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Leviticus 17:11 and Penal Substitution

According to Calvinists, Jesus took God’s wrath for our sins (substitute) in the form of a blood sacrifice. Part of this teaching is that God required blood before He would forgive sins in the Old Testament, and, therefore, Jesus’ blood appeased God’s wrath towards us. This along with Jesus’ suffering in which God was also filling Him with our sins as He forsook Jesus on the cross.  Jesus became one of these Old Testament sacrifices appeasing God.

Leviticus 17:11 is one of the verses that is misinterpreted to support this belief. It is fairly common to hear Christians quote this verse. However, they normally do not read or quote the full context of the chapter. Most typically focus on the portion of the verse which says; “for its blood shall make atonement for the soul.” If we read this chapter in context  we see that it has nothing to do with God requiring blood for atonement or to be appeased. Thus,  the blood has no effect on God as it is not for Him but for man:

For the life of flesh is its blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for its blood shall make atonement for the soul.

There are a couple of reasons why Leviticus 17:11 should not be used in support of Penal Substitution. The first being that the Bible says, as highlighted above, the blood was given to the Israelites on the altar to make atonement for their souls. It does not say the blood is to be given to God or given to “Me” ( as in give the blood to me, God) to make atonement.

Second, throughout the Old Testament, God informs the prophets that He does not need or desire sacrificial blood to forgive man for their sins (Psalm 32:5, Hosea 6:6, Jeremiah 7:21–24, Isaiah 1:11–16, Psalm 40:6–8, Micah 6:6–8, Mark 12:33, Psalm 51:16–17, Proverbs 16:6, to only highlight a few. (See also Did God Require Sacrifice?)

If God allowed sacrifices rather than required them, then Leviticus 17 proves that He only did so for the Israelites, not for Himself.

If Leviticus 17:11 is read in context with verses 17:10–14, the reader will see that these verses aren’t even directly speaking of sacrifice for sin, but of consuming blood:

10 And whatever man of the children of Israel, or of the strangers abiding among you, shall eat any blood, I will even set My face against that soul that eats blood, and I will destroy that soul from among its people. 11 For the life of flesh is its blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for its blood shall make atonement for the soul. 12 Therefore I said to the children of Israel, No soul of you shall eat blood, and the stranger that abides among you shall not eat blood. 13 And whatever man of the children of Israel, or of the strangers abiding among you shall take any animal in hunting, beast, or bird, which is eaten, then shall he pour out the blood, and cover it in the dust. 14 For the blood of all flesh is its life; and I said to the children of Israel, You shall not eat the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood: everyone that eats it shall be destroyed.

So Leviticus 17, in context, is telling us that man may not eat blood and simply points out what the blood is for.

In the writings of the early Church Fathers, and in some ancient Hebrew writings, sacrifice was allowed by God only after the Israelites made the golden calf. God allowed them to sacrifice, as long as they did it towards Him, in order to wean them from the pagan practices. Sacrifice to false deities being one of those practices they learned while in Egypt.

And that you may learn that it was for the sins of your own nation, and for their idolatries and not because there was any necessity for such sacrifices, that they were likewise commanded. Justin Martyr (A.D. 160) Ante-Nicene Fathers vol.1 pg.206

As, then, circumcision began with Abraham, and the Sabbath and sacrifices and offerings and feasts with Moses, and it has been proved they were given on account of the hardness of your people’s heart, so it was necessary, in accordance with the Father’s will, that they should have an end in Him who was born of a virgin. -Justin Martyr (A.D. 160) Ante-Nicene Fathers vol.1 pg.216.

For God at the first, indeed, warning them by means of natural precepts, which from the beginning He had implanted in mankind, that by means of the Decalogue (which, if any one does not observe, he has no salvation), did then demand nothing more of them…But when they turned themselves to make a calf, and had gone back in their minds to Egypt, desiring to be slaves instead of freemen, they were placed for the future in a state of servitude suited to their wish, which did not indeed cut them off from God, but subjected them to the yoke of bondage. -Irenaeus

Suppose a physician sees a man who is suffering from fever and finds him in a distressed and impatient mood. Suppose the sick man has his heart set on a drink of cold water and threatens, should he not get it, to find a noose and hang himself…The physician grants his patient the lesser evil, because he wishes to prevent the greater evil and to lead the sick man away from a violent death…After he has given into the patient’s craving, he gets a drinking cup from his home and gives instructions to the sick man to satisfy his thirst from this cup and no other. When he has gotten his patient to agree, he leaves secret orders with the servants to smash the cup to bits; in this way he proposes, without arousing the patient’s suspicion, to lead him secretly away from the craving on which he has set his heart…Let me make the analogy clear. The physician is God, the cup is the city of Jerusalem, the patient is the implacable Jewish people, the drink of cold water is the permission and authority to offer sacrifices. -John Chrysostom

Similar thought is found in Ancient Judaism:

A king had a stupid son who was in the habit of eating all sorts of abominations when absent from his father’s table. The king ordered that his son should be indulged in his fancy at his–the king’s own–table, considering this the best means of weaning his son of his objectionable habit. Thus the Israelites, when in Egypt, got into the habit of offering sacrifices to the Egyptian gods; they were therefore commanded to bring the sacrifices which they used to offer to demons (Levit. 17. 7) unto the Tabernacle of the Lord. –Levit. Rabba 22

Jewish philosopher Abarbanel:

Thereupon the Holy One, blessed be He, said “Let them at all times offer their sacrifices before Me in the Tabernacle, and they will be weaned from idolatry, and thus be saved.” -Rabbi J. H. Hertz, The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, p. 562

 

Conclusion

Some doctrines in Calvinism, such as Penal Substitution, reflect not the Bible or the Church, but rather ancient pagan religions. Leviticus 17:11 is another verse taken out of context to support such pagan Calvinistic ideas. God gave sacrifice to man for man, not for Himself.

While it is true that Jesus was a sacrifice, the Bible is very clear about that, His blood did not appease God’s wrath towards us. We are still held accountable for our sins if we do not change and follow Jesus. The Bible tells us that Jesus’ death did many things for us. It opened heaven to us, reconciled us to God, defeated death and was a victory against Satan. Jesus’ death is also suppose to change us, not change God. God does not change, nor does His laws and wrath towards sin.

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