgiveness other than sacrifices and offerings. In fact, we have means of atonement and forgiveness better than sacrifices and offerings. Let’s not go back to something as antiquated and unnecessary as blood sacrifices. Let’s move forward.” Instead, they risked their own lives to rebuild the Temple and restore the place of sacrifices and offerings. Nothing was more important to them.
Even the edict of King Cyrus, who was raised up by God and allowed the Jews to return from exile, indicates how important sacrifices and offerings were in the minds of the people:
This is what Cyrus king of Persia says: “The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Anyone of his people among you—may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem. And the people of any place where survivors may now be living are to provide him with silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with freewill offerings for the temple of God in Jerusalem.”
In the first year of King Cyrus, the king issued a decree concerning the temple of God in Jerusalem: Let the temple be rebuilt as a place to present sacrifices, and let its foundations be laid. It is to be ninety feet high and ninety feet wide, with three courses of large stones and one of timbers. The costs are to be paid by the royal treasury. Also, the gold and silver articles of the house of God, which Nebuchadnezzar took from the temple in Jerusalem and brought to Babylon, are to be returned to their places in the temple in Jerusalem; they are to be deposited in the house of God.
Cyrus, as a tool in the hands of God, allowed the exiles to return for one primary purpose: to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. And note well that he fully understood the purpose of the Temple: It was a place to present sacrifices.
How did Ezra and the returning exiles respond? (Remember, these were people who lived after the events recorded in the Book of Daniel and after the prophecies of Ezekiel.) This is what these Jews went about doing:
Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and Levites—everyone whose heart God had moved—prepared to go up and build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem. All their neighbors assisted them with articles of silver and gold, with goods and livestock, and with valuable gifts, in addition to all the freewill offerings.… When they arrived at the house of the Lord in Jerusalem, some of the heads of the families gave freewill offerings toward the rebuilding of the house of God on its site. According to their ability they gave to the treasury for this work 61,000 drachmas of gold, 5,000 minas of silver and 100 priestly garments.
Ezra 1:5–6; 2:68–69
They were so eager to offer sacrifices again that they built the altar before the Temple foundations were laid and began to sacrifice to the Lord. They couldn’t wait to do it.
When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, the people assembled as one man in Jerusalem. Then Jeshua son of Jozadak and his fellow priests and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and his associates began to build the altar of the God of Israel to sacrifice burnt offerings on it, in accordance with what is written in the Law of Moses the man of God. [Notice that the text does not say: They decided not to rebuild the altar for sacrifices, based on the fact that the prophets repudiated sacrifices. No. They knew that the prophets were in harmony with the Torah, fully affirming its commandments.] Despite their fear of the peoples around them, they built the altar on its foundation and sacrificed burnt offerings on it to the Lord, both the morning and evening sacrifices. Then in accordance with what is written, they celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles with the required number of burnt offerings prescribed for each day. After that, they presented the regular burnt offerings, the New Moon sacrifices and the sacrifices for all the appointed sacred feasts of the Lord, as well as those brought as freewill offerings to the Lord. On the first day of the seventh month they began to offer burnt offerings to the Lord, though the foundation of the Lord’s temple had not yet been laid.
Do you see how important it was for them to offer sacrifices to the Lord? Do you see how they longed to be back in Jerusalem, bringing the required daily and festival offerings? To reiterate: They were so eager to do so that the first thing they did was rebuild the altar. Much of the Book of Ezra is devoted to the courageous struggle of these former exiles to rebuild the Temple on its site.
Obviously, these Jews did not have the slightest notion that prayer had replaced sacrifice. Therefore, it is not surprising at all that Rabbinic leaders were distraught when that Second Temple was destroyed about six hundred years later, wondering what they would do for atonement. It took other Rabbinic leaders to inform them that prayer replaced sacrifices (see Avot d’Rabbi Nathan, Version I, iv, 11a, cited above, 3.10, and y. Ta’anit 2:1, 65b, cited above, 3.9). They had never heard of such a thing before!
