Category Archives: Atonement

Reconciliation: Something We Do or Something God Does?

In the first post on this topic I gave some context in which this conversation about reconciliation has been taking place. The second post explored ways in which we avoid dealing with reconciliation as a real practice within our community. In this post I want to explore some of the ways we might begin to take steps toward reconciliation and what might make that possible.

You may have noticed all of the qualifiers in that last sentence. That’s because the question I wrestle with is whether this is something we do or something God does? Continue reading


Jubilee is Salvation (Leviticus 25:9-10)

The second thing I noticed (Read What Shall We Eat? for the first) in re-reading Leviticus 25 is that the Jubilee is explicitly connected to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. This is the pinnacle of the sacrificial system to which Jesus’ death and resurrection has often been compared. While I don’t think that the sacrificial system is the only lens through which Jesus’ life, death and resurrection was or should be understood, it certainly is an important one both in Scripture and in the Christian tradition. So, what does it mean then that the Jubilee is supposed to be initiated by a shofar blast on the Day of Atonement?

If you just google Yom Kippur and Jubilee you will quickly find a lot of nonsense about the rapture happening on Yom Kippur in the year of Jubilee. That is not what this post is about. This is about the connection between the social practices found in the Jubilary code and its association with the cultic religious ritual of Yom Kippur. I would like to explore a series of questions concerning this connection: What is the role of the shofar and its connections to both religious and social contexts? What is the religious significance of Yom Kippur? Why is it connected to the Jubilee (or conversely why do we disconnect them)? Finally, what does this connection tell us about the nature of salvation in terms of Jubilee?

When was the shofar used?
The shofar was used in different contexts, but primarily announced full religious holidays. This was also the case with the Jubilee which was connected to the religious festivals that marked the Jewish calendar.

The sound of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah announced the jubilee year, and the sound of the shofar on Yom Kippur proclaimed the actual release of financial encumbrances. (from Wikipedia)

It is interesting to note that the shofar was also used as a call to arms when Israel went to war. The most famous instance of this use of the shofar is certainly from the book of Joshua when the blast of the shofar horn brought down the walls of the city of Jericho. M. Douglas Meeks describes the significance of that event in his book God The Economist.

The blowing of the Jubilee horn (shofar) in the story of Joshua is the symbol of what brings down the rotten economy of Jericho. (89)

The theology of war in the Hebrew Bible was that the battle always belonged to YHWH. Often battles were won through some sort of trickery which sometimes avoided bloodshed and often avoided the Israelites committing violence (e.g. Gideon in Judges 7). When Israel ignored YHWH and tried to fight their own battles their efforts were typically thwarted. This is not to excuse the violence in the Hebrew Bible that is clear and difficult to understand, particularly when commanded by God.

My point is that there is a theological thread throughout the Hebrew Bible that says YHWH will fight the battles for Israel. In this context the blast of the shofar that brought down the walls of Jericho could certainly be interpreted as proclaiming liberation from economic domination and oppression and the institution of a new economy. It is also important, as we will see shortly, that there was not the clear distinction between sacred and secular that we try to draw today. Thus, the shofar as a sacred instrument proclaimed Jubilee both in the temple and on the battlefield.

What does Yom Kippur mean?
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the culmination of the Jewish year. In the Hebrew Bible this was the ritual when the High Priest placed his hands symbolically on the head of a goat designating it “Azazel”. This transferred the sins of the people to the goat which was then driven out into the wilderness. This is where the term “scapegoat” comes from. Through this ritual the entire community was purified, their sins atoned for. In other words, this was a chance for the community to start from scratch in their relationship to YHWH. It was also an opportunity for repentance as the community recognized their sins and brokenness. There was now new possibility for living a new way.

What has the Jubilee to do with Yom Kippur?
According to Jubilee USA the practical connection between the Jewish calendar and the year of Jubilee worked like this:

From Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur of the fiftieth year, slaves would not return home but would not work either. The fields would not return to their hereditary owners, but the owners would eat, drink and rejoice with their crowns upon their heads. Then, when Yom Kippur arrived, the slaves would return home and the fields would revert to their hereditary owners.

So, there is very explicit connection between the practice of Jubilee (theoretically at least) and the rhythms of the Jewish calendar. The Jubilee is announced at Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, but this is only the beginning. It’s also interesting to point out that the Jewish new year begins in Autumn at the end of the harvest. The new year begins when the possibilities of the earth have been exhausted for that year and we turn to look toward the possibilities of next season. In light of the previous post which talked about the divinely abundant harvest promised prior to the Jubilee, this moment of turning from an incredible provision beyond expectations to the year of liberation ahead is heightened that much more.

