Michael Barber © 2006
(Be sure to read Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4.)
When one thinks of the New Testament and the feast of the Day of Atonement, one immediately thinks of Hebrews. As is well known, the book draws heavily on Day of Atonement imagery. However, to properly understand how Christ's self-offering fulfills the Old Testament cult, it is first incumbent upon us to discuss the function and purpose of the Old Testament sacrificial system. Therefore, this essay will first consider the role and meaning of the sacrificial code given to Israel. The second half of this essay will deal with the presentation in Hebrews of Christ’s role as heavenly high priest.
Why Sacrifice Animals?
Why did God command Israel to offer cattle, sheep and goats as sacrificial animals? The answer lies in the inner logic of the narrative of Exodus—namely, that those were the animals the Egyptians worshipped. The story of the Exodus is not simply about political liberation, it is the story of God’s attempt to rescue his people from spiritual slavery to the gods of Egypt.
It is important to keep in mind that the initial request Moses and Aaron were to make of Pharaoh did not involve permanent liberation: “The God of the Hebrews has met with us and now, we pray you, let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God” (Exod 3:18). When Pharaoh later asks why Israel cannot simply make their sacrifice to the Lord in the land of Egypt Moses explains:
“It would not be right to do so; for we shall sacrifice to the Lord our God offerings abominable to the Egyptians. If we sacrifice offerings abominable to the Egyptians, before their eyes, will they not stone us?” (Exod 8:26).In other words, Israel was to offer to the Lord the very animals the Egyptians worshipped.
Israel had to reject the gods of Egypt and turn to the Lord. A canonical reading of the story reveals that the sin of the golden calf was a return to the practice of idolatry; this was not the first time the Israelites worshipped the gods of the Egyptians. This seems clear from the narrative of Exodus 32 itself, which describes Aaron’s knowledge of the practice of forging graven images (cf. 32:2-5). In fact, Ezekiel 20:8 reveals that Israel had attached themselves to these gods during their time of bondage in Egypt. Thus the book of Exodus describes the Lord God bringing judgment on not only Pharaoh, but specifically the gods of Egypt. In Exodus 12 we read, “I will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment” (Ex. 12:12). The plagues sent in Exodus are likewise understood by scholars as judgments upon the Egyptian deities (the Nile turning to blood as a judgment on the god of the Nile, etc.). When God ratifies his covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai, therefore, it is no surprise what Israel is called to sacrifice: the gods of the Egyptians (Exod 24:5).
When Israel worshipped the golden calf in Exodus 32 it became clear that while Moses could lead Israel out of Egypt, it would be a much more difficult project to take the “Egypt” out of Israel. Israel had returned to the gods of Egypt, under Aaron’s leadership: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (Exod 32:4). This sin results in a dramatic changes in Israel’s cult.
First and perhaps most obvious is the institution of the Levitical priesthood. Prior to the golden calf, Israel was called to be a nation of priests (Exod 19:6). It seems that before Levitical system, the first born sons served as ministers in Israel. However, after Exodus 32 that privilege was given solely to the Levites.  Second, as Thomas Aquinas (and many other ancient Jewish and later Christian writers) points out, regular animal sacrifice is mandated for the first time only after Israel worships the calf in Exodus 32. The sacrifices were given to Israel to remind them of their sin and to prevent them from returning to pagan worship. This is especially seen in the rites prescribed for the Day of Atonement.
Just as Aaron had led the people in the worship of the calf, on the Day of Atonement, Aaron and, later, his descendent the high priest, would lead Israel in repentance. On that day Aaron (or the high priest) would go into the holiest place in the sanctuary—the Holy of Holies, separated by a veil—having undergone preparations and having offered two sacrifices, a bull and a goat. The bull sacrifice is made for himself: “And Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house” (Lev 16:11). In this Aaron made atonement for his involvement in the sin of the calf. In addition, he was to carry in coals of incense from the altar.
After Aaron made atonement for himself, he was then ready to make the second offering, which was for the people (cf. Lev 16:15-16). He was also to confess the sins of the people over a second goat, who would be sent out into the wilderness (Lev 16:20-22). Having completed his work, he was to undergo a ritual bathing, leaving his priestly garments in the Holy Place (Lev 16:23-24).
The reason for the sacrificial system, therefore, was related to the sin(s) of idolatry. Israel worshipped cattle, sheep and goats; Israel would sacrifice cattle, sheep and goats. Aaron led Israel in idolatry; Aaron will thus be responsible for leading Israel in repentance—acknowledging his own sin first and then making atonement for the people.
