Was the Passover sacrifice an atoning sacrifice? 19


This came up today due to a recent series on Christianity Today’s site. The series has good intentions. “Christ is our Passover Lamb” is a series of entries organized by Ed Stetzer. Part 8 was “The Atonement and the Passover: Exodus 12 by Matt Capps.”

UPDATE: It appears that CT removed my comment from their site. The substance of it remains below.

I posted a rather long comment on their site, but it doesn’t seem to be appearing for some, so I will include my critique here. But first, a little background so you do not have to click through. Mr. Capps’s error is in conflating atoning sacrifice with the Passover sacrifice.

Israel’s involvement in the last plague is significant. If the Israelites did not trust in God’s word and follow His instructions; their firstborn would also die. The need for salvation is made clear and the atoning sacrifice is provided on Israel’s behalf (Ex. 12). The conditions for atonement are laid out, but Israel must respond in faith.

Undoubtedly he is correct about Israel’s involvement, but the problem is his identifying this as an “atoning sacrifice.” So without further preamble, my comment left on CT’s site:

This piece (part 8) is interesting but VERY misleading. Passover, the Exodus account, is NOT an atoning sacrifice. It is NOT about atoning for sins or the purification from sin. (That offering comes later, in Lev. 16.) The author is reading back into Ex. 12ff the NT understanding of Jesus’ sacrifice. This is highly problematic and, as I said, misleading. So let’s walk this back a bit.

Exodus 12ff speaks of the Passover sacrifice. As Mr. Capps points out, unlike the other plagues, in this case the Israelites were required to follow God’s command rather than be automatically spared. If they were obedient then the angel of death would passover their household. The lamb is thus not an “atoning” sacrifice for the sins of the Israelites, but rather simply offered in obedience to God’s command, similar to peace offerings or grain offerings. (The consequences in this case would be more dire, presumably, than missing a peace offering…) It is later, in Lev. 16 that we find the “kippur” offering instituted.

It is on this “day of atonement” that the sacrifice was offered which would “atone” for the sins of Israel. Literally, covering over their sins. Tyndale rendered the Hebrew kippur as “at-one-ment” translating the concept of the action rather than the literal meaning of the terms. This is a VERY different sacrifice than the others and than the Passover lamb specifically.

So let’s now jump to the NT. Jesus goes up to Jerusalem and is crucified at the time of Passover. Thus, Paul equates Christ’s sacrifice with the Passover offering. But the author of Hebrews also sees Jesus as the atonement sacrifice, the one and only sacrifice offered in the Holy of Holies (Heb. 9:12). So Jesus is both/and the Passover sacrifice and our atoning sacrifice. BUT this does not mean that we should conflate the two in the Old Testament.

I have explored this before in my Easter sermon several years ago. I do think there are very important reasons why Jesus chose Passover as the time to offering himself up and it is important to meditate upon Ex. 12 and its relevance for us as Christians. But we also should understand the differences and uniqueness of each sacrifice. And the fact that Jesus uniquely fulfills them both.


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19 thoughts on “Was the Passover sacrifice an atoning sacrifice?

  • Peter

    This came up in class the other day. I made essentially the same point as you, but what do you make of John 1:28, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ where John seems to conflate passover with atonement?

    • Christian Brady Post author

      Peter, that is only if you assume the only lamb that John could have in mind is the Passover lamb. I think that is a likely assumption, however, since the Yom Kippur sacrifice is a “young bull.”

      My point was, in fact, just that, the NT in various sources is indeed conflating the two. But that doesn’t mean that we should when examining the Old Testament. I do not think that the view of John, Paul, and Ringo Hebrews that Jesus is both priest and sacrifice, Passover and atoning offering means that we should view the historical Passover of Exodus as also being an atoning sacrifice. It simply isn’t and does not function as an atoning sacrifice.

      So rather than rewriting the OT I think Christians ought to understand the OT passages in their context and then consider, what does it mean that Jesus is both the Passover and Yom Kippur sacrifice? (And high priest!)

      • Peter

        Yes, I follow that part of the argument. I suppose my question was more how did John (the gospel writer not the baptist) get away with writing ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’? I guess his audience must have already conflated the two so nobody really caught the conflict.

        • Christian Brady Post author

          Well, the other possibility is that John just has in mind a general sin offering which could be a lamb/goat. So rather than either Passover or Yom Kippur, he might have simply been thinking of your run-of-the-mill sin offering. Hebrews obviously takes that much further and make the Yom Kippur analogy explicit.

  • bobmacdonald

    I enjoyed that sermon and the distinctions that you draw out. Why though, I wonder do we depend on a functional translation of kphr when it is itself such a rich word in itself suggesting both the cover, (almost sounds like the Hebrew) and the lion cub. We seem to gloss this word in many differing directions from purge to propitiate and so on, losing somehow – I almost want to say – ‘the furnace’, I mean fire of wrath that turns to mercy.

    I have been thinking this morning about remembering – due to Jim Davila’s post on Yad Hashem. It is good to see, as I had already noted here, that the Passover is most like a sacrament, or should I say, the Eucharist is most like the Passover, since it is an act of memory making present the reality it remembers.

