Monday, July 10, 2006

Numbers 35:33 and Atonement

Lee Camp recently taught a class at Otter Creek on Atonement called Why Did Christ (Live and) Die? (follow link for podcast) The main purpose of the class was to examine the question in the light of historical and cultural biases to see how they have shaped our understanding of the Cross today.

I ran across an email I had sent to Lee, not asking for his direct response in email but to see if the questions below had merit and application to the class. The specific questions were never really addressed as we constantly stayed behind Lee's original schedule due to class discussions.

So I post my questions here to draw out some discussion and hopefully get some illumination or answers.

First, I was reading Numbers this morning and read this: 35:33 "Do not pollute the land where you are. Bloodshed pollutes the land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it."

Is there a historical perspective that says the Creator is the only one who can atone for man's evilness because the Creator allowed evil as choice in His creation and is the ultimate cause of "bloodshed" and therefore only God could redeem man?

Second, C.S. Lewis stated something similiar but from a different angle: that the only one with no need for the sacrifice could make the perfect sacrifice. Only Christ, who had no need for redemption could be the perfect redeemer. Was this original to Lewis or did it derive from other historical perspectives?


jettybetty said...

Interesting...I don't remember reading that verse in Numbers before--what you are saying seems to make sense to me. I will have to study it a bit and pop back in to see what comments you get!

JMG said...

Numbers 35 gives guidelines for the treatment of a person who accidentally kills another person. Cities of refuge (explained also in Joshua 20) were established so that accused persons would have a safe place to flee to in order to escape a premature or unwarranted retaliation from whomever the victim’s family chose as the redeemer, or avenger, of blood. It was this person’s duty to kill the offender should he be found guilty of willful murder. The redeemer (Hebrew g’aal; Strongs 1350) was the male next of kin of the victim. (The redeemer also had other duties related to getting back what had been lost or given up (buying back property forfeited because of debt; buying back a relative who had been sold into slavery; marrying a dead relative’s widow—remember the term “kinsman redeemer” and how that played out in the story of Ruth. God is spoken of many times in the OT as the redeemer of his people out of captivity.)

As an aside, I find it very interesting that the OT laws called for murderers to be executed by the avenger (the nearest blood relative in the family), not by a more neutral judicial system like we do today. It was up to the individual avenger to do the “dirty work” of the execution (perhaps this was so that forgiveness would have the chance to come into play?).

A word study of “redeem” is really tedious; there are several Hebrew and Greek words translated as “redeem” and they have lots of nuances—much more than I can completely get my mind around right now. But the concept has to do with making a payment of some sort. Your question, could only God redeem man, is a bit vague. God is our nearest kinsman, so he has the right to purchase or redeem us from whatever is holding us captive from him. Are you asking if God himself is the payment? If so, you’re getting into a discussion of the nature of Jesus, whether he is God or God’s son.

I don’t know if all this even gets close to your question, but looking it up was helpful to me.

Tony Arnold said...

I wasn't necessarily trying to put forth my view on things, just asking whether there was ever a philosophical or cultural view of the cross rising from the concept that only the one who shed blood could atone for the bloodshed? Since God created the world, allowed for choice, then God is ultimately responsible for sin and therefore God had to shed his own "blood" Christ.

To elminate the vagueness of "could only God redeem man", what I meant was that man could do nothing to redeem or save himself from sin, only God could do it. But why is this? This view is often held, but in the context that man cannot be perfect and therefore cannot be sinless and cannot redeem himself by action. This leads to the Lewis idea of why only Christ could save man.

But based on Jewish law provided by God, could there be a different view. Could man not save himself because he is not the ultimate shedder of blood?

If you listen to the podcasts, you will get a better understanding of the context of my question, that is, differing views and ideas on the purpose of the Cross throughout history have shaped our understanding today without our realizing that we have been influenced.

I was curious after reading this Numbers passage if anyone in the past had ever put forth the idea I tried to illuminate--maybe arising from the Messianic Jewish culture?

One interesting thing that Lee brought out in the class is how we consider differing views on atonement and the Cross. If we view them as theories, then they are competing and only one can be true. But if we view them as metaphors, then differing explanations can easily co-exist because no one metaphor can completely describe all aspects of something so all-encompassing as the life and death of Christ as the Son of God. It would in fact require multiple metaphors to describe the facets of God and Christ, and even the sum of the metaphors would be an incomplete understanding.