Sacrifice and Covenant Oath Swearing
In the ancient world, a major part of covenant oath swearing was self-maledictory cursing. In placing oneself under a covenant, one often acted out the curses attached to it. Moshe Weinfield writes:
“Thus for example, in the oath of the Hittite soldiers wax is melted to illustrate the melting of an infringer of the treaty. . . barley is ground while threats are made that this is how the treaty-breaker’s bones are to be ground… a blind and a deaf man are brought and threats are made that this will be the fate
of the infringer, and so on.”
Other kinds of ritual acts might also accompany the oath, such as placing the hand under the partner’s thigh, mixing blood, and dipping weapons in blood.
Sacrifice was understood within this self-maledictory context. In the animal sacrifice, the covenant makers say in essence: “If I fail to uphold this covenant let me die like this animal.”  This sheds greater light on the covenant ratification ceremony in Exodus 24, where Moses takes the blood of the sacrifice and throws it on the people. After the people promise to be obedient, they “wear” the blood of the sacrifice (Exod 24:7-8) as a sign of self-cursing. In effect, “wearing the blood” signifies that people are proclaiming: “if we break this covenant let us die like these animals.”
When Israel breaks the covenant by worshipping the golden calf, they trigger the covenant curse of death: “And the Lord said to Moses… ‘I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people; now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them…’” (Exod 32:9-10). In this case, what ultimately saves Israel is Moses’ reminder of God’s previous covenant oath to Abraham:
“Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, they servants, to whom thou didst swear by thine own self, and didst say to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendents, and they shall inherit it forever” (Exod 32:13).The previous oath of Yahweh preserved Israel from destruction; yet things would not go back to normal. Israel would no longer be a nation of priests. A death was required, and as Hebrews explains, that death-curse was borne by Christ.
Christ as Heavenly High Priest in Hebrews
The book of Hebrews is a densely packed theological argument. Here we cannot go into deep detail. We will simply offer a brief overview. Our focus here will be to emphasize Christ’s role as high priest and as atoning sacrifice.
In chapter one, the author of Hebrews describes the enthronement of Christ the firstborn Son of God as Priest King. The chapter begins with the proclamation that Christ has “made purification for sins” having, “sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (1:3). This seems like a reference to Psalm 110. In fact, the chapter concludes with a citation from Psalm 110, “Sit at my right hand” (Psalm 110:2). Significantly, Psalm 110 goes on to describe the Davidic king as a “priest like Melchizedek” (1:4)—a theme that dominates the rest of the book.
In chapters two through six, we read that it was necessary that Jesus partook in human nature, so that he might be “a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people” (Heb 2:17). Hebrews 4:14-16, states:
“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize without our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”The term “draw near” was the term used in Leviticus and in other places in the OT for Israel’s liturgical act of approaching the Lord in the sanctuary (Lev 9:5, 7; Deut 4:11, etc.). Here Christ, the heavenly high priests, leads believers into the true holy of holies.
Chapter six closes by emphasizing Jesus’ role as a priest like Melchizedek,
“We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (6:19-20).The psalm which was hinted at in chapter one is now fleshed out in greater detail.
Chapter seven describes the superiority of Christ’s Melchizedekian priesthood to that of the Levites’. As mentioned earlier, Psalm 110 referred to the Davidide as a “priest like Melchizedek” (Ps 110:4). In the second temple period, this psalm was read as a description not simply of past Davidic kings but as a description of a coming eschatological messianic figure (cf. 11QMel). The author of Hebrews argues that since Psalm 110 describes another priesthood—not the Levitical priest—the Levitical priesthood was transitory.
“If perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron” (Heb 7:11)In other words, since the psalm—written long after the establishment of the Levitical priesthood—mentions another priesthood, it is clear that the Levitical system was only penultimate. It would eventually be surpassed. This has finally taken place in Christ.
The author goes on to describe the way Christ has brought about forgiveness of sins, fulfilling the promise of Jeremiah: “The days will come, says the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah… I will remember their sins no more” (Heb 8:8, 12). Of course, this passage is also used by Christ at the Last Super: “This is cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20; cf. 1 Cor 10:25).
