Even if I admit that we need blood atonement, I still won’t believe in Jesus. God wanted the blood of a goat or a lamb, not a person. He doesn’t want human sacrifice!

Even if I admit that we need blood atonement, I still won’t believe in Jesus. God wanted the blood of a goat or a lamb, not a person. He doesn’t want human sacrifice!

Even if I admit that we need blood atonement, I still won’t believe in Jesus. God wanted the blood of a goat or a lamb, not a person. He doesn’t want human sacrifice!

All of us know that God is not interested in human sacrifice. But are you aware that the Hebrew Scriptures, the Talmud, as well as the New Testament clearly teach that the death of the righteous has atoning power? When the Messiah, the totally righteous one, laid down his life, it was the ultimate act of atonement in human history.

What you are about to read could change your life. But first I want to give you a little background. In 1962, twenty-eight-year-old Don Richardson, with his wife and baby, went as a missionary to the head hunting Sawis of Irian Jaya, New Guinea. These were tribal people who, for all intents and purposes, were still living in the Stone Age. They had never seen a metal tool, let alone a flashlight. They were intrigued by this young white family who now lived in their midst, and little by little, they accepted the Richardsons.

The missionaries painstakingly learned the language and culture of the Sawi people, patiently sharing with them the good news about the one true God. But the natives were completely insensitive. In fact, when they heard about Judas betraying Jesus, they hooted with joy. Deceit was a virtue in their culture! It seemed that Don Richardson was hitting his head against a brick wall.

Then, after many months of futility, Don experienced a dramatic breakthrough. In order to resolve a conflict between two warring tribes—there was constant strife and violence between the various tribal groups—an ancient custom was followed. The leader of one tribe gave his firstborn son to the other tribe for life. The son was called a “peace child,” and the giving of this son brought reconciliation between the two warring factions. Suddenly, Richardson had his opening: “God gave his own Son as a peace child! God gave Jesus to bring about reconciliation between himself and sinful mankind.” At last the natives began to understand.

In the years that followed, thousands of these idol-worshiping, murderous people were wonderfully transformed, and Don Richardson made a discovery: In different religions and cultures throughout the world, God has strategically placed what Richardson calls “redemptive analogies”—examples of spiritual truth that point clearly to the message of the gospel.261 What Richardson may not have known was this: God has placed these “redemptive analogies” in Judaism more than any other religion or culture, and the most important of all these redemptive analogies found in Judaism is that the death of the righteous brings atonement to the world.

Here are the words of a respected Orthodox Jewish historian, Rabbi Berel Wein. How was it that the Jewish people survived the horrors of the massacres in Eastern Europe in the seventeenth century? According to Rabbi Wein:

Another consideration tinged the Jewish response to the slaughter of its people. It was an old Jewish tradition dating back to Biblical times that the death of the righteous and innocent served as an expiation for the sins of the nation or the world. The stories of Isaac and of Nadav and Avihu, the prophetic description of Israel as the long-suffering servant of the Lord, the sacrificial service in the Temple—all served to reinforce this basic concept of the death of the righteous as an atonement for the sins of other men.

Jews nurtured this classic idea of death as an atonement, and this attitude towards their own tragedies was their constant companion throughout their turbulent exile. Therefore, the wholly bleak picture of unreasoning slaughter was somewhat relieved by the fact that the innocent did not die in vain and that the betterment of Israel and humankind somehow was advanced by their “stretching their neck to be slaughtered.” What is amazing is that this abstract, sophisticated, theological thought should have become so ingrained in the psyche of the people that even the least educated and most simplistic of Jews understood the lesson and acted upon it, giving up precious life in a soaring act of belief and affirmation of the better tomorrow. This spirit of the Jews is truly reflected in the historical chronicle of the time:

“Would the Holy One, Blessed is He, dispense judgment without justice? But we may say that he whom God loves will be chastised. For since the day the Holy Temple was destroyed, the righteous are seized by death for the iniquities of the generation” (Yeven Metzulah, end of Chapter 15).262

Do you grasp the significance of what you just read? An Orthodox rabbi who most definitely does not believe in Jesus is telling us that according to the Bible and Jewish tradition the death of the righteous serves as an atonement for the sins of other men, “as an expiation for the sins of the nation or the world.” And notice carefully the words of the medieval chronicle Yeven Metzulah: It was since the destruction of the Temple that the righteous were “seized by death for the iniquities of their generation.”