The culmination of the Jubilary practices coincides with the culmination of the religious calendar on Yom Kippur when the Jubilee is proclaimed in its fullness and fulfilled completely. Jubilee is a process. It does not occur all at once. It is first declared and the enacted. This is the way many understand the nature of the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed. This new order or economy is first proclaimed and embodied by Jesus, but we are now in the process of enacting the fullness of that declaration with the promise that it will someday be complete.

What has the Jubilee to do with Atonement?
So, the very practical social ethic of the Jubilee has been intimately linked to the religious calendar of the Jewish people. This is to be expected from a worldview that did not distinguish the sacred from the secular. The practice of the Jubilee is the enacting of the divine economy within the community and is therefore inextricably linked to Israel’s relationship to YHWH maintained through the temple practices and rituals including Yom Kippur.

The Jubilee, or “Year of the Lord’s favor”, is picked up by Isaiah (61:1-3) and later Jesus (Lk 4:19) and made central to the identity of God’s people in both testaments. Further, Jesus’ work on the cross has been understood in relationship to the sacrificial system in Israel. He is called the “Lamb of God” by John the Baptist (Jn 1:29) and later in another John’s vision in Revelation (Rev 5:6-8; 7:10). So, Jesus identifies his mission with the Jubilee and the Jubilee is intertwined with the sacrificial system by which we have tried to understand the cross. Therefore whatever we want to say about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, it must include this understanding that the proclamation of new beginnings on Yom Kippur is also the declaration of the radical new economy of the Jubilee. Salvation is Jubilee and vice versa.

Blood Cries Out (Leviticus 17)

Leviticus 17:11 For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.

Many people are squeamish about blood in general. The sight of blood makes them nauseous or faint. Some people also get a kind of theological nausea when blood is mentioned in the context of the Bible and especially in terms of Jesus and atonement. Homebrewed Christianity did a great series of interviews on Christology and two of the theologians wanted to reclaim blood imagery as important and even vital to a proper understanding of Jesus and the cross. There is a desire to sanitize the cross on both the right and left end of the spectrum (whatever those terms mean). On one end the violence of the cross only has to do with my individual personal sin and the blood is a magic spiritual talisman that takes away our guilt without having to lift a finger. On the other end the violence of the cross is described as “divine child abuse”. All blood language is therefore shunned as some kind of sadistic and/or masochistic way of understanding Jesus. Is there a better way to understand and incorporate blood imagery and symbolism into our theology? And what might all of this have to do with food?

Leviticus 17 is primarily concerned with blood. God forbids the Israelites to eat blood. Verse 11 (quoted above) sums up the reasoning for this prohibition. The assumption of any prohibition is that there are some people who are doing that which is being prohibited. There were likely other cultures and religions around them that consumed blood as part of their religious rituals. Lines were not as neatly drawn between Israelites and others as we often think. Clearly there was a lot of mixing between peoples, perhaps in marriage and certainly through commerce. As today cross-cultural relationships can be tricky. There’s a temptation to just accommodate to what’s around you. The opposite impulse is to erect barriers and isolate yourself to maintain a distinct identity. We see both things happen in the Bible and both are cautioned against.

Let us consider the meaning of the first phrase, “For the life of a creature is in the blood”. Perhaps other groups consumed blood for exactly this reason, believing that consuming the life would give them strength and more life. I don’t know specifics about which cultures believed or practiced these things, but it seems plausible and common in many different cultures. Maybe it was the Aztecs who believed eating the heart or other organs of their enemies or even heroic members of the tribe would transfer the characteristics to the eater. In this kind of practice the emphasis is on taking. By contrast God is portrayed as the giver of life and that life should be preserved and respected, not taken for self-aggrandizement. The sacrificial system in which the blood of creatures was spilled was intended to maintain, nurture and reconcile the relationship between the Israelites and God.

Nothing But The Blood
This brings us to the second part of the reason given for this prohibition. Blood is an essential part of the sacrificial system. The purpose of spilling blood is to make atonement, to reconcile the relationship between God and Israel as it was inevitably broken. For those who have not butchered an animal this seems pretty foreign, abstract and detached from experience. When done with the proper respect, care and mindfulness, killing an animal for food can be a holy act. You have probably heard that Native Americans would pray to the spirit of the animal they killed, thanking it for the sustenance it provided. Derrick Jensen points out that when you kill something for food you must then take responsibility for the care of that species on which you depend.

