Atonement = At-One-Ment or a ‘Covering’:

I was recently asked what “… type of sacrifice that Yeshua, as our great High Priest, made?”.

Before I share I little in response to this, I should indicate that I reject most of the standard Christian theories around Yeshua’s death on the cross and what it represents. For example, I see Penal Substitutionary Atonement (developed during the Reformation) as totally in error, but I tend to find much to like with regard the Moral Influence Theory (see footnote), as well as supporting a degree of Vicarious Atonement (see link at the end of this blog post to an in-depth discussion of this understanding from Bruce Barham of Torah of Messiah).

But in trying to understand what is involved in Yeshua’s role as the High Priest in the Coming Age, I think that we should appreciate that he performs that same functions as the High Priest of Israel has in the past.

So, if we look back at the foundational passages on the High Priest’s role in atonement we find:

Lev 4:20 “ … And the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven.”

Aaron, as the first High Priest:
Ex 28: 29 “So Aaron shall bear the names of the sons of Israel in the breastpiece of judgment on his heart, when he goes into the Holy Place, to bring them to regular remembrance before the LORD.

30 And in the breastpiece of judgment you shall put the Urim and the Thummim, and they shall be on Aaron’s heart, when he goes in before the LORD. Thus Aaron shall bear the judgment of the people of Israel on his heart before the LORD regularly.

Lev 16:29-34  (speaking about Yom Kipppur, the Day of Atonement, when the High Priest would enter the Most Holy of Holies in the Temple):
“29 And it shall be a statute to you forever that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict yourselves and shall do no work, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you.

30 For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the LORD from all your sins.

31 It is a Sabbath of solemn rest to you, and you shall afflict yourselves; it is a statute forever.

32 And the priest who is anointed and consecrated as priest in his father’s place shall make atonement, wearing the holy linen garments.

33 He shall make atonement for the holy sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar, and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly.

34 And this shall be a statute forever for you, that atonement may be made for the people of Israel once in the year because of all their sins. And Moses did as the LORD commanded him.

Ex 30:10 “Aaron shall make atonement on its horns once a year. With the blood of the sin offering of atonement he shall make atonement for it once in the year throughout your generations. It is most holy to the LORD.”  – again, this is only possible in the Temple, and therefore, only when the Temple is standing.

These are just a few of the ‘atonement’ passages. The High Priest makes atonement for the people, but this is not the only way and means of people finding atonement. It is part of the process, but not all of it.

But what is atonement?

The word ‘atonement’ has more than one meaning in Judaism.  In the context here it appears to mean either the protection of a thing from external impact or the prevention of it making an impact, or both. That is, the underlying meaning is to cover something, so as to protect it, or allow it to be overlooked. For example, when Abimelech gives to Abraham a thousand pieces of silver as a “covering of the eyes” (the same Hebrew root word is used here as for atonement in the passages quoted above), the effect here is in order that his wrongdoing may be over-looked (Gen. 20: 16).

But we also need to be very much aware that every person who wishes to be part of the Coming Age, must also seek atonement through repentance and forgiveness, etc.

This is of course declared in many places in the Tanakh such as in Ezekiel:

Ezekiel 18:  19 “Yet you say, Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father? When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live.

20 The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.

21 “But if a wicked person turns away from all his sins that he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die.

22 None of the transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness that he has done he shall live.

… 27 Again, when a wicked person turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he shall save his life.

28 Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions that he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die.

… 30 “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord GOD. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin.

31 Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel?

32 For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord GOD; so turn, and live.”

So it may seem we have a conflict here.

We have a High Priest somehow providing this ‘covering’ and protection for us (are our sins really being overlooked by the Almighty?), and yet at the same time the Tanakh seems to clearly state that everyone is responsible for his own sins (and thus there is a sense in which no one else can ‘pay the price’ for us).

And here’s some further food for though on what does the Oral Torah says about it:

“The death of the righteous atones [for the generation]” (Moed Katan 28a). ▫ “Rabbi Hiya Bar Abba said: The sons of Aaron died the first day of Nisan. Why then does the Torah mention their death in conjunction with the Day of Atonement? It is to teach that just as Yom Kippur atones, so also the death of the righteous atones” (Vayikra Rabbah 20:12). ▫ Following the previous statement: “Death and Yom Kippur atone when accompanied by penitence” (Yoma 85b [Mishna]). 

