How to Read the Old Testament Theologically: The Case of the Atonement

We may identify the central focus of Christian worship as the celebration of the Eucharist, the constantly renewed participation in the priestly mystery of Jesus Christ, at the same time the full scope of that worship must always be kept in mind: it is always a matter of drawing every individual person, indeed, the whole of the world, into Christ’s love in such a way that everyone together with him becomes an offering that is “acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Rom 15:16).
—Benedict XVI[1]

The atonement has become a problematic category in contemporary theology because it seems to presume that the forgiveness of sins requires the suffering of the sinner or someone who represents him or her. In its most severe expression, God the Father sends his Son to his death on the cross in order to satisfy the infinite punishment that justice demands. Expressed in this bald, unnuanced fashion, it is obvious why many have recoiled at the proposition. Benedict XVI is altogether typical when he writes: “Again and again people say: It must be a cruel God who demands infinite atonement. Is this not a notion unworthy of God? Must we not give up the idea of atonement in order to maintain the purity of our image of God?”[2]


To address this dilemma, some have proposed that we turn to the Orthodox concept of deification, that is, the notion that salvation entails being conformed to the divine pattern of life that is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. The advantage of this construal is that it releases us from the problematic notion of sacrificial suffering. To illustrate this, I would like to turn to the Orthodox theologian Andrew Louth. He is a leading authority in Orthodox theology and, on those grounds alone, his views merit serious consideration.

Louth begins his discussion of deification with the classic definition of St. Athanasius: “[The Word of God] became human that we might become God; and he revealed himself through a body that we might receive an idea of the invisible Father; and he endured insults from humans that we might inherit incorruption.” The purpose of the incarnation is not simply God’s sharing our human nature, but our coming to share in his divinity. As Irenaeus puts it, “In his immense love he became what we are, that he might make us what he is.”

It is striking that Athanasius believes a key feature of the incarnation was to make the Godhead perceptible to humanity at large. If the goal of salvation is “a face-to-face encounter with God,” then God has to become visible to make that possible. As the Prologue of John puts it, God’s “tabernacling among us” was ordered to our being able “to see his glory.” From this verse, Louth concludes that

Deification is the fulfillment of creation, not just the rectification of the Fall. One way of putting this is to think in terms of an arch stretching from creation to deification, representing what is and remains God’s intention: the creation of the cosmos that, through humankind, is destined to share in the divine life, to be deified.[3]

In Accordance with the Scriptures

One question that we must pose is whether Louth’s understanding of the Incarnation can be squared with the Old Testament. The Nicene Creed famously declares that the pattern of Christ’s life was “in accordance with the scriptures.” Louth’s initial description of deification follows from the Prologue of John’s Gospel, which is clearly patterned on the Old Testament.

The Prologue begins with a paraphrase of Genesis 1:1. But the point of the opening verses in both of these books was not to describe the creation of the physical order alone. Their ultimate intention was to point forward to the moment when God would assume residency among the human beings he fashioned. In the Old Testament, this meant the point at which God assumed residency in the tabernacle and made his glory visible to Israel (Exodus 40). For John, the goal was God’s “tabernacling” in the person of Jesus so that same glory could be seen anew. The arch of the New Testament maps directly to the arch laid down in the Old, as depicted in figure 1 below. Perhaps better stated, the arch of the incarnate Logos was a figural extension of its Old Testament prototype.

But Louth’s exposition does not stop here. He recognizes that the sacrificial redemption of Christ is also part of the scriptural story. The question is how to relate the sacrificial component of Christ’s life to the incarnation. Louth notes that the sin of Adam has frustrated the destiny for the human race that God had intended. There was need then for a “lesser arch,” whose purpose was “to restore the function of the greater arch from creation to deification.” The problem for Western Christians, as Louth describes it, is that our attention has been so focused on this “lesser arch,” that we have lost sight of the more important dimension of Christ’s life:

