Monday, September 29, 2014

The Rabbis, Messiah, and Substitutionary Atonement

The rabbis oppose the idea that Jesus is the promised Messiah. They argue that the Messiah will not die for the sins of Israel, and that the Hebrew Scriptures even forbid this possibility.

Rabbi and debater Tovia Singer claims that the Scriptures teach against human vicarious (substitutionary) atonement:

  • “…nor does Scripture ever tell us that an innocent man can die as an atonement for the sins of the wicked.”

However, the rabbis prior to Rashi were in agreement that Isaiah 53 taught that the Messiah would die for the sins of the people:

  • Rabbi Moshe Alshekh, a famous sixteenth-century scholar, asserted: “[Our] Rabbis with one voice, accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet [Isaiah 53] is speaking of king Messiah. 
  • The Talmud tractate Sanhedrin states: “The Rabanan [rabbis] say that Messiah’s name is The Suffering Scholar . . . for it is written, “Surely He hath borne our grief and carried our sorrows, yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God and afflicted.” [Isaiah 53]
  • The highly regarded first-century Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai stated: “The meaning of the words ‘Bruised for our iniquities’ [Isaiah 53:5] is that since the Messiah bears our iniquities, which produce the effect of his being bruised, it follows that whoso will not admit that the Messiah thus suffers for our iniquities, must endure and suffer them for them himself.”
  • The Midrash Aseret Memrot states: “The Messiah, in order to atone for them both [for Adam and David] will ‘make his soul a trespass offering,’ [Isaiah 53:10].”

Nevertheless, Singer claims that Scripture rules out the possibility that one man will die for all. He offers as “proof” God intervening to prevent Abraham from sacrificing his son Isaac:

  • “When Abraham was ready to sacrifice Isaac, the Almighty admonished him that He did not want the human sacrifice…The Almighty’s directive—that He only wanted animal sacrifices rather than human sacrifices—was immediately understood. This teaching has never departed from the mind and soul of the faithful children of Israel.”

However, this doesn’t seem to be the point that either Abraham or Israel derived. For one thing, God did not admonish Abraham for offering his son as a sacrificial offering. Instead, He commended Abraham:

  • But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied. “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.” The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” (Genesis 22:11-18)

Because Abraham had been faithful, God promised to bless him. Contrary to Singer’s assertion, He certainly wasn’t chastening Abraham for his willingness to offer his son as a sacrifice.

Also, it seems that both Israel and Abraham had derived an even greater message about something that God would offer in the future – “The Lord will Provide.” Ordinarily, this would be a strange way to name Mt. Moriah, since this event described how God had already provided an animal substitute for Isaac. Why then wasn’t Moriah named, “The Lord has Provided?” Evidently, what God would provide in the future would overshadow what He had already provided. But it would be something akin to what had already been provided – Jesus Himself!

However, this isn’t our point, but merely that Singer’s assertion – “that He only wanted animal sacrifices rather than human sacrifices” – is scripturally unwarranted!

Instead, there are many verses that envision human substitutionary atonement – the Cross of Christ (Isaiah 53:5-7; Psalm 40:6-8; Dan 9:24-27; Zech. 12:10-13:1, 7; Psalm 22, 69).

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