In fact, six hundred years after the time of Daniel, we know that the Jewish leadership hardly thought that sacrifices were unimportant or that prayer could simply be substituted for sacrifices. In fact, a historical testimony noted in the article on “Sacrifices” in the Encyclopedia Judaica provides eloquent testimony to just how central the sacrificial system was to our people:
The importance which the Jews attached to sacrifice is evidenced by the fact that they continued to offer the daily tamid sacrifice throughout almost the entire period of the siege of Jerusalem [at the end of the war against Rome in 66–70 C.E.]. Despite the hardship and privations of this period and the famine which raged, the Temple service continued until the walls of the city were breached by the Romans on the 17th of Tammuz. The tamid sacrifice then had to be discontinued due to the lack of lambs and qualified priests within the Temple precincts (Ta’an. 4:6; Jos., Wars, 6:94). Three weeks later on the Ninth of Av the Temple was destroyed by the Romans and the sacrificial system came to an end.249
What a poignant and powerful proof that sacrifices, rather than being downplayed and devalued by the Jewish leadership, were highly esteemed and prized.
As to the claim that Daniel prayed three times a day to coincide with the three daily times of sacrifice, there is one major problem: There were only two daily times of sacrifice (see Num. 28:1–8; Ezra 3:4; for references to “the evening sacrifice,” see 1 Kings 18:29; Ezra 9:3–5; Ps. 141:2; Dan. 9:21). The correspondence doesn’t work because the correspondence isn’t there.
Then why did Daniel pray three times daily? I’ll answer this question with a question: Why not? We often make reference to doing something “morning, noon, and night,” and it is really quite natural to divide the day into three parts. On the other hand, the psalmist spoke of praising God seven times a day (Ps. 119:164), yet we would never think of making a doctrine out of this practice. He also said, “At midnight I rise to give you thanks for your righteous laws” (Ps. 119:62). What sacrifice did this correspond to? What Temple ritual was this replacing? The answer, of course, is self-evident. None at all. In the same way, it is quite a leap of logic—not to mention a theological impossibility based on Daniel’s prayer in chapter 9—to claim that Daniel’s thrice-daily prayer took the place of the twice-daily Temple sacrifices.
I should also remind you that the last of the Eighteen Benedictions (Shemoneh Esreh), recited daily by traditional Jews, is a prayer for the rebuilding of the Temple. I quoted this earlier (above, 3.9), but it’s worth quoting again: “Be favorable, O Lord our God, toward Your people Israel and toward their prayer, and restore the service to the Holy of Holies of Your Temple. The fire-offerings of Israel and their prayer accept with love and favor, and may the service of Your people Israel be favorable to You.”
Interestingly, the commentary of Etz Yoseph explains the petition for the restoration of the Temple service as follows; “As we conclude Shemoneh Esrei, which is our substitute for the Temple’s sacrificial service, we ask that the true service be restored to the Temple.”250 Even here, in a traditional commentary to the Prayerbook, a commentary accepting the Rabbinic teaching that prayer replaces sacrifice when the Temple is not standing, it is recognized that prayer is not a fully adequate substitute for sacrifices.251 We can safely say, then, based on God’s word to Solomon in 2 Chronicles 7:19–22, based on Daniel’s prayer to God in Daniel 9, and based on the actions of Ezra and his colleagues upon their return to Jerusalem, that there is no support for the view that prayer replaced sacrifice during the exile when the Temple was not standing. Even the petition we just cited from the Shemoneh Esrei hints at this.
What about Ezekiel 18 and 33? Those texts seem clear: If a wicked man repents of his sin, God will pronounce him righteous; he will not die for his sins, and his wicked deeds will be forgotten. On the other hand, if a righteous man becomes wicked, all his righteous deeds will be forgotten, and he will die for his sins. The anti-missionary argument is twofold: First, it points out that according to Ezekiel, a person becomes righteous through repentance alone, and there is no mention at all of sacrifices and offerings in either chapter. Second, it claims that these chapters were spoken by the prophet to the Jewish people in exile, and therefore, with no access to the Temple. Thus, according to this argument, the Hebrew Bible made provision for Jews living at any time and in any place who were unable to offer sacrifices for themselves at the Temple.
There are several problems, however, with this line of reasoning. To help shed some light on this, let’s step back and put the anti-missionary argument into a proper historical perspective. You see, it’s easy from our vantage point twenty-five hundred years later simply to say, “Ezekiel said such and such, and this is how it applies to us today.” A better approach would be, “How did Ezekiel’s words apply to his contemporaries, how did his words apply to the following generations who received his prophecies as the Word of God, and how do they apply to us today as well?”