The loss of the notion of deification leads to lack of awareness of the greater arch from creation to deification, and thereby to concentration on the lower arch, from Fall to redemption; it is, I think, not unfair to suggest that such a concentration on the lesser arch at the expense of the greater arch has been characteristic of much Western theology. The consequences are evident: a loss of the sense of the cosmic dimension of theology, a tendency to see the created order as little more than a background for the great drama of redemption, with the result that the Incarnation is seen simply as a means of redemption, the putting right of the Fall of Adam.[4]

There is much to commend about the picture that Louth has drawn. But the biblical story cannot be summarized by a simple correlation of creation and indwelling. As I have explained in my recent book,[5] the climax of the Tabernacle Narrative has two interlocking focal points: the building of the tabernacle in the book of Exodus and the onset of sacrificial service in Leviticus. The theophany that marks the completion of the building and its indwelling by the deity (Ex 40:34–35) has been closely coordinated with the theophany that attended the first public offerings (Lev 9:23–24).

Although there can be no sacrifice without a tabernacle, the tabernacle itself remains unfinished until the altar is put into operation. If we want to fill out John’s portrait on the basis of its Old Testament model, we must allow the complete Old Testament picture to fill in a narrative detail that fell outside the immediate purview of John 1:14. Figure 2 represents a more accurate depiction of the Old Testament witness, and if the story of Christ’s life is to be told “in accordance with the scriptures,” then the role of his sacrificial death cannot be reduced to a “lesser arch.” Indwelling (Ex 40) and sacrifice (Lev 8–9) cannot be pulled apart.

The Tamid Is Not a Rite of Atonement

Now on the face of it, the linkage of sacrifice to indwelling would seem to refute Louth’s proposal. But somewhat ironically, what looks like a problem could also contribute to the solution. In order to unpack this claim we must turn to the problem of the tamid (i.e., the daily, morning and evening) sacrifice.

As I have noted elsewhere, the pinnacle of the tabernacle sequence is the onset of the tamid sacrifice (Ex 29:38–46 and Lev 9).[6] This can be shown in several ways. After describing how to offer this sacrifice (Ex 29:38–42) our writer reiterates his promise to meet with the Israelites beside that altar and sanctify it by his glory (vv. 43–46). In the calendar of Israel’s festivals (Numbers 28–29), the tamid is the baseline sacrifice to which all the additional festival sacrifices are added. Finally, the book of Daniel summarized the cessation of sacrifice in the second century BC with reference to the tamid alone. As Joseph Blenkinsopp observes, mention of this sacrifice is a metonymy for the rest.[7]

For our purposes, the key feature to observe is that the tamid sacrifice is not an atonement rite. There is a tendency among Christian readers to presume the centrality of atonement in Israel’s cultic life. Because Christ’s sacrificial death is an atoning act, and since it brings the sacrificial system of the Old Testament to closure, it is easy to understand why theologians have inferred that Israel’s cult was one large atonement mechanism. But as biblical scholars have repeatedly argued, this understanding grossly misrepresents the character of the tamid sacrifice. Jonathan Klawans is right on target when he writes: “The typical understanding of the way daily sacrifice [tamid] and grave sin are related is, I believe, backward. It is not that the daily sacrifice undoes the damage done by grave transgression. Quite the contrary: grave transgression undoes what the daily sacrifice produces.”[8]

Within the biblical narratives, the tamid sacrifice is the single most important feature of the liturgical life of the temple. The tremendous importance of this sacrifice is certainly related to the fact that it—unlike the other dimensions of temple life—required daily maintenance and upkeep by the community of worshippers. In other words, this mode of affording honor and reverence toward the deity is unique, insofar as it requires constant human attention. And it should cause no surprise that the word for “service” in the Bible becomes the standard rabbinic term for divine worship. In the act of providing a sacrifice, Israelites were not only providing a service to the deity, but also setting themselves in a position of subservience to their God.