    • bobmacdonald

      PS – I was just looking up atonement in the OED – true enough it makes its appearance in Tyndale 1528, but gets a 1513 mention from Thomas More also. So it is in use at the time with the intent of ‘making one’. This suggests to me an allusion, in the English thought process, to the Shema.

      • Christian Brady Post author

        I confess I have not researched the English etymology too deeply, but when I did back in 2008 all I saw was going back to Tyndale. I appreciate the further reference.

        I am not sure I buy the connection to the Shema, however. Making God’s people “at one” with him is not at any point in Jewish or Christian theology the same as God being אחד “one.”

        • bobmacdonald

          Here’s a bit more on ‘at one’ showing how much it precedes Tyndale
          a1300 K. Horn 925 At on he was wiþ þe king.
          c1400 Gamelyn 166 And went and kist his brother, and than they were at oon.
          a1440 Sir Degrev. 435 Y rede ye be at ane Or there dey any moo.

          Re יהוה אלהינו יהוה אחד, I expect one could meditate on this for ever – It feels like a fractal.

    • Christian Brady Post author

      Bob – regarding the “functional” translation of כפור I would say that it is because the term is being used in a very technical sense in these contexts. That is not to say the it cannot have broader meanings in other settings (although the semantic range is not that broad). My point has been that the term is used in a very specific manner in Torah, as is Pesach, and we should recognize that and not elide them.

      • Andrew Tatusko

        An additional source I find interesting is in the use of hilasterion in the LXX. Could that term have influenced a possible conflation in the NT writers? Two strands in Christian theology seem to have evolved from there that argue 1) the sacrifice was to appease God’s wrath, or 2) it was to make an amends for the consequence of sin. Western theology has tended towards the former and Eastern theology towards the latter.

        • bobmacdonald

          The inferences on hilasterion are important – but I wonder if we infer in the right direction. How does the experience of the ancient (to us) Hebrew life within Israel and in the Diaspora (LXX) relate to the experience of Jew and Gentile (not to mention for a moment other religious) in the last 100 years? It seems to me we cannot avoid the engine (our brain in our culture) from which we see and hear (sorry for missing out a critical part of the Shema – hear O Israel). God calls, God speaks, we hear, we respond in every generation. And we have no agreement on how reconciliation ‘works’ but if we believe, then somehow we know it does work. Certainly this post and the sermon raise some good thoughts for me as to how to begin to approach this question. (Personally, I like the phrase ‘mercy seat’ as an English rendering for hilasterion, rather than atonement – a word that has come to ‘mean’ something different from ‘at oon’). I note that AKMA has a recent series of posts on inference.

  • Jason Staples (@jasonstaples)

    Yes. The Passover offering is more properly a “redemption” or “sanctification” offering, in line with Exod 13:2 and 34:20. It is associated with YHWH’s adoption/ownership of Israel and setting apart the people for himself.

    On another note, I think it’s often helpful even to avoid the term “sacrifice,” as I’ve found most English speakers associate that with either atonement or self-deprivation, which only apply to a limited number of the offerings prescribed and described in the Hebrew Bible.

  • Scott F

    I have thought of the Passover sacrifice as a sign of Gods salvation. The blood of the lamb was spread on the doorpost as a sign that God would safe the inhabitants. The NT theology could then be that Jesus’ sacrifice was as a sign that those who accepted his blood would too be marked as saved by God.

    This quality of theology is a clear indicator of why I make my living with computers 🙂

  • Dieter G

    Although I prefer a continuing email conversation, this will have to suffice:

    Yes indeed, Israel had nothing to atone for. There was no Law and therefore no sin, since where there is no law there cannot be any sin to atone for, (Romans 4:15; 5:13) and there was no Priesthood to administer atonements.

    However Israel’s firstborn were NOT at risk here! The whole of the People Israel, the flock of Jacob in slavery in Egypt were.

    That is encapsulated in God’s pre-plague instruction to Moses and Aaron Exodus 4:22: “And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh, Thus saith Jehovah, Israel is my son, my first-born” ASV


    Dieter G

    • Christian Brady Post author

      Thank you, but that can’t be true, “no law mean there is no sin.” Consider all of Genesis. There are lots of examples of people clearly sinning even when the law had not yet been promulgated. It is a thorny question for sure, clearly people are sending before the law is given on Mt. Sinai.

  • Frank J. Giordano

    Actually, Passover is an atoning sacrifice. You are wrong. The real reason you believe this is that you do not know what atonement really means. Essentially, what I am saying is you don’t know what you are talking about. Sorry for sounding so rude, but that is exactly what I believe. Of course, this means that a lot of people don’t know what they are talking about either, but that’s ok, because that is true also.

    • Christian Brady Post author

      No, you’re wrong. Ok. Now it’s your turn. Shall we keep doing this?

      Frank, I don’t mind people being blunt but you offer no evidence whatsoever for why my view (held by many other scholars) is wrong and yours is correct. I do indeed now what atonement means and have a fairly strong grasp on the myriad ways in which people understand and try to explain atonement and atonement theory. What is yours?

      Of course if this is just name calling then there is no merit here and I will ignore it.