What’s It All About?
In just a few weeks I will be doing the valley’s Ministry 2 Muslims conference in conjunction with a dear friend of mine, George Saiag. This is a fun time for me as I get to teach on subjects I am familiar with and do outreach sessions, which I love. One of the issues that comes up a lot is the centrality of blood atonement, or substitutionary atonement, to the plot of God’s big story. This cannot be underestimated - one could call it the spine of the book, with the book being God’s big metanarrative. Both modern Judaism and Islam entirely miss this point. You can’t have the story without having a plot and the plot revolves around God redeeming His creation through an act of sacrifice on His own part. When the basic foundational truth of substitutionary atonement is removed from the story, it totally guts God’s big story. This omission takes away from God’s central desire to demonstrate His goodness and love. Judaism recognizes the 13 attributes of God’s mercy, as demonstrated in Scripture:
“And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation (Exodus 34:6–7, NKJV).’”
However, Judaism ignores the very way that God wants to demonstrate those truths in His universe and how His method of demonstrating His goodness solves the problem of evil.
Even before Sinai, vicarious atonement as God’s method of redemption is demonstrated as a key part of the Torah. The best example is contained in the passage known as the Akediah, or the Binding of Isaac:
“But Isaac spoke to Abraham his father and said, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” Then he said, “Look, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” And Abraham said, “My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering.” So the two of them went together. Then they came to the place of which God had told him. And Abraham built an altar there and placed the wood in order; and he bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. And Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the Angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” So he said, “Here I am.” And He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” Then Abraham lifted his eyes and looked, and there behind him was a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up for a burnt offering instead of his son (Genesis 22:7–13, NKJV).”
This passage clearly demonstrates that the ram substituted for Isaac, whose life was to be offered to God. Thus, Isaac’s life was spared by God who provided a substitute to take the place of Isaac. The rabbis connect this passage directly to the Exodus in the rabbinical writings. Exodus 12:13 states, “And when I see the blood, I will pass over you.” Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael, a third-century midrash (commentary) on Exodus 12:13, reads, “‘And I shall see the blood’: I shall see the ‘blood’ of the binding of Isaac .”
Much like Isaac, these firstborn sons of Israel in the Exodus are also saved through an act of substitutionary atonement, this time by a male lamb. In Exodus 12:5-7 we read the instructions for the institution of the Passover:
“Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male of the first year. You may take it from the sheep or from the goats. Now you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month. Then the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it at twilight. And they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel of the houses where they eat it.”
All of this culminates with the prophets stating that Messiah would be the ultimate lamb. Isaiah 53:6 announces, “All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way; And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” That the blood of the first Passover lamb (in place of the first children of Israel) points back to the blood of the sacrificial ram (in place of Isaac, the first promised seed of Israel), and that both point forward to promised Messiah, the final Passover lamb (in our place) proves just how central atonement is to God’s big story, from beginning to end.
Many objections are given against blood atonement by Rabbinic Judaism. But the fact that these objections must be made at all is an indication that a Judaism which is Rabbinical Judaism is not Torah or biblical Judaism. If something is not new then no changes need to be made. The irony is that while Rabbinical Judaism makes the claim that Christianity is a new religion, this charge is equally true of Rabbinical Judaism. Islam, using totally different means, ducks the same issue and does tremendous violence to God’s big story. But, unlike Judaism, Islam also does violence to God’s character in the way it has described Allah having different attributes than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
In conclusion, both Rabbinical Judaism and Islam miss the main plot of the story - and when I was a young man seeking to worship the God of my forefathers in ignorance and sin, I also did not understand the big story. I had snatches of it and saw some of the truths of it, but it was obscured because of Judaism; the way of truth was darkened by Judaism’s substitutions for the simple substitutionary atonement.
 Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael. Merged from Sefaria Community Translation, Mechilta, translated by Rabbi Shraga Silverstein. https://www.sefaria.org/Mekhilta_d'Rabbi_Yishmael.12.13?lang=bi