My experience of butchering animals for meat is profoundly sacred and sacramental while also very earthy, ordinary and mundane. The hardest part of butchering is certainly that knife’s edge between life and death when one way or another you spill the blood and take life from the animal. The prohibition against consuming the blood recognizes the sacredness of the life that is taken and gives it an honored role in the divine-human relationship.

It also recognizes that redemption and reconciliation do not come without struggle, suffering and violence. We desperately want to sanitize this process, but it is simply not possible. The law is written into nature herself. We cannot pretend that nature is all warm and fuzzy nature preserves and petting zoos. The reality of nature is that things die constantly so that other things can live. Without glorifying the violence present in nature, we must account for its reality in the scheme of things.

There Is Power In The Blood
So, blood then becomes a sign of the reality that change, transformation and even the maintenance of natural relationships involves suffering, death and a degree of violence. Thus the idea that God would fix the brokenness of the world with a wave of God’s magic wand detaches God and ourselves from the reality of the world God intends to redeem, reconcile and renew. Yet, we certainly do not want to condone the violence of the cross as in any way “natural”. So, we must recognize that there is a temptation, or possibility, to allow the theology of the cross to be absorbed and incorporated by Empire in a way that ends up condoning the same violence that killed Jesus.

The blood is what makes the sacrifice meaningful and gives it its substance. Blood prevents the cross from becoming “cheap grace”. This sacrifice stands in contrast to the Empire that claims to take the same life that is freely offered. Thus the blood is a sign both of the suffering and sacrifice involved in the reconciliation and transformation of relationships as well as the brokenness and violence of our relationships to each other and to the earth. Jesus words at the Passover with his disciples, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26:27-28) incorporate this understanding in the Eucharistic practice central to following and understanding Jesus.

I have a final thought that is a bit of a left turn. The Maori people live on a diet of which blood is a large part. I think they actually bleed living animals to make a blood and milk drink that is one of their staples. How would this prohibition and the consequent connections to our understanding of the cross and atonement be understood in the context of people who consume blood as part of their culture? I am always interested in real world examples that challenge theology to recognize some of our cultural prejudices in our doctrines and attempt to rethink them within new contexts that call some of our assumptions into question.

Can I Offer You Something? (Leviticus 1-7)

The only reason I knew anything about the book of Leviticus growing up is because it has lots of weird rules about sex including nocturnal emissions which for a teenager was pretty entertaining. For me and most people the book is a pretty boring collection of rules and regulations about a lot of things that don’t seem to make any sense in our modern world. While there is plenty that remains a mystery to me, this book has become one of my favorites because of some of its key passages (Chapters 19 and 25 being my favorite).

The Divine Meal
That said, the opening chapters do appear to be some of the most boring in the whole Bible. Leviticus 1-7 gives instructions on offerings and sacrifices for the Israelites. There’s lots of detail and repetition and very little seems to connect to a world in which this sacrificial system is non-existent. A few things stand out to me at first glance, especially as it relates to our theme of food. First, the people making these offerings are all farmers. These are agrarian people who are bringing crops and animals that they grew themselves. This changes later and Jesus is not happy about it (see Mt 21:12-13; Mk 11:15-19; Lk 20:45-48; Jn 2:12-25). So, they are directly related to the sacrifice that they offer and it is an agricultural product, food.

The second is that for three of the five kinds of offerings there is no explicit reason given for the offering. The text simply says, “When any of you brings an offering to the Lord…” (Lev 1:2) and goes on with instructions about how it should be done. The instructions for these offerings (burnt, grain and fellowship offerings) conclude with something like “[It is] an offering made by fire, an aroma pleasing to the Lord” (Lev 1:17). While many people and theologians focus on the sin and guilt offerings (especially as they relate to the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection, particularly because of the connections made by the Letter to the Hebrews), these other offerings concern the ongoing relationship of the people to God apart from any need for atonement. This is the meal and the gift in which the people encounter the divine.

The burnt, grain and fellowship offerings are how they continue and maintain a relationship with God and they are intimately connected to the land which produces their sustenance in crops and animals. The burnt and fellowship offerings were to be “without defect” whether it was a cow, sheep or goat. The grain offering was to be “fine flour” whether it was baked into bread or not. In my mind I connect these offerings with the biblical practice of hospitality. It is as if God is a guest and we are preparing a meal to share. This is what we say to guests when they come to our houses. “Can I offer you something to drink or eat?” It is not just about being proper. It is about nurturing a relationship. I’m sure a lot could be added about “hospitality cultures” and the role of hospitality in episodes throughout the Bible, but you can see the basic connection.