You might say, “The Word of God is the Word of God. It’s timeless, it’s true, and it’s always relevant. I don’t see where your line of reasoning is going.”
Allow me, then, to explain. Let’s say I agree with you that Ezekiel prophesied to his fellow exiles who languished in Babylon while the Temple in Jerusalem lay in ruins. (Actually, I do agree with this; it is historically accurate.) And let’s say that I also agree with you that he was telling his Jewish people how to get right with God without Temple, priesthood, and sacrifices. (I don’t agree with this.) What happened, then, after the Temple was rebuilt? Did the words of the Lord to Ezekiel become null and void? Or worse yet, did these words encourage Jews not to participate in the Day of Atonement, not to make pilgrimages to the Temple, not to bring sacrifices and offerings, not to follow the Torah? The answer, of course, is no on both accounts. Ezekiel’s prophetic messages, which became recognized as the Word of God, did not become null and void, nor did they encourage people to disregard the Torah or its system of atonement.
We can also raise another, major objection to your interpretation, similar to that raised with reference to Daniel 6:10, above. It is simply this: If Ezekiel’s contemporaries understood his message the way the anti-missionaries do, why then were they so eager to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple? In fact, we can raise a further objection: If Ezekiel was the one chosen by God to bring the revelation that repentance alone was needed when the Temple was not standing, why was he the one also chosen to receive the vision of the future Temple with a restored system of sacrifice and atonement? (For discussion of this Temple vision, see below, 3.17. We will see there that Ezekiel had every reason to expect that the Temple would be built in his lifetime.) Now do you understand my point about reading Ezekiel in its proper context, both for his day and for succeeding generations?
“Well then,” you ask, “how do you explain away his words? They are clear: God requires repentance not sacrifices.”
Actually, I find no reason to “explain away” Ezekiel’s words. I agree with what he said; I only disagree with your interpretation of what he said. You see, he was not making a statement about atonement and forgiveness without sacrifices. Rather, he was responding to a widespread misunderstanding that existed among his contemporaries, a misunderstanding that completely undercut individual moral responsibility. According to this view, the parents could sin and escape scot-free, while their children would suffer for the parents’ sins:
The word of the Lord came to me: “What do you people mean by quoting this proverb about the land of Israel: ‘The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel. For every living soul belongs to me, the father as well as the son—both alike belong to me. The soul who sins is the one who will die … The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him.”
Ezekiel 18:1–4, 20
All of Ezekiel 18 is devoted to this subject, explaining the issue in great detail (see also Jer. 31:29–32).252 It has nothing to do with atonement.
“But it does,” you object. “It teaches that repentance is all that God requires.”
Once again, I beg to differ. The text makes no statement about atonement. It simply identifies traits of a righteous person:
He does not eat at the mountain shrines or look to the idols of the house of Israel. He does not defile his neighbor’s wife or lie with a woman during her period. He does not oppress anyone, but returns what he took in pledge for a loan. He does not commit robbery but gives his food to the hungry and provides clothing for the naked. He does not lend at usury or take excessive interest. He withholds his hand from doing wrong and judges fairly between man and man. He follows my decrees and faithfully keeps my laws. That man is righteous; he will surely live, declares the Sovereign Lord.
Who would differ with this description? It is similar to descriptions and exhortations found in the New Testament: Followers of Jesus are called on to repent and to prove their repentance by their actions (e.g., Matt. 4:17; Luke 13:3, 5; Acts 26:20; 2 Cor. 7:10–11; see also Luke 3:7–14); they are expected to demonstrate righteous conduct in thought, word, and deed (e.g., Matt. 5:21–30; Rom. 13:13–14; Eph. 4:17–5:18; 1 John 3:3); they are commanded to turn from everything unclean and defiling, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God (e.g., 2 Cor. 6:14–7:1; 2 Peter 3:10–12). On these things we agree. The teachings of the New Testament are permeated with high and lofty ethical values, often taking the moral requirements of the Hebrew Bible to a deeper level (see vol. 3, 5.21, 5.28).
Ezekiel also identifies the traits of a wicked man: “He eats at the mountain shrines. He defiles his neighbor’s wife. He oppresses the poor and needy. He commits robbery. He does not return what he took in pledge. He looks to the idols. He does detestable things. He lends at usury and takes excessive interest” (Ezek. 18:11–13).