“Why is the death of Miriam juxtaposed to the laws of the Red Heifer? This teaches that just as the Red Heifer brings atonement, so too, the death of the righteous brings atonement” (Moed Katan 28a).

The Rabbis say: “[Messiah’s] name is ‘the leper’, as it is written: Surely he has borne our grieves, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him leper, smitten of God, and afflicted…  Those of the house of the Rabbi say: ‘the sickly’, for it says: Surely he has borne our sicknesses” (Sanh 98b). 

Also the Midrash says: “I will take one of their righteous men and retain him as a pledge on their behalf, in order that I may pardon all their sins” (Shemot Rabbah 35:4).  

I think though that Rabbi Moshe Avraham Kempinksi has a great perspective where he also alludes to the idea of a ‘covering’:

“… Yet we must still ponder the fact that we have been directed by our prophets to understand that repentance begins with our actions.        

Return unto Me, and I will return unto you, said HaShem of hosts.” (Malachi 3:7)   

Then again, we hear the words of the prophet Zechariah:      

“Therefore say you unto them, Thus said HaShem of hosts: Return unto Me, said HaShem of hosts, and I will return unto you, said HaShem of hosts.” (Zechariah 1:3)   

HaShem waits for our initial returning to Him with a contrite heart.  

It is important to note that our sages discussed the power of Yom Kippur to atone (Lechaper) for sins and they did not  determine that the day has the power “to cleanse” (LeTaher).   The Malbim in sefer HaCarmel describes the word Lechaper – to atone as having several possible meanings. It can mean “to cover”, to ”redeem” or to “superficially wash”.

Yet all those three actions do not truly remove the sin. They simply cover or beautify it. The sin and its potential impact continues to exist in the world. The sin still needs to be made pure or to be deeply cleansed. So one might ask why we bother with a Kaparah that simply covers, if in fact we have not eliminated the essence of the sin itself?  

To understand this one must truly ask another question “Who are we covering the sin from?”.

The instinctive answer is that we are attempting to hide or cover our sins from G-d. That cannot be true as King David declares in psalms: “For He knows the secrets of the heart.” (Psalms 44:22)   And in the book of Job we read: “I know that You can do everything, and that no purpose can be withholden from You.” (Job 42:2)  

 Yet sin has a powerful impact on our souls and our will power. Sin does not keep G-d away from man, sin keeps man away from G-d.

We feel so unworthy and so dirty that we cannot even look upon His face Ezekiel declares: “Therefore, O you son of man, say unto the house of Israel: Thusly you speak, saying: Our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we pine away in them; how then can we live?” (Ezekiel 33:10)  

So G-d gives us the method to cover the sins from ourselves. The day achieves that “covering”. (itzumo shel yom mechaper). It is only after they have been covered from our sight that we regain the determination to gather our strength and continue into the intense process of tahara, or cleansing.

“And therefore will HaShem wait, so that He may be gracious unto you, and therefore will He be exalted, that He may have compassion upon you; for HaShem is a God of justice, happy are all they that wait for Him.” (Isaiah 30:18)   << end quote>>

So, the argument here is that the Day of Atonement really acts as a way in which we ‘cover’ our sins from our own eyes, so that we may look forward and work harder to avoid ‘missing the mark’ (sin) in the future, and therefore display the true fruits and ‘tikkun haOlam’ that should result from our repentance and forgiveness.

For much greater depth on atonement, please see Vicarious Atonement: Origins and Correct Understanding at https://www.torahofmessiah.org/vicarious-atonement

Footnote: Moral Influence Theory of Atonement

This approach understands that Yeshua’s life and death brought about a massive and positive change to humanity. This moral change comes through the teachings of Yeshua alongside his example and actions.

Within this theory the death of Yeshua is understood as a catalyst to reform society, inspiring men and women to follow his example and live good moral lives of love.

This theory focuses on Yeshua’s entire life, not just his death. The Moral Influence theory emphasizes Yeshua Ha Mashiach as our teacher, our example, and our leader.