Everybody’s Guilty
I noticed a couple of interesting things about the sin and guilt offerings. First, the language is not one of harsh rebuke. It does not say when you really screw up and feel guilty you should come and give an offering to straighten things out and feel better. It says, “When anyone sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden…” (Lev 4:2) There is also language about intentional sin (Lev 5:1-6; 6:1-7), but unintentional sin is referred to as the reason for making either the sin or guilt offering five out of seven times (Lev 4:2, 13, 22, 27; 5:15). Imagine the humility of bringing your most prized possession, “a young bull without defect” (4:3), to atone for something you might have done wrong but didn’t know about.

We would have a hard time practicing this kind of relationship to God in our churches. We are way more concerned about figuring out our own sins (and often everyone else’s as well) and doing what it takes to atone for that sin. Whether it’s confession and penance for Catholics, Eucharist for all Christians or even the fervent prayers of evangelicals and ecstatic worship of charismatics, all are (some in more ways than others) an attempt to atone for intentional, known sin. What does it look like to approach God humbly with a precious offering for our unknown sins?

The second thing I noticed is the communal language concerning the sin offering. “If the whole Israelite community sins unintentionally…When they become aware…the assembly must bring a young bull as a sin offering… This is the sin offering for the community.” (Lev 4:13-14, 21) This is so foreign to our modern sensibilities that it is almost hard to imagine how this would work. How does the whole community even become aware of unintentional sin?Then how do they collectively act together to atone? Certainly there is some hierarchy involved, because “the elders of the community” (Lev 4:15) were to act on behalf of the people. Yet there is still a sense of the communal that our concept of religion, influenced by western individualism and American exceptionalism has a hard time grasping.

Pulling these thoughts together I have two main issues that, I think, this reading raises concerning our understanding of atonement theology and the implications for an agrarian context on the interpretation of the Bible.

First, If our theology of atonement has developed over the centuries by connecting Jesus’ work on the cross to the sacrificial system of the Israelites as outlined in these first chapters of Leviticus, then how would our theology change with a different understanding of the nature and purpose of the sacrificial system? The Bible uses a number of metaphors to understand Jesus’ work on the cross. The judicial language predominates in modern theology where Jesus takes our place in a transaction where he absorbs our guilt and offers a way out of the conundrum of sin. This language does connect somewhat to the practice of the sin and guilt offerings, but these were less than half of the whole sacrificial system and as we have seen they also involved a communal understanding of what took place. So, a better understanding of Jesus’ work that continues to draw on the sacrificial system as a metaphor, or better parallel, should include the communal and unintentional aspects of the sin offering along side our current emphasis.

This broadened understanding of atonement should also include the other offerings that were made. How would we expand our understanding of Jesus’ work on the cross to include the offerings of crops and animals to maintain and nurture a relationship? Could it be that Jesus’ death and resurrection can also be understood as a divine act that attempts to maintain and nurture (even in some ultimate or cosmic sense) the relationship between the divine and human? The fact that Jesus, himself, instituted a meal as the ritual for remembering the sacrifice he would make strongly suggests a connection to the offerings that were in effect divine meals. It also seems that the dual nature of Christ and the idea from Hebrews that Jesus is both the High Priest and sacrifice speak to the work on the cross as somehow transcending the sacrificial system, not by doing away with it, but incorporating it into this new work, the breaking in of the new heaven and new earth. In this way we can balance the traditional emphasis on guilt and repentance, which is important, with the other 3/5 of the sacrificial system which was meant to maintain and nurture the divine/human relationship.

The subtitle of Ellen Davis’ book Scripture, Culture and Agriculture is “An Agrarian Reading of the Bible”. Her book does an incredible job connecting modern agrarian writers and thought to the context of the biblical narrative, primarily the Hebrew Bible. What is left to do after her most helpful contribution is to begin to draw out the implications for our understandings of theological doctrines, such as the atonement, and what’s more our hermeneutic for reading and interpreting our sacred text. The historical-critical method and other schools of interpretation place emphasis on understanding the cultural and historical context in order to interpret the biblical text. While some work has surely been done in this area, most of the scholarship focuses on political, economic, social, cultural and religious realities. It seems that we may have ignored a fundamental dimension of the biblical context which should shape our understanding and interpretation of the text.

The question then becomes whether what we find can be transferred to our current technological society in which we are (in “developed” countries”) far removed from an agrarian lifestyle and worldview, or does the text from an agrarian interpretation stand in judgment of our way of life in relationship to each other and the land? My guess is that the answer is both, but the latter is the aspect of the text that has been neglected. In many ways this is what my Food in the Bible project is really all about. I am trying to reclaim an agrarian reading of the Bible that reads, interprets and judges the context of the world as we experience it today.