The Tamid and the Akedah

So far, our discussion has focused on the role played by the tamid sacrifice within the framework of the Tabernacle Narrative. But in its larger Pentateuchal setting, the binding of Isaac (or Akedah as it is called in Hebrew) has been linked to these narratives. If we wish to attend to the Bible’s final canonical form we must push forward and ask what sort of impact this larger literary context will have on our reading of the Bible. As Childs noted, the formation of the canon sets up a “resonance between [the books of] Genesis and Leviticus.” The story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac calls for “fuller theological reflection on the whole sacrificial system of Leviticus.” To invoke the terminology of Childs, though the textual witnesses of Genesis 22 and Exodus 29:38–46 were written independently of one another, they share a common subject matter—the fundamental meaning and purpose of the sacrificial act.[9] It is the obligation of the theological reader to move beyond simply a description of what each witness wants to say (i.e., the authors of Genesis 22 and Exodus 29) and to describe the underlying subject matter of the canonical whole.

But if we grant that the Akedah is to be correlated with the onset of sacrificial service, the question then becomes: what is the meaning of the Akedah? Or, perhaps, better stated: what are we to learn from its expression of a sacrificial ideal that could be applied to the tamid? Before proceeding any further, we should note that the tamid sacrifice is an offering incumbent upon all of Israel. Though the sons of Aaron will be the ones directly responsible for its oversight, the obligation rests on Israel as whole (“Command the Israelites, and say to them . . . ‘This is the offering by fire that you shall offer to the Lord: two male lambs a year old without blemish, daily as a tamid offering’” [Num 28:2–3]). This fact is fundamental to the figural reading proposed by the Medieval Jewish theologian, Hasdai Crescas:

It appears that the intention of the two daily offerings, the morning offering and the evening offering . . . is to indicate that this is an atonement for all Israel. It is as if these daily offerings are in exchange for all Israel and in offering them, the entirety of the people are drawn nearer to the worship of God. Therefore the daily offerings were lambs, which come from the ram, just as the nation as a whole is a descendant of Isaac.[10]

Because all of Israel descends from the loins of Isaac, his near-death at the altar on Mount Moriah represents the near-death of all Israel. And because each of the lambs offered during the tamid service are related to the ram that Abraham offered in Genesis 22, then every time the lamb of the tamid is offered, the sparing of Isaac is recalled.

Before addressing the Akedah directly, we need to make sure we have understood its larger literary setting. We will do this by describing how Genesis 22 is related to chapter 12, and how the latter, in turn, is related to chapter 11.

Genesis 12:1 and 22:1

As recognized already by the rabbis, the story opens in a way that recalls the story of Abraham’s initial call:

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Betake yourself [lek lekah] from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Gen 12:1).

[God] said [to Abraham], “Take your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac and betake yourself [lek lekah] to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you” (Gen 22:2).[11]

These two commands have a lot in common. First, the command “betake yourself” is a rare expression; it is used only here in the entire Hebrew Bible. Second, the location of each destination is left undisclosed. Abraham is to “betake himself” to the land or mountain that God will show (or tell) him. Third, the cost of what Abraham must give up is graded from the least to the most dear. Just as it is more difficult to leave the warmth of one’s father’s house than one’s more distant kindred or even country, so the difficulty of offering one’s beloved son is more painful than any other son.

It is one thing to see the formal similarities but another to assess their significance. Levenson suggests that the parallels show that in the story of the Akedah, God has returned Abraham to his starting point, “alone with God, attentive to an unexpected and mysterious divine command, and prepared to leave home even for a destination that is as yet unspecified. . . . The man who gave up his father’s house must now give up the son on whom he has staked his life.”[12] I should add that both commands are associated with wildly improbable outcomes. In the first instance, Abraham’s consent to become an alien in a foreign land is described as a steppingstone to wealth and fame. This, of course, happens in short order (see Gen 12:16, 20).

But we should not lose sight of the fact that “migrant workers” in antiquity had far less chance of succeeding in their new homes than they do today. We should also take a proper measure of the sacrifice that is being demanded of him. Once Abraham departs for the land of Canaan, he would never see his family again. Finally, we should observe that God was good for his word, even in this most improbable of circumstances. This must be factored into our assessment of Abraham’s obedience in Genesis 22. Abraham had good reason to believe that God would be true to his promises no matter what the peril.