This too is similar to New Testament teaching on the traits of the wicked, those who by their deeds prove that they do not belong to God. Paul even spoke of people who “claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good” (Titus 1:16). The New Testament is perfectly clear on this:
Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
1 Corinthians 6:9–10
No one who lives in him [i.e., God and/or the Messiah] keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him. Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother.
1 John 3:6–10
God “will give to each person according to what he has done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism.
Now, what if I took these New Testament texts, which are just as explicit as those found in Ezekiel, and claimed they proved that faith in Jesus was not required, that all God wanted was for people to do what was right and just? I would be misrepresenting the facts by using texts to prove something they were not meant to prove.253 Remember, we saw that Ezekiel’s words could not be taken to mean that repentance was all that was required if the Temple was not standing (or not accessible), since: (1) These words would then be meaningless once the Temple was rebuilt, or else, if they retained their meaning, they would stand in direct opposition to the Torah; (2) Ezekiel’s contemporaries, men and women who heard these very words, couldn’t wait to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple; (3) Ezekiel was the prophet to whom God gave the vision of a future Temple with sacrifices for atonement, a vision in which Israel’s sins were dealt with once and for all (again, see below, 3.17).
How then do I reconcile Ezekiel’s words with my theology of sacrifice and atonement? I don’t reconcile them because they are two sides of the same coin. Just as the New Testament requires faith in God’s means of atonement and repentance from evil deeds (see, e.g., Acts 20:21, the words of Paul: “I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus”), so also the Hebrew Scriptures require faith in God’s means of atonement and repentance from evil deeds. The Torah outlines the former; Ezekiel outlines the latter. The Torah points to repentance as well, but the theme is not spelled out in most sacrifice and atonement contexts;254 Ezekiel points to a restored Temple with atoning sacrifices (Ezekiel 40–48), but the theme is not present in chapter 18. So it is not a matter of either repentance or atoning sacrifices but a matter of both repentance and atoning sacrifices.
If we wanted to press your argument, we could say that according to Ezekiel 18, Sabbath observance is not important, since the prophet doesn’t mention it in chapter 18, nor are any of the holy days—including Passover, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur—of any importance, since he doesn’t mention them in the chapter, nor is prayer of any importance, since he doesn’t mention it in the chapter. Would you accept this line of reasoning? Obviously not. Then why do you argue that the chapter teaches Jews in exile how to get right with God without sacrifices and offerings? And why, for that matter, didn’t the Lord remind Ezekiel that prayer replaced sacrifices while the Temple was not standing? It was because Ezekiel 18 had nothing to do with the subject of how to receive atonement while living in exile. In fact, some of the language used by Ezekiel—referring to the wicked who “eat at the mountain shrines” (Ezek. 18:6, 11, 15; cf. also 6:13) might best be applied to Jews living in the land of Israel.255
Further, the anti-missionary interpretation of Ezekiel 18 is unknown to the Talmudic rabbis and medieval Jewish Bible commentators. In other words, it is a recent invention devised with the sole purpose of refuting Messianic Jewish beliefs. There is no record of any prominent rabbi in the past utilizing this text to prove that God provided an alternative method of atonement for his exiled people living without a Temple. This says a great deal, especially when you realize that (1) Traditional Judaism believes that the farther back in time we go, the closer we are to the original revelation at Mount Sinai. Therefore, later generations should not dismiss the accepted beliefs and customs of the earliest generations of sages and teachers. It is also highly unlikely that rabbis today could discover important new interpretations of Scripture that eluded past generations. (2) The “Jewish-Christian” debate has been going on for more than nineteen hundred years, and most objections to Christian interpretations of Messianic prophecies and Christian doctrine are found in the Rabbinic commentaries dating back to the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Therefore, it is all the more striking to discover that this particular argument by the anti-missionaries never occurred to the Jewish scholars of the past.
Let me offer another piece of evidence that Jews around the world have often felt the need for a blood sacrifice at the time of Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, wanting to have something die as a substitute for their sins even though the Temple was not standing. As we saw above (3:12), there has been a persistent practice, common to this day, in which Orthodox Jews perform the ceremony of kapparot on the eve of either of the holidays just mentioned.