The connection is clear: Since there are no more sacrifices of atonement, it is the death of the righteous that atones. In similar fashion, the Zohar, the most sacred book of Jewish mysticism, states, “As long as Israel dwelt in the Holy Land, the rituals and the sacrifices they performed [in the Temple] removed all those diseases from the world; now the Messiah removes them from the children of the world (2:212a).”263 This is not some new doctrine that the “Christian church” created. This is thoroughly Scriptural and quite Jewish. It explains the purpose and meaning of Jesus’ death.

Before we look into the Hebrew Bible, however, I want to point out that on several occasions the Talmud itself teaches that “the death of the righteous atones” (mitatan shel tsaddiqim mekapperet). In a well-known discussion (b. Moʿed Qatan 28a), the Talmud asks why the Book of Numbers records the death of Miriam immediately after the section on the red heifer (see Num. 19:1; 20:1). The answer is that just as the red heifer atones, so also the death of the righteous atones (see also Rashi to Num. 20:1).264 And why, the Talmud asks, is the death of Aaron recorded in conjunction with the Torah’s reference to the priestly garments (see Num. 20:25–28)? The answer is, just as the garments of the high priest atone (see Exodus 28, especially v. 38), so also the death of the righteous atones. (Some of the Rabbinic texts read “atones for Israel” in all the cases just cited.)

This theme is actually fairly common in Rabbinic literature. Look, for example, at Leviticus Rabbah 20:12, repeated elsewhere verbatim (e.g., y. Yoma 2:1, Pesikta deRav Kahana 26:16): “Rabbi Hiyya Bar Abba said: The sons of Aaron [i.e., Nadab and Abihu] died the first day of Nisan. Why then does the Torah mention their death in conjunction with the Day of Atonement [which occurred on the tenth of Tishrei; see Lev. 16:1]? It is to teach that just as the Day of Atonement atones, so also the death of the righteous atones.”265

What is the Scriptural support offered for this view? It is 2 Samuel 21:14: “They buried the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan in the tomb of Saul’s father Kish, at Zela in Benjamin, and did everything the king commanded. After that, God answered prayer in behalf of the land.”

Here is the background to this verse: There had been a famine in the land for three years, causing David to earnestly seek the Lord. God informed him, “It is on account of Saul and his blood-stained house; it is because he put the Gibeonites to death” (2 Sam. 21:1). So in order to appease the Gibeonites, David turned over to them seven of Saul’s descendants, whom the Gibeonites killed, leaving their bodies exposed and unburied. Two of the men were sons of Rizpah, Saul’s concubine, and she stayed with the corpses day and night, even in soaking rain. When David heard this,

he went and took the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan from the citizens of Jabesh Gilead. (They had taken them secretly from the public square at Beth Shan, where the Philistines had hung them after they struck Saul down on Gilboa.) David brought the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan from there, and the bones of those who had been killed and exposed were gathered up. They buried the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan in the tomb of Saul’s father Kish, at Zela in Benjamin, and did everything the king commanded. After that, God answered prayer in behalf of the land.

2 Samuel 21:12–14

The death of these men appeased the Gibeonites, and then God answered prayer on behalf of the land, from which the Talmud deduces that “the death of the righteous atones.” Other Rabbinic sources state that just as the sacrifices and rituals of the Day of Atonement were effective only for those who repented, so also the death of the righteous secured atonement only for those who repented.266 It seems to me that the “Christian apostles” wrote about this several hundred years earlier, pointing to the truly righteous one, the Messiah, our spotless Lamb.

An interesting passage in the Midrash reads, “Moses said to God, “Will not the time come when Israel shall have neither Tabernacle nor Temple? What will happen with them then?’ The divine reply was, ‘I will then take one of their righteous men and keep him as a pledge on their behalf so I may pardon [or atone for] all their sins’ ” (Exodus Rabbah, Terumah 35:4). We have the same theme stated once again: When there is neither Tabernacle nor Temple, the life and death of the righteous will make atonement, just as we read earlier in Yeven Metzulah. The Zohar supports this concept with a citation from Isaiah 53, the Messianic prophecy most widely quoted by Christians and Messianic Jews.