Genesis 11:4 and 12:2

Genesis 12, however, is not the only text we need to factor into our equation. Genesis 12 is also related to the tower of Babel story in Genesis 11:

1 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Gen 11:1–4).

The key element for our purposes is the motivation of the builders of the tower: achieving for themselves a great name (v. 4). This motivation stands in striking contrast to the deployment of this motif in the promise made to Abraham. After commanding Abraham to leave his fatherland, God says, “I will make your name great.” Though the reward is exactly that of the tower builders, the mode of acquisition could not be more different. The builders of the tower wish to acquire a great name by their own hard efforts. Abraham, on the other hand, is granted a great name as a divine gift.

It should also be noted that these two stories illustrate the two major ways of acquiring a great name in the ancient Near East: through monumental building projects or progeny. Ben Sira captures this well when he writes: “children and the building of a city establish one’s name” (40:19). As Ronald Hendel observes,

In Israel and the ancient Near East, kings established a lasting name by their great building projects. The fame of Solomon rests, in part, on his construction of the Jerusalem temple (1 Kgs 6–8), as does that of Gilgamesh on his construction of the great walls of Uruk (Gilg. I.1–121). . . . These are human forms of immortality. The building project in Babel is a way to establish a name that transcends the lifespans of its builders, establishing a kind of immortality.[13]

Genesis 11:30

For Abraham in Genesis 12, the acquisition of a great name is not about monuments but offspring. But several verses prior to the declaration of the promise, almost as an afterthought, the narrator introduces a detail that will constitute a considerable impediment to the realization of the promise:

27 Now these are the descendants of Terah. Terah was the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran was the father of Lot. 28 Haran died before his father Terah in the land of his birth, in Ur of the Chaldeans. 29 Abram and Nahor took wives; the name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milcah. She was the daughter of Haran the father of Milcah and Iscah. 30 Now Sarai was barren; she had no child (Gen 11:27–30).

But this barrenness is not simple “bad luck.” This tragic condition serves to underscore what the promise is all about. If Abraham and Sarah are to have children, it will occur only by way of direct divine intervention. They cannot make their own names great; only God can.

Abraham’s Self-Sacrifice

When Abraham hears the command to sacrifice the son whom God had given, the risks involved can be calculated at several levels. First of all, with the dispatching of Ishmael a chapter earlier (Gen 21:8–21), Isaac becomes Abraham’s last remaining child. The odds of securing additional heirs through Sarah, barring another divine miracle, are zero. And children, we should recall, have an additional value for biblical figures that modern persons often fail to recognize. One of the chief obligations of a child was to sustain their parents in their old age and to remember their names once they had passed. The death of Isaac would potentially leave Sarah and Abraham with no one to support them in the infirmity of old age. The immediate danger is captured well by Jon Levenson:

Everything has now come down to Isaac. . . . The great name, the great nation, the blessing, the land of Canaan—all that Abraham has been promised from his call and commission in Genesis 12—now rests upon Isaac. But it is Isaac he must offer up. Abraham’s own destiny is so entwined with that of Isaac, and the “great nation” that is eventually to descend from him, that the demand is even harder than the demand upon any other loving father to offer up his beloved son. Psychologically, what is asked is not only an inexpressibly painful act of sacrifice; it is also an act of self-sacrifice.[14]

It is worth pausing a moment on the theme of self-sacrifice. Interpreters often presume that Genesis 22 could only be read that way when we invest the figure of Isaac with true agency. And, truth be told, a number of early interpreters do just this. But the simple sense of Genesis 22 makes this sort of reading implausible. Isaac is a passive participant in this story, as he is in most of the book of Genesis. But, as Levenson has shown, we do not require a willing Isaac. By complying with the command, Abraham has put his own (and God’s!) future at grave risk.

