In ancient Jewish tradition, the question of what ‘atones’ for sins – part of the bigger question of how God deals with sins, or puts right in us what has gone wrong, or heals in us what has become sick – is complicated.. So many strands to it.. So many arguments and shifts of emphasis in Judaism itself over this question, down the ages.. There is no single, unified notion of Atonement in Judaism.


There is a Satanic element washing around in this Jewish emphasis on ‘atoning for sins.’ It is interesting, because this element is both pagan — the very pagan religiosity that Yahweh was supposed to supplant — as well as Satanic. The pagan element, which so easily becomes Satanic, is to do with buying off, giving a bribe, for your sin, to get you off any consequences that might come back to you because of that sin. So if you kill your neighbour’s ox, you must pay a bribe, a ‘ransom’, to make you all right with the neighbour, or he might kill one of your oxen, or do who knows what? The same idea was applied to God. If by sinning you offended the deity, and got him angry with you, then there had to be a ransom — in truth, a bribe, a buying off — to him as well. This bribe/buying off was in order to change the deity’s attitude toward us; this is therefore nothing more or less than a psychological mechanism for ‘placating’ anger.

There are several elements to such placating of anger..

[a] If you fear the anger of someone or something you have offended by harming what they value, then you offer something you value, of similar value, that will mollify the angry one.

[b] Psychologically, you are terrified of their [unknown] retribution, what they will do to you as a consequence of your sinful act, so you kow tow to them, to avert their wrathful retribution. You go all placatory in the sense of bending the knee, hanging the head, bringing the tail down. You are ‘so sorry’… Actually you are not sorry at all, necessarily, but just greatly fearful of their payback to you. But you must make a show of being all sorry to start taking the edge off their anger with you..

[c] Moreover, you are inescapably caught in this bind because you believe their retribution is ‘just’, after all you harmed something of value to them, so to evade the wrathful retribution justly coming to you, it is necessary you ‘offer’ something of similar value, to make up for what you harmed.. It is a legalistic transaction, a definite ‘tit for tat.’ You believe in retribution, actually, to enter this legalistic/juridical attitude. ‘I took from you, you have a right to take from me.’ This is the way a 4—7 year old child sees ‘justice’, I hit you, thus you hit me. A balancing of the books. This legalising of the transaction is desirable, or preferable to leaving it human and loose, because the whole motive of fear behind it all is only assuaged if there is a fixed and non-revisable formula for ‘me offending you, then getting back into your good books.’ Making this whole exchange legally binding reassures me that you cannot still harbour revengeful motives toward me, which you will act on later down the line. We are OK now= we have to be, because I have done my bit to repay you for what I took from you. We are now even..

[d] Here is where those ugly words ‘expiation’ and ‘propitiation’ — so ugly in English as to be irredeemable and no longer useable, indeed spoiled by theology — enter this juvenile, primitive, picture. You propitiate neighbour or deity — the two cases are always the same — to placate their anger; you expiate your offence by ‘offering’ something to them that not only says you admit you did wrong to them and are sorry [this is really a kind of pleading with them– ‘please don’t hurt me, boss’], but also says you are trying to make restitution by handing over to them something of an equivalent value to what you harmed. This is where the so-called ‘substitutory principle’ comes into play. If I took your blood away, I should lose my blood; so if I killed your brother, I should be killed. But, at less of an extreme, I can give you something of value to me, like an animal, which substitutes for me. So, I give 6 cows to be killed, instead of taking 20 knife cuts to my chest.

In many ancient cultures, the sacrificial element is comprehended wholly in substitutory terms. Sacrifice is not the give-away made by love. Rather, sacrifice refers to what I have to give up in order to propitiate the party I have injured [= mollify them] and expiate for the injury [= compensate them].

For the Jews, this was the idea of ‘blood for blood’, ‘life for life.’ The blood is life, and hence the seat of the soul; so if the soul sinned, then it had to offer something comparable in recompense, and this could only be an equal loss of its blood, an equal loss of its life. But, because no one wants to die or be harmed, the sacrificial substitute is offered instead of the sinner. This is the ‘expiation’ of sin that is allowed, and it is practiced both toward the deity and to other people, but mainly to the deity. Blood from sacrificed animals, like bulls and goats, stands in for the sinner’s life blood, and is offered to the angry deity as a way of reducing his anger.

