God Turns Sacrifice on Its Head: Leviticus 17:11*
During the Lord’s Supper, we pause to remember and celebrate the central event of Good Friday: Jesus’s death on our behalf. Each time I prepare to eat the bread and drink the wine, I find myself —perhaps surprisingly to most!—repeating a verse from Leviticus: “And I have given the blood to you on the altar to atone for your lives, for it is the blood, by means of the life, that atones” (Lev. 17:11). I repeat that verse because it reminds me of the central realities of Jesus’s sacrificial death.
Life for Life
In Leviticus 17:11, the Lord is explaining to the Israelites how sacrifice is able to result in atonement, which, simply defined, is what happens when God in his love makes a way to deal with our wrongs so that we might be right with him. His explanation of how this happens in sacrifice consists of three points.
First, in sacrifice, an innocent party takes the place of the guilty. The sacrificial lifeblood “atones for your lives,” which are guilty because of your wrongs and justly condemned for the ways you have defiled and vandalized God’s world of goodness, justice, mercy, and love. But the blood—the lifeblood—of a blameless animal has been placed on the altar on your behalf, and that blood, “by means of the life” it represents, makes a way for your wrongs to be forgiven. The penalty that justice requires is not denied, but transferred, taken on by another. The animal’s blood is accepted in place of yours; its blameless life is given as a substitute for your guilty one. It has died that you might live and be forgiven and be made right with God.
This is a picture of exactly what happened on Good Friday. Thus, Peter proclaims, “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18). And Paul exults, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God!” (2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus has died in our place that we might live and be forgiven and made right with God.
A Ransom Paid
The second part of the Lord’s explanation relates directly to the first: in serving as a substitute, a sacrifice ransoms the life of the guilty party. Most scholars agree that the phrase “to make atonement for your lives” refers to ransoming the offerer’s life. In support is the fact that the same phrase occurs in only two other instances and both times has the sense “to ransom your lives” (Exod 30:15–16; Num. 31:50). This means that the animal’s lifeblood serves as a ransom, that is, a mitigated penalty, in place of the one deserved, that delivers the offerer and restores peace to their relationship with the Lord.
Today, we often think of a ransom as the payment made by an innocent party to a guilty one to secure the release of a kidnap victim. But ransom worked differently in Israelite society: the guilty party paid a ransom to the innocent one. For example, if the owner of a dangerous ox knows it is dangerous but fails to guard it, and it kills someone, the owner is held responsible and sentenced to death (Exod. 21:29). The owner can escape this penalty only one way: the victim’s family can choose to allow the owner to pay a ransom in place of dying (21:30). So, the guilty owner pays a ransom to the innocent family, but the innocent party is not obliged to allow this for the guilty one; doing so is an act of mercy and grace.
This picture of ransom is at the heart of sacrifices that make atonement. God is not obliged to make a way for our wrongs to be forgiven. He chooses to because he is a God rich in mercy and grace. And he does so by allowing an innocent life to substitute for a guilty one and in this way ransom us from the penalty we deserve. In his commentary on Leviticus, biblical scholar Baruch A. Levine, citing the acclaimed medieval rabbinic scholar Rashi, brings the idea of substitution and ransom together:
Rashi states: “Blood represents life, and it can therefore expiate for life.” Basic to the theory of sacrifice in ancient Israel . . . was the notion of substitution. The sacrifice substituted for an individual human life or for the lives of the members of the community in situations where God could have exacted the life of the offender . . . This explains the specific intent of the Hebrew formula [behind the phrase] “for making expiation for your lives.” Literally, this formula means “to serve as . . . ransom . . . for your lives.” God accepts the blood of the sacrifices in lieu of human blood.
And he does so as an act of grace. In the place of death—in the place of ending the relationship between himself and the sinner—the Lord allows the sacrifice to serve as the ransom payment. He accepts the animal’s life in place of the offerer’s, saying, in effect, “Though it is far less than you deserve, I will accept this as satisfying the penalty for your wrong, and no longer hold that wrong against you.”
Again, this is a picture of what exactly happens on Good Friday. Jesus himself describes his mission in terms of ransoming the guilty: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). And, once again, in his mercy and grace, the Lord accepts this ransom payment on behalf of the guilty. “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace” (Eph. 1:7). And that leads us directly to the third part of the Lord’s explanation.
God Turns Sacrifice on Its Head
While it is not always as evident in English translations, the Lord emphasizes in Leviticus 17:11 that he himself is making the ransom available. Translated woodenly, the phrase reads, “And I, I have given [the blood] to you on the altar to make atonement for your lives.” The first “I” is unnecessary and emphasizes that the Lord is the one doing this. This is in keeping with the fact that ransom is always an act of grace: the offended party is not obligated to make ransom available but chooses to do so as an act of mercy toward the guilty party. In the case of sacrifice, the offerer tends to think, “I am putting this blood on the altar for the Lord.” But here, the Lord turns that idea on its head. As scholar Baruch Schwartz explains in his essay “Prohibitions Concerning the ‘Eating’ of Blood”:
What our clause does, in its unique, metaphorically graphic way, is to take a set phrase, the “placing” of the blood on the altar, and to reverse the conceptual direction of the action: “It is not you who are placing the blood on the altar for me, for my benefit, but rather the opposite: it is I who have placed it there for you—for your benefit.”
In his mercy and grace, the Lord has provided a way for guilty sinners to be forgiven.
This becomes even more remarkable when we think of what happened on Good Friday. With animal sacrifice, the guilty brought their own sacrifices before the Lord. With Jesus, it is the Lord—the very one we have betrayed and rebelled against—who provides an atoning sacrifice for us! In a stunning reversal that can only be brought about by love, the one who was wronged pays the penalty for those who have committed the wrong so that we might again have fellowship with him. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us!” (Rom. 5:8).
And so, every time I prepare to take the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper, I repeat Leviticus 17:11, and glory that Jesus is my substitute, my ransom, the one who God himself has provided to me in love in order to make a way to deal with my wrongs so that I might be right with him.
* NOTE: Portions of this article are adapted from comments on Leviticus 17 in Jay Sklar, Leviticus: A Discourse Analysis of the Hebrew Bible, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, forthcoming).