The children of the world are members of one another, and when the Holy One desires to give healing to the world, He smites one just man amongst them, and for his sake heals all the rest. Whence do we learn this? From the saying, “He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities” [Isa. 53:5], i.e., by the letting of his blood—as when a man bleeds his arm—there was healing for us—for all the members of the body. In general a just person is only smitten in order to procure healing and atonement for a whole generation.267

Talk about redemptive analogies! A Christian evangelist couldn’t have said it any better. This is the very heart of the gospel message: The Messiah—the holy and righteous servant of the Lord—was smitten for the sins of the world, and through his death we can receive atonement for our sins and healing for our souls. As stated in Midrash Assereth Memrot:

The Messiah, in order to atone for them both [for Adam and David], will make his soul a trespass offering, as it is written next to this, in the Parashah [scriptural passage]. Behold my servant [i.e., Isa. 52:1353:12]: hm [guilt offering], i.e. cabalistically [i.e., using Rabbinic Bible numerics], Menahem son of Ammiel [a title for the Messiah in the Talmud].268

The Messiah took our place. We sinned. He died. We were guilty. He was punished. We deserved death. He gave his life. We rejected him. He accepted us. What an incredible message. It’s seems far too good to be true. But it is true, and it’s biblical. It’s Jewish too.

Rabbinic scholar Solomon Schechter summarizes the Talmudic teaching that suffering and death atone for sin, with specific reference to the death of the righteous:

The atonement of suffering and death is not limited to the suffering person. The atoning effect extends to all the generation. This is especially the case with such sufferers as cannot either by reason of their righteous life or by their youth possibly have merited the afflictions which have come upon them. The death of the righteous atones just as well as certain sacrifices [with reference to b. Mo’ed Qatan 28a]. “They are caught (suffer) for the sins of the generation. If there are no righteous, the children of the schools (that is, the innocent young children) are caught for the sins of the generation” [b. Shabbat 32b]. There are also applied to Moses the Scriptural words, “And he bore the sins of many” (Isa. 5312), because of his offering himself as an atonement for Israel’s sin with the golden calf, being ready to sacrifice his very soul for Israel when he said, “And if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book (that is, from the Book of the Living), which thou hast written” (Exod. 32 32 [b. Sotah 14a; b. Berakhoth 32a]). This readiness to sacrifice oneself for Israel is characteristic of all the great men of Israel, the patriarchs and the Prophets acting in the same way, whilst also some Rabbis would, on certain occasions, exclaim, “Behold, I am the atonement of Israel” [Mekhilta 2a; m. Negaim 2:1].269

I remind you once again: This is the teaching of the Talmud not the New Testament, yet it is this very teaching that demonstrates to us just how biblical and Jewish the doctrine is.

Almost every Jew has learned about the Maccabees, those noble warriors who fought against the oppressive Greek rulers in the second century B.C.E. It is their victory that we celebrate at Hannukah. But how many of us know what the Book of Fourth Maccabees (written by a Jewish author between 100 B.C.E. and 100 C.E.) records about the significance of their deaths? It is written that they prayed, “Cause our chastisement to be an expiation for them. Make my blood their purification and take my soul as a ransom for their souls” (4 Maccabees 6:28–29). Of these righteous martyrs it is recorded: “They have become as a ransom for the sin of our nation, and by the blood of these righteous men and the propitiation of their death, Divine Providence delivered Israel” (4 Maccabees 17:22).

Where did this concept of righteous martyrdom first arise? According to Jewish tradition, it went back to the binding of Isaac. When Abraham was ready to offer his own son as a sacrifice to God, this same Book of Fourth Maccabees states: “Isaac offered himself for the sake of righteousness.… Isaac did not shrink when he saw the knife lifted against him by his father’s hand” (4 Maccabees 13:12; 16:20).

