This week we are taking a closer look at the atonement in the Old Testament. This essay, featured in the HSCB Study Bible, is penned by Old Testament scholar Eugene Merrill. Dr. Merrill has likely forgotten more about the Old Testament than many of us will ever know. I'm thankful for his work and for his continued commitment to raising future scholars as he serves as Distinguished Professor of Old Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary.
As I'm doing all year long, I am giving away a free HCSB study Bible to a commenter. To be entered to win this week's giveaway, share with us your thoughts on Christ in the Old Testament and how that has impacted you.
The word "atonement" occurs frequently in the Old Testament (OT) and represents a key concept of OT theology. Christians maintain that Jesus is the fulfillment of the OT, especially the human need for atonement from sins. But what is atonement, and what does Jesus have to do with it?
Many Christians think atonement in the OT originated with the Mosaic law, but in reality humans recognized their need for atonement long before the time of Moses. When Adam and Eve committed the first sin, they hid from God because they were ashamed (Gn 3:8). Rather than giving them up as hopeless, God initiated a plan of atonement whereby the ruptured fellowship between Himself and humanity could be restored. Our English word "atonement" (at-one-ment) explains well the theology behind such restoration, for it suggests that God and humanity can relationally be "at one" again.
How does atonement work? The first (indirect) OT reference to atonement occurs when God provided animal skins to cover Adam and Eve's nakedness, an act necessitating the death of a sinless animal and hence the shedding of its blood on their behalf (Gn 3:21). This introduces a theme that runs throughout the Bible: atonement involves an innocent party taking the punishment that was due to a guilty party.
The Hebrew word translated "atonement" is kaphar, meaning "to cover." This suggests that through the act of atonement sin is covered so that God no longer sees it. Throughout the OT the covering is achieved, ostensibly at least, with the blood of an innocent animal whose innocence renders the repentant sinner innocent as well (Lv 1:4-5; 17:11). The New Testament (NT) term hilasterion, "propitiation," continues this OT concept, again in contexts of blood sacrifice (Rm 3:25).
What does any of this have to do with Jesus? While animals served as provisional sacrifices for human sins during the OT era, they could not ultimately atone for humans (Heb 4:10). Humanity needed one of their own, one who knew no sin, to stand in and take the punishment that is due to all sinners.
Genesis 3:15 gives the first prophetic glimpse at God's final solution to this need and hints at the central role Jesus plays in that solution. Speaking ultimately of Jesus and His role in redemption, it asserts that the seed of the woman would be crushed, but that He would in turn crush the head of the serpent (the Devil), achieving victory over sin and death. The crushing mentioned here is reminiscent of the crushing experienced by the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52:13-53:12, a passage that has atonement as its central theme.
Jesus Christ is both the subject and fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy. In the events that unfolded during His trial, crucifixion, and resurrection, Jesus was the Suffering Servant on our behalf. Though innocent of all sin, Jesus stood in our place to take our punishment, shedding His blood to atone for us. "He entered the most holy place once for all, not by the blood of goats and calves, but by His own blood, having obtained eternal redemption" (Heb 9:12). "By the sacrifice of Himself" (Heb 9:26) Jesus satisfied God's wrath against sin.
That OT atonement finds its culmination in Jesus Christ is put beyond question by John the Baptist who, seeing Jesus, proclaimed, "Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (Jn 1:29).
Eugene H. Merrill
Ph.D., Columbia University