To expand on our previous description of this ceremony, let me quote the Encyclopedia Judaica:
Kapparot: custom in which the sins of a person are symbolically transferred to a fowl. The custom is practiced in certain Orthodox circles on the day before the Day of Atonement (in some congregations also on the day before Rosh Ha-Shanah or on Hoshana Rabba). Psalms 107:10, 14, 17–21, and Job 33:23–24 are recited; then a cock (for a male) or a hen (for a female) is swung around the head three times while the following is pronounced: “This is my substitute, my vicarious offering, my atonement; this cock (or hen) shall meet death, but I shall find a long and pleasant life of peace.” The fowl is thought to take on any misfortune which might otherwise befall a person in punishment of his sins. After the ceremony, it is customary to donate the fowl to the poor, except for the intestines which are thrown to the birds. Some rabbis recommended that money, equivalent to the fowl’s value, be given instead.256
This ceremony becomes even more meaningful when we look at the verses recited from Job: “Yet if there is an angel on his side as a mediator, one out of a thousand, to tell a man what is right for him, to be gracious to him and say, ‘Spare him from going down to the pit; I have found a ransom for him” (Job 33:23–24; the Hebrew for ransom is kopher, discussed at length above, 3:10). It is interesting that many religious Jews feel the need for a ransom at the time of Yom Kippur. This alone explains why the ceremony of kapparot has persisted throughout the centuries, despite the sanctions of some of the leading rabbis. It could also explain why other leading rabbis heartily endorsed it.257
Sadly, traditional Judaism has gone on for more than nineteen hundred years without the Temple or God-ordained animal sacrifices, and this is often considered a proof of its strength and vitality. As Rabbi Hertz noted,
With the cessation of sacrifices, study of the Torah, Prayer and Beneficence definitely take the place of the Temple Service. It is for this reason that the disappearance of the Temple did not in any way cripple Judaism. When the Temple fell, there still remained the Synagogue—with reading and exposition of the Torah, and congregational worship without priest or sacrificial ritual.258
We have seen, however, that all these things—study of the Torah, prayer, and beneficence—as noble and important as they are, do not take the place of the Temple service. Therefore, as we have stated repeatedly, either God has left us without a means of atonement or else he has provided it once and for all through the Messiah Jesus. Let me encourage you to search the Scriptures and ask the Lord for grace and help to accept the evidence of the Word. God in his mercy has not left us alone. Instead, he has displayed his compassion for all the world to see through the sacrificial death of the Messiah for our sins.
Interestingly, many scholars believe that it was during this very time of exile in Babylon that the teaching of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant came to prominence. The concept of a righteous sufferer dying for his people’s sins was being planted in the hearts and minds of God’s people, as the Lord began to direct them to the one who would bring to fulfillment the system of Old Covenant blood sacrifices by offering up himself. By the time the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 c.e., this righteous servant of the Lord, the Messiah, had already come and done his work, and it was none other than Daniel the prophet who received a divine revelation about final atonement coming to his Jewish people during the days of the Second Temple (see Dan. 9:24–27, discussed in vol. 1, 2.1, and in more detail, in vol. 3, 4.18–4.21). Daniel and his fellow exiles could only look ahead with hopeful and longing hearts for the fulfillment of that vision. Today, the Jewish people can look back to the one who paid the ransom for our souls.
In a very real sense, then, you could say that every single sin God has ever forgiven, he has forgiven because of his Son, the righteous Messiah, who paid our debt in full, dying in our place and thereby bringing atonement, in keeping with the Rabbinic concept that “the death of the righteous atones” (see below, 3.15). The Temple sacrifices had a certain role to play and a certain effectiveness in bringing ritual purification and temporary atonement to God’s people, but they could not utterly cleanse the conscience or transform the inner being, procuring eternal forgiveness of sins. This had to await the death of the Messiah, and if the Jewish people had any hope of obtaining mercy from God during times of exile and divine judgment, it would still be through the Messiah’s grace.