Paradoxically, the end result of Abraham’s obedience is the exact opposite of what he must have feared. Rather than losing his only son, Abraham receives him back and, in the process, the divine promise is regrounded in his obedience. And Isaac, as we learn at the end of the story, becomes a man destined for marriage and able to continue the family line. Levenson aptly summarizes the surprising end to the story:

By preferring the fear of God to Isaac and all that his beloved son signifies for his relationship with God (and otherwise), Abraham retains the son he did not withhold and receives anew all the promises that have so long stood at the heart of his relationship with God. In the paradoxical, sacrificial logic of which this text is the outstanding Jewish example, it is our ungrudging willingness to give that leads to gaining and retaining that which is most precious. It is in rising above self-interest that we secure that which a calculus of self-interest can never yield—or understand.[15]

The Akedah as a Figure of Christ’s Sacrifice

The key to reading this story as part of the larger Christian Bible is to see how the mystery of Christ’s person is figurally represented in the “paradoxical, sacrificial logic of Genesis 22.” An obvious parallel can be found in the hymn that the apostle Paul cites in his letter to the Philippians (2:6–11). Christ is exalted by his divine Father and given “the name that is above every name” (v. 9) because he “humbled himself,” becoming “obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (v. 8). The parallels to the life of Abraham could not be closer. Like Abraham, Christ acquires his great name by sacrificing what appeared to be the logical means of attaining it.

The Redemptive Character of the Cross

As I have told the story so far, one might conclude that the redemptive character of the cross has completely disappeared. In order to correct this impression, we should recall Moses’s intercession on behalf of Israel after the sin of the golden calf. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses makes a general appeal to God’s promise to the patriarchs in order to lift the penalty of death from the nation: “Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Israel” (Ex 9:27). But in the book of Exodus, the appeal was rendered in far more detailed terms “Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever’” (Ex 32:13). In that version, Moses cited the terms of the promise that were specific to the Akedah (Gen 22:15–18). In other words, the dire penalty was lifted as result of the merits that had accrued to Abraham’s stupendous act of obedience. And it was this meritorious action that became the centerpiece of Rabbinic theology as is clear from this commentary on the tamid offering:

When our father Abraham bound Isaac his son, the Holy One (blessed be He!) established the institution of the two lambs, one in the morning and one in the evening. And for what reason? Because when Israel would sacrifice the tamid on the altar and recite Leviticus 1:11, the Holy One (blessed be He!) would remember the binding of Isaac.[16]

According to this text, every time the tamid offering was made, God recalled the merits of Abraham’s obedience and applied its benefits to the nation of Israel.

If we understand the tamid sacrifice through the lens of the Akedah, a striking figural relationship is established between the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and its memorial celebration in the Eucharist. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it thus:

The Eucharist is thus a sacrifice because it re-presents (makes present) the sacrifice of the cross, because it is its memorial and because it applies its fruit:

[Christ], our Lord and God, was once and for all to offer himself to God the Father by his death on the altar of the cross, to accomplish there an everlasting redemption. But because his priesthood was not to end with his death, at the Last Supper “on the night when he was betrayed,” [he wanted] to leave to his beloved spouse the Church a visible sacrifice (as the nature of man demands) by which the bloody sacrifice which he was to accomplish once for all on the cross would be re-presented, its memory perpetuated until the end of the world, and its salutary power be applied to the forgiveness of the sins we daily commit.[17]

As we saw in Childs’s description of the Akedah, the onetime act of obedience on the part of Abraham was not a “private experience” but pointed forward to “Israel’s collective public worship.” And conversely, “Israel’s sacrifice [was] drawn into the theological orbit of Abraham’s offering.” Just as Moses could appeal to the merits of that founding sacrifice in order to redeem Israel from the penalty of idolatry, so the memorial of Christ’s passion was conceived of as an act that could “apply the fruits” of the passion for the benefit of all Christ’s church.