Expiation therefore overlaps with propitiation, because both are sucked into a system of placating anger. The propitiating is the attitude of kow towing, of pleading towards the anger= ‘I’ll do anything you want if you agree not to blast me to pieces.’ Expiation shares the same exact attitude, and so it means ‘to appease, to propitiate’ in the dictionary; but it also involves how the placating of anger is to be done, is to be secured; so what is asked of me to get you back on board towards me? Must I kill myself? OK, I don’t have to do that, thank god! Must I cut 12 pieces of my flesh away from my body, and offer these to you? OK, I don’t have to do that, thank god! But I must perform a ritual sacrifice, in which I give blood for blood, life for life, and this involves killing a bull, or a goat, and offering its blood, its life, to you — instead of mine.

It stands in for mine, and is a symbol of mine. Through the ‘sacrifice’ or killing of innocent blood, innocent life [an innocent soul], my guilty blood, my guilty life [my guilty soul] repays you for the wrong I did to you, and so this sacrifice, or killing, of the innocent soul [animal] instead of my guilty soul [human] ‘expiates’ my wrong. This is how I repay you, this is my recompense to you; it gets me off the hook of deserved and coming punishment, because in effect an innocent party has stepped into the breach and taken the hit for me.

Clearly, the deity that will be bought off by this kind of ritual and symbolic propitiation and expiation for human sins is not the Old Testament Yahweh, but is in reality one of the arbitrary and certainly not loved, but profoundly feared, tribal deities in the pagan religion of Canaan and the Near East. None of this is Yahweh, thus if there is any truth to the beliefs in [1] an innocent ‘standing in’ as a ‘sacrifice’ for the guilty, and [2] the need for blood to make sacrifice effective, because of the accompanying belief in [3] ‘blood for blood’ and ‘life for life’, then there has to be a radically different way of interpreting [1], [2], and [3]. They have to be entirely recast– or just thrown on the rubbish heap of history.

The ‘god’ whose wrath needs a legalistically codified and fixed repayment for the loss he has suffered to his authority, pride, supremacy, due to our sin is clearly not the true God; but whatever its original ontological and psychological status in ancient pagan religion, this sense of the divine easily and rapidly becomes taken over by the Evil One, Satan the Accuser. Hence, the ‘offended’ deity who demands sin be punished, in the name of justice, is a hateful, vindictive, judgemental, harsh, ‘god’ who has no love for the sinner, as well as no compassion and no mercy, no forbearance and long-suffering patience, no condoning of sin to give people time to amend their lives, no forgiveness of people out of appreciating how radical is their tragedy..

Terminology such as ‘Christ sacrificed his blood to wipe away all our sins’, or ‘Christ’s blood was expiation for all our sins’, is therefore both pagan and potentially Satanic. Whatever this phrase would mean in Hebrew or Greek, in English it is misleading, and in many ways, totally horrendous. It is not clear if Paul [Romans, 3, 24-25] should be criticised for using such language, or the problem lies with the English translators of the Bible, and the whole history of Western theology seizing on ‘propitiation and expiation’ to render the Jewish ‘atonement.’ We cannot interpret ‘atonement’ as propitiation and expiation, without sucking atoning into a pagan and Satanic world where there is no love from God towards humanity, where sacrifice has nothing to do with love, where only fear and anger dominate the landscape– making that landscape emotionally and psychologically ‘dark’, as you see in fundamentalist accounts of atoning, but to an extent in all Western doctrines of atonement from Augustine through Anselm to Calvin. These people are all worshipping Satan as their ‘god.’ They do not know the true God at all..

On the foundation of the pagan deity whose anger people fear, but towards whom people have no love, Satan builds his court house, and renders ‘god’ into an unloving and hence unfair judge and jury, vengefully out for blood!

This is why, as so many Eastern Orthodox have pointed out, Western Atonement says, in effect, that the sinner must be saved from God!

It is God who threatens the poor sinner, not even the sin as such; thus the emphasis is on changing God’s threateningly negative attitude toward us– not on our repentance for sin which leads to a change of attitude in us [toward God and neighbour].

