“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?” says the Lord; “I have had enough of burnt offering of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me, New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
We are beginning a new series on the various Atonement Theories posited by theologians and scholars throughout the ages. Our first Atonement Theory is called the Ransom Theory, which centers on the death of Jesus as a ransom payment for the sins of man. The ransom paid by Jesus settles the debt we owe God for entering into a life of sin at the time of Adam and Eve.
Throughout the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the two books that outline the law as given to Moses, we see countless passages regarding the sacrifice of animals for every occasion imaginable.
Animal sacrifice was a popular custom in the ancient world. It was used primarily to engage in more ritualistic conversations with the gods. Early on in the theology of the Hebrew people, sin against God was particularly egregious and needed to be dealt with through some form of appeasement; a way to keep God from being wrathful toward the people. According to Levitical Law, sacrifices of animals were to be made to atone for the sins of the people. Sin sacrifices were made daily by the priests to mitigate the sins of the community. There was also the Day of Atonement, a special day set aside for the sins of individuals, where folks would make a sacrifice on behalf of their own sins following a full day of repentance to those they had harmed throughout the previous year.
What we see in scripture, though, is a transformation in the understanding of God and how God interacts with the people and what expects from the people. By the time we get to the Prophet Isaiah, we are seeing a different side of God than what was reported in the early life of the people of Israel. This transformation is key to our understanding of God over time.
When God appears to the first humans in the book of Genesis, we see an interactive God who walks among them, who can see their nakedness, who talks directly to the people about his disappointment in them. Later God becomes more distant. By the time God leads the people out of Egypt, God cannot walk among them or have face to face conversations with Moses, he must hide himself in a mist so that Moses does not die. Later we find God becoming even more distant, so distant that David cries out to the mystery that is God because God feels so far away in times of trouble.
Through these various transitions of how the people see or experience God, God also changes his position on how he wants the people to behave. When Isaiah announces at the beginning of his prophecy to the people that God no longer wants their sacrifices, their hands covered in blood, this is a whole new way God is revealing himself to the people. He tells them in this passage that what he really wants is for them to change their lives, to reorient their lives toward being compassionate people who care about the “other” - cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
God’s idea of how they should live changes what God requires of them as a people. But does it mean that they are no longer responsible for sin? Is God saying to the people in this passage that they no longer owe a debt? Or is God changing the cost of their freedom?
To fully comprehend God’s intention, we’d have to crawl into God’s mind and know what he was thinking at this particular moment in history. It is impossible to know the role that sin played in God’s decision to say, “stop sacrificing animals, stop killing in my name.” It is, though, a rather bold statement because it changes the central focus of their worship entirely.
So, how does this affect our understanding of what happened to Jesus on the cross? We have to ask ourselves, “If God doesn’t want sacrifices from the people, why would he demand a sacrifice on behalf of the people?” How are these two things different? What kind of debt does God feel God is owed?
Ransom theory places the debt God is owed at the center of its framework. It posits that sin, something passed down from generation to generation, must be atoned for; but, instead of sacrificing more animals, God will accept this one and final sacrifice, that of his son, to pay the debt.
I suppose if the conversation begins with sin (all the things that we do that violate our relationship with God) then it is easy to see how someone must pay the price for that violation. Sadly, though, this makes me see God in the same way I would see a mobster. The kind of debt owed to God, and the price that is paid (Jesus’ death) seems a rather high price for someone else to pay for my mistakes. Not only to pay for my mistakes, but to pay a price for being human.
This is the part of the equation that is difficult for me to reconcile. God didn’t make humans perfect, as in, without flaw. This is where we struggle the most with the creation story, and it is the foundation upon which we need to build a different kind of understanding of God. Why would God punish his creation for sin, which is actually a product of the free-will we were given from the beginning of time. Our ability to make choices is the hallmark of being human.
As we wrestle each week with these Theories of Atonement, let us remember that we are first, and foremost, created in the image and likeness of God, and that our understanding of God and creation is limited to our own lived experience and the experiences of others. The evolution of our understanding of the divine tells us there is a better way to engage in the world and with our creator than death; it is called compassion—to feel with the other. The only debt we owe to our creator is to live like it matters.