Louth’s Two Arches: A Reprise

We began with a discussion of the theological challenge Christ’s atoning sacrifice has had for contemporary theology. That God the Father would demand the suffering of his Son to deal with human sin is, as Benedict XVI put it, a “notion unworthy of God.” In order to circumvent this problem, many have suggested abandoning the emphasis of the West on Christ’s sacrificial action and put the incarnational dimension of his life on center stage. Louth suggested that the “greater” arch of deification should not be overshadowed by the “lesser” arch of sacrifice. We noted, however, that this sort of ranking was not “in accordance with the scriptures.” The outline of the Tabernacle Narrative makes it clear that the theme of indwelling and sacrificial service cannot be prioritized in this fashion.

But, perhaps surprisingly to many readers, this does not return the notion of penal suffering to center stage. The Old Testament sacrificial system, as we have seen, does not have the atonement for sins as its central concern. In the broader canonical scope of the Pentateuch, the daily sacrifice was tied to the foundational sacrifice of Abraham, the surrendering of what appeared to be his only chance of securing a “great name” (i.e., a sizeable family). Yet it was the willingness to offer his only remaining son that led to the promise being regrounded on his stupendous obedience. And it was that act of obedience that Moses drew upon to save Israel from the tragic consequences of her egregious act of apostasy. Abraham’s willingness to offer back to God what he held most dear turned out to be the most fitting antidote to the problem of human sin. The Old Testament, in the end, provides a path toward an understanding of the atonement freed from the cruel dimension that Benedict XVI so rightly worried about.

Having said this, however, I should add that I do believe that there is a “redemptive” dimension to Christ’s sacrifice. One can and must speak of the suffering that Christ endured as a consequence of our sins.[18] A number of New Testament texts make this point but perhaps none so clearly as 1 Peter 2:24: “[Jesus] himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” But the exposition of that dimension of the problem would require an exegetical detour that would depart from the central concerns of this essay.

What my discussion has tried to argue is that the Old Testament sacrificial system can be deployed in a meaningful way to illumine Christ’s sacrifice in a nonpunitive modality. In his treatment of the subject of sacrifice, Thomas Aquinas articulated three reasons why human beings must offer sacrifice to God. First would be for the remission of sins, second for the preservation of the state of grace, and third to be perfectly united to God. With respect to the last reason, Joseph Wawrykow has written, “Even those whose sins are forgiven and so are in correct relationship to God, will sacrifice to God.”[19] Sacrifice, on this view, is not paying a price for sin but an act of radical self-emptying (cf. Phil. 2:5–9). And it is precisely this dimension of sacrifice that St. Augustine alludes to when he describes how we can participate in the offering Christ made:

It obviously follows that the whole redeemed city, that is, the congregation and fellowship of the saints, is offered to God as a universal sacrifice through the great priest who, in his passion, offered himself for us in the form of a servant, to the end that we might be the body of such a great head. For it was this servant form that he offered, and it was in this form that he was offered, because it is according to this form that he is the mediator, in this form that he is the priest, and in this form that he is the sacrifice. . . . . The Church celebrates this mystery in the sacrament of the altar, well-known to the faithful, where the Church offers herself through what is being offered (10.6)[20]


The goal of this discussion was to articulate how the Old Testament sacrificial system might shed light on the problem of Christ’s sacrifice. Following the logic of St. Augustine, we have presumed that worship offered to God by the people of Israel was a figure of the Christ who was to come. We accept the Old Testament as canonical Scripture, Augustine argues, in order to understand the promises contained in the New Testament. One dimension of the New Testament that has come under heavy scrutiny over the past several generations has been the supposition that it teaches that Christ had to pay the price owed by human sins to appease the anger of his divine father. Sacrifice, on this view, is the means by which that price is paid and God’s anger is assuaged. Numerous theologians have sought means to rectify this unhappy picture.

One such strategy has involved invoking what is thought to be the distinctive way in which Christ’s saving work has been described in the Eastern church. As an example of this, we turned to Andrew Louth’s proposal that we ground the purpose of Christ’s life under the arch of the incarnation. This does not mean denying the role of the cross, but it does entail subordinating the sacrifice of Christ to God’s primary providential end—the divinization of humanity by dint of the incarnation. If we follow Augustine’s reading of St. Paul, however, we should be suspicious of this sort of subordination. The Old Testament does link the indwelling of God to creation as we have seen, but it also creates an unbreakable bond between the act of indwelling the tabernacle and the sacrificial service that will be conducted there. These arches, to return to Louth’s striking image, are in parallel to one another; there is no subordination. But Louth was correct to indicate that incarnation can be thought of apart from the demand to rectify human sin. It is not the case that the incarnation has been made contingent on an act of rebellion against God.