And so, before the Messiah’s coming, as our people turned to God in contrition, putting their hope in his promise of redemption, he would forgive them based on their repentance and faith. This is what Paul meant when he stated that God announced the gospel in advance to Abraham:
Consider Abraham: “He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
The promise of universal blessing coming through Abraham’s descendants was the promise of the gospel in “seed” form. Abraham believed the promise, and God pronounced him righteous because of that (Gen. 15:6; see above, 3.7). Thus, in every generation, as God’s people embraced his promise and put their trust in that divine pledge, they could be pronounced righteous by faith, until the promise was realized in the Messiah. Now, we look back to the Messiah and put our trust in his work on our behalf, believing God’s promise once again. The Temple sacrifices, so central to Israelite religious life, served to instill in our minds—day and night, as it were—the importance of blood atonement and the need for an innocent substitute to die in our place. Therefore, we can see that God has always had one system of atonement and one system alone, namely, substitutionary atonement, life-for-life atonement, blood atonement. Blood sacrifices were always foundational for our people, and they always pointed toward that day when the ideal Substitute would come and lay down his life for us.
243 As to the argument that Daniel 6:10 proves Daniel was following the oral tradition that prayer should be offered to God three times daily, see vol. 3, 6.6.
244 I could also point out that the text itself doesn’t state explicitly that Daniel faced Jerusalem in prayer. It only states that the windows of his upstairs room where he prayed opened toward Jerusalem. What if he, like Hezekiah of old (see 2 Kings 20:2), faced the wall when he prayed? Then he would have been looking away from Jerusalem, not toward it. Of course, I have no problem with the concept of Daniel facing Jerusalem when he prayed, and I believe the text intimates that idea. However, there is no indisputable proof of this from the text.
245 Gleason L. Archer Jr., “Daniel,” EBC, 7:80.
246 Although I cited these verses above, 3.9, they are so important to our discussion here they could not be omitted. I would appeal to every traditional Jew reading this book to carefully consider the implications of this biblical text.
247 This, by the way, answers the question of how the Jewish people secured atonement during the Babylonian exile. The answer is painful but clear: They had no assurance of atonement on a national level. They felt the weight of their sins, they recognized that they were under divine judgment as a people, and they could only hope for mercy on an individual level (or put their trust in God’s promises of coming redemption, as Abraham did, being pronounced righteous by faith; cf. below, end of 3.13). While the Torah does speak of the people of Israel paying for their sins in exile (see Lev. 26:40–43; cf. also Isa. 40:1–2), it simply means receiving the due punishment for their deeds (like doing time in prison for a crime) rather than earning forgiveness. Rather, as Leviticus 26 makes plain, once they have paid for their sins and have repented and turned back to God, he would show mercy by bringing his people back to their homeland. Interestingly, biblical concepts such as these led to the Rabbinic belief that “exile atones for sins.” For discussion of this, see 3.15 (on the biblical basis for the Rabbinic teaching that the death of the righteous atones). In anticipation of our discussion there, let me simply quote part of a midrash that states that in the absence of Temple or Tabernacle, God said to Moses, “I will then take one of their righteous men and keep him as a pledge on their behalf so I may pardon all their sins.” And what text is given in support of this? It is Lamentations 2:4b, “he has slain all who were pleasing to the eye,” referring to God’s judgment on Jerusalem when the First Temple was destroyed. So the midrash is stating that during the time of the Babylonian exile, God would take a righteous man as a pledge (meaning, he would slay the righteous), and through that righteous man’s death, atonement would be procured for the nation. How closely this approximates the New Testament view of the atoning power of the death of the Messiah! See again below, 3.15.
248 It is obvious that Solomon was not countenancing the entire population going into exile in his prayer but rather a portion of the people. In his mind, the Temple would still be standing, hence his request that prayers offered toward the Temple—not towards the ruins of the Temple—would be received by God. See 1 Kings 8:46–50.
249 “Sacrifices,” EJ (CD ROM), 14:599–615. For further discussion of this period, see Mendels, Jewish Nationalism.
