The Hebrew term "kaphar" (H3722) means to 'make atonement', 'propitiate', 'cover over [sin]', 'cleanse', etc, and is used about 90 times in the Old Testament (mostly in regards to sacrifices, which we would expect). I will highlight (in red) some very clear examples of atonement/propitiation taking place in the Old Testament (where "kaphar" appears) that doesn't involve a transfer of punishment at all, but rather a 'turning away of wrath' all together.
Genesis 32:20 [Jacob] thought, "I may appease him [Esau] with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterward I shall see his face. Perhaps he will accept me."The account of Genesis 32:13-21 is of Jacob reuniting with his brother Esau. For those who know the infamous past between the two, they will know the brothers were not on good terms. In this case, Jacob planned to appease ('atone') his brothers wrath against him by offering him a gift. In no sense was Jacob going to deflect his brother's wrath onto an innocent third-party.
Exodus 30:15-16 "When you take the census of the people of Israel, then each shall give a ransom for his life to the LORD when you number them, that there be no plague among them when you number them. ... The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel, when you give the LORD’s offering to make atonement for your lives."Here, Moses is given instructions (Exodus 30:11-16) for a 'census tax' on the Israelites. What is especially interesting (and very significant) is that this 'atonement' is described in terms of a "ransom" (H3724 "kopher," which is very similar to the Hebrew word for "atonement"). This is significant because Christ's Life is frequently described in terms of 'ransom' and 'redemption' (both terms refer to 'buying back' something at a price). Here the ransom/atonement protects them from experiencing a plague due to God's wrath against disobedience. But nothing here suggests wrath is deflected on a substitute.
Exodus 32:30 The next day Moses said to the people, "You have sinned a great sin. And now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin."
Psalm 106:19-23 They made a calf in Horeb and worshiped a metal image. ... Therefore he [God] said he would destroy them had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him, to turn away his wrath from destroying them.
Deut 9:13-29 You had made yourselves a golden calf. ... Then I [Moses] lay prostrate before the LORD as before, forty days and forty nights. I neither ate bread nor drank water, because of all the sin that you had committed, in doing what was evil in the sight of the LORD to provoke him to anger. For I was afraid of the anger and hot displeasure that the LORD bore against you, so that he was ready to destroy you. But the LORD listened to me that time also.Exodus 32 describes the infamous Golden Calf story, which is retold at various other times in Scripture because of it's great scandal and sin. Clearly, the Lord listened to Moses' intercession and penance, making atonement form them and sparing the entire nation from total annihilation. This is a far cry from God redirecting His wrath onto a substitute, namely Moses himself.
Numbers 16:41-50 Moses said to Aaron, "Take your censer, and put fire on it from off the altar and lay incense on it and carry it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone out from the LORD; the plague has begun." So Aaron took it as Moses said and ran into the midst of the assembly. And behold, the plague had already begun among the people. And he put on the incense and made atonement for the people. And he stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was stopped.This is another infamous story of Korah's Rebellion, and here the Israelites are grumbling against Moses and God, which resulted in a plague across their camp. As with the previous examples, we see the theme of intercession (through good works, like incense) for the sinners, appeasing/propitiating God's wrath, and not an innocent party taking the fall.
Numbers 25:1-13 "Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. 12Therefore say, 'Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace, 13and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel.'"
Psalm 106:30-31 Then Phinehas stood up and intervened, and the plague was stayed. And that [good work] was counted to him as righteousness from generation to generation forever.If the last few examples were not enough, Numbers 25 describes yet another major sin and rebellion of the Israelites. This time a new hero steps up, makes atonement ("turns away my wrath"), and rather than taking the wrath upon himself, he receives a blessing instead.
Numbers 31 describes the account in which the Lord led His people successfully into battle, and which they gave to God an offering of the spoils as an "atonement" for them for His Providential protection and victory. (The term for "offering" here is "korban" which is a term regarding sacrificial gifts and animals, especially in Leviticus.) As with previous examples, it makes no sense that atonement can be made with sacrificial offerings if the Protestant theory is correct in that atonement can only be made if wrath is turned on an innocent substitute.Numbers 31:49-50 "Your servants have counted the men of war who are under our command, and there is not a man missing from us. And we have brought the LORD’s offering, what each man found, articles of gold, armlets and bracelets, signet rings, earrings, and beads, to make atonement for ourselves before the LORD.
The first of these two passages is very interesting in that it explicitly says "love and faithfulness" atones for sin! That's very incompatible with the Protestant notion, but very much in line with many of the previous passages which demonstrate how atonement is made. The second of the two passages is about wisely appeasing wrath (through pleasing the king in some way), and makes no sense to say a wise man takes the wrath as a substitute.Proverbs 16:6 By steadfast love and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for
Proverbs 16:14 A king’s wrath is a messenger of death, and a wise man will appease it.
Now, some might object that all of the above examples are of a different nature than the Levitical animal sacrifices, and thus any implications drawn from the above examples are (at most) of secondary importance to understanding the 'real meaning' of animal sacrifices (i.e. Penal-Substitution). While this objection has some merit, the burden is on the Protestant to show why the Levitical sacrifices don't (and cannot!) follow the same principle of the previous examples - anything less would be begging the question. That said, there is good reason for us to examine the Levitical sacrifices to see what can be drawn from them.
