God to Moses: No substitutionary sacrifices allowed

January 23, 2008 at 4:31 pm 12 comments

With the doctrine of substitutionary atonement on my mind lately, I was intrigued reading Exodus 32. The idea of atonement through a substitutionary sacrifice is pretty central to Christianity, but what is striking about this chapter is that God is presented as rejecting substitution as a legitimate method of making atonement.

Here’s the setting: Exodus 32 relates the story of the golden calf and Moses’ subsequent intercession before God on behalf of the Israelites.

After making the people grind up their golden idol into powder and drink it, Moses returns to God on the mount and offers his life on behalf of the Israelites so God will not destroy them:

Then Moses returned to the LORD, and said, “Alas, this people has committed a great sin, and they have made a god of gold for themselves.

“But now, if You will, forgive their sin–and if not, please blot me out from Your book which You have written!”

The LORD said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot him out of My book.

“But go now, lead the people where I told you Behold, My angel shall go before you; nevertheless in the day when I punish, I will punish them for their sin.” (Exodus 32:31-34)

As Peter Enns notes in the NIV Application Commentary on Exodus, Moses is actually acting in keeping with the divine command to offer sacrifices for sin: he suggests himself as a sacrificial offering. “By being blotted out of the book of life, perhaps he can bring life to his people. The death of one will bring life to the many” (590).

But interestingly, even though God spares Israel, He rejects Moses offer of himself as a substitute.

Why? According to God, it’s because the guilty should be punished, not the innocent. Enns again:

Moses’ death will not make things right because his actions did not make things wrong in the first place. God says he cannot simply transfer the people’s guilt onto one man. Guilt stays with the person who sins and who must pay the price. (590)1

No further thoughts here, except that it seems to me this story has potential to augment the traditional evangelical understanding of Christ’s substitutionary atonement for humanity. How does God decide when to allow substitutionary atonement, and when not to allow it?

1 Note: I should make clear that Enns does believe in substitutionary atonement. In his commentary on this passage, he says that Moses was rejected as a substitute because he was not sinless himself. What was needed was a blameless substitute who actually could bear sin, and this is why Christ can make a substitutionary sacrifice for us where Moses could not:

This is the great mystery of the death of Christ. He was guilty. Our sins were put on him and conversely taken off of us. He was worthy of bearing our guilt because he himself was without guilt. (590)

Enns might have a point, but his particular logic here is not persuasive to me. God rejected Moses’ offer of substitution not because Moses was sinful, but because it is not right to punish the innocent in place of the guilty. Still, the biblical story, and Enns’ commentary on it, is thought provoking, so I thought I’d share.


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The problem of the ascension The mutableness of God

12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Tyler  |  January 24, 2008 at 11:16 am

    Strictly speaking, God doesn’t actually say why he rejected Moses’ offer, does he?

    I’m not sayin’ it was because Moses didn’t say “please”, or anything like that… but I wonder if it could be due to other extenuating circumstances — perhaps fact that Moses is not Christ, and thus any substitution would involve permanent, complete, and total death on Moses’ part, and God refuses to allow Moses to do that when there’s a long-term win-win option in Christ’s life/death? (ok, that’s a gross oversimplification, but still.)

  • 2. David Ketter  |  January 25, 2008 at 8:48 pm

    Well…interesting thought. But if this is what the text means, the rabbinic authorities completely missed it, because as Rashi, Moses was essentially saying, “Erase my name from the entire Torah, so that they will not say about me that I was unworthy to beg mercy for them [the Israelites].”

    That said, consider the larger context. Moses was essentially saying, “-Take one nation that You want to make from my descendants in the place of this nation Israel that you’ve brought out of the iron furnace!” It’s lex talionis.

  • 3. doclucio  |  February 1, 2008 at 8:18 pm

    God seems full of these mystifying choices. 5 times in Lev. God pronounces the death penalty for anyone who sacrifices his child to Molech. (Yet God “tested” Abraham to do the very same thing.) King Manasseh sacrificed children to Molech and later repented and God accepted his conversion. Yet 70,000+ died in Israel when David presumed to conduct a census (clearly without knowing God would react the way He did).

    Maybe God greatly hated child sacrifices because they obscured the only human sacrifice that would make a difference to the human race. That could help explain why Moses’ substitution was inadequate. I think there is too much ancillary evidence throughout Scripture to back up the notion of sub. atonement that makes Ex. 32 nothing better than a question mark if anything.

    There are lots of unanswered questions…but good work! You are really making me think.

