We’ve been discussing the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement. I began this series by first giving a brief and simple picture of the Penal Substitution view, and then I explained what I think are its philosophical shortcomings. Last time, I pointed out the problems I see with this view from a biblical standpoint. Today I want to discuss the motif (or theme) of sacrifices under the old covenant. Often, proponents of the Penal Substitution view will point to the sacrifices mandated in the Mosaic Law and insist that Jesus’ atoning sacrifice must have been just as penal and just as substitutionary as these. But is that even an accurate understanding of Old Testament sacrifices? Let’s take a look (insert Mr. Rogers’ music)…

Penal Substitution in Old Covenant Sacrifices?

Sadly, I don’t have the time (or interest) in fleshing out every passage in the Torah that deals with sacrifices, nor do I possess the expertise to handle the Hebrew language to such a degree. So I’ll be pretty brief and surface-level in how I address this.

To begin with, proponents of the Penal Substitution view argue that we must understand Jesus’ atoning work as it relates to the old covenant sacrificial system set up in Mosaic Law. By saying this, it is assumed that these sacrifices were substitutionary in nature (i.e., the sacrificed animals are slaughtered in the place of the Israelites who deserved to die for their sins). I have a number of difficulties accepting this understanding. One problem I see is that animals are in no way equivalent to the life of a human … which then starts us thinking about human sacrifices as a more efficient system … which then leads us back to what we already discussed about human sacrifices and what God thinks about that. Furthermore, as if seeing cows and sheep as substitutions for humans wasn’t enough of a stretch, if a person couldn’t afford to offer an animal, they could offer food instead (Lev 5:11-13). Additionally, there were some sins, apparently those done out of defiance, for which no sacrifice could be made (Num 15:30-31).

But if we are going to be equating Jesus to the sacrificed animals in the Old Testament, why don’t we talk about the animals that most foreshadow Christ’s atoning work. Out of all of the atonement rituals, none so closely resemble Jesus as the scapegoat (Lev 16:10). According to the ritual, the high priest would lay his hands on the head of the goat, transferring the sins of the Israelites to the animal, and then release the goat into the wild. Although the goat took on the people’s sins, it wasn’t killed at all. So, whereas you might say that the scapegoat was a substitute for Israel, it certainly wasn’t in a penal (punishment) sense.

One of the most explicit associations in the Gospels of Jesus with a sacrificed animal is the proclamation of John the Baptist that Jesus is “the Lamb of God” (Jn 1:29, 36; cf. Rev 5). The phrase, “Lamb of God,” is an allusion to the Passover Lamb. However, the Passover Lamb was not a substitute for Israelites, but a means by which their liberation was attained. The idea of understanding the sacrificial system in the Old Testament as being exclusively atoning, or penal, or substitutionary, becomes all the more problematic when you consider the large variety of sacrifices that existed. Certainly there were sacrifices of atonement (Lev 1:4; 4:20-31), but there were also sacrifices of grain offered in recognition of God’s goodness and provision (Lev 2; 6:14-23), sacrifices of peace (Lev 3), sacrifices of guilt (7:1-5), and sacrifices of thanksgiving which offered cakes and wafers (7:11-12). While it is undeniable that atonement sacrifices existed under the Law, it is just as clear that atonement was not the only purpose of sacrifice, and certainly not in the penal substitutionary sense.

One of the earliest examples of sacrifice in the Bible that is often used to argue in favor of the Penal Substitution view is found in Genesis 22:1-19. In this tale God tells Abraham to sacrifice his long awaited son, Isaac. So Abraham sets out with Isaac and two young male servants to a designated location. Once there, Abraham is about to kill his son on the altar when God stops him and commends him for his obedience. After this, God provides a ram caught among thorns to be sacrificed. Many people see this story as an obvious foreshadowing of Jesus’ supposed substitutionary sacrifice. This is because three times in the story Isaac is referred to as “your son, your only son” (vv 2, 12, and 16), and a number of times the apostle John refers to Jesus as God’s “only begotten Son” (Jn 3:16; 1 John 4:9). Also, there is the obvious parallel of a father sacrificing his son. It is therefore argued that just as the ram was a substitutionary sacrifice for Isaac, so too Jesus is a substitutionary sacrifice for us.

The problem is that this argument makes too much of a simple parallel. For instance, if this entire story is analogous to the gospel, who then represents God’s role in the atonement, Abraham (the father sacrificing his son) or God (the One demanding the sacrifice)? And who does Isaac represent, Jesus (the sacrificed son) or the ram (the substitution)? Also, what about the two young men who accompanied Abraham and Isaac? After all, just like the phrase “your son, your only son,” they too are mentioned three times in the story (vv 3, 5, 19). But, who do they foreshadow? While I have no difficulty seeing a typology of a father willingly sacrificing his son, I think we make too much of a simple thing when we try to draw much more than that out of this tale. The main point of the story, after all, is Abraham’s obedience. As a tale of obedience, this is a great one. As a strict parallel of Jesus’ atoning work, this tale has a number of problems.

Thanks for sticking through all of this with me. Like I said, I’m no Hebrew scholar and I couldn’t make a very strong case one way or another with the Mosaic Law. But I do notice some problems when we understand the sacrifice motif in the Old Testament as being a big boon for the Penal Substitution view. Next time I’ll finally explain the view of the atonement that I actually do believe! Until then…

  • How have you always understood Old Testament sacrifices?
  • Why do you think sacrifice was such a big thing for ancient people, Hebrew and pagan?
  • If God asked you to sacrifice your child on an altar, do you think you could do it?

Ready for another article?

Rocky Munoz
Jesus-follower, husband, daddy, amateur theologian, former youth pastor, nerd, and coffee snob. Feel free to email me at almostheresy@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter (@rockstarmunoz)


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