This was the understanding of the rabbis. They believed that Isaac was a grown man (actually, thirty-seven years old!) when God tested Abraham, commanding him to offer Isaac on Mount Moriah (Genesis 22). Although the biblical account emphasizes the obedience of Abraham, the rabbis also stressed the obedience of Isaac. In fact, there is a midrash that says at the time of creation, when God was about to make man, the angels asked what man’s significance was. One of his answers was this: “You shall see a father slay his son, and the son consenting to be slain, to sanctify my Name” (Tanhuma, Vayyera, sec. 18). That was the height of sacrificial service: A father offering up his own son, and the son willingly laying down his life for the glory of God. Yes, I know that sounds like the gospel. In fact, the midrash compares Isaac, who carried on his shoulder the wood for the burnt offering (himself!), to “one who carries his cross on his own shoulder.”270

And here is something truly fascinating: Although Isaac was not sacrificed, the rabbis taught that “Scripture credits Isaac with having died and his ashes having lain upon the altar” (Midrash HaGadol on Genesis 22:19). Yes, “God regards the ashes of Isaac as though they were piled upon the altar” (Sifra, 102c; b. Taʿanit 16a).

But there was a problem here. Geza Vermes, a world-renowned specialist in early Jewish traditions, from whose study on the binding of Isaac we have taken several of the previous references, explains that the rabbis needed to take this a step further because of the Rabbinic view that there was no atonement without the shedding of blood. (For more on this point, see above, 3.10.) So the rabbis needed to teach that Isaac actually shed his blood. And they did! One ancient source, compiled less than two hundred years after the death of Jesus, states, “The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses: ‘I keep faith to pay the reward of Isaac son of Abraham, who gave one fourth of his blood on the altar’ ” (Mekhilta d’Rashbi, p. 4; Tanh. Vayerra, sec. 23).271

Vermes also notes that the “blood of the Binding of Isaac” is mentioned four times in the early Jewish midrash called the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael. In Exodus 12:13, God promised the Israelites that when he passed through the land to destroy the firstborn sons of the Egyptians, he would pass over the houses of the Israelites who had applied the blood of the Passover lambs to the lintels and doorposts of their houses. The midrash interprets the verse to mean, “ ‘And when I see the blood, I will pass over you’—I see the blood of the Binding of Isaac.” God wasn’t looking at the blood of the lambs, he was looking at the blood of Isaac.

Vermes even states that

according to ancient Jewish theology, the atoning efficacy of the Tamid offering [the fixed, daily offering], of all the sacrifices in which a lamb was immolated, and perhaps, basically, of all expiatory sacrifice irrespective of the nature of the victim, depended upon the virtue of the Akedah [the binding of Isaac], the self-offering of that Lamb whom God had recognized as the perfect victim of the perfect burnt offering.272

In keeping with this, one of the Targums to the Torah puts this prayer in the mouth of Abraham: “Now I pray for mercy before You, O Lord God, that when the children of Isaac come to a time of distress You may remember on their behalf the Binding of Isaac their father, and loose and forgive them their sins and deliver them from all distress.”273 This tradition is reflected in the New Year prayer of the Talmudic Rabbi Bibi bar Abba: “So when the children of Isaac commit sin and do evil, remember on their behalf the Binding of Isaac … and full of compassion towards them, be merciful to them.”274

This same thought is also carried over in a prayer still included in the additional service for the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah), which culminates with the words, “Remember today the Binding of Isaac with mercy to his descendants.” We are forgiven through the merit of the sacrifice of Isaac! The rabbis even taught that the final resurrection of the dead would take place “through the merits of Isaac, who offered himself upon the altar” (Pesikta deRav Kahana, 32). Did you have any idea that such traditions existed among our people?

As we noted earlier, Solomon Schechter observed that “some [Talmudic] Rabbis would, on certain occasions, exclaim, ‘Behold, I am the atonement of Israel.’ ” To this day, when a leading rabbi dies, it is quite common for the mourners to say, “May his death serve as an atonement for us!” And in a moving account from the Holocaust, Rabbi Shem Klingberg, known among his followers as the Zaloshitzer Rebbe, was led out to be slaughtered by the Nazis. In a matter of moments, after saying his last prayer, he would be gunned down, but first, he stopped, lifted his eyes to heaven, and cried out in a piercing voice, “Let me be an atonement for Israel!”275 It is deeply ingrained in Jewish tradition that the death of the righteous atones.

Let me explain the logic behind this fundamental truth, followed by clear biblical support. If someone sins and as a result of that sin experiences difficulty and hardship, we commonly say they are “suffering for their sins” or “paying for their sins.” The more serious the sin, the greater the suffering. This concept is found in Leviticus 26:43 and Isaiah 40:1–2:

For the land will be deserted by them and will enjoy its sabbaths while it lies desolate without them. They will pay for their sins because they rejected my laws and abhorred my decrees.