To directly answer your other question, "was Christ God?" (which I was not even thinking about in the post), I do believe that Christ was God.

That last statment is not in anyway a comment on Trinitarianism or any commentt on the exact manifestation of God as Christ. But I do believe there is a direct relation and interaction. I freely admit I do not understand the nature of this relationship, but I do believe it is real.


JMG said...

I really didn’t think that you were trying to put forth an agenda with your question. I just couldn’t tell if you were asking whether God redeemed man by making a payment or whether he redeemed man by being a payment. That’s what led me to ask about the idea of the nature of Jesus.

I’m going to play with some thoughts here. If God is responsible for the sin that exists, then it’s on his shoulders when we sin. We don’t need to be saved and there’s no need for any atonement. We could look at Philippians 2.13: “It is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” and surmise that God’s good plan includes the existence of evil, so what we do really has no consequence because it’s all going to work out in the end. Why though would we need to be reconciled to God? If sin sets us apart from God, but sin is ultimately God’s responsibility, then why would he provide a means of reconciliation? It would just be a big joke.

OK, that makes no sense even as a rhetorical idea, so I'm going to stop thinking now. My brain hurts.

Anonymous said...

Very complex ideas here, I agree JMG. By the way, I always enjoy your analysis and discussion. I always learn something.

Taking off from your logic, I wouldn't say that humankind is relieved of responsibility. God gave us freedom of choice. Yet, just because we are responsible for our actions does not mean we are capable of atoning for our bad actions or ever able to completely prevent them enforcing the inability to atone and redeem.

Thus only God can redeem us. Which most Christians agree on. What is not agreed upon is the exact motive and method of the atonement even if we agree Christ and the Cross are the central ingredients of the method. We still don't agree on the exact mechanics or motive of the method.

Here are some low hanging fruit methaphors that are common among Christians:

Christ as the sacrificial lamb--atonement for our sins and the death of Christ is the key mechanism for redemption.

Christ through his resurrection into eternal life overcame the eternal death of sin. It was the resurrection that is the key mechanism. The death was necessary in order to have resurrection, but resurrection is the active agent.

An an emerging (pun intended)metaphor is that Christs actual life, teachings, and example are the key to transformation within us to bring about the kingdom on earth.

I put forth the question of another metaphor: that God had to shed his own blood in some fashion as He as creator of all and creator of free will created an imperfect creature that cannot redeem himself. God is ultimately responsible (but not the only responsible one) for sin and "bloodshed". His polluted ground could only be redeemed by Himself.

Don't misread anyone--I am not saying I believe this last one, but there are elements that may have merit as a metaphor explaining facets of our relationship with God.

I personally like Romans 5 when considering the mechanics of redemption. Paraphrasing: It is through Christ's death that we are reconciled to God, so how much more through his life are we saved


JMG said...

I'm amazed you learned anything from my previous comment because my brain was numb by the time I got through with that one.

I don't think that humans are relieved of responsibility either; otherwise Jesus wouldn't have been so adamant that people repent.

I can see what you're saying in that last part. If we look at it from a relationship perspective, just as parents today are held in partial responsibility for their children's actions, so God could be partially responsible for our actions. A parent whose child has committed a crime has to redeem his child out of the hands of the juvenile justice system, and God has to redeem us from the consequences of our sin. (And as far as God shedding his own blood, Jesus is God's blood just as Maria is your blood.)

I like the "emerging" metaphor also. Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that eventually becomes a huge tree. We can't see that tree growing, but one day we suddenly realize that we can sit underneath it in its shade because it has gotten so big. The "kingdom" is both internal and external. As people imitate Jesus' life and follow his teaching, they become more like a kingdom person, and as more and more people do this, the kingdom starts to fill the world. (However, this kingdom is still far from perfect, so I don't think that's all there is to the coming of the kingdom.)

I've been reading a lot lately in and around Romans 5, and I agree with your paraphrase. I've been thinking a lot about the ideas there; hopefully I'll post about it sometime soon on my new blog.

Mark said...

Sounds like CS Lewis embedded the same thoughts in Narnia, the inscription on the table where Aslan was killed by the snow queen.