Moreover, changing God’s attitude toward us is a magical act, since it requires no wrestling with truth and untruth inside the self at all. We engage in what is a magical act of negotiation with the deity, out of a superstitious mistrust in him. When the trans-action is over, we are now safe and secure, so all we feel is relief from fear. We will not be hit by the deity’s anger. But other people, if they don’t bend the knee and enact the formula of restitution we went through, will still get zapped. We did not defy the dreadful deity; if others do defy him, and he blots them out forever — his wrath towards them never to be ‘assuaged’, never to be ‘satisfied’ by the correct way of buying it off — then that is their tough luck. It is what they deserve for defying such a deity. They have brought eternal punishment on their own heads.

Not only ‘sacrifice by blood’, but ‘blood for blood’, as mysteries of ‘atoning for human sin’ need to be recast, entirely, from root up, to cast off the pagan [superstitious and magical] and Satanic [legalistic and judgemental] elements that have, in the Christian West but also elsewhere, crept into the whole language and teaching of ‘Atonement.’

This Atonement needs to be redeemed.. Or chucked in the bin, with a new terminology used to speak of ‘love’s sacrifice of dying for sins.’ There is a truth in this, but it is not a ‘dark’, fearful and wrath hedged-in thing, but something profound. It is part of the way in which the greater suffers for the lesser. Suffering must be added to sacrifice, and it must be ‘the suffering-and-sacrifice of love’ that the Cross shows, or what is shown in prophecy by the last [fourth] Slave Song in Isaiah, about the Messiah. The greater is God, suffering through sacrifice, for the lesser, humanity. The greater is also the king suffering through sacrifice for his people= and this is what is put on the Messiah.


The false meaning of Atonement, which is pagan and Satanic, stems entirely from the priesthood, and the whole temple system of sacrifice, blood, and the rest. Leviticus, 1, 4= “Let the sinner bring a guilt-offering to the temple and the priest will atone for him.” This verse is pagan, and its ethos can become Satanic. Jacob speaks in the same way about his brother Essau whom he wants to ‘buy off’ with a propitiatory gift, a ‘kofer nefesh’– a ‘ransom for Jacob’s life’ [Exodus, 21, 30]. Hence Jacob says, “I will appease his angry face with the present” [Genesis, 32, 21]. This bribe is offered out of fear of retaliatory anger. In the event, it is love that reconciles the brothers, for Essau generously forgives Jacob, and Jacob gratefully accepts such an unexpected deed from his ‘wronged’ brother.

Another example from Proverbs, 26, 14= “The wrath of a ruler is as messengers of death, but a wise man will [by some propitiatory offering, or kofer], pacify it.” Such is the pagan atoning projected into Yahweh by the early Jews.

It has often been pointed out that at the start of Israel’s religious history, Yahweh allowed a mixture of pure and pagan elements in Jewish worship. Only slowly were the pagan, and potentially Satanic, elements excised, differentiated out, in a sifting of wheat from tares that must be slow and delicate. For if the contrast between distorted and true is made too early, and too starkly, the people will not be able to take it. They will be shamed, and despair of themselves.

None the less, it is therefore no surprise that the prophets blasted the priests and the temple worship repeatedly, over centuries. Sirach, 35, 12= “Do not offer Yahweh a bribe, for he will not accept it. And do not trust to an unrighteous sacrifice.” It is clear that the prophets were trying to purge the pagan and Satanic element from the priestly system. The importance of the priestly role ebbs and flows in Judaism, and this is why. The priests are infected by a real toxic poison, and they must be purified! Never mind their false ‘intercession’ for the purification of sinners. They themselves are too often the root of the false approach to purification.

There is much in Judaism’s priestly tradition, and in the prophets who discern it, to combat the pagan and Satanic tendency of Atonement in the Christian West. There is, therefore, a truer Jewish Atonement. The sacrifice practised in the temple is that of giving up our ‘attachment’ to sin in order to be able to sincerely offer our entire life, and everything we depend upon for sustaining life, to God. We ‘cannot serve God and Mammon.’ If we resist what draws us to Mammon, then we begin to find God in all of life, in the everyday things, in the small things, in the physical things, from sex to food. We discover that everything genuinely alive is sacred, and the sacred is to be shared. The temple gathers the people as a community round what they have in common which really unites them= the fountainhead of God.