Comfort, comfort my people,

says your God.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,

and proclaim to her

that her hard service has been completed,

that her sin has been paid for,

that she has received from the Lord’s hand

double for all her sins.

In light of such verses, it’s easy to see how the rabbis arrived at concepts such as “exile atones” (b. Berakhoth 56a; b. Sanhedrin 37b). In other words, because of serious, persistent, corporate sins, the people of Israel would go into exile, and when they had served their time, so to say, they would be regathered to the Land, much like a criminal going to jail for one year, five years, or life without parole, depending on the crime committed. Of course, it is significant that the Hebrew nowhere uses the word atone in any of these contexts, since atonement had to do with removing guilt and purifying from sin, not just “paying for it.” Still, it’s easy to understand this line of thinking, and there certainly is some truth behind it. The rabbis carried it through in great detail.

As we saw previously (above, 3.11), the rabbis taught that for some sins the simple act of repentance was sufficient to secure forgiveness. For other sins, repentance and restitution were required before forgiveness was granted by God. For another class of sins, even after repentance and restitution, forgiveness was suspended until the Day of Atonement. For yet another class of sins, even after repentance, restitution, and the Day of Atonement, forgiveness was suspended until the guilty party passed through a certain amount of suffering. Finally, for the last class of sins, even after repentance, restitution, the Day of Atonement, and sufferings, forgiveness was suspended until death. In other words, the death of the guilty party served as the final payment for his sins (see b. Yoma 85b; Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot HaTeshuvah 1:4). In fact, according to early Jewish law, before a man was stoned to death for his crimes, he was asked to make public confession, and, the Mishnah teaches, if he does not know how to confess, he is told to say, “Let my death be an atonement for all my transgressions” (m. Sanhedrin 6:2).276

Now, let’s take this one step further and go directly to the Torah. According to Numbers 25, the children of Israel had committed sin with the Moabites, worshiping their gods and sleeping with their women. The Lord’s anger burned against them, and a plague began to spread among the people. “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Take all the leaders of these people, kill them and expose them in broad daylight before the Lord, so that the Lord’s fierce anger may turn away from Israel’ ” (Num. 25:4). God would be satisfied with the death of the ringleaders. Their punishment would suffice for the nation.

Then, an Israelite man brought a Moabite woman into his tent in full view of Moses and the people. “When Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, saw this, he left the assembly, took a spear in his hand and followed the Israelite into the tent. He drove the spear through both of them—through the Israelite and into the woman’s body. Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped” (Num. 25:7–8).

The slaying of these representative sinners turned away God’s wrath from the people. Here is where the text gets interesting. In light of his actions, the Lord promised Phinehas and his descendants a lasting covenant of peace, “because he was zealous for the honor of his God and made atonement for the Israelites” (Num. 25:13). How did he “make atonement for the Israelites”? By putting to death the public, representative sinners. Their death was sufficient punishment for the rest.277

If death could serve as a payment for an individual’s specific sin, then, in the case of specific corporate sin, the death of the ringleaders could serve as a payment for the specific sins of the community as a whole. But what about the death of the righteous? What if the most righteous leader in the community offered up his own life as a ransom payment? What if he said, “Kill me, but let them go.” How much would his death be worth?

When terrorists take a hostage, they take someone of standing and prominence, and that one life serves as a bargaining chip, something we can easily understand in natural terms. How much weight does the life of the Pope carry in the eyes of the Catholic Church? How valuable would the life of a Hasidic Rebbe be to his followers? What if the lives of all the people in a large Catholic or Hasidic community were threatened, and their Pope or Rebbe offered to die in their place? Wouldn’t that one life—and death—be considered to be of far greater worth than the lives of even millions of his followers? Without doubt. It would be considered far more significant too.