The ultimate sacrifice was made by the Lord Jesus. He has entered into the true sanctuary, the heavenly sanctuary—of which the earthly was only a copy, a “shadow” (Heb 8:5). The earthly Levitical sacrifices were unable to take away sins—they were only a shadow of what was to come (Heb 10:1-4). The Levitical sacrifices were unable to “perfect the conscience of the worshipper” (Heb 9:9-10). Christ has borne the curse of death triggered by the sin of Israel (Heb 9:15-22). Whereas the Levitical sacrifices had to be made over and over again and the Day of Atonement rites had to be repeated annually, Christ is sacrificed once and for all:
“And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, then to wait until his enemies should be made a stool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Heb 10:11-12; cf. also 9:28).It is noteworthy here that the author cites once again from Psalm 110: “Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool” (Ps 110:1).
Christ’s offering fulfills what the Day of Atonement foreshadowed:
“Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, ad since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Heb 10:19-22).Notice here how Christians are described as having been purified with a ritual washing—an image drawn from the high priest’s preparation for service on the Day of Atonement (cf. Lev 16:4). This seems to be a reference to baptism.
The book of Hebrews associates the Christian practice of meeting together (presumably for worship) with the "sacrifice for sins” (Heb 10:26). Here the liturgical celebration is linked with Christ's sacrificial offering. In fact, though the Eucharist is not explicitly mentioned, there are some possible traces of Eucharistic motifs.
For one thing, though the author of Hebrews depicts Christ as acting as the high priest on the Day of Atonement, his priesthood is consistently said to be not a Levitical priesthood but, rather, Melchizedekian. Significantly, Melchizedek’s sacrifice was not an animal but “bread and wine” (Gen 14:19)—the Eucharistic elements. Likewise, the final reconciliation wrought by Christ is described in terms of Jeremiah’s New Covenant prophecy, which the early Church associated with Christ’s institution of the Eucharist (Luke 22:20; 1 Cor 10:25).
Finally, at the end of the book we read: “We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat” (Heb 13:10). This seems to be an allusion to the Eucharistic celebration. Furthermore, the author then goes on to describe a “sacrifice of praise,” which seems to be an allusion to the todah offering. This offering also was associated with the sacrifice of bread and the drinking of wine. But we will discuss the todah in a future essay…
(Read Part 6.)
 This is more difficult than it sounds. The worship of these gods (and other pagan deities) apparently involved sexual immorality (cf. Exod 32:6, 25; Num 25:2, 6-9). A liturgical trade up for the cult of Yahweh meant the renunciation of this kind of sexual practice—a habit hard to break.
 In 32:2-5 Aaron takes charge of the situation, commanding the people to give their jewelry for the god-building project, fashioning the molten image himself with a “graving tool” and erecting an altar to it (Exod 32:5). He even proclaims, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” However, later, Aaron downplays his role, explaining to Moses how the golden calf appeared almost miraculously: “I threw [the jewelry] into the fire and there came out this calf” (Exod 32:24).
 Specifically, it seems that the first born sons of Israel were identified with the role of priests. The Levites seem to replace them. See for example, Numbers 3:44-45. See Jacob Milgron, The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers (New York: The Jewish Publication Society), 17-18: “Thus the Bible may be preserving a memory of the first-born bearing sacred status; his replacement by the Levites may reflect the establishment of a professional, inherited priestly class” (p. 18).
 ST IIa, 102, 3. For further analysis see, Steven Benin, The Footprints of God. New York: New York University Press, 1993.
 Moshe Weinfeld, “The Loyalty Oath in the Ancient Near East.” UF 8 (1976): 379-414.
 Earnest Crawley, Oath, Curse, and Blessing (London: Watts & Co., 1934), 58-59.
 Kalluveettil shows how the Hebrew word berît is used to describe a marriage. Paul Kalluveettil, Declaration and Covenant (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1982) 14.
 Another clear example of this kind of covenant failure is Ezekiel 17:12-19, which describes the way the king of Babylon triggered the covenant curse of death.
 The presentation here is heavily influenced by Scott Hahn’s analysis in Kinship by Covenant: A Biblical Theological Study of Covenant Types and Texts in the Old and New Testaments. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1995; also see “A Broken Covenant and the Curse of Death,” CBQ 66 (2004): 416-436.
 The language here is quite similar to that of 1 Peter 3:21, which links baptism with purifying the conscience of the believer.
 Indeed, many have argued that the subtlety of the author’s treatment may reflect the arcane disciplina. For a full treatment of Eucharistic themes see Darrell J. Pursiful, The Cultic Motif in the Spirituality in the Book of Hebrews. Lewiston, NY: Mellen Biblical Press, 1993. Also see Hahn, Kinship by Covenant, 622-30.
 See James Swetnam, “The Crux at Hebrews 5, 7-8,” Biblica 81 (2000): 354-61.