  • 4. Charles Churchill  |  February 6, 2008 at 1:08 pm

    I’m going to agree with Tyler. God doesn’t say in his refusal why he rejected Moses’ offer, he just says that the only one he will blot out of his book are those that have sinned against Him. Moses’ offer is similar to Paul’s statement in Romans 9 where he says that he could wish himself accursed for Israel’s sake.

    And when you think about it, it makes sense that God would reject Moses’ offer. God had already made a sacrifice through Jesus Christ, and though at Moses time, Christ had not come yet, from God’s perspective, it is no different than when Paul make a similar offer post-resurrection. Why would God extend salvation to those who had rejected His Son?

    Of course, this depends on you believing that all men from all times are saved by the shed blood of Christ, and we haven’t talked enough for me to know where you stand on that.

    Thanks for the post,
    I’ve missed dropping by here,

  • 5. occasional lurker  |  February 19, 2008 at 7:44 pm

    An occasional lurker here. Slightly off-topic here, but since you’ve been posting so much on substitutionary atonement I thought you might like to know of some books which should be thought-stimulating. And all the authors are British – a trans-Atlantic perspective might prove refreshing!

    The Cross of Christ – John Stott. His magnum opus, probably one of the best all-time books on the cross.

    Pierced for Our Transgressions – Michael Ovey, Steve Jeffery & Andrew Sach. A book that was borned out of some atonement controversies in Britain, it defends penal substitution robustly. It has a bit of a Calvinist slant, but even if you don’t lean that way, this is still a very good book.

    The Message of the Cross – Derek Tidball. Looks at all the key passages that aid in our understanding of the cross. Also richly devotional in tone.

    The Wondrous Cross – Stephen Holmes. A little book that succintly deals with all the biblical and historical material, and showcases the rich mutifaceted nature of the cross.

    Hope this might be of use (or not)!

  • 6. Alan Kahan  |  February 22, 2008 at 9:00 am

    As a Jew who found this by accident, it occurs to me you reject a priori what you correctly argue IS one of the points of Exodus 32. God does indeed reject substitutionary atonement. Period. Not to mention the drinking of the Golden Calf can be easily seen as analogous to rejecting the Mass.

  • 7. Carl  |  February 23, 2008 at 5:49 am

    It’s worth noting that no one bothered to use substitutionary atonement before Anslem, and in the East, the Orthodox continue to maintain that Christ’s sacrifice was *not* to appease the Father, but part of a larger process of “defeating Death by death” and making the saved holy enough to withstand being in the presence of the Divine through their participation in His Body, Energies, etc.

    So, if the text is against SA, it’s not necessarily a problem for Christianity, just SA.

  • 8. Theodore A. Jones  |  October 29, 2008 at 2:26 pm

    The doctrine of substitutionary has a greater problem than Ex. 32. See Gen. 9:5 NIV. No man’s life can be taken by bloodshed for any reason and it NOT be accountable to God. This makes the concept of substitutionary unperfectable or in other words a lie. Hummmmmmmmmmmmm.

  • 9. Pat Killian  |  October 23, 2009 at 9:49 am

    IIn order to understand substitutionary sacrifice you must be a christian because the Word says things of God can only be understood through the Holy Spirit which we are born of when we receive Jesus into our hearts. We must accept what He did for us when He went to the cross. Only He could have been our substitutionary sacrifice because He was the only one who is the Son of God. Because Moses was born in sin and was only a human he could not have been the ss.

  • 10. Václav Janča  |  April 16, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    I don’t see Moses offering himself as sacrifice here. I see him saying: If you want to kill them, then kill me too. (not kill me instead)
    What do you think?

  • 11. Matthewhew  |  February 22, 2013 at 1:32 pm

    To say Moses did not believe in substitution atonement is to not read all the writings of Moses. While I agree it may not be completely articulated here, that does not mean Moses does not believe it.

    For example, on the day of Atonement (Lev. 16), he wrote that the priest’s sins would be cleansed based on the killing of the bull. Also, the goat and scape goat are a clear teaching of substitutionary atonement. And God was to forgive their sins based upon this action.

    The Passover seems to teach the same.

  • 12. Jack wolfe  |  November 28, 2016 at 5:34 pm

    Jesus Christos crap is a FALICY.

    “He was worthy of bearing our guilt ” balcony.
    He was not the sacrifice nor did he ever exists. God says “Israel,the people is his son, even his first born”


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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

Email me: jamie.kiley@gmail.com

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