One of the most definitive texts regarding animal sacrifices comes from Leviticus 17:10-11,
"If any one of the house of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.The reason why blood is forbidden is because it is the 'life-force' of all living things (not to be confused with the soul), and thus carries a sacred function, making atonement. What is important to note is that the blood makes atonement in virtue of it's life-force, not in virtue of it being spilled. In other words, the focus here is not that something innocent took the death penalty, but rather that the value of life is of such a worth that it can make atonement for sin. This point is made especially clear in the New Testament:
[Know] that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. (1 Peter 1:18-19)Here, there is a clear link between "ransom" and the lamb's "blood," as well as a contrast to how Christ's Blood infinitely surpasses the value of silver and gold. Thus, the point of the blood here has nothing to do with transferring a punishment, thus Penal Substitution is not the framework the Jews were operating within. With this in mind, the various Levitical sacrifices can be examined.
The four basic sacrifices were the Burnt Offering (Lev 1), the Grain Offering (Lev 2), the Peace Offering (Lev 3), and the Sin Offering (Lev 4). These could be offered individually, or in combination, all depending on the circumstances (for example, a major Jewish holiday could require multiple sacrifices, even many of the same type). What is interesting, or better yet very revealing, was that while these different offerings varied in function, they none the less were similar in their instructions. For example, advocates of Penal Substitution state that the instructions to 'lay your hand upon the head' (e.g. Lev 4:4) of the animal before killing it entailed the imputing of the sinner's guilt to the animal, and the consequent transfer of the punishment to the innocent substitute. But this is simply presumption, for nowhere does the text indicate this is intended to 'transfer guilt'. And that is not all, the biggest flaw in that argument is that sacrifices not involving sin, such as the Peace Offering, involved virtually the same instructions of laying on hands on the animal's head and killing it (e.g. Lev 3:2), thus pointing away from such an assumption. Rather, such an act of touching the animal's head must have been some rite of dedication. And the simple fact that sacrifices not involving sin were killed is a serious blow against the whole Penal Substitution framework. Another fact that militates strongly against the Penal Substitution system is instructions such as those found in Leviticus 5:11-13, which states that if someone cannot afford an animal for a sin offering, a sack of flour can be used instead. (Clearly, a sack of flour cannot receive the death penalty.) A final note is that often the one killing the animal and the one making atonement were not the same person, and this disunion of those two events conflicts with Penal Substitution. Typically, the sinner killed the animal, and from there the Levitical priest applied the blood according to the proper ritual in order to make atonement for the sin (e.g. Lev 4:27-31). Given factors such as these (and there's more), the advocate of Penal Substitution is not only assuming what he is trying to prove with the Levitical sacrifices, he is in fact going against the Biblical evidence.
Some final passages dealing with atonement that are worthy of brief consideration:
(a) Exodus 21:30 is a civil statute of the Torah, which teaches if a farm animal is known for being violent, and kills an innocent fellow Jew, the owner is subject to the death penalty, though a monetary "ransom" (Hebrew: kopher, see note above) can be paid instead, "redeeming" the owner's life.
(b) Numbers 35:31-33 teaches that murder and manslaughter cannot be ransomed for, and this is because such crimes are so serious that nothing short of the killer's own life can pay for it. This is significant because the animal sacrifices would not serve to atone for such sins either, directly disproving the notion the death-penalty can be transferred to an innocent animal (and thus the OT sacrifices didn't operate in a Penal-Substitution framework). In fact, the sin offerings of the Levitical sacrifices were primarily concerned with "unintentional" (e.g. Lev 4:2) and minor sins (not requiring the death penalty), where as major (intentional) sins had one permanently "cut off" from the Israelite people (e.g. Num 15:27-30).
(c) Closely related to the previous two points are the instructions given in Deuteronomy 21:1-8, dealing with the unknown murder of an individual. Since the killer is unknown, the closest village must kill a cow there to symbolically rinse their hands of any responsibility. There is no transfer of death penalty here since the actual killer is not going free. Instead, the concept being conveyed is that God abhors 'unsolved murders' because such is a monstrous injustice to Him and society.
(d) Atonement is sometimes made for non-living things, such as the altar (Ex 29:36-37; Lev 16:33), the land (Num 35:33), a house (Lev 14:49-53), and in such cases is used for "cleansing" an unsanctified object. Though this involved the killing of animals, it obviously couldn't have had anything to do with transferring punishment.
(e) A few texts speak of making atonement either by 'sacrifice or gift offering' (e.g. 1 Sam 3:14; 2 Sam 21:3-4), indicating atonement is made due to something's value and not a matter of transferring punishment.
Conclusion: After observing how OT Scripture uses the term "atonement" (as well as related terms like "ransom"), one does not see the concept of Penal Substitution being taught. Since the OT points to and foreshadows the NT, clearly one has no precedence from which to assume Penal Substitution is what ended up taking place in the NT, especially given Christ's sacrifice is very frequently linked to the Levitical sacrifices (especially all through the Book of Hebrews). Instead, there is both direct and indirect evidence clearly supporting the Catholic notion of the atonement, popularly called "Satisfaction," which will hopefully be covered in a future post.