And we could say a similar thing about the sacrificial cult. The purpose of sacrifice in the Tabernacle Narrative is not first and foremost that of effecting atonement. It is rather to enable the enactment by Israel of a radical self-emptying before her God. Paradoxically, as it turns out, that sort of total self-giving becomes the defining way of reconciling humanity to God. This is enacted in the prayer of Moses when he asks God to recall the sacrifice of Abraham in order avert the destruction that has been threatened toward the people Israel. Though the sacrifice of Isaac can be an effective means of dealing with human sin, its essential nature is not limited to an atoning role. In this way the Old Testament can be a powerful witness to a means of understanding the incarnation and atoning work of Christ that avoids the cruel picture of God that emerges from theories of sacrifice built upon the model of penal suffering alone.[21]

Editorial Note: This essay is an excerpt from That I May Dwell among Them: Incarnation and Atonement in the Tabernacle Narrative and is reprinted here with the kind permission of Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

[1] Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2010), 2:238.

[2] Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, 2:232.

[3] Andrew Louth, “The Place of Theosis in Orthodox Theology,” in Partakers of the Divine Nature, ed. M. Christiansen and J. Wittung (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 34–35.

[4] Louth, “Place of Theosis,” 35.

[5] That I Might Dwell among Them, 19–48.

[6] That I Might Dwell among Them, 76–100.

[7] See Daniel 8:11–13; 11:31; and 12:11; and J. Blenkinsopp, Ezra-Nehemiah: A Commentary, OTL (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1988), 98.

[8] Jonathan Klawans, Purity, Sacrifice and the Temple: Symbolism and Supersessionism in the Study of Ancient Judaism (Oxford: Oxford University, 2006), 71.

[9] Brevard Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 80–90.

[10] Hasdai Crescas, Light of the Lord (Or Hashem), trans. R. Weiss (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 162.

[11] I have slightly altered the translation of the NRSV.

[12] Jon Levenson, Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), 69.

[13] Ron Hendel, Genesis 1-11 (Anchor Bible; forthcoming).

[14] Levenson, Inheriting Abraham, 68–69.

[15] Levenson, Inheriting Abraham, 84–85.

[16] Leviticus Rabbah 2.11.

[17] Catechism of the Catholic Church: Revised in Accordance with the Official Latin Text Promulgated by Pope John Paul II. Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000, §1366.

[18] Khaled Anatolios has recently argued that “Christ saves us by vicariously repenting for humanity’s sinful rejection of humanity’s doxological vocation and its violation and distortion of divine glory.” See Khaled Anatolios Deification through the Cross: An Eastern Christian Theology of Salvation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020), 32. In his book he labels this form of suffering “doxological contrition.”

[19] Joseph Wawrykow, “The Holy Spirit in the Eucharistic Teaching of Thomas Aquinas,” unpublished manuscript.

[20] Augustine, City of God: Books 1-10, William Babcock (Hyde Park: New City Press, 2012), 311.

[21] One should note the painting titled The Presentation in the Temple in the National Gallery of London by the Master of the Life of the Virgin (ca. 1460-1475; see: featured image for this essay). The priest Simeon receives the Christ child from the hands of Mary (Luke 2:22-40). But instead of standing before the altar in front of the temple, he stands in front of a church altar. Behind him is an altarpiece, but the expected image of the crucifixion has been replaced by the sacrifice of Isaac in keeping with the “Old Testament” setting of the event.

Featured Image: The Presentation in the Temple in the National Gallery of London by the Master of the Life of the Virgin c. 1460-1475; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Gary A. Anderson

Gary A. Anderson is Hesburgh Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His many books include the award-winning Sin: A History, Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament.

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