Hebrews and Animal Sacrifices

The epistle to the Hebrews contends that animal sacrifices cannot take away sin. Why not? In Hebrews 10:1-4, we see its rationale:

“Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who approach. Otherwise, would they not have ceased being offered, since the worshipers, cleansed once for all, would no longer have any consciousness of sin? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (NRSV).

I want to concentrate on the part about animal sacrifices being offered “year after year.” The author of Hebrews wonders: if sin offerings truly cleansed the Israelites of sin, then why did they have to offer them every year on the Day of Atonement? Shouldn’t once be enough? By contrast, v 12 says that “Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins.” Unlike animal sacrifices, Christ doesn’t need to be offered on a continual basis, for his one sacrifice of himself was sufficient to atone for sin.

I don’t entirely understand Hebrews’ reasoning. Just because the Israelites offered animal sacrifices every year, does that show that the sacrifices were ineffective for atonement? Maybe they cleansed the sins of the previous year. But when a new year arrived, so came a fresh batch of sins, and they too had to be removed. Just because a ritual is continually needed, that doesn’t make it ineffective. I need to take a bath on a regular basis, but that doesn’t mean the bath doesn’t do its job for the day. Does the bath fail to remove dirt just because I have to do it more than once?

And the same is true in Christianity: sure, we have been cleansed through the sacrifice of Christ, but we still need to ask for forgiveness on a continual basis (Matthew 6:12, 14-15; I John 1:9). Why must we do that, if we’ve been forgiven once and for all? Isn’t continual confession and repentance similar to the regular offering of the animal sacrifices? In both, we have to keep the slate wiped clean.

Hebrews says that animal sacrifices didn’t work because the Israelites were not cleansed once and for all, plus they still had a consciousness of sin even after they had offered them. But isn’t that true of Christians as well? They need to ask for forgiveness on a continual basis, which shows (1.) that they need repeated cleansing, and (2.) that they still have a consciousness of sin.

Of course, Hebrews 8:8-13 is clear that the old covenant by itself was defective because of the sinfulness of the Israelites. That’s why the new covenant is about God writing his laws on people’s hearts: we need a new nature in order to become sinless. The Israelites could offer their sacrifices year-in and year-out, but did that change their sinful nature? If it did, then why did they have to sacrifice sin offerings every single year?

Maybe Hebrews is saying that only Christ can take away sins–in the sense of bringing Christians to a state of actual sinlessness. And, indeed, Hebrews does use such terminology as “perfecting.” Yet, at the same time, Hebrews also seems to say that Christ’s death brings forgiveness (not just practical cleansing from sin) in a way that animal sacrifices do not. Hebrews 10:18 says, “Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin,” which indicates that, in contrast to the Old Covenant sin offerings, Christ’s one sacrifice was sufficient for atonement.

And so I’m back where I started: If Christ’s one sacrifice cleansed Christians of sin once and for all, then why do they need to keep on receiving forgiveness? And how does what Christians do differ from the Israelites’ continual offering of animal sacrifices?

Maybe Hebrews doesn’t hold that Christians need to keep their slate clean. Perhaps it thinks that their slate is already clean–and that it always will be, unless they deliberately leave Christ (Hebrews 6:4-6; 10:26-27). Hebrews is clear that Christians will still sin, so it encourages them that they have a faithful and merciful high priest who is eager to help them (Hebrews 4:15-16). But maybe (unlike Matthew and I John) it doesn’t assume that they need to receive continual forgiveness; rather, as far as Hebrews is concerned, Christians have already been forgiven–once and for all time–and they come to Christ primarily for compassion and aid as they struggle against sin.

Could it be that Matthew and I John resemble Catholics in their view on forgiveness, whereas Hebrews is more like a lot of Protestants on that issue?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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