In God’s sight, the lives of his righteous servants have great value, and their deaths carry weight. In fact, there is abundant material to be found in Jewish tradition regarding the “merits of the patriarchs” or the “merits of the righteous,”278 and there is no life more valuable than that of the Messiah, the perfectly righteous one, and no death more important than his. When he died, his death served as a ransom payment for the sins of the entire world. That was why he came into this world, not to be served, “but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

At this point you might ask, “But where is that taught in the Hebrew Bible?” We learned earlier (3.10) that the sacrificial system was based on the principle of life for life. An innocent victim took the place of the guilty party. Then, if we make a careful comparison of Numbers 8:12 with Numbers 8:10, 19 we see that the Levites themselves served to “make atonement” or “turn away wrath” on behalf of the Israelites. As explained by Jacob Milgrom, one of the foremost experts on the biblical system of atonement, “our text, [Num.] 8:19, would then imply that the Levites are ransom for Israel, a lightning rod to attract God’s wrath upon themselves whenever an Israelite encroached among the sancta [i.e., the holy place].”279 What a vivid expression: The Levites served as “a lightning rod to attract God’s wrath upon themselves” whenever an Israelite violated the Holy Place.

Turning to Numbers 35, we discover that the death of the high priest had atoning power. The context refers to intentional or unintentional manslaughter. In the case of willful homicide, the murderer had to be put to death, because “bloodshed pollutes the land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it” (Num. 35:33).

The only way to remove the pollution of bloodshed was by the blood of the one who first shed it. No other form of atonement was acceptable. But in the case of unintentional homicide, the manslayer would flee to a protected place called a city of refuge, where he would remain for the rest of his life (Num. 35:1–15, 22–25). There was only one thing that could secure his release from the city of refuge: the death of the high priest. “The accused must stay in his city of refuge until the death of the high priest; only after the death of the high priest may he return to his own property” (Num. 35:28).

This is critically important. Blood had been shed unintentionally. Someone was killed, the land was polluted, and the only acceptable ransom payment was the death of the one who killed. But he was not worthy of death. The homicide was accidental. So the innocent manslayer was banished to the city of refuge for life, unless the high priest, the people’s representative spiritual leader and the one who interceded for the nation, died. The high priest’s death would release him. The death of the high priest would take the place of his own.

The Talmud (m. Makkot 2:6; b. Makkot 11b; see also Leviticus Rabbah 10:6) asks the question: Isn’t it the exile of the innocent manslayer [in the city of refuge] that expiates? The answer is no. “It is not the exile that expiates, but the death of the high priest.” And Milgrom comments, “As the High Priest atones for Israel’s sins through his cultic [i.e., ritual] service in his lifetime (Exod. 28:36; Lev. 16:16, 21), so he atones for homicide through his death.”280

This theme finds its climax in the Hebrew Scriptures in the portrait of the righteous, Suffering Servant of the Lord in Isaiah 53. There we read these powerful words:

Surely he took up our infirmities

and carried our sorrows,

yet we considered him stricken by God,

smitten by him, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,

he was crushed for our iniquities;

the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,

and by his wounds we are healed.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray,

each of us has turned to his own way;

and the Lord has laid on him

the iniquity of us all.

Isaiah 53:4–6

Now you understand why so many Jews through the ages have read these verses and suddenly exclaimed, “That’s talking about Jesus! He was our righteous Messiah. He died for our sins. His death served as a ransom for our souls. Now I see it. Now I understand.”

In the closing verse of Isaiah 53, God promises, “Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (v. 12). The Messiah bore our sins! This is exactly what Peter, known as Shimon Kepha, wrote more than 150 years before the Mishnah was finalized:

When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

1 Peter 2:23–25

How odd it is that some Jewish interpreters can read these very verses from Isaiah 53 in terms of Israel’s hardships and deaths and claim that the sufferings of our people paid for the sins of the nations (an interpretation that is easily refuted; see vol. 3, 4.5–4.17), but when Messianic Jews read Isaiah 53 in terms of the atoning power of the death of the Messiah, these same interpreters say, “The text has nothing to do with paying for anybody’s sins.”

Others have objected, saying, “Nowhere in Jewish teaching does a sacrifice pay for future sins.” But what then is meant by the traditional prayer, “May the death of Rabbi X serve as an atonement for this generation”?281 Surely that included sins committed by his generation after his death. And what about the Rabbinic tradition concerning the meritorious power of the binding of Isaac, effective for all subsequent generations and even the resurrection of the dead? And what of the words of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai recorded in the Talmud in b. Sukkah 45b:

[Because of the troubles I have known], I can free the entire world from punishment from the day on which I was born to this very moment, and were my son, Eliezer with me, it would be from the day on which the world was made to this moment, and were Yotam ben Uzziah [a famous, righteous sufferer] with us, it would be from the day on which the world was made to its very end.282

The rabbi’s sentiment, to be sure, was noble, his exaggeration beyond belief.