The Original Sin of Church and State

I’ve been interested in First People, Native American, indigenous issues ever since I spent two weeks on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. I was working at a Lutheran camp based near Ft. Collins, CO and worked with High School youth groups on week-long service trips. We were invited by the local Arapahoe chief to participate in a sweat lodge. It was an experience I’ll never forget. I’m not so interested in adopting their spirituality or somehow trying to “go native” by putting a dream catcher in my car and wearing lots of topaz. I want to avoid appropriating and co-opting their culture, because it can be easily become another form of colonization, domination and oppression. However, I do believe indigenous people have a lot to teach and remind us about our own traditions and things we’ve lost.

I probably stole this from someone, but I believe that the original sin of the United States (as well as the majority of nation-states in existence today, particularly in the western hemisphere) is what we did to the people that first inhabited the places we now call home. Do we even need to go over the list? Genocide, cultural oppression and extinction, theft of land, desecration of sacred places, broken treaties. The list goes on and continues today. What we in the church often leave out of our theological equations and history of Christianity is the complicity of the church with the state in perpetrating such acts on indigenous people around the globe. I believe strongly that this is a (perhaps THE) most fundamental sin with which we, both church and state, must reckon. Our current economic, political, social arrangement is based on the historical and continuing exploitation of these people, their land and their resources.

Bolivia has the largest percentage of indigenous people in South America (maybe more than Guatemala which has the highest percent in Central America). Three groups make up most of that indigenous population; Quechua, Aymara and Guarani. There are some other groups mainly from the eastern lowlands that I don’t know much about. In Charagua, where I live, we are on the northern edge of the Chaco region, which is the historic home of the Guarani people extending through northern Paraguay and parts of Peru, Argentina and maybe Uruguay and Chile. Needless to say it’s a large region and crosses many of the arbitrary borders that were created by the Spanish. The Chaco War was basically a conflict between Standard Oil and Royal Dutch Shell, none of whose employees participated in the fighting over the border between Paraguay and Bolivia.

This fundamental sin has obviously done damage to indigenous communities everywhere, but some of the effects are more subtle than the more obvious. In working with a couple Guarani communities here, I’ve noticed that they have adopted a lot of industrial agriculture’s methods of production. While they continue to produce a lot of food for their own consumption, they primarily produce commodity crops like sorghum, sesame, corn and soy for sale to large agribusinesses. They use a lot of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to manage their crops. These are people who have lived on this land and handed down knowledge about the local flora and fauna for probably thousands of years. They survived in the harsh Chaco climate for millenia without growing these crops or using chemicals. Now this knowledge is all but lost. There are still lots of people with knowledge about local plants that are edible and good for medicinal purposes. MCC’s head of rural and agricultural programs in Bolivia, Patrocinio, showed me four different weeds that could be used to either make tea or a medicinal salve in my own backyard.

This is the effect of our civilization’s original sin. It harms the people with the knowledge we most need to survive on this planet. How many North Americans could name ten native plants that they could eat in their area? Not many. This is our basic relationship between people across the globe. All of our injustices and inequality come back historically to the exploitation of indigenous people and their land. We cannot simply wish that it remain in the past and somehow move on, forgiving and forgetting. This sin is continuing and we continue to participate in it.

If this is our original sin, for both church and state, how can we, as individuals and churches (I have little hope for the state), find redemption, reconciliation and salvation for our complicity? I would like to suggest that the first thing we can do is learn about the people that used to live on the land that now belongs to our house or are church. We must expand our imaginations past the lifetimes of ourselves and our family to the people that first encountered the white man in our area. How did those people live? How long did they live there? How did they survive? Are any of them still alive? What knowledge still remains from the thousands of years of experience living without oil and coal?

Then we must also expand our imaginations forward into the future. What will the world look like in seven generations if we continue down this path? If there is knowledge left from these people left, what can we learn from it? If there is no knowledge left, what can we do to begin learning about the places where we live? How can we partner with indigenous people to begin to steer this boat the right way and if it turns out to be the Titanic to help get people safely off?

I believe strongly that the salvation of our world (including the church) lies in our relationship to indigenous people around the world. What might this mean for Christian theology? If salvation, in some sense, lies beyond the church (perhaps in order for the church to reclaim her own tradition), what does that mean for how we understand what Jesus did and who the church is? I believe that Jesus birth, life, work, death and resurrection is good news for people that are marginalized and oppressed. Indigenous people are marginalized in a way that seems fundamentally different than others. They have been an obstacle in the way of progress and civilization. Now that we are reaching some of the limits of this project, indigenous people provide an alternative possibility for how to live in the world with each other and with nature.