250 Cited in Scherman, ArtScroll Siddur, 110, their emphasis.
251 The note in Scherman, ArtScroll Siddur, 110, to the phrase, “The fire-offerings of Israel” is also of interest: “Since the Temple is not standing this phrase is taken in an allegorical sense. It refers to: the souls and the deeds of the righteous, which are as pleasing as sacrifices; Jewish prayers that are like offerings; or the altar fires and sacrifices of Messianic times. Some repunctuate the blessing to read:… and restore the service … and the fire-offerings of Israel. Their prayer accept with love …”
252 According to some biblical interpreters, Lamentations 5:7 seems to teach the opposite of this: “Our fathers sinned and are no more, and we bear their punishment.” I addressed this issue as follows in my article, “Lamentations: Theology of,” in NIDOTTE, 4:884–893: “Did not the prophets declare that the saying, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge,’ would no longer be spoken in Israel (Jer 31:29–32; Ezek 18:2–4)? And did not Deut 24:16 state that sons would not be put to death for the sins of their fathers? Actually, the latter verse, as explicated elsewhere in the OT (cf. 2 Kgs 14:6; 2 Chron 25:4) simply refers to judicial punishment alone. Moreover, the principle of Exod 20:5ff. was never revoked, viz., that the Lord visits the sins of one sinning generation upon the next sinning generation (cf. Lam 5:7 with 5:16b). However, the ‘sour grapes’ oracles, coming as they do in the books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, spell the beginning of the end of a cycle (cf. Lam 4:22a, and see also Isa 40:2). Previous generations (in particular, that of Manasseh; cf. 2 Kgs 24:1–4) sinned grievously, leaving a legacy of judgment-to-come hanging over the heads of their descendants. The sour grapes pronouncement, delivered in Jeremiah in the context of restoration promises (throughout chapter 31, and immediately before the new covenant section in 31:31–34), states that in these days of prophesied national renewal and blessing, no legacy of judgment would be left for the future. Rather, there would be immediate retribution for sin. This was to be considered a blessing! Cf. also Ezek 18:2ff., where a slightly different perspective is clarified, viz., that righteous children would not be punished for the sins of their unrighteous fathers; cf. further C. F. Keil” (890–91).
253 With regard to the verses cited in Romans, they are in the midst of a lengthy argument by Paul in which he demonstrates that we are justified by faith (see Rom. 1:16–17; 3:19–31). How wrong it would be, then, to prove from the verses cited that Paul believed we were justified by our works alone.
254 For scholarly arguments pointing to the necessity of repentance in conjunction with sacrifices—something I affirm—sec the references cited above, n. 224, along with Leviticus 5:1–5; 16:21; Numbers 5:6–7.
255 For an unusual interpretation of Ezekiel that attempts to place the prophet’s entire ministry in Judah, see William H. Brownlee, Ezekiel 1–19, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco: Word, 1986), especially 23–25.
256 “Kapparot,” EJ (CD ROM), 10:756–57.
257 As to the controversial history of the custom, the EJ article notes: “This custom is nowhere mentioned in the Talmud. It appears first in the writings of the geonim of the 9th century, who explain that a cock is used in the rite because the word gever means both ‘man’ and ‘cock’; the latter can, therefore, substitute for the former. In Babylonia, other animals were used, especially the ram since Abraham offered a ram in lieu of his son Isaac (see: Akedah and Gen. 22:13), or plants, e.g., beans, peas, (cf. Rashi, Shab. 81b). After the destruction of the Temple, no animals used in sacrificial rites could serve similar purposes outside the Temple (Magen Abraham to Sh. Ar., OH 605) and therefore cocks or hens were employed in the kapparot rite because they were not used in the Temple sacrificial cult. R. Solomon b. Abraham Adret strongly opposed kapparot because it was similar to the biblical atonement rites (see Azazel; cf. Lev. 16:5–22); he also considered the kapparah ritual to be a heathen superstition (‘Darkhei Emori,’ responsa ed. Lemberg  pt. 1 no. 395). This opinion was shared by Nahmanides and Joseph Caro who called the kapparot ‘a stupid custom’ (OH 605). The kabbalists (Isaac Luria, Isaiah Horowitz), however, invested the custom with mystical interpretations. These appealed strongly to the masses, and it became very popular when the rabbis acquiesced to it. Isserles made it a compulsory rite and enjoined for it many ceremonials similar to those of the sacrificial cult; e.g., the laying of the hands upon the animal, its immediate slaughter after the ceremony, prayers of confession, etc.”
258 Hertz, Pentateuch and Haftorahs, 562. Interestingly, it was the gospel teaching concerning God’s people being a spiritual Temple that helped Messianic Jews not to lose a beat when the Second Temple was destroyed. On the spiritual imagery, see Mendels, Jewish Nationalism, especially 312.