But there is one whose perfect life and substitutionary death can free every one of us from the guilt of our sins, satisfying the wrath of God and making complete atonement for us all. The Messiah, the obedient Son, said to his Father, “Let my life be an atonement for them.” And God said, “It is enough.” “For [the Messiah] died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18).

As Saul of Tarsus, known around the world as the apostle Paul, explained:

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, [Messiah] died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, [Messiah] died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus [the Messiah], through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Romans 5:6–11

The “Christian gospel” is Jewish! The death of the righteous—the truly righteous, the Messiah, the High Priest of Israel and the nations, the Redeemer who pays for our sins—atones.

Now, stop for a moment and take stock of your own life. What if you were to write on individual pieces of paper every sin you ever committed: every lie, every selfish deed, every unclean act, every lustful thought, every angry word, every unkind attitude, every single time you chose not to obey the Lord, every time you had the opportunity to do good and didn’t do it, every time you broke one of God’s commands, large or small, by commission or omission … is there any end to the list? Soon those pieces of paper would become a mountain! And that would reflect only your own sins—in fact, it would reflect only the sins of which you were aware. What about the mountain of my sins? And what about the sins of the rest of the human race? Multiply those mountains six billion times. And that would only cover this generation! What about the countless multitudes who lived here for the thousands of years before us? Our cumulative guilt is staggering.

Who could possibly pay for these mountains and mountains of sins? The Son of God could. The Son of God did! The life and death of the Messiah was of infinite worth in His Father’s sight, and his blood makes atonement for us in full. It even seems that the Zohar, in its typical mystical terms, grasped the role of the Messiah in all this. In commenting on a passage just cited, Isaiah 53:5, the Zohar relates:

The Messiah enters [the Hall of the Sons of Illness] and summons all the diseases and all the pains and all the sufferings of Israel that they should come upon him, and all of them come upon him. And would he not thus bring ease to Israel and take their sufferings upon himself, no man could endure the sufferings Israel has to undergo because they neglected the Torah.283

Had not the Messiah taken our place, suffering on our behalf, we would have perished long ago.

Let the truth be told. God did not ultimately want the blood of bulls and lambs, nor did Isaac die for our sins, and all the righteous martyrs and godly priests could never make us truly whole. The Messiah did it, once and for all. The death of the righteous atones. Through him you can make a break with your past, receive the forgiveness of sins, and start with a brand-new slate. Through him your life can be changed. The Messiah took your place. Today can be your Day of Atonement if you fully trust in him.

261 See Don Richardson, Peace Child (Ventura, Calif.: Regal, 1974); Don Richardson, Eternity in Their Hearts (Ventura, Calif.: Regal, 1984).

262 Berel Wein, The Triumph of Survival: The Story of the Jews in the Modern Era 1650–1990 (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Shaar, 1990), 14.

263 This is the rendering of Patai, Messiah Texts, 116.

264 According to Siftey Hakhamim, commenting on Rashi’s words, just as the red heifer, which is not a real sacrifice, atones, so also the death of the righteous atones.

265 Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 3:191, cites Sifre Deuteronomy 31: “The death of the pious man is a greater misfortune to Israel than the Temple’s burning to ashes.” For further references to the atoning power of the death of the righteous, see Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, 6:75, n. 386; 6:107, n. 602.

266 Cf. Shnei Luhot HaBerit, Massekeht Taʾanit, Derash LeHesped Mitat Tsadiqim uLeHorban Beit HaMiqdash, 23; 27.

267 Cited in S. R. Driver and Adolph Neubauer, eds. and trans., The Fifty-Third Chapter of Isaiah according to the Jewish Interpreters, 2 vols. (New York: Ktav, 1969), 2:9. The Zohar states that this explains Ecclesiastics 7:15: “In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: a righteous man perishing in his righteousness, and a wicked man living long in his wickedness.” Cf. also b. Shabbat 33b, “The righteous are taken by the iniquity of the generation.”

268 Ibid., 1:394–95 (the numeric value for guilt offering is 341, which equals the numeric value of Menahem ben Ammiel); the emphasis in the original indicates Scripture citations. The midrash concludes with another citation from Isaiah 53: “And what is written after it? He shall his seed, shall have long days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.