However, there is a different understanding of Atonement in the prophets= the Atoning person is, must be, and can only be, the king. The suffering and sacrifice of a king, a righteous king, for the people, including his death for their sake, is a more powerful atoning than that which occurs in the temple.

It is possible to trace a set of practices which are more prophetic in their style of atoning, as well as the priestly atoning, and the kingly atoning. But, the atoning most powerful is the king’s, and this is the atoning evident in the Cross of Christ, and in the 4 Slave Songs of Isaiah.


In prophetic tradition, instead of God being the object of the atoning, the guilty person becomes the focus. Sin is to be ‘purged.’ 1 Samuel, 3, 14= “The iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be atoned for with sacrifice, nor offering..” Proverbs, 41, 6= “By mercy and truth iniquity is atoned for.” Psalms, 141, 2= “[Yahweh] will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.”

Consequently, instead of the priest being the one who offered the ransom, God himself becomes the one who atones, the one who removes the sinful state by ‘truth and mercy.’ The Psalmist is speaking as prophet when through him it is said that God does not require, or want, burnt offerings and blood sacrifice, but a broken spirit and a contrite heart. Prayers to God which ask him to ‘clean’ Israel, or ‘clear Israel from guilt’, and repeatedly ask for his ‘mercy’ toward human sinfulness, are in this tradition of the prophets. The prophetic atoning stresses, as in the Psalms, the need for a human being’s sincere repentance and prayer directed to God. Moreover, fasting seems to have replaced sacrifice [Isaiah, 58, 1-3; Zachariah, 5, 3]. The emphasis on ‘inner change’, and on ‘truth in the inward parts’, is prophetic; if we will uncover our hidden and deep-seated roots of sin and pray for God’s merciful help in revealing what is untruth and what is truth in us, then priestly intercession will not be needed.

The prophets implied that the priestly ‘intermediary’ between the people and God was not necessary, or if it had a purpose and should remain, this must not be to get in the way of each person’s own precious relationship to God. We each can forge a personal relationship to God in the heart and spirit. The Psalms of David both ‘personalise and psychologicise’ our direct link to God, in trying to ready us for the indwelling and activity of God’s Spirit. In reality, it is God’s Spirit who changes our inner constitution and fathomless depth as we wrestle with its truth and untruth.

The prophets emphasise that ‘the fruit of sin is death’ [Ezekiel, 18, 4= “sin brings death to the soul”], and exhort the people to cast away their sin, so that in returning to God, they will live. For the prophetic tradition, atonement is wrought by acquiring Ezekiel’s ‘new heart and new spirit.’ The prophets put their hope in the redeeming power of God’s Spirit which will cleanse the people from their impurities and endow them with this new heart and new spirit. In short, sin is only overcome by a radical change of the inner core, the inner engine, of our being and deeds. This is the Spirit’s doing.

Both the king and prophet are Spirit-bearers, in a special sense. Redemption cannot be complete until the Spirit has effected fundamental changes in the human depths, making them a vehicle of Spirit. The Messiah’s suffering and sacrifice, even to pouring out his life blood, is the action and paradigm that shows us how to move, and moves us, toward the Spirit’s power to transform us in depths, so that we arrive at the singular heart and new spirit. This is the crown of redemption, and even the Messiah’s suffering and sacrifice points to this crown as the consummation.


What, then, is the kingly sacrifice, the shedding of his blood, the dying for the people, because of their sins?

Due to the shared bond of the Spirit between king and prophet, it is not surprising that this kingly sacrifice is a major theme of the prophetic oracles. Thus, another means of atoning instead of sacrifice as practised by the priesthood, is given to Nebuchadnezzar by Daniel, when the prophet urges the king to show more righteousness: “Break off thy sins by almsgiving, and [break off from] thy iniquities by showing mercy to the poor” [Daniel, 4, 24]. This exercising of righteousness is itself an atoning for sin, because in a deeper sense sin just is the failure of righteousness. The heart and spirit must change for righteousness to stand up, and step up. This also points to one of Judaism’s most fundamental revelations — that our actions are what redeem us, not our fine words, or finer thoughts. You can have a sophisticated theology, but if your ground level existential deeds are unrighteous, your grand ideas are in vain, in fact a distraction, a fantasy. The king is the figure of ‘doing’, action, deeds not words, or words that must be backed up and matched by action; and the king operates in the existential arena of the world, the hardest but most redemptive place to be — the place of ultimate significance for redemption failing or coming through in the end.

