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Atonement According to Hebrews

Atonement According to Hebrews December 24, 2014

In his essay in The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology, Nehemia Polen explores what light the letter to Hebrews throws on the purposes and rituals of Leviticus.

Contrary to many popular understanding, the focus of Leviticus is not forgiveness, but rather has to do with the maintenance of Yahweh’s presence among His people. Contrary to much scholarly opinion, Polen doesn’t think that blood is primarily a detergent to cleanse sancta, but rather a “covenant sign . . . [a] reminder of the kinship between God and Israel.” Blood is given on the altar as a sign of the human self reaching contact with God. Blood signifies a “gift of the self,” and the basic meaning of blood atonement is to “renew and restore the sacred bond between God and Israel, collectively and individually.” Quoting Frank Gorman, he affirms that kipper is about “realignment and maintenance of the created cultic order” (219).

Atonement has to be understood in terms of the graded sacred space of Israel, camped around the tabernacle: “the entire Israelite encampment [is] a nested sequence of rectangles. Within the camp is a partitioned space defining the tabernacle’s courtyard where the large bronze altar stood. Within that is the Tent of Meeting; then the innermost part of the Tent, the Holy of Holies; and finally the Ark of the Covenant, with its cover, the Kapporet and Cherubim. Atonement or restoration is found by going to a location beyond one’s normal domain. The Israelite’s offering is brought to the outer alter in the courtyard, but the priest must go to a more inner domain – the Tent of Meeting, or on Yom Kippur, to the Holy of Holies.” He contests Jacob Milgrom’s claim that certain impurities penetrated to the Most Holy Place: “That which is innermost remains pure,” and all the atonement activity further away is “directed toward” the Presence of God on the Ark (221). 

I am unconvinced. It is true that the court was “beyond the normal domain” for lay Israelites, in the sense that they didn’t go there everyday. In the wilderness, though, where all butchering was sacred (Leviticus 17), the court would have been a normal domain. For the priests, the Holy Place was a place of daily ministry. So I think Milgrom has the better of the argument here. That leaves unexplained why the high priest has to go into the Most Holy Place on Yom Kippur, since no one ministers there. But I think Milgrom’s “Picture of Dorian Gray” analogy is plausible: The tabernacle is a mirror of Israel’s religious sociology, and the impurities of various classes “register” in different zones of the tabernacle. The Most Holy Place corresponds to the high priest, and also to Israel, of which the priest is head. And so the sins and uncleanness of Israel register in the most holy place, in Yahweh’s own presence, from which they are removed.


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