269 Schechter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology, 310–11, my emphasis.

270 See Genesis Rabbah 56:3, cited in this context by Jon D. Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity (New Haven: Yale, 1993), 105.

271 See also the note of Buber in his edition of Tanhuma.

272 Vermes, “Redemption and Genesis 22,” 211. For some critical interaction with the work of Vermes—primarily relative to the dating of some of the relevant material, not the content—cf. Bruce Chilton, “Recent Discussion of the Akedah,” in Vermes, Targumic Approaches to the Gospels: Essays in the Mutual Definition of Judaism and Christianity (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1986), 39–49.

273 See Vermes, “Redemption and Genesis 22,” 206, cited in the Fragmentary Targum.

274 Leviticus Rabbah,2 9:9, cited in ibid., 213.

275 Avraham Yaakov Finkel, Contemporary Sages (Northvale, N.J.: Aronson, 1994), 84.

276 Cf. the following from the EJ article “Death”: “At death the soul leaves the body with a cry that reverberates from one end of the world to the other (Yoma 20b), to pass into a state of existence, the exact nature of which was a matter of considerable dispute amongst the rabbis (cf. Shab. 152b–153a; Ber. 18b–19a; Maim. Yad, Teshuvah 8:2, and the critical remark by Abraham b. David of Posquiires (Rabad); see also Afterlife, Body and Soul, World to Come). Whatever the nature of the world beyond, it was generally accepted that there the dead reap the desserts of the acts they performed while alive, that they were free from Torah and the commandments (Shab. 30b), and that death served as an atoning process (Sifre Num 112). One confession formula before death, particularly prescribed for the criminal about to be executed, is ‘May my death be an atonement for all my sins’ (Sanhedrin 6:2). The atoning value of death received greater emphasis after the destruction of the Temple, with the abolition of sacrificial atonement, so that complete forgiveness for more serious sins was dependent, despite repentance, the Day of Atonement, and suffering, on the final atoning value of death (cf. the discussion in Urbach, Hazal, 380–3).”

277 This text also gives us further insight into the usage of Hebrew kipper in terms of turning away wrath; see above, 3.10.

278 Cf., e.g., Rashi to Exod. 32:7–13; and see Urbach (Sages, 508ff.) on the red heifer and atonement for the dead; the merits of the fathers (or the righteous); and atonement for the living. As pointed out by Urbach, in Rabbinic thought it is not just the death of the righteous that atones but also the merits of the righteous and the life of the righteous that atone.

279 Milgrom, Numbers, 371, my emphasis.

280 Ibid., 29. In a fascinating discussion found in Hiddushei Aggadot 4:2, further explanation of the atoning power of the death of the high priest is given. Stating that “this matter is deep,” it notes that the manslayer goes into exile because he killed and cut off a soul from the body, and so he is cut off from his home. However, the death of the high priest atones because it is at a high (spiritual) level, a level at which the power of the manslayer is not found. For the death of the righteous (in general) is at a very high level, as the Talmud states in b. Mo’ed Qatan 28a (cited above, stating that the death of the righteous atones), and the spiritual level of the death of the high priest is such that cutting off and murdering are not found there, but only life and peace, which are the measure (or virtues) of the high priest.

281 See also m. Negaʾim 2:1 (dealing with various skin diseases): “A bright spot appears in a German as dim, and the dim in an Ethiopian as bright [white]. R. Ishmael says, ‘The children of Israel—I am their atonement!—lo, they are like boxwood’ ” (Neusner’s translation); cf. also m. Sanhedrin 2:1, where the people say to the high priest, “Let us be your atonement.”

282 This is the rendering of Neusner in his American translation; the words in the brackets reflect the universal understanding of the passage. Rashi explains Shimon bar Yohai’s statement as follows: “Through my merit, I bear all your iniquities and cancel them from the judgment.” Note also the comments of R. Hananel, another of the major Talmudic commentators. See also b. Erubin 64b–65a.

283 See Patai, Messiah Texts, 116.

Brown, M. L. (2000). Answering Jewish objections to Jesus, Volume 2: Theological objections (153). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.

Even if I admit that we need blood atonement, I still won’t believe in Jesus. God wanted the blood of a goat or a lamb, not a person. He doesn’t want human sacrifice!