But many Jewish commentators interpret the four Slave Songs in Isaiah as revealing ‘the most efficacious atoning of all.’ This most powerful atonement, the once and for all atonement, is kingly, not priestly, not prophetic. This atoning is understood in Judaism — and again it is only the prophets who introduced this theme, going back as far as Hosea — as rooted in the suffering of God for the people he loves. The claim that ‘suffering love’ only began with Jesus Christ is not true; it starts in the prophets, and reaches a crescendo in the description of the Slave of Yahweh, which is a text from the Exile [600 BC to 528 BC], or soon after it. In this prophetic tradition, there is a sequence that starts with love, goes to suffering, proceeds to sacrifice, ends in shedding of blood and death. But, the priestly sacrifice disappeared in the Exile, and thus this kingly suffering is what replaced it.

In short, suffering replaces sacrifice as the start-point of this most powerful of all atoning. All kinds of suffering, and death itself, become atoning, through the kingship that is Messianic. In the Slave Songs, this truth is rooted in the Messianic King, in his reversal, or inversion, from glory to humiliation. The king ‘suffers’ for the people — this is the new emphasis in the kingly atoning.

This allows us to clarify a number of factors that Satan would wish to darken. Love leads to the willingness to suffer for love; this comes from God, it is an example of ‘greater acting toward lesser.’ Suffering for love, in turn, makes sacrifice, and pours out its own life blood even unto death, as a measure of how far it will go, how much cost it will pay, to love. This is paying a ransom, but of a very different kind. The greater becomes, in his whole life and death, the ransom for the lesser; by what he is, a greater, and by what he does for a lesser, sacrificing and giving himself, even emptying himself, from love, so he redeems the lesser, gets them through the deep place where they are stuck..

Whether ‘life for life’, ‘blood for blood’, remains in this account, or has been lost along the way, is not clear.. If it does remain, it does so in a non-propitiatory, non-expiatory, way. It is more to do with how the greater embraces the lesser into itself, like a wound; the greater is wounded by the lesser — the innocent wounded by the guilty — to bring the greater into the lesser. The healthy lets itself be wounded by the sick, for in that way, the sick receives the healthy. Life embraces death, but in entering death, brings life into death. “By death he overcame death and brought life to those in the tombs.” The life for life, and blood for blood, turns out to be related to healing. You give healthy blood to sick blood, and by this infusion from the former, the latter receives a transfusion. You have to be wounded by what you are going to heal.. If I love you, then no matter how diseased or guilty your blood, I will gladly give my ‘good’ blood to you, if this can effect a metamorphosis in your blood.

I will decrease so you can increase.

One of the sacrifices a king must often make, a drama director friend tells me, is that he must die to make way for a new king. Hamlet cannot redeem Denmark. He must die, to let come to centre stage someone else who can redeem the nation. Sacrifice is a constant companion of the true king; as is the ‘suffering for love’ from which all sacrifice arises. By rooting sacrifice firmly in the suffering of love, we break its tie to superstition and magic, to Satanic Accusation. It has nothing to do with any of that.

Thus, suffering is itself the sacrifice that atones.

This is the central message of the Exilic prophet who wanted to encourage the Jews in Babylon. He was reassuring them that of greater and deeper atoning power than all the temple sacrifices was the suffering of the ‘elect ones’, the righteous, who were to be servants and witnesses of God, demonstrating how the most hostile and worldly environment is to be paradoxically overcome. The belief in the atoning power of the suffering and death of the righteous is not only expressed in Isaiah, but also finds expression in 2 Maccabees, 6, 27; 17, 21-23, and in fact goes back to early times in some respects, for when Moses — after the debacle of his Satanic anger caused the first giving of the Ten Commandments to be lost — asks God to blot out his own name from the Book of Life forever if this would mean his people’s names could forever remain in, this is the love for the people only their true king can manifest [Exodus, 32, 32-33]. This kingly love for the people is from God, and of God, showing God’s love for all the people. This is why ‘works of benevolence’, works of mercy, particularly toward the most wretched and downcast of God’s people living under oppression and duress in the world, are regarded as powerfully atoning: “[kingly] charity is more acceptable to Yahweh than [priestly] sacrifice” [Proverbs, 21, 3].

Therefore, this prophetic understanding of kingship gives the most far reaching atoning power to the Heroic Martyrdom of the king, or other noble and upstanding persons [Psalms, 29, 2; 116, 15], as it reveals God’s love for all the people, all of whom are ‘his.’

This gives to very priestly sounding statements in the New Testament, referring to Christ’s sacrificial blood ‘shed for many for the remission of sins’ [Mathew, 26, 28; Hebrews, 10, 12; Colossians, 1, 20], a very different interpretation. The meaning is paradoxical, and in line with the love of the greater for the lesser; the rich pay for the poor, the good pay for the bad, the healthy pay for the sick. Suffering helps us let go of the self, and allow it to become a sacrifice, a payment, a ransom, for the lost. This is not the greater ‘lording it over’ the lesser, but precisely ‘serving’ them, as does Yahweh’s Slave. Christ said, I came not to be served, but to serve; the Messianic King serves love, by willingly making his very self, and entire life, a sacrifice for love to enable it to redeem the hopeless.

Thus, [kingly] suffering is more likely than [priestly] sacrifice to win God’s power. The person who lets their soul and heart, their being and doing, become the sacrifice involved in suffering for love, has God’s favour and will atone for many.

According to Jewish tradition, then, “particularly the death of the righteous atones for the people” [1 Samuel, 21, 14]. He is taken as the security [‘mashkon’] for the life of the community. Righteous persons are needed in every generation to atone for the people, and when there are no such righteous ones, disaster strikes.

Isaiah certainly ascribes strange powers, and mysteries, to the king that go far beyond any rational, or moral, conception of leadership. The king’s pre-eminence is because of his heart and passion, the royal and golden heart, the noble and extreme passion, that will do all that is necessary to stop the people from coming to destruction, because of their own failings, or how evil spirits twist their failings to augment them. The king is God’s heart and the people’s heart. He is the inter-secting of roads where heavenly and earthly ‘cross.’ He tells us, existentially, through action, how to be at that cross-road. The priest brings the people to God; but the king brings God to the people, and lives out the two-sided contention and reconciliation of divine and human hearts in the world. He most ultimately depicts what God wants for humanity in the world, and how far God will go, in love, to attain it.

The question remains, does the kingly suffering, sacrifice, death, that ‘atones’ for the people just suddenly remove the people’s sins, as if by magic, in an instant?

It is not magic, so sin does not just suddenly disappear from the world. But the ‘remedy’ for healing sin, as St John puts it in his first letter [using the language of healing, not of atonement], is at work in the world, and can be tapped into by anyone at any time. It rests on two mysteries.

[a] How far love can go, even for sinners. This is love of enemies, not just love of friends. It is the ‘love for the people’ which bears, carries, makes up for, pays for, the deficiencies of sin.

[b] Thus this kind of love shows a different way of meeting the deficiencies of sin, a way not retaliatory or excluding, but accepting and including.

Taking the brother’s sin on, as if it were one’s own, and ‘sucking it up’ in order not to pass it on, but bearing it in one’s own kidneys, is so that all the people can remain together, as one, all brothers, with no brother lost. This is the ultimate in forgiveness– hence the ultimate defeat of the Satanic Accuser who wants everyone held to account for their transgression, and everyone ‘damned.’ It is the kingly atonement which is ‘the judgement on judgement’, according to St Isaac the Syrian.

Therefore God acts in the Messianic King. His heart ‘in’ the world reveals God’s heart ‘for’ the world.


When you look at it more closely, it becomes evident that ‘ransom’ retains its link to ‘redeeming’, in the atoning of the king.

But, in the atoning done by the priest, ransom disappears; it is only a symbolic ‘guilt offering’, and as such, only signifies our gift to God of repenting, mending our ways, pardoning and being pardoned in a mutual forgiveness with our fellows. Such is priestly atoning, and important as it is, it is salvation oriented, and does not redeem.

Redeeming costs more of the redeemer, both when suffering for love because that is simply the way existence is, and suffering for love because of sin exerting a heavy toll on love. But, it is in redemption we lay down our life for our friends, and lay down our life for our enemies.

About the first, the Slave Song says, “through his wounds we are healed”, and about the second, it says, “on him lies a punishment that brings us